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Best exercise to strengthen dogs muscles

Best exercises to strengthen dog’s muscles

13 Mar, 2019

Building muscle strength and tone in dogs is a goal in a range of scenarios like recovery from injury or surgery, slowing atrophy in older dogs, and conditioning in active, sporting dogs. What is the best way to strengthen dog’s muscles?

The answer to this question may come from reviewing the objectives of current treatment for osteoarthritis and other chronic orthopaedic conditions in dogs and humans. The two treatment objectives are to:

  • Alleviate pain
  • Improve joint function

Combined with medication, physical therapy is becoming a part of the treatment approach. Physical therapy may include electrotherapy, hydrotherapy, movement therapy, massage and acupuncture.

In terms of active exercise or movement therapy, the specific objectives of the treatment are to:

  • Strengthen muscles that provide locomotion
  • Improve biomechanical function of the joints

What are the most effective exercises to build dogs’ muscles?

A study involving dogs investigated the most effective exercises to strengthen muscles and improve joint function. The purpose of the study was to assess the joint kinematics of forelimbs and hind limbs when walking uphill, downhill and over low obstacles compared with walking unimpeded on a horizontal surface.

Study participants

The study involved eight (8) dogs of similar type (Labrador, Golden Retriever, Large Munsterlander, Australian Shepherd, Border Collie, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever). The dogs had no clinical or orthopaedic abnormalities.

Study method and data analysis

Reflective markers were placed on defined anatomical landmarks on the fore and hind limbs of each dog. Digital cameras were placed around the measurement area to collect data.

Dogs were asked to walk unimpeded over a horizontal surface, uphill, downhill and over obstacles. The obstacles comprised five caveletti rails set at the height of each dog’s carpal joint and spaced at the distance between the dogs’ hind and forelimbs. Between, each experimental session, each dog was given a 10 minute rest break.

Three dimensional angles of the shoulder, elbow, carpal, hip, stifle, and tarsal joint were calculated. The angles were defined by three markers surrounding each joint – one placed distal to the joint, one near the centre of joint rotation, and the final one placed proximal to the joint.

The following variables were calculated: maximum flexion, maximum extension, angle velocity, and angle acceleration. The range of motion for each joint was calculated as the maximum extension minus maximum flexion.


Uphill walking

Uphill walking compared to unimpeded walking on a horizontal surface resulted in increased joint flexion only in the hip joint. Joint extension increased in the shoulder, elbow, carpal, hip and tarsal joints.

Downhill walking

Compared with walking on a horizontal surface, downhill walking resulted in increased joint flexion in the shoulder and carpal joint. Joint extension increased with downhill walking in the shoulder, carpal and stifle joints.

Low level obstacles (Cavaletti rails)

When negotiating low level obstacles, joint flexion increased in the elbow, carpal, stifle, and tarsal joints. Joint extension increased in the carpal and stifle joints.

Additionally, retrograde (or backward) velocity increased in the elbow, stifle and tarsal joints while forward velocity increased in the stifle and tarsal joints.

What is the best exercise to strengthen dogs’ muscles?

This study showed that the three (3) different modes of walking: uphill, downhill and low level obstacles changed kinematics in the observed joints.

The exercise with the most effective therapeutic benefit is the low level obstacle course (cavalettis). This exercise resulted in increases in joint kinematics of all joints observed in the study. There are two possible reasons that negotiating the obstacles is so beneficial for dogs.

Firstly, dogs are required to raise their limbs during the swing phase of their gait to clear the obstacles. Greater effort is required to complete this exercise than walking on the flat. As greater joint flexion is required, low level obstacles are contraindicated for dogs during initial recovery stages from some orthopaedic surgery such as tibial plateau levelling osteotomy.

The second reason that low level obstacles has therapeutic benefit are the changes in velocity observed with this exercise. The change in velocity is deliberate to ensure that dogs successfully negotiate each rail at a walk to avoid “bunny hopping”. The change in pace requires greater demand of the dogs’ proprioception skills. Dogs need to be intentional in the placement of their limbs.

Due to the increase in joint flexion and extension and demand on the dog’s proprioception skills, low level obstacles are effective for treating dogs with orthopaedic and neurological conditions where improvement in motor control and placement of limbs is required.

Uphill walking is also a beneficial mode of exercise for dogs requiring strength in the hind limbs. This study showed limited change in forelimb joint angles when dogs walked uphill. The alteration in joint angles in the hind limb, particularly the hip joint, indicates that uphill walking is beneficial to strengthen the muscles supporting the hip. These muscles are required to propel the dog’s body upward and include the femoral biceps, semitendinous and semimembraneous muscles.

Downhill walking showed changes in joint kinematics in the forelimbs only. Changes in acceleration when walking downhill indicated a more deliberate gait. Hence, downhill walking is beneficial for proprioception and motor control. Changes in the joint angles also indicate that downhill walking is effective in strengthening muscles surrounding the shoulder.

How to start conditioning exercises with a dog?

While active walking exercises are effective in altering joint kinematics in the shoulder, elbow, carpal, hip, stifle and tarsal joints, some considerations are required before starting an exercise programme:

Check with your vet for any contraindications to exercise e.g. stage of recovery from surgery or injury, other health conditions such as cardiorespiratory conditions, osteoarthritis, hip dysplasia, patella luxation etc, dog’s weight, dog’s pain levels.

Based on your dog’s condition, determine the muscles you want to strengthen. Select the appropriate walking exercise.

Based on your conditioning goals for your dog, consider the exercise intensity (i.e. incline gradient, number of caveletti rails), session duration and session frequency.

Full Stride provides canine, remedial massage treatments in the Brisbane area to help keep your dog active and pain free. For certified canine massage therapists in your area please refer to .

Until next time, enjoy your dogs.


Holler, P. J., Brazda, V., Dal-Bianco, B., Lewy, E., Mueller, M. C., Peham, C., & Bockstahler, B. A. (2010). Kinematic motion analysis of the joints of the forelimbs and hind limbs of dogs during walking exercise regimens. American journal of veterinary research, 71(7), 734-740.