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The Importance Of Groundwork

Updated: Jun 10, 2022

Hi everyone! Thank you so much for taking the time to read our first ever post! I'm really excited to chat with you all about something that is very passionate to me, and that is Canine Fitness. Today we're going to be looking specifically at groundwork and why it's so important, but before we do, I feel like I need to introduce myself.

Hannah Johnson K9PT dog fitness instructor

My name is Hannah, and I am a qualified small animal hydrotherapist. I started working with Woozelbears in 2012 as their first ever apprentice, fresh out of studying animal care at college. I quickly became Qualified as a Hydrotherapist, after pestering poor Charlotte to get me through the qualifications as I was so eager to learn. In my time working as a hydrotherapist I had to go through hours of CPD (continual professional development), and this included seminars and individual research. I have always been very passionate about education in prevention because for me I would rather the animals were never in pain in the first place if we can avoid it! And that’s where my passion really started to shine through. I wanted to be able to educate, not only sporting and working dog owners but also pet dog owners too! Over time I became Senior Hydrotherapist & centre manager at Woozelbears in Witney, and also trained in the use of the FitFurLife Gait Analysis Treadmill. But then sadly I developed a skin problem which the chlorine exacerbated and, despite working for 2 years with a dermatologist, it made my health so bad that I had to stop. I still work with Woozelbears behind the scenes, but I always missed the work so much, which is when I decided to become a K9 PT. I felt like this would lead me back into the world of prevention rather than cure, allowing me to work with the dogs who haven’t yet had an injury to try and help build their fitness up so that the chance of injury is reduced as much as possible. I am now also studying to qualify as a Pro Dog Trainer because I feel like in the field of rehabilitation and canine fitness, we need to have a good level of understanding of behaviour because there are so many places in which the two realms cross over. I have been training in agility with my dogs for fun for years, but recently have started to take it more seriously and want to start competing now as well!

Now that’s enough talking about me, far too much for my liking. Given my background, you can see I was always going to be cautious coming into this line of work. Moving into fitness where actually there is no regulation on what we are doing, no associations etc. that will accept a “fitness instructor” on board. It’s something we want to change going forward, because though you don’t need to be as educated as a rehab specialist like a physiotherapist or hydrotherapist, we feel like you should have a reasonable understanding of anatomy and the musculoskeletal system to be able to safely and effectively condition dogs, much like a human PT! But for now, we want to start bringing more awareness to the wonderful pet owners out there who all want to do the absolute best they can for their dog! All of you are the people that will help us to make this change. So today I want to start by educating you all on groundwork.

cute dog head tilt

Why Is Groundwork So Important?
So, why is groundwork so important?

Well the same as in many practices, you must always start with a good foundation! What happens if you build a house without a foundation? It’s not going to withstand the forces of time. Groundwork exercises are the foundation of good fitness conditioning. Let's talk about some of the reasons why:

  1. Form - Firstly we need to understand how an exercise should look. And this is much easier when our dog is on the ground while we are learning. Also, we need our dogs to understand the needs of the exercise, and what their correct form should be. Performing exercises on a solid surface is much easier, so they are more likely to succeed and begin holding the position for longer, or become more able to perform a higher number of reps. Proper form is essential to correct fitness conditioning, the whole idea of conditioning is to improve our dog's posture in each position, and their capability to perform each transition with correct muscle usage. Without good form, the likelihood of a dog having an injury is much higher. And this leads me to my next point…

  2. Compensation techniques - What happens if a dog is compensating and we don’t do anything to correct this on the ground first? Well firstly it’s so much easier for a dog to injure themselves, and this is where balance equipment often gets a bad rep. If the dog is already compensating, likely what they will do if you bring them onto balance equipment is further use that compensation technique, which only strengthens it. This is not always the case, as sometimes balance equipment can cause the use of the weaker area, making it harder for the dog to compensate, but in a number of cases that I’ve seen, it’s had the opposite effect. This is why we always say only skip groundwork if your physiotherapist has suggested you to.

  3. Training - While training our dog's new skills, many of us know we want to make it easy for them in the earlier stages. We don’t want their senses to be overloaded, which is why many trainers will have you start your training in a low distraction environment, and gradually build up. The same principle wants to be applied across to conditioning, the more we give them to think about, the harder it will be for them to focus on actually getting good form. Adding in equipment adds another stimulus, making it more mentally challenging for our dogs. If a dog has an area of their body that is weaker (as most dogs do, just the same as we do), we need to make it less mentally challenging for them, because when we start asking them to use that area it becomes more physically challenging.

Terrier dog with injured leg. Bandaged injury.

Why do I talk about injuries so much?

People that already follow me are probably sick by now of hearing how much I say “reduce the risk of injury”. I probably don’t explain the why enough. I’m forever talking about how, when I worked in hydrotherapy I saw so many injuries that may well have been prevented if a dog was properly conditioned in the first place, and knew how to correctly and effectively use their body. But I guess an argument to that statement is, but isn’t that what rehabilitation is there for? Well of course it is! But let’s talk about why we want to avoid injury.

  • Pain - For starters obviously we don’t want our dogs to be in pain, and anyone that has suffered an injury and has gone through rehab knows it’s painful. As owners of pet dogs, sports dogs, and working dogs alike, we all have a want to protect them, and preventing pain is a key part of that.

  • Rehab can take ages - The rehabilitation process is often a lengthy one, depending on the injury it can take months, sometimes over a year to fully rehab an injury. Even with the best in the business and using a multidisciplinary team it can take a long time. And usually, that time is spent with your dog on restricted exercise, which may mean less time doing the things they love, like long walks with you or playing with their pals. What seems like a better option to you? Spending 10 minutes 5 times a week helping to condition their body? And adding in 10 minutes before strenuous exercise warming up? Or spending months being unable to do their activities or sports?

  • Behavioural - it’s a massive pain in the butt for dogs and humans going through the rest period, and the restricted exercise period too. Particularly for those of us who have highly active breeds. No exercise for 6 weeks? No thank you! I will always try to avoid that like the plague because I have been through it on 3 occasions now and it’s not fun. Of course, if instructed to I'm going to do it, but nobody wants to be told their dog can't exercise for 6 weeks. While there are lots of ways and means of managing a time that can be stressful for us and our dogs, again it’s just another reason I want to avoid injuries altogether.

  • Re-injury Even after you have gone through the lengthy process of rehab, you are then always worried about re-injury to that area because it happens all too often. Once an area has been injured it will be weaker and more prone to injury. That and in my experience as a hydrotherapist, dogs that have experienced an injury are more likely to overcompensate even after rehab, causing injuries to other areas. Take a cruciate tear or rupture for example - the cruciate ligament is a ligament in the knee joint that we saw a lot of in hydrotherapy - many of the dogs that damage one cruciate, then often damage the other later down the line due to overcompensation.

So now hopefully I’ve got you all on board with just how important it is that we prevent injury in the first place, and it’s encouraging everyone to get started with some groundwork exercises.

Another key point to add here is that it is never too late to come back to groundwork exercises. Very often I will have a new client come in that has been asking their dog to perform a number of exercises on balance equipment at home, and I will then take away all equipment and pull them back to groundwork to improve their form and execution of exercises before taking them back onto any equipment. So if you’re sitting there thinking maybe your dog's form could do with improving, let’s get them back on the ground and start strengthening them with correct posture in mind!

What Are Some Groundwork Exercises?

Below are 3 basic groundwork exercises, plus a cheeky little extra including some equipment that you can do in the early levels of training. Why? Because we all love the sexy stuff don’t we! So by adding in the equipment to an exercise that is safe and appropriate, we are less likely to try and rush the other exercise onto harder equipment. These may not sound like exercises, but actually just holding a position with good form is physically taxing for a lot of dogs.

How It Should Look
  • all 4 feet should be under each corner of the dogs body

  • Front feet should be in line with shoulder

  • Level topline

  • Head and neck in neutral position

  • Rear pastern and forearm should be perpendicular to the ground (Please be aware that this may look slightly different for certain breeds such as the German shepherd who’ll often need to stand with their back legs staggered)

English setter dog standing side view profile
Great example of a stand!

How It Should Look
  • Your dog's hips, knees & hocks should be aligned

  • All paws facing forwards

  • Back legs should be tucked under & kept close to the body

  • Not leaning onto their hips or rocking back onto their tail set or rump

  • Front paws should be in line with their shoulders, straight underneath

  • Topline should be level

  • Head and neck in neutral position

Border collie dog sit on Blue9 Klimb fitness equipment

How It Should Look
  • Your dogs hips, knees (stifles) & hocks should be aligned

  • All paws facing forwards

  • Back legs should be tucked under & kept close to the body, not falling out to one side or the other

  • Not leaning onto their hips on either side

  • Topline should be level

  • Head and neck in neutral position looking forwards with their muzzle parallel to the ground

  • Elbows should be in line (underneath) with the shoulder and not set wide

  • Front paws should be level when looked at from above

Chihuahua dog lying down
Note here: Head is not in neutral, but is turned to the dog's left.

Obstacle Course
Desperate to get use out of your equipment? Here's something dogs of all ages can have a go at!

This exercise is great for all healthy dogs, particularly puppies! It targets the use of their whole body, and is a proprioceptive exercise.

  • Use a variety of equipment or objects which include raised stable surfaces (like place boards, Cato boards, Klimbs, books with a non-slip surface, stuff a cardboard box so it’s full and stable etc.), then things which require balance (such as cushions, squishy dog beds, wobble boards, Fitbones etc.) and also texture changes (such as Sensimats, doormats, rugs etc.). Mix up the order of this equipment - for young dogs be aware of height changes, you want the height to change gradually, and also not come up too high).

  • Have your dog on a harness and lead if needed (always recommended for puppies) and lure them over the equipment. Keep your hand lower to the equipment so they can see where they are placing their paws as they follow the food.

  • You can increase the difficulty by bringing their food up to their neutral head height so they can’t see as much and this will help to make them more aware of their body as they move.

  • You can create this in a straight line or with a curve if you are limited on space. If you work on a curve be sure to work evenly in both directions. If working in a straight line it’s good to go in both directions over it too as it changes the order of the objects.

  • Each time you set this up create a different order so it challenges their proprioception and balance more, rather than building up muscle memory for the same course.

  • Don’t forget to post your course up on social media and tag us so you can help others with ideas for obstacle courses!

These are just a few exercises you can do at home, and are some of the exercises covered in our groundwork course on the Canine Fitness App. If you want to check the App out please click here.

If anyone wants any more details on our App, or the courses on the App please feel free to get in touch! We also have the Canine Fitness Groundwork Challenge which is a fully coached 6-week challenge, packed full of courses, assessments, group calls, coaching calls and more!

You can contact us by clicking here.

To round up, you can see that we are so very passionate about what we do. I’ve experienced struggles over the years and watched others experience them too, lets's learn from them, rather than having you all make the same mistakes we did! It’s so important to me that I help people to prevent those problems from arising, and groundw

ork is such a huge part of that in canine conditioning. I think we should all raise more awareness together! I would love for people watching today to have a go at these exercises, and tag us on social media, making a note of the fact that they are working on their groundwork. Let’s start spreading more awareness together!

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