Menu toggle icon.
Menu toggle icon.

Is Your Dog Hardcore?

Dog running on the field to strengthen his core muscles.


Is Your Dog Hardcore?

A few years ago, I was asked to assess the fitness of 20 world-class Agility dogs in Europe. Any guesses as to how many of those had strong core muscles? The answer, stunningly, was exactly TWO!

Perhaps you are thinking, “But I have an active performance dog! My dog couldn’t have weak core muscles.”

Clearly, dogs can appear perfectly healthy and even compete successfully in high-level sports with less than adequate core strength. So, what’s the big deal?

The answer is, in a word, injuries. Let’s see how that can happen.


Core Muscle Functions

Core muscles have two main functions: to stabilize and mobilize.

  1. They stabilize the body by helping the dog hold its posture (such as a level topline) and absorb sudden forces that could cause injuries.
  2. They mobilize by contributing to rapid movement, force, and power. They flex and rotate the spine in all directions, and they coordinate all movements between the front and rear limbs.

A weak core increases risk of injury

A strong core is critical to preventing injuries caused by the long-term effects of repetitive motions that can eventually cause stretching of the ligaments, tendons, and fascia that stabilize all parts of the dog’s body. Thus, a dog with weak core muscles is at greater risk of:

  • Back Pain. This is a very common condition in active dogs. A weak core causes repeated hyperextension of the spine, which can result in lumbosacral disease. This condition often requires expensive surgery and/or rehabilitation to provide relief from chronic back pain.
  • Iliopsoas Injuries. With a weak core, your dog has less control over its rear legs, increasing the likelihood of chronic, recurrent iliopsoas strain, a painful and difficult-to-resolve injury.
  • Cranial Cruciate Ligament (CCL) Injuries. A weak core can prevent your dog from stabilizing its rear legs sufficiently, eventually resulting in a tear or complete rupture of the cranial cruciate ligament. This requires expensive surgery and rehabilitation.
  • Shoulder Injuries. If your dog’s core is weak, its ability to coordinate and stabilize the front limbs can be impaired, leading to supraspinatus tendinopathy, biceps tendinopathy, and/or medial shoulder syndrome, requiring expensive corrective surgery or at least months of rehabilitation therapy.

None of us want our dogs to experience these injuries. Nor do we want the expense and lost time of treating them. Luckily, there are actions you can take now to build your dog’s core to help prevent these injuries.


How to strengthen the core muscles

1. Core Stability Exercises

All dogs need core stability exercises, but young puppies under six months of age and weak senior or geriatric dogs must first pursue stability exercises before moving to core mobility exercises. Examples of core stability exercises include:

  • Proprioceptive (body awareness) exercises such as walking SLOWLY forward and backward over a ladder placed on the ground*
  • Balance exercises such as walking and turning along a slightly elevated plank*
  • Flexibility exercises such as play bows and side bending by nibbling on a cookie placed next to the hip or a rear foot*

core strength for dogs

2. Core Mobility Exercises

Core mobility or strength exercises build the dog’s many core muscles, either individually or together. Ensure that your dog’s fitness routine focuses on these exercises. Here are some examples of basic, intermediate, and advanced core strength exercises:

Basic Core Strength Exercises*
  • Rear Leg Lifts. With your dog’s front feet elevated a few inches, lift and gently hold one rear leg for an extended period so that your dog bears its weight on the other rear leg. Do each rear leg separately.
  • Front Leg Lifts. With your dog’s rear feet elevated a few inches, lift and gently hold one front leg for an extended period so that your dog bears its weight on the other front leg. Do each front leg separately.
  • Sit-Stand-Sit. Teach your dog to move between the sit and stand positions with the front feet slightly evaluated and remaining stationary.
Intermediate Core Strength Exercises*
  • Rocket Dog. Have your dog sit up, and remained balanced, on its haunches while nibbling on food. Move the food in different directions to increase the difficulty.
  • Roll Over. Have your dog lie down, roll onto its back, and return to front, all in one continuous motion three times in a row. Go both ways. Roll up a slight incline to make it harder.
  • Sit-Down-Sit. Have your dog move from a stand to a down and back without moving any of its feet.
Advanced Core Strength Exercises*
  • Crawling. Have your dog belly-crawl under bars placed about 4 to 6 inches above the height of its back when lying down, moving with its belly just a few inches above the ground.
  • Diagonal Leg Lifts. Lift and hold diagonal front and rear legs so that your dog uses its core to support its weight for about 30 seconds. Be sure to do this on both sides.
  • Walking a Peanut Ball. Have your dog roll a peanut-shaped ball with its front feet on the ball and its rear feet on the ground. Face your dog and use a foot to stop the ball from rolling too much or too fast.

The bottom line

Just 10 minutes of core exercises, three times a week, could not only save you thousands of dollars in veterinary bills, it could also save you the heartache of seeing your dog in pain and perhaps having to experience surgery, long-term rehabilitation, and potentially continuing disability. For Agility and other performance competitors, two studies involving thousands of Agility dogs showed that fully one-third would experience an injury severe enough to stop training and competing for some period of time. With those stats in mind, core strength and stability training seems like a pretty solid alternative!

*Videos of these exercises and more can be obtained online at: