Our dogs work hard and play harder, but how do we help them unwind?
The Yoga Fad has taken the world by storm and there are plenty of videos of how people add their dogs to their yoga routine. It can be fun to see if we can get our dogs to get into traditional yoga posses with us. But does that benefit our dogs or us? There are some trainers that are working to create a yoga practice that is of benefit to our dogs. Here are some things to help you develop something that helps your dog.
Before we get started there are a few things to set up.
- It's important to give your dog a choice in whether to participate or not! Do these activities in an off leash area to start such as inside your house or fenced in backyard. You can also use a longline for safety once you move out into the environment.
- Be sure to have food and water available nearby that they can freely exercise. While water is super important for hydration, many dogs will walk over to get a drink when they need a mental break then re-engage in an activity after a few seconds away. If your dog is making frequent trips to the water bowl (more then normal) you can guess they are not real comfortable doing the action you want them to do.
- Set up a mat or blanket as your work area and spend a few minutes loading the mat to show your dog they are free to choose or disengage. To load the mat, you simply provide treats and praise when your dog stands on the mat then stop when they walk off the mat. During the yoga session we will continue to reinforce the dog's choice to come and go as they please.
Doing this style of yoga with your dog, builds with time and practice so your first sessions may be short, only doing a few things and lasting 1-3 minutes. However, if you take it slow your dog will begin to enjoy it more and more wanting to engage in this practice with you daily.
The first yoga activity you do with your dog is to create a base position of your dog's choice. This basic position should be something your dog loves to do and does often very naturally when they are holding still in a sit, down, or stand. The goal is get them comfortable and relaxed in this base position for 3 big breaths. If you do yoga yourself, you might be familiar with this concept of a relaxed hold of simply being present in your surroundings. You will want to start session with this position and come back to it often in your yoga session.
Once you have set up your yoga environment and created your base position you are ready to get into various other positions and exercises in your yoga session. The particular order you do these positions in is not important. Remember to do things that are easy for your dog to do, slowly increasing the difficulty of the activity. If you are doing a stretching activity, you may only ask your dog to stretch an inch or less in the beginning and work your way into a longer stretch. If you're doing a behavior that involves holding a position for a length of time, expect 1-2 seconds at first and slowly increase. You want your dog to be successful so they choose to keep participating. If your dog walks away disengaging make note of the last thing you did as you may have been pushing too far too fast!
Here are some of our favorite positions:
If you've taught your dog to shake, do High 5's or wave at friends this will be super easy for you. You start by doing the activities your dog knows and slowly making it more difficult by raising their paw to various heights; lower, higher, slightly left, slight right.
This is a basic side to side movement, starting with your dog looking directly at you. You want to be careful not lure your dog into neck stretches as you may accidently ask them to stretch farther then what is comfortable to reach the food.
If you play the engage/disengage game, you might already be familiar with this type of action. You can have your dog look at you then look at your hand slightly off to the side. If you have a helper in the room, you can have them move behind you or slightly off to your dog's side. I like to practice this with my dog standing between my legs, facing the same direction I'm facing as this allows me to extend my arms out with a toy for my dog to look at.
You want to watch for signs of unbalanced movement here! If our dog's spend lots of time in a heel position, it's not uncommon for their neck to turn more easily in the direction of looking up at us then then opposition direction. If you notice they struggle or can't turn as far in the opposition direction, that can be an early sign of a neck issue! Be sure to take it slow in doing exercises to help expand their ability to turn to the weaker side.
Shakes & Shivers:
This is not shake as in give me your paw, but more the full body shake that your dog does when they get out of the bathtub. To make it easier to understand, I refer to this full body release as a shiver, simply because that's the cue I teach to my dogs when I'm capturing this behavior naturally. We notice this natural position most when our dogs are wet as they release extra water with this full body movement. But have you noticed your dog doing this other times? Many dogs will do this behavior after a stressful event or long duration of focus. It's not uncommon to see a Service Dog do a shiver after exiting a business as a release mechanism to help them relax. By adding this action to our yoga routine, it gives us a chance to practice and reinforce putting the behavior on cue. And since the shiver is most commonly taught with the capturing method of rewarding it when it happens, we can keep our eyes out for it knowing that if it's happening without a cue we are most likely pushing our dogs just a bit too far too fast or the activity we just did was a bit harder then we thought it was. If you see your dog do the shiver behavior, be sure to capture, mark and reward it if you want to teach your dog a cue for doing it.
Full Body Stretches:
The most common full body stretch is a a bow position, having your dog move the front legs into a down position while the back legs remain in the standing position. There are a variety of ways to teach this position. For yoga, the idea is to have your dog move into position and hold it for 1 second, slowly increasing the time your dog can hold the position. Don't worry if they can't hold it for long and move into a down position because that stretch they do from the front down/back up position into the all down position is great to practice.
If your dog is familiar with the bow position and you've been able to add some time holding the position moving into the bow and back up to stand then switching and moving from the bow to the down helps to develop excellent body tone and stretch out muscles your dog may not use often in normal day to day activities. If you do yoga, this position is commonly referred to as the downward dog for good reason as it comes naturally to many of our dogs.
Head Down or Chin Rest Stretches
Teaching a chin rest target can have some great rewards for both us and our dogs. Many Service Dog Handlers use the chin rest target for various skills we train our dogs to do. I teach this to all dogs because it's an easy way to spend some time reinforcing calm behaviors. The basic way to train the chin rest is start with using your hand as a target so you can easily position your hand slightly below your dog's chin and reward your dog for the slight movement that involves touching your hand. Now to add that to your canine yoga practice you can move the target your dog is doing the chin rest in in slow proximations. So if your just starting out, you simply move your hand slightly up, down, left, right, forward as your dog matches the movement to place their chin on your hand.
If your dog is familiar with doing a chin rest, you can add in various targets such as your lap, your foot, your back, or my favorite is my neck or shoulder area. As you change up the location of where you are asking your dog to place their chin, you can slowly get them to move or stretch slightly more and more during your yoga sessions.
The goal of this exercise is to encourage our dogs to stand still and move just one or two legs at a time in the direction we are asking them. If you are just starting out, you may simply focus on getting movement in the direction you are asking and not pay attention to how many feet are moving. Practice moving 1 step forward, 1 step backwards and maybe even 1 step to the side.
If you teach foot targets, this is an easy way to add it movement of one foot at a time. Not only is this a great rainy day mental activity but helps develop coordination and muscle tone which can prevent future injuries. You're goal during yoga sessions should be controlled (by the dog, not you) slow movements that involve thought and intentional placement instead of simple reactionary movement.
You can add in targets of various heights, sizes, and textures to make this even more challenging for more advanced dogs. Remember, the whole goal of yoga is to help your dog relax and increase their ability to move fluidly so don't push them to reach targets that are too challenging!
Slow Turns & Weaves
Again there are many ways to teach this skill, but my favorite is by doing a figure 8 pattern around my legs. This is perfect for a dog that loves to play tug, but since yoga is supposed to be calming don't use a tug toy if will amp them up to much. The key here is slow turns in a controlled (by dog) pattern.
I start in my default position of having my dog between my legs. Then I can ask my dog to go around either my left or my right leg, moving back into the position between my legs. If you are using food as a reward, you may want to reward each step forward as your dog makes the tighter turn around your legs. If you are using a toy they will often simply follow the toy till it gets back to the center position.
A few things to remember!
Watch for off center actions! If your dog can turn to the left easier then they can turn to the right (or vise versa) this may be indication of pain in a specific muscle or joint. If you're concerned, be sure to see your Vet. It could also be an indication that your dog does more actions in that direction throughout your day to day activity, therefore you can be more conscious to work on moving the opposite direction in your yoga, games and training sessions to help strengthen the muscles on that side.
Like anything else, it's important to start small and build up naturally and in slow increments. My end goal is to be able to spend 20 minutes in doggie yoga a day. I'm no where near there yet! I do most of these activities throughout my day to day with my dogs. But there is something about bringing it all together that helps us make the activities more a of a calming adventure we can do together. And that is my final goal, to be able to use yoga as a method to help bring us down after a hectic, busy or stressful day.
Choose your location wisely! Starting at home in a slow distraction environment is always best. Another goal of mine is to be able to take this on the road so that we can set up and do this in practically any of the wonderful nature environments that surround us in Northern Michigan. Imagine being able to chill and do yoga with your dog as you listen to the rushing waterfall or bubbling spring not too far away.
It's also important to think about the gear your dog is wearing! If they are home, you might be able to do this totally naked. (I mean with YOUR DOG totally naked! But you do what you are most comfortable with.) If you're doing this in more public environments, you may need to use a harness and longline, so be sure the harness your dog is wearing is not restricting their movement in any way. If they easily move into a bow at home, but won't do it in their harness it might be time to look for a better fitting harness. You want your dog to be able to move all parts of their body freely and choose to engage or disengage in your yoga practice.