E240: Petra Ford - Fitness for the Sports Dog

Petra Ford and I talk about how fitness can help optimize your dogs performance in the sport or sports of your choice! 


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today I have Petra Ford here with me to talk about how fitness can help optimize your dogs performance in the sport or sports of your choice!

Hi Petra, welcome to the podcast!

Petra Ford: Hi Melissa, thanks so much for having me. I'm happy to be here.

Melissa Breau: Excited to talk about this today. To start us off, can you just refresh everybody's memory, share a little bit about yourself and your pups?

Petra Ford: A little about me. I'm a mental management junkie. I love to work out, so I have a fitness background. I am technically still a human physical therapist, so I have that background. Also certified to do rehab on dogs, so that pulls everything together for me with the training.

My dogs right now, I have Zaiden, he's a senior. He's had some back issues, so he's a little wonky in the back end, but he's still happy as a clam. Zeal I just retired, boo hoo for me, but he's very happy.

And then I have Zana, my girl, who is 5-and-a-half, that I compete with in obedience. I've taken a little bit of a hiatus with her, trying to retrain some things, get her attitude a little better. She's a girl, so she's a little more complicated.

And then I have Zesty. He's a year-and-a-half old. He's wild, but he's awesome, loves to work, tons of fun, and everything I could have ever asked for in a working dog. He's training for obedience.

Melissa Breau: I can't believe he's already a year-and-a-half. I remember when you brought him home, he was just this teeny, tiny little thing.

Petra Ford: It goes so fast, I know. You just have to enjoy every second. It whizzes on.

Melissa Breau: It flies by, yeah. I know registration will close the day that this comes out, but you're teaching a class this term at FDSA on fitness to optimize all sports, and I wanted to talk about it. So how do the sports we choose to train for with our dogs influence the type of conditioning they need?

Petra Ford: I think our dogs need conditioning for all sports, period, but obviously some sports are going to be a little more high impact than others. Something like agility, where the dogs are running, turning, hitting the contacts, doing weave poles, moving at a high speed, is going to have a different effect on a dog than, for example, a dog that does rally. Which does not mean that a dog that does rally doesn't need any conditioning, but the demands of that sport are not quite the same.

Something like dock diving a lot of people think is pretty innocuous, but the dogs are in essence doing really hard sprints, and doing a huge acceleration and push off the end of the dock, so that muscle group is something that they're going to really need to target more that perhaps someone in a different sport.

But the thing all sports have alike is that they all need to have good flexibility, they all need to have a strong core, they all need to have a little bit of an underlying base of fitness, and then after that, we can hone in on some areas to target very specifically, either for that dog's sport or for that specific dog, based on their structure and where they're inherently weak.

Melissa Breau: Let's drill in a little bit on what you just said around there being some main things that all dogs should probably have. Can you talk about that a little more, the exercises or types of things that we're talking about?

Petra Ford: I think all dogs need a strong core, because if you think of every human athlete, regardless of their sports, and their sports can be vastly different, but they all need to have a strong core, because the core — everything stems from there. The problem with that is that a lot of people think they're working on their dog's core, but if the form is not perfect, then they're not, and they could actually be causing their dog some harm in advertently.

It's just like with humans. If I were to watch you do an exercise and I would say, "No, no, you have to sit up tall, suck in your stomach, and then you would feel a huge difference," you would feel, "Oh yeah, now I can feel those muscles engaging." We can't actually say that to the dog, so we need to use food to lure them into that position and keep them there. That's the piece where there's a huge disconnect because it's not always taught correctly or taught at all, so I'm pretty fanatical about that.

I think a lot of people who do dog sports think that the sport is giving their dog exercise, versus thinking that I need to exercise my dog separately so that my dog can excel and perform at their peak and for a long time without injury in their sport.

Something as simple as a power leash walk works extremely well. Doing some simple core exercises, some simple exercises you can do at home, which is what this course is about. It's about keeping it simple, because if it's too complex, people aren't going to have the time to do it, they're not going to have the motivation to do it. So if we keep it nice and simple, but the form is good, and we target some very specific areas, then that's helpful for all dogs.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned power leash walks. What is that?

Petra Ford: Walk next to your dog as fast as you can.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough.

Petra Ford: It's not a pottying leash walk.

Melissa Breau: It's power-walking.

Petra Ford: Yeah. I take my dogs next to me, I put them on a loose-leash walking command, which my definition is it's not at the end of the Flexi. It's the dog walks next to me, the dog has already pottied, and we just walk as fast as I can for a sustained period of time. My dogs love it, they know the drill, we just go, go, go, they look around, that's fine. But they don't go to sniff or anything like that, because I'm considering this an exercise walk versus "Let's go out and let you do whatever you want." This is very specifically to give you exercise.

I usually start dogs at 15 to 20 minutes, and then assuming there's no underlying issues and the dog is perfectly healthy, then we increase that up to an hour or more, if people want. But even an hour, three times a week, for maintenance has a pretty big impact on dogs.

Melissa Breau: I looked at your syllabus while prepping some questions, and I noticed that you talk a little bit about motor skills — what they are and how to break them down based on sports. That's something I know next to nothing about. Can you tell me a bit about it?

Petra Ford: Everything the dog does that we ask them to do, that's a skill. If you take something like heeling, the way I would like my dogs to heel, I don't want an exaggerated head position, but I want my dog's head up in the sense that I want them looking at me. That's not natural; dogs don't walk like that, so then I have to deconstruct that.

In order to heel like that, my dog needs to shift their weight back towards their hind end. That's one tiny piece of the skill. He has to do that while maintaining his head up, so my dog has to learn to do that. Then my dog has to be able to push slightly more off their back end than their front end in motion, so that's a separate piece.

My dog has to have a strong core, because if it doesn't have a strong core, the core can't maintain that weight shift back, and the dog is going to compensate. Then my dog has to learn to do that first at a slow pace and then at a trot.

When I add in turns, now they have to use their body in a completely different way. It's kind of like if you're learning to dance, or if you've never done agility and you're learning agility, if you have to do footwork for obedience, when I teach that to a human, you need to break it down into tiny little pieces so the body can learn how to do each piece, and then your body has to learn to take those pieces and put them together. Those are motor skills, motor patterns, that humans or dogs learn.

Melissa Breau: It makes a lot of sense, and it totally makes sense, based on that, that then you would need to look at those things to choose the best conditioning exercises or skills to build out for your specific sport.

Petra Ford: It's a good thing to break down, because sometimes what appears to be … let's say you're doing triebball, and you want the dog to go around the right side and cut in behind the ball. If the dog is always having trouble doing it to the right side, you may think, "Oh, it's a training thing," but maybe the dog is more left-handed than right-handed, and it just has trouble turning to the right.

So if you break that down into little pieces, you might see, as soon as he starts to turn right, he's not on the correct lead, or he's not shifting back, or he's doing something odd. If you just teach them that piece like a motor skill, like a physical skill, then when you put it back in, 'Oh, look, he can turn to the right much better now."

Melissa Breau: We talked a little bit about how the sport influences things. What about the dog's own structure, their specific structure? How does that influence the conditioning work that they'll need for optimal performance?

Petra Ford: Structure is always most important. If someone says to me, "Can you put together a program for my 'fill in the blank' sport dog," I would never do it without seeing the dog first, because the dog's structure is the most important and the most significant piece.

I look at structure for function, which is huge, because people always think of it in terms of the breed ring. They'll have a dog that's a breed champion or a grand champion, and yes, their structure may be perfect for their breed standard, but it could not be at all that great when you look at function at working.

My evaluation isn't super-complex, it's relatively basic, but there are certain key things that I look at. And then, based on those things, I pull out what piece … I was going to say "is the most weak," which is really bad.

For example, if my dog is very long-bodied, and it's pretty significant if they're much longer than tall, I already know that their core is inherently weak, so I need to really build that up, because where a dog is structurally weak is almost always — barring some major catastrophe — where they get hurt first. If I have a dog that's longer than tall, and it doesn't have any other major structural issues, all things being equal, my dog is going to get hurt there first, regardless of their sport, actually. So that's the most important thing.

Melissa Breau: What are you looking at? How are you evaluating them?

Petra Ford: I look at angle — their shoulder angle and their hind leg angle. It's hard to say in words, but I look at the angles. Too much angle is instability. Not enough angle, they tend to have issues because they don't have enough … without angle they're not absorbing the shock, so the muscles take up all the extra shock and get very tight.

I look at balance. The dog could have a lot of angle in the front and not in the rear and now they're out of balance, or vice versa.

I look definitely at length versus height, which is becoming more and more prevalent over the years in all breeds. I think that in the confirmation ring they're asking for that more, so I've seen more of that.

I look at obviously size, how much bone they have, because that impacts how much shock is going through their joints, and I also look at their front assembly, which is their shoulders and how far forward they are, because if they're too far forward, they're not supported by the ribcage.

Mainly those are the things I look at. I'm not doing a full-on, every single joint, head to toe, or anything like the breed ring does. That's pretty much enough information to hone in on what we need to work on with that specific dog.

Melissa Breau: When a team is adding a fitness program into their training routine, would you recommend taking those fitness pieces and integrating them with whatever your normal training session looks like, or do you recommend breaking fitness out, having it be its own sessions, and training it for some sessions and training your sport for other sessions? How do you approach that?

Petra Ford: I think it depends on where on the scale of conditioning you are. If you're just doing some maintenance, then a lot of the stretches you just incorporate into their warm-up, so that's already done. And then you can just do some conditioning, again depending on your sport. If it's a lower-impact sport, you could do them in the morning and your sport in the afternoon. If it's a higher-impact sport, I'd spread it out.

The other thing people really need to look at is rest. That's a horrible, terrible word. I work with rehab dogs, and it's the worst word on the play of it; people are horrified by it. But their bodies have to rest.

If you think abut yourself, if you're working out most days and you're doing an active sport most days, every professional athlete it's built into their program: rest, meaning doing nothing, because the body has to repair. If you're never letting the body repair, all you're doing is tearing it down, and inevitably the dog is going to get hurt.

When we do sports, we are ourselves addicted. We go to this class, we go to that class, we go to this trial, and people lose track and don't even realize how much they're doing. That's a big part of it is, in general, making sure you're not doing too much between the conditioning and all the training and the trialing and the off-leash running and etcetera that you're doing.

What I do with my clients is I have them print out two months of an empty calendar, and I have them fill in the month before and fill in the upcoming month. I say, "Take home and do it," and every single time, every time, they come back, they look at me, it's hidden behind their back, and they're like, "I already know what you want to say. We're doing too much." They don't even realize it until they write it all down.

So I find that's a really good thing to do, because then people gain perspective and go, "I need to shift things around so my dog can have some rest." With a conditioning program you have to figure out a way to put it in there without making it something that tips the scales until the dog is way doing too much.

Melissa Breau: How much time do you recommend people budget for fitness? How much should people be doing?

Petra Ford: For maintenance exercises that I teach them to do, if they do that three times a week, fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, that's perfectly fine. My leash walks, to me, I see that also as exercise, but I don't feel like I'm taking extra time to do that, because it's good for me, it's good for them.

But just in terms of exercises using food, doing equipment, or just exercises using no equipment, for maintenance purposes once your dog is in good shape, two or three times a week, quality over quantity, is more than enough. It's really pretty doable.

Melissa Breau: I know a few folks who mention they worry about doing conditioning or fitness work with their dog because they're definitely concerned that they're going to do it wrong, and they're going to cause more problems than they're going to solve. I know you mentioned that at the beginning that poor form is a bad thing. How can handlers avoid that? How can they feel confident with what they're doing and make sure they're doing it correctly?

Petra Ford: Correct. They should be worried, because if you're not … I've had it happen where people come to my clinic and they're like, "I just want you to look at my dog and give me a baseline." But they say to me, "I know the dog is in really good shape," and as soon as they walk in, I can already see that the dog's got a problem, and they're shocked because they've been doing all this work with them, but they've been doing it incorrectly.

So I think it's super-important to find someone, which I think is easier now with online stuff, that has a very strong sports background, and if at all possible, a certified canine rehab person, because there are programs out there that certify the average Joe to do exercises with dogs, and they get some initials, and I'm not trying to bash people, but they don't necessarily have the background in anatomy that … someone is fully certified in canine rehab it should be a veterinarian or a physical therapist.

Vet techs get certifications, but they're supposed to work underneath someone that's a vet or a P.T. that's certified, and that's for a reason. It's because those people already have a background in anatomy and physiology, and the doggie rehab builds on that, so they have a really good grasp for what is safe and what is not safe.

So it's important to see what are the person's credentials and do they have a lot of experience working with performance dogs, because if someone is working primarily with pet dogs, let me tell you, it's a huge difference. Performance dogs are super-unique, and not everyone really and truly understands what their job entails, how difficult it is physically on the dogs, how much repetition they do. They don't always have that understanding. So just do some research, but when you find someone, work with them and then you'll know that you're doing everything correctly.

Melissa Breau: Anything else you want to share about the class, or who should consider it and sign up?

Petra Ford: The dogs love it. All my dogs love demoing. All my students or my clients always say their dogs love it. Because really it's relaxed, it's fun, they're getting lots and lots of treats, and they're doing a variety of activities. The owners tend to like it because the dogs like it.

You can see some pretty significant results within a relatively short amount of time. Two, four, six weeks you can already see a difference, and you'll see the difference in their sport.

And I think it's pretty empowering. There's so many things with our dogs' health that we have no control over, and their lives are pretty short — shorter than any of us would like them to be. This is something that we absolutely have control over, so it's empowering to be able to get in there and do something to help your dog.

I also think, when I watch different dogs in different sports, it's very hard for me because I'll see so many dogs that are hurt, but the dogs will work anyway. People aren't even aware, and they shouldn't be, because that's not their job necessarily. And dogs are tough; they'll just do it. So I think to get involved in a program, if there is something going on, it will be identified. You can nip it in the bud, make your dog more comfortable, prevent it from getting any worse, and then your dog will perform better as well.

Melissa Breau: To round out our chat with one last question, if we were to drill down what we talked about today and pull out one takeaway or one key piece of information you really want everybody to understood, what would that be?

Petra Ford: Core, core, core. That's where, in the rehab clinic, with performance dogs, massive percentage. I would even go as far as saying 85 to 90 percent of the injuries I see, if they don't involve the core directly at that moment, they stem from not having a strong core.

Core is of primary importance, and making sure it's strong and keeping it strong. It's not super-difficult to do that, if you have the right information. Actually, as a little bonus, I have my three foundation core exercises for free on my website for everybody to see under "Free Posture Videos," and then obviously you have to build on those. So it's all about the core.

Melissa Breau: Do you want to mention the website address so folks can go look at that?

Petra Ford: It's petrasdogresourcecenter.com.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Petra. I know we scheduled this in last-minute to try and get it in, but I appreciate you being flexible and making it work.

Petra Ford: That's okay, no problem. Thank you as always for having me. Always a pleasure.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in! We will be back next week to talk about training the atypical dog with Sharon Carroll.

If you haven't already, subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in — and happy training!


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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