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And its importance for agility dogs...

The term ‘core strength'  is a bit of a buzz word in human fitness these days and, if you've been to a Pilates or yoga class, you may have been instructed by your teacher to 'engage your core.' We are told it is vital for the prevention of injuries in sports dogs as well as humans. But do you really know what it means? Veterinary physiotherapist Eloise Collins explains.

Agility is an athletic activity that puts your dog's body through such extremes of range of motion and often allows little margin for error.

Core muscles act together to stabilise and support the trunk and spine. They help maintain correct posture when standing, sitting, walking and jumping. In human sports performance, core strength is important for postural control and the fine motor skills needed for landing and turning. We can make an educated assumption that the same can be said for dogs due to the similarities in mammalian anatomy.

Core stabilisation or strengthening whether it be in humans or dogs involves exercises designed to improve the strength, flexibility, symmetry and endurance of the key core muscles-

  • Abdominal - transverse abdominals, abdominal obliques and rectus abdominis

  • Spinal - multifidus, longissimus and iliocostalis, among others

  • Pelvic - iliopsoas (iliacus and psoas major muscle groups)

When these core muscles are weak, the bigger 'movement' muscles, tendons, ligaments and other soft tissues have to compensate and act as stabilisers and this is when injuries occur.

Core stability in humans has been shown to reduce athletic injuries, maintain lower back health and prevent knee ligament injuries.

This is not an exhaustive list of muscles that play a role in core stabilisation, but I've selected these as they are often thought of as the key core stabilisers. 

The contraction of these muscles is thought to occur at the very beginning of a movement, stabilising the trunk to prepare for upper limb activity.

Recruitment of the abdominal muscles facilitates the flexion and rounding of the back, needed for good self-carriage and jumping.

Strengthening the transverse abdominals has been shown to help lower back pain in humans.

Spinal muscles
Most of these muscle groups sit either side of, or underneath the spine to aid stabilisation.

The multifidus is made up of many small overlapping muscles, each attaching one vertebrae to another. It is thought to be an important spinal stabiliser and weakness in this muscle has been associated with lower back pain in both humans and animals.

Furthermore, it has also been found that even when the source of back pain has been addressed (e.g. surgery or treatment for intervertebral disc disease), if the multifidus muscles are not strengthened, the back pain can remain.

Pelvic floor muscles
The iliopsoas group starts at the vertebrae of the lower back and underside of the pelvis and inserts onto the femur. Its function is to flex the hip and plays a key role in stabilisation and strength of the lumbar spine. Injury to this muscle is very common in sports dogs, possibly due to repetitive micro traumas caused by over-extension of the hips whilst jumping, or slipping when turning.

Core strength is vital for injury prevention
Agility is an athletic sport that puts the dog's body through extremes of range of motion and often allows little margin for error.

A strong core means your dog can collect and extend their stride with ease between jumps and maintain good technique whilst jumping. Importantly, it also means that if your dog 'slips', for example, it has the core muscle strength to pull that leg back in to the body and avoid an over-stretching injury.

We know from studies that bar jumps have more injuries associated with them than any other piece of agility equipment. The jumping motion involves the entire body and requires power, speed and fine motor control. As the dog prepares to jump, it shifts its weight onto the hind limbs, descending down into the take-off position. The hind limbs are then responsible for generating the explosive power, which is transferred from the hind quarters, through the body and into the front limbs to create maximum momentum. It is the core muscles that enable this efficient transfer of energy through the body. If the dog’s core is weak, they will have a less efficient jump motion, which may result in knocked bars.

The weave poles are possibly the most physically demanding piece of equipment we ask our dogs to negotiate. Whether your dog adopts the single leg (paddle) technique or uses both front legs together, the front limbs, trunk, hind limbs and tail are all moving in different directions. Small and Medium dogs may find weaves less of a challenge as their shorter bodies mean they don’t have to bend around multiple poles simultaneously. Larger dogs however, are required to do this and need shoulder strength and stability, flexibility through the spine and powerful hind limb muscles to drive from behind. As with jumping, it is the core muscles that ensure co-ordinated movement from front to back.

Core exercises
Core exercises can be started from any age. Very young (under 6 months) and very old dogs, can have poor core strength so they must be introduced to exercises slowly. These will often be in the form of floor-based exercises such as single leg lifts, giving paw or sit-to-stand sequences.

Adult dogs, even if fit, can still have a weak core. You may notice them knocking poles, unable to achieve tighter wing wraps or struggling with co-ordination in the weaves. These dogs will also start with foundation floor exercises but can usually progress quicker to using unstable equipment such as wobble cushions and then peanut balls.

It is vital that canine fitness equipment is only used by those who have had training in its safe and proper use. Before starting any new exercise regime with your dog, you should consult your vet and/or veterinary physiotherapist to rule out any underlying issues.

Core exercises can be started with dogs of any age and just five minutes a day can massively benefit your dog's fitness. It is also a great, enjoyable way to interact with your dog and help build the foundations for a winning team!

About the author...
Eloise Collins BSc(Hons) RVN, PgD Vet Phys, MNAVP
is a veterinary physiotherapist with a special interest in canine sports performance, injury prevention and rehabilitation. She graduated from Harper Adams University with a postgraduate diploma in Veterinary Physiotherapy. She is also a qualified veterinary nurse, with over ten years' experience working with dogs and horses.

Eloise previously competed in agility with her Border Collies, but she is now training her young Working Cocker Spaniel.

She runs EC Veterinary Physiotherapy, a mobile physiotherapy service treating dogs and horses in Hampshire, Surrey and surrounding areas.

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First published 5th March 2021













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