Phase 3: Activating the neuromuscular system

Use 5-7 minutes to do the exercises in this section.

The third phase exercises activate the big muscles your dog needs in its sport specific performance, as well as position supporting and skeleton stabilizing small muscles. In sports where the dog needs to jump, make sharp changes of direction or brake, activating the abdominal kinetic chain helps your dog wake up these muscle groups less necessary for light exercise.

Activating the small muscles supporting the joints and spine is also extremely important in preventing injury. Those small muscles keep up a good posture also in situations were the dog’s body is imbalanced or the subject of torsion.

Train these moves first at home as separate “tricks” with your dog, and only combine as part of your warm-up routine when you can perform them well. The moves aren’t meant to tire the dog, but to activate it in preparation for the actual performance.

Choose 2-4 moves best suited to the situation to repeat a few times and gain the desired level of activation.

If your dog has special needs in warming up a certain area, it’s a good idea to ask for a suitable warm-up move from your animal physiotherapist.

Ladder exercise

The ladder exercise can be done if you have either jump bars or a ladder available. In the exercise we want to see a smooth topline from the tip of the nose to the tail (shoulder support active, chest carried), a round back and a collected calm walk over a ladder lying on the ground.

The exercise requires your dog to have balance, control and proprioception. An external stimulus, in this case the ladder, defines where your dog can step. You try with food etc. to define a calm steady pace, so that each movement would be better coordinated and thus require the activation of small supporting muscles.

Start the exercise by generously scattering treats your dog likes between the rungs of a ladder laying flat on the ground. Then let your dog freely start walking over the ladder while eating the treats. If your dog wanders off the ladder, call it back and guide it to walk over the ladder again.

In just a few repeats the dog learns the desired route. If walking over the ladder is difficult for the dog, try to lower the height of the ladder. If the dog hurries, add more treats or switch to better ones. This will make the dog want to find each treat, and slows down the speed.

  • As a warm-up, have the dog walk over the ladder 2-3 times in a calm, controlled manner.

Bowl exercise

Bringing all paws into a bowl and/or an upside-down bowl works as an excellent warm-up to body collection. In this move, the dog has to hold its weight above a pivot point smaller than its frame.

In the bowl exercise most dogs have to move their center of gravity more above the hindquarters, when bringing the hind legs closer to the forelegs, deeper under the frame. The dog now collects its weight over its hindquarters and with practice you’ll notice it also carries itself in a more controlled manner.

The exercise activates and challenges especially the dogs abdominal kinetic chain, but also develops balance and stabilizing muscles. Collection and the ability to transfer weight on the hindquarters are requisite to good jumping and efficient braking and accelerating.

To start with, choose a bowl or box only slightly shorter than your dog’s frame. First reward the dog for getting only one or two paws in the bowl, and then when your dog has the idea, increase the difficulty. Now you can already ask for several repeats of having all the paws in the bowl.

Raise your criteria by increments and remember that succeeding in this exercise isn’t only pending on your dogs ability to learn – it’s also a physical performance. Your dog can learn a new skill even in one training session, but strengthening muscles takes time.

The direction of rewards: to reach the effect sought after in this warm-up, the direction of rewards is forward and down, but never reward your dog for “hanging between its shoulders”. You’ll find the correct place for rewards through trial and error. Aim for the point where the dog best rounds its thoracic spine and activates the muscles between its shoulders.

When your dog learns the exercise, you can reduce the size of the bowl until your dogs fore- and hind legs are nearly touching each other. Always choose the size of the bowl and the number of repeats according to your dog.

  • As a warm-up do 1-2 x 5-10 repeats into a bowl and 1-2 x 5-10 repeats on an upside-down bowl.

Diagonal leg lifts

This move is one of the most simple and yet most effective exercises to activate your dogs core and supporting muscles.

Ask the dog to stand in front of you. Optimally, your dog is standing with it’s weight evenly distributed on all four feet and the feet are placed symmetrical to each other. When you lift your dog’s leg, it transfers its weight to the support legs without wobbling or correcting its position. The dog should maintain a controlled and stable back, stand balanced and relaxed on the supporting legs and the lifted legs should be light until you lower them to the ground. The dog should then naturally redistribute its weight evenly on all four feet.

First lift one leg at a time and note any possible wobbling and fixing of position as well as possible leaning forwards or backwards. When lifting the leg, lightly turn the toes down. This makes it easier for the dog to move its weight away from that leg.

When the dog controls its body lifting one leg, you can start lifting diagonal legs simultaneously. Continue to pay attention to any possible wobbling or shifting. Try to always put legs down where they are supposed to be.

  • As warm-up do 1-2 x 5-10 diagonal lifts or 1-2 x 8-16 one leg lifts.


The purpose of pushes is to get the dog to activate it’s balance-maintaining muscles and to resist the push trying to unbalance it. The dog has to do this type of work for example in all tight turns, where the centripetal force is pushing it outwards.

The exercise is encouraging better core activation and waking up small supporting muscles. Optimally the dog is standing/sitting/lying down in a tight steady position focusing forwards. Upon feeling the trainers pressure on a point in its body it tries to maintain its position without wobbling, and then when pressure is released, relaxes while still maintaining position.

Ask the dog to stand, sit or lie down in front of you, looking forwards. Push the dog gently from different sides of the body and try to unbalance it. You’ll feel it in your hand when the dog starts to activate its body and resist your hand. Gradually increase pressure.

The exercise can be done in all positions including for example standing one leg in the air. Changing position creates different stimulus and activation, so use that to your advantage.

  • As warm-up do 1-2 x 5-10 pushes on different parts of the body in 2 different positions.


For a dog athlete it’s important to be able to use their body in such a way that allows fast and controlled transferring of weight, without wobbling or completely losing balance.

Your dog needs weight-transferring skills for example in sudden changes of direction or fast braking. A simple exercise to activate this skill is doing “high fives”, so touching a target with the requested paw.

The exercise can and should be done in different positions, for example standing and sitting. Optimally, the dog is sitting or standing in good posture and on request transfers weight to supporting legs in order to lift the high-five paw off the ground. The dog keeps the paw on the target for the intended duration, maintaining a controlled topline and strong shoulder support on the support leg through the movement.

Ask the dog to stand in front of you. Cue the dog to touch the target/your hand with alternating feet. I change the place of the target for every touch, so the dog can challenge it’s capability to maintain balance for touching targets on different heights and in different directions.

Again note any possible wobbling or fixing of position and try to find a level of challenge where the dog can maintain position and shoulder support for 70-80% of the tries. When the dog can do high fives with the front legs, you can also teach this for hind legs.

  • As warm up, do 1-2×5-10 target touches/leg


Reversing is an efficient move that activates proprioception and the hindquarters. Optimally for warm-up, the dog can control its back and actively push itself backwards. To do this, you should have the dog reverse in a controlled manner and take care about head position. When the head rises up, it hunches the thoracic spine towards the ground.  Try to help the dog keep it’s head in a neutral position in alignment with the spine, or a little lower, while reversing.

Ask your dog to stand straight directly in front of you. Either with a command or moving a target stick/treat towards the dog’s sternum ask it to reverse. Observe the dog’s ability to reverse directly backwards – bending always in one direction can tell about unevenness.  To help the dog, you can reverse by a wall or for example along a lane made from bumpers. This helps the dog think about the direction of the reverse movement and how it uses it’s body.

In the beginning it’s good to reward from 1-2 straight steps. When reversing gets easier, you can increase the distance and remove the guides (wall/bumpers).

  • As warm-up do 2-4 controlled reverses with distance appropriate to the dog’s skill level