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The power of the trick: A canine workout

Dog trainer Laura Garber helped TODAY's Natalie Morales train her adopted dog Zara, and now she's offering a virtual training class for you and your dog! In this class, learn how fun tricks can help get your dog in shape.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Dog trainer helped TODAY’s , and now she's offering a virtual training class for you and your canine companion. In this lesson, Garber gives tips on how to use tricks to provide a fitness routine for your dog.

Tricks are way more than just an exercise in cuteness! As we saw in the first installment of this two-part article, tricks are also a great way of encouraging a positive mental attitude in a dog that may be struggling with behavior challenges. Further, when done right, tricks can be a great way of providing fitness for your dog (think poochy pilates!) The following sketches out a multi-step workout routine, with a warm-up doga pose, for your pumpin’ pup! 

Indoor activities

The “bow” is a natural stretch, one that dogs will often do when they first rise from a nap. This is a great way to start out an exercise session.

- “Downward dog” (a “doga” pose): Some dogs will easily go into a bow position (front legs on the floor, standing on back legs) from a stand rather than from a sit when enticed with a treat, or “lure.” Other dogs go directly to lying down, whether from sit or stand. If such is the case with your dog, then you’ll have to shape the behavior.

Starting from a stand, take a lure and put it just a few inches below your dog’s nose level, so that he has to tuck his neck down a bit to follow it. Say “Yes!” and give him the treat. When this is repeatable, try moving your hand a few inches lower but still not entirely to the ground. Again your pooch will hopefully tuck his head even lower but remain standing. If he flops down to the floor, then go back to your previous stage and inch down the hand signal more gradually. At each stage where he’s tucking his head, maybe even bending the front legs, but remains on his back legs, say “Yes!” and give a treat. Even “jackpot” him (give him multiple treats) for each new criterion he achieves. Before you know it, your dog will be bowing pretty as can be!

- Tug: Tugging is probably one of your dog’s favorite pastimes already! Fortunately, it’s a great strength-building exercise as well as a fun bonding activity between dog and human. When he tugs at head level, your dog is working out his rear legs; when he tugs at ground level, he’s working out his front legs. 

Caution: It’s important that you do not jerk the tug toy quickly from side to side or up and down, as this can cause injury. 

- “Shake”: In the first part of this lesson, I explained how to teach your dog to “shake.” It’s also a great strengthening exercise for your pup’s shoulders. Here’s how to get physical benefit from this cute trick: Once your dog has gained fluency, give the hand cue from higher so that he lifts his paw higher. Start with five repetitions each side and gradually increase to 20 repetitions, cueing from both the front and the side. Do this exercise every other day, with the day off in between to allow the muscles to recover.

- “Back Up”: Backing up is a great workout for your dog's core and hind-leg muscles. The easiest way to shape the back-up behavior is to hold a treat at the level of your dog’s chest with you facing him, and then walk towards him. Let him nibble the treat along the way to keep him interested and playing the game. As he becomes more fluent, you can reduce the physical cueing necessary to effect the behavior. 

- “Roll over”: For the benefit of working your dog’s core muscles, do this exercise in both directions. Once he's in a “down” position, notice which hip your dog is settled on. Lure his nose around the opposite shoulder and, as he twists his neck, he will roll first flat, then on his back, and then onto the other side. If he has trouble doing the whole movement right away, reinforce approximations. For a greater challenge, do several rollovers in one direction, then back in the other direction, or do the rollover up an incline.

Black labrador
Black labradorFlickr RF

- “Sit pretty” or “Stick ’em up”: In the first part of this lesson, I sketched out how to train the “bang” cue. “Stick ’em up" is a very cute antecedent trick and it offers physical benefit.

From a sitting position, lure your dog into a “beg” position by pulling a treat back and above his nose. As he becomes more fluent with the behavior, start putting the verbal cue in front of the hand signal. Build duration in the time he remains sitting pretty. For increased difficulty, have him give left paw, right paw, or both paws at once. Also lure him to turn his head and upper body by leading his nose with a treat, first one way, then the other. This is a great workout for the core muscles.

- “Crawl”: The crawl is great for working out a dog’s forelimbs, trunk and rear limbs. From a “down” position, drag a treat along the floor just in front of your dog’s paws. Mark and treat for any slight forward movement with a paw. Gradually start to mark for more and more movement forward (as long as your dog never stands up to come forward). When your dog is fluently offering the behavior, put the verbal cue “crawl” in front of the hand signal. To encourage crawling, you can use props such as a low table or poles across chairs. You can increase the distance of the obstacle course or the number of repetitions as your dog gains endurance.

- “Spin”: In the first part of this lesson, I sketched out how to train your dog to hand-target. Another variation on hand-targeting, “spin” is a proprioceptive exercise, meaning that it increases your dog's awareness of his own body, limb placement and balance.

With your dog in front of you, hold your open palm at his nose height. Lead him around in a tight circle, first in one direction then the other. If you’d like, you can precede the hand prompt with the verbal cue “spin!” once the behavior is coming fairly fluently. To increase its benefit, this is an exercise you can do on a variety of surfaces, such as gravel and grass. 

Outdoor activities

The great outdoors is a natural arena for exercise and fitness. You don’t necessarily need a lot of space, either; just a little sandbox or a staircase will do in a pinch. 

Digging: Some dogs are unabashed diggers. The dachshund, for example, was bred to dig in search of rodents. Digging is actually a good source of exercise — it’s a great workout for the forelimbs. So, rather than trying to inhibit the behavior completely, it’s better to reach a compromise by giving your dog a designated digging area or sandbox in which to exercise this instinctive behavior.

In order to attract the behavior to the designated area, dig a shallow hole and lightly bury a Ziploc bag of treats. When your dog digs to reveal the bag, open it up and produce a treat for him. As he progresses, plant the bag slightly deeper in the dirt. You can use a heavier dirt medium or pack it more tightly for added challenge. 

You can also bury stuffed puzzle toys in the soil for his search and recovery. Make sure to supervise so that you can discourage your dog’s wandering to other parts of the lawn. For building a canine athlete, do this exercise three or four times a week.

Retrieve: Playing a hearty game of fetch has always been great exercise. You can expand on its efficacy by throwing uphill to work your dog’s hind limbs, and retrievals through water are a great full-body endurance workout. For city-dwellers, stairs can be a good substitute for the uphill component.

A word to the wise

Remember that outdoor activity is still an essential component of any exercise regimen, providing your dog with a change of scenery, which is mentally stimulating, as well as helping him burn physical energy. Consider your dog’s athletic program with the same caution and care you would your own. As with any exercise regimen, start gradually, and consult your vet about whether there are exercises you should avoid because of your dog’s physical limitations.

by veterinarians M. Christine Zink and Laurie McCauley, is a great resource for building strength and endurance in your canine athlete.

is a dog trainer and behavior specialist. She is the owner of Training.