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Stretch Your Hound for a Healthier Life

Playing, chasing, begging and walking often take a toll. Just like people, dogs experience joint degeneration, muscle pain and general body breakdown. Dr. Sybil Davis explains how exercise, followed by simple stretches, can improve your dog’s health, while you get fit, too.

Did someone say break out the swimsuit? Before you flee to Siberia, leash Fido and take a walk. Besides, exercise is more tolerable with a fur ball in tow.

Many researchers have made the connection between dogs and the health of their owners. A study from the University of Missouri found that overweight humans who walked their dog daily dropped an average of 14 pounds in one year. That’s more success than people often experience with common weight-loss plans. Plus, “people who workout with their dogs tend to have more fun,” said Dr. Sybil Davis, owner of Aiken Pet Fitness and Rehabilitation. That’s just the motivation most humans need to ride the fitness train without derailing.

Plus, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a dog that doesn’t enjoy some sort of physical activity. That’s good news for the human on the other end of the leash. Research shows that a brisk one- to two-mile walk four or five times a week improves heart health and wards off depression in both people and pets. But just as acouch potato shouldn’t attempt a 5K run without adequate training, a sadly out-of-shape dog shouldn’t be forced into too much too soon, said Dr. Davis, who is certified in canine rehabilitation. Moderation is key, she says, because the benefits of exercise far outweigh the risks.

Not every breed is built to run a marathon, however. Generally, dogs with longer legs and leaner body physiques, like Labradors, golden retrievers and greyhounds, can handle longer runs much easier than dogs with a heavier bone structure.


How to Prevent Injury
You’ve probably heard that humans should stretch for good health. The same is true for dogs, which also should be warmed up and cooled down to prevent injuries, maintain joint integrity and improve overall fitness whether it’s an athlete or a lap dog.

Stretching used to be recommended before exercise but current research suggests differently. That doesn’t mean a warm-up isn’t important, however.  The goal — besides literally warming muscles and joints — is to improve flexibility and elasticity, let the body know that its cardiovascular system will be working harder and requiring more oxygen, and challenging the dog’s balance and coordination.

With age, muscles, tendons and ligaments get shorter and more rigid, making them easier to injure when stretched. The older the dog the more important it becomes to warm up and cool before and after exercise.

For the warm-up, begin with agentle body massage head to toe, and down the dog’s legs to warm and relax muscles. Next, try simple cookie stretches. Start with the dog standing in front of you, facing away from your body with about a dozen small treats in each hand. At the end of each stretch, give the dog a cookie.

While supporting your dog’s belly, stretch each foreleg forward. Then, supporting the rear, stretch each back leg. At this point, also try simple balancing exercises, including the three-legged stand. To begin, hold up one hind paw and flip it backward so the dog can’t weight that foot. See how long your pet can balance on three legs, eventually working up to two minutes on each leg.

Next, try the two-legged stand, a similar exercise that strengthens your dog’s core, challenges balance and improves coordination. Hold up diagonal legs in such a way that the dog cannot weight them. Hold the position as long as possible, working up to two minutes.


  dog, stretch, neck, exercise
  dog, stretch, neck, exercise
  dog, stretch, neck, exercise
  dog, stretch, neck, exercise
  dog, stretch, neck, exercise
  dog, stretch, neck, exercise
  dog, stretch, neck, exercise
  dog, stretch, neck, exercise
  Neck, shoulder and back stretches (1)
  dog, stretch, neck, exercise
  Neck, shoulder and back stretches (2)

Neck Stretches
Put your hand (with the cookies) in front of your dog's nose to get its attention. Slowly lower your hand toward the center of your dog's chest. His head should follow your hand until it touches his chest. Eventually, the goal is to have the dog hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds. (Editor’s note: photos courtesy of agilitynerd.com)

Return to the starting position with your dog facing in front of you. Move your hand toward the dog's shoulder. Like before, the dog's head should follow your hand until it touches the dog’s shoulder. Try to hold this position for 5 to 10 before relinquishing the cookie. Repeat this stretch two more times, and then repeat three times to the other shoulder.

From the starting position, move your hand directly over the dog's head. Again, you want his head to follow your hand as far up and back as the dog can comfortably move. Because the dog may try to sit during this stretch, place your hand under its belly. Hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds, and repeat two more times.


Neck and Shoulder Stretches
Place your hand in front of your dog's nose to get tits attention. Slowly lower your hand toward the ground. As your hand passes the dog’s fore leg, move your hand behind the dog's leg and right between its front legs. You want your dog's head to follow your hand. As your dog puts its head between its front legs, draw your hand to the ground and as far back as your dog can reach. Hold 5 to 10 seconds two more times.

Next, slowly lower your hand down toward the dog's right front foot. As your dog lowers its head, place the cookie just behind its front foot.  Hold for 5 to 10 seconds, then repeat on the opposite side.


Neck, Shoulder and Back Stretch
Slowly move your hand to the dog's right side and back toward its right hip. Depending on your dog's shape and flexibility, try to position the cookie at the hip. Try holding this position for 5 to 10 seconds. Reward with a cookie. Repeat this stretch two more times. Then repeat three times on the opposite side.

Slowly lower your hand toward the dog's right fore leg. As he lowers his head, continue moving your hand toward his rear right leg. Depending on your dog's shape and flexibility, try to position the cookie just behind the rear foot. Keep this position for 5 to 10 second, and then give the dog a cookie. Repeat this stretch twice, and move to the opposite side.

To the inexperienced handler, the warm-ups mentioned might seem difficult. So if you’re unsure about tackling them alone, Dr. Davis can demonstrate exercises meant to improve your dog’s strength, endurance, balance and coordination. Her techniques often involve physioballs, rocker boards, swimming, and walking or trotting on a treadmill or uneven ground — proven methods to keep your dog fit.

After the cookie stretches and balance exercises, Dr. Davis suggests walking your dog two minutes, trotting 30 seconds, walking one minute, and trotting a final 30 seconds — a cardiovascular warm-up that prepares the body for more demanding work. Once this short warm-up is done your dog is ready for heavy exercise or a competition, with less risk of injury.

If treats are part of your pet’s warm-up routine, be careful about adding too many calories. You may want to try low-calorie treats including Meaty d’lites and Lite Snackers, both from Purina, OBEY training treats, and low-fat varieties from Aiken’s own Bone-I-Fide Bakery. (All of the products mentioned are sold onsite at Aiken Pet Fitness.) 


Cool Down and Stretching
After competition or heavy exercise, walk your dog a few minutes and then stretch before the muscles cool down too much. Overexerted muscles naturally strengthen, but when pushed to the limit they also shorten, making them more prone to tears. Stretching, however, allows muscles to return to their normal length.

Perform stretches slowly, with the dog lying down. Stretch to the comfortable end range of the joint and hold the position for at least 30 seconds. Ideally, the pet’s entire body should be stretched, but owners of agility dogs should focus on the forelimbs, shoulders, neck and spine. Rally and obedience dogs benefit more from stretching their neck, shoulders and rear legs. As mentioned earlier, stretching routines don’t have to be difficult. Start slowly and gently, and consult a veterinarian if your pet shows discomfort or resists your movements.


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New patients and their owners are always welcome. We are open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to noon by appointment. Click here or call
(803) 226-0012 to make an appointment.


What our clients say ...

Quinn and I visited Dr. Sybil Davis at Aiken Pet Fitness and Rehabilitation this morning. I am so impressed. What a positive experience. The facility, the staff and Dr. Davis are great at what they do. I highly recommend them for any fitness or rehab needs. Thanks for fitting us in.

  — Nancy Webster, Quinn's owner

Snoopy and I love Sybil and Maggie (and Annette too, although we don't see her as often). Snoopy has recovered almost completely from her torn ACL with no surgery.

  — Mary Lou Seymour, Snoopy's owner
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