E267: Ashley Escobar - Talking Canine Fitness & Cavalettis

Ashley and I talk about what led her to become interested in fitness and she shares why cavalettis are such a powerful tool for canine fitness. 


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 Ashley Escobar here with me to talk about her training journey and conditioning with Cavalettis.

Hi Ashley. Welcome to the podcast!

Ashley Escobar: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Excited to chat today! To start us out, can you share a little about you, your current pets, and what you're working on with them?

Ashley Escobar: I am a wife, and a mom of two small children that I homeschool, and own a dog-training business. I share my home with four of my dogs: my retired performance Doberman and three Australian Shepherds, which each of them have their own career path at this point, and then of course my two kids and my husband.

Melissa Breau: Tell me a little more about those career paths. What are they doing?

Ashley Escobar: One Australian Shepherd is my children's show prospect. They are doing junior showmanship and lots of fitness training and working on some agility. I have my original agility prospect. He's not totally in love with agility, but he loves obedience, formal obedience, so he's taking a turn to the formal obedience world and playing demo dog. My youngest Aussie is obsessed with agility. She is my Border Collie/Australian Shepherd and she is right on target for her agility career. And of course they're all fitness superstars. So they're very busy, very happy dogs.

Melissa Breau: Very lucky dogs. What got you into this crazy dog world?

Ashley Escobar: I grew up showing horses and 4-H with dogs, so I've always kind of been in the animal training world. But I was primarily with the equestrian world, where I did a lot of training my own horses from young horses, so a lot of fitness and conditioning, halter showing, and Western Pleasure, and that led to, as I became an adult and realized how troublesome it is to travel and house and care for the horses, I'm like, "Why am I doing this? Let me switch to dogs full time." So I switched over to something that's a lot easier, I can have more of, and they all load up in the car and we're good to go.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. In terms of training, how would you describe your approach or your current training philosophy?

Ashley Escobar: I am all about building the bond and relationship with the dogs and handler. I love my dogs, as everyone does. They are therapy for me in so many aspects of my life, and it's really important to me that when I instruct other people that they build that bond and have that fun relationship with their dog.

All of my dogs start out as agility prospects, but you know what? They just don't always want to do it. So I'm perfectly fine and I'm the first one to say, "Let's try something different for this dog so that they're happy," because I think both parties should be having fun. So I would say I am based on mutual fun and having that loving relationship with your dog, because to me, that's what it's all about at the end of the day.

Melissa Breau: How did you go from showing horses to dogs to fitness? What led you to that aspect of things?

Ashley Escobar: From the horses to the dogs, it was actually a pretty easy transition for me. I had Jack Russells and I did lots of training with them, because they're Jack Russells and they do lots of tricks and they're fun. So the dog training just naturally happened within itself, just organically happened.

As far as the fitness, I have always been into physical fitness myself, so lots of physical activity for me and my dogs, but I really did not know the depth of importance of it early on in my dog sports.

One of my performance Dobermans sustained some pretty severe injuries, and in going through all of her rehab after some TPLO surgeries, and then a shoulder injury, it was like one thing after another. I started reflecting on my equestrian past-hood, and I'm like, "Why are there not specific programs for dogs to prevent these types of injuries?"

Granted, any injury can happen, as we know, but with football players and with these elite hunter/jumpers that I used to condition, there's so many specific exercises that we do to strengthen their rear and their core and their front end. At the time, in 2012, there was nothing for dogs that I had readily available for me.

I ended up connecting with Dr. Mills at the University of Tennessee. I'm probably getting his name wrong because it's been a while and I've had a lot going on. But I learned about the canine fitness world and it was like that was me. I'm all about it, I love it, it's fun. That's what got me started in that is because I sustained that traumatic injury with my dog and going through rehabbing her and trying to get her back up and running.

Melissa Breau: Made you want to be a little more on the preventative side and a little less on the after it all goes wrong side.

Ashley Escobar: It really did. I met so many people and they were in the same boat. They were like, "They're just dogs. They get injured." It happens, of course, even despite all our best efforts, just like football players. But they condition and train for their specific abrupt moves and sharp turns and sudden stops, and why shouldn't we be training this with our dogs?

It just makes sense when I really thought about it. So going and getting my certificate and doing my CEUs with canine fitness has not only been super-fun; it's just life-changing for the pet world and the sport dog world, because even pet dogs get hurt.

Melissa Breau: Talk to me a little bit about Cavalettis in particular. For anybody who isn't familiar with them, can you start with describing what they are and how we use them?

Ashley Escobar: Cavalettis are one of my all-time go-to favorites for canine fitness. They are essentially ground poles that we ask our dogs to stride over or step over in a very controlled movement. We use them in horses, we've used them in horses since the late '80s and I'm sure before then, but that's my experience with horses.

They do a lot of different things, so depending on what your goals are with your dog, they can be used for just basic balanced movement and fitness, or they can be used for very specific things, like the show dogs that want to have that really long, sweeping side stride gait, where they have that nice extension in their shoulder and fluid-looking movement.

So they can be used for any dog, from pet dog to senior dog to your agility dog to your competition obedience dog with that beautiful heads-up heeling position. It's like the Bowflex or whatever that equipment was that you could get, where you could do everything all in one, that one thing you hung on your door that never actually hung on the door. That's what Cavaletti poles are. You can set them up and they can be used for anyone. A novice person with a pet dog that just wants to do something fun — they can do it.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. Talk to me a little bit more about some of the benefits you mentioned. What are the benefits of working with Cavalettis? How do they contribute to a dog's performance?

Ashley Escobar: In regards to performance, we can improve their stride balance, so the way your dog strikes the ground when they land. This of course comes into play when you're adding a lot of motion, like through agility course or even the competition heeling, where they're having to acutely have their head up in a very flashy, specific position, and they're rocked back on their hind end and making these really sharp motions and movements. The Cavaletti poles give your dog the proprioception to know where each foot is.

Proprioception is just limb awareness for our dog. It's kind of like us driving a car. We don't have to look at our right foot on the gas pedal and both hands on the steering wheel. We just hop in. We know where all of our body parts are. Our dogs are not born knowing that, so we help them out. We help them to learn that each foot and leg can move independently of the other, and Cavaletti poles are a great way to do that.

Melissa Breau: How much training are we talking about to teach dogs to use them correctly? What does that process look like?

Ashley Escobar: It's actually a lot more simple than you might think, if you split all the behaviors up. This is definitely one of the things that through the years I have learned: you cannot lump the behaviors together. You want to isolate each individual piece. But because we break them up into such small pieces, and it's really fun for our dog, I find that it's a pretty quick transition from going from just wrapping a cone to trotting over some Cavaletti poles.

Melissa Breau: If we want to do this type of work, if we're interested in teaching our dog Cavalettis, do we need a particular set of Cavalettis? Are there ways to make a set at home? What do you recommend in terms of equipment?

Ashley Escobar: There are some rules with Cavalettis, as far as we want to be safe and make sure that our dog has proper form over the Cavaletti poles, because you can do them incorrectly and you can injure your dog. The poles are never higher than the dog's hock height. They can always be lower and you will still work your dog.

A lot of people have the misconception that the poles have to be really high and the dog needs to be stepping up high. They don't. The highest that they would ever go would be their hock. But 80 percent of all of the Cavaletti work that I do with my clients, it is lower than that.
They're very versatile. You can make your own. There's tons of plans online for how to make your own. That's the only catch is that it cannot be higher than your dog's hock height. And there's a lot of companies that sell premade ones that are nice poles. Ultimately you need at least six to ten poles, but for starting out, you can start out with three to four.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned the hock height, and I'd imagine different-size dogs obviously would need things that are different setups. What are we looking for while working Cavalettis? How do we tell if the setup is right for our dog? What are some signs that we need to adjust things?

Ashley Escobar: The biggest thing with the Cavaletti form for our dog is we want a neutral head set. We want a neutral spine as they are striding over these poles. A lot of mistakes I might see when people send me their videos is they're luring their dogs over the poles, which causes the dog's head to be too high, and now their weight is shifting back, and now they're not balanced striding through the poles. So the head set is one thing that we look for. When we train Cavaletti poles, we teach our dogs that when they get in the poles and they're reading the pole grid, they have that neutral head set. That's something that we do from Step One.

The other thing is you will know that the poles are not the proper distance apart if the dog is double stepping between poles or skipping poles. The pole spacing in between poles, you have a couple of different categories that they would fall into. If your dog is a square-bodied dog, the distance between pole to pole would be the height that your dog is at the withers is the general rule. If you have a longer-bodied dog, like a Corgi, the distance between poles would be the length of their back. Our longer-bodied dogs, we don't ever want to scrunch them up and ask them to do things where they're in roach-back form. We want them to be extending through the poles.

That's a couple of things to mention. There are a few rules, but it's not anything too drilling that you cannot do. But we want to look for heads; we want neutral head position. We want the dogs to be striking the ground with a flat foot. We don't want them to be rolling from the outside of their foot to the inside.

And they should ideally be down the center of the poles. They should not be hugging to one side or the other, because if they are, then they are really using the cones, or what's holding the poles up, as their guideline, instead of reading the jump grid and being in the center of the pole grid.

The other thing is it should be a slow, intentional movement: a walk, a trot, nothing faster.

Melissa Breau: I'm sure there are some dogs that that's the hardest part to learn.

Ashley Escobar: It is very hard. It's very hard for those speedy dogs.

Melissa Breau: It's not as fast as you can go. You said double-stepping or skipping poles. Skipping poles, I think, is self-explanatory. They didn't step between two poles.

Ashley Escobar: Yes. They overreach.

Melissa Breau: Double-stepping?

Ashley Escobar: Ideally, if you have your poles set up, it should be the left front foot, let's say, hits in-between pole two and three, and then the right front foot would extend and reach between three and four. Each front foot should hit in-between the ladder, essentially, if you think of it like a ladder setup.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. That's helpful. Part of the reason we're talking about all this is because you have a workshop coming up for us, it starts May 1, called "Conditioning with Cavaletti Poles: Take your canine fitness to the next level." Do you want to talk a little bit about what you're going to cover in the workshop?

Ashley Escobar: In the workshop, which I'm so excited to share with everyone, we are going to learn how to properly train our dogs to work Cavaletti poles. We are starting from assuming that your dog has never even seen Cavaletti poles, and maybe they have seen them, but perhaps they don't have proper form over them, because that is usually the case, we are teaching them from the ground up. How to properly teach neutral head set, the proper striding, and then giving some options on some different exercises to move to as they advance along.

Melissa Breau: Who is a good fit? Who might want to consider signing up? Are there any age limits or fitness limits or anything that people should think about?

Ashley Escobar: This is open for anyone. This is a really fun thing to do if you are a pet dog owner and you just have a companion dog that you want to keep healthy and sound and have something to add to your training. This may jump-start your desire to do more with your dog. It's a wonderful relationship-building exercise because you will be training your dog and splitting down the behaviors, and I find that the dogs love it.

It is also phenomenal for conformation folks. I do a lot of conformation showing. This is one of the primary exercises that we typically do with my conformation clients because it does help your dog get that balanced stride for their down-and-back, and it also promotes a balanced stand when they are standing, because it really is the balanced movement. You would be surprised where your dog might be more of a lefty or righty in this regard, so this will help with that.

It's also wonderful for the agility folks who are wanting that proprioception work and really wanting those keen, tight turns and that fast stops and abrupt goes. They do stopped contacts and building that momentum to power through that stopped motion into running again.

It's great for senior dogs. I have videos in the workshop of my puppy doing them since she was roughly 10 or 11 weeks old. The poles are on the ground and the sessions are short, but it's wonderful proprioception work for the young dogs too. It's one of those versatile exercises that fits everyone.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. As long as people remember to keep an eye on their dog, and as their dog grows, they adjust things.

Ashley Escobar: Yes, and we spend quite a bit of time in the workshop talking about fatigue, because fatigue is one of the things that you really have to pay attention to when you're doing any kind of canine fitness.

Melissa Breau: To round out our chat with one last question, if we were to drill down the stuff that we've been talking about today into a key piece of information or a takeaway you really want people to understand after they listen to our chat, what would that be?

Ashley Escobar: I would want people to understand that despite all best efforts, injuries do happen, and injury prevention is the path that I'm on at this point, after having a dog sustain such an injury. There are lots of things that are preventable, and taking just a few minutes a day to do some sort of canine fitness with intention.

Injury prevention is such a huge benefit that we have now in the dog world that I hope more people will look at and want to be a part of before they ever do — hopefully not, but if they ever do — sustain any sort of injury. Having that injury prevention on hand is just something I hope that people take away from this.

Melissa Breau: Right, because I would imagine that not only does it help prevent the injuries in the first place, but if an injury does still happen, the dog has the understanding and the behaviors already on board to do some of that rehab work.

Ashley Escobar: It makes it so much easier if they already have that body awareness, because unfortunately they do still sometimes get injured, but I also have to think that a lot of the injuries that I see when they're doing lots of canine fitness, they're less. They're not nearly as severe. So that would be my one takeaway is that people would put more emphasis on injury prevention with their canines.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Ashley. This has been great.

Ashley Escobar: Thank you for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We will be back next week with Sharon Carroll to talk about what's happening when a dog's performance begins to deteriorate.

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! 

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