Are you already doing warm ups with your dog before training sessions? Great! Then you probably already know the benefits of warming up muscles and other soft tissues, preparing the body for work and thus reducing the risk of injuries.
However… warm ups are not only about physical preparation for the upcoming sport challenges.
Warm ups are also a mental preparation for the work. And warming up the nervous system for the exercises!
However, the latter – warming up the nervous system – is probably the most overlooked component of warm ups. It is way more common to hear about warm ups in the context of activating the blood flow and the muscles. And there’s rarely any talk on warming up the nervous system that actually controls the whole body and is essential for finer motor skills during the training sessions.
When preparing your dog for the upcoming work, it isn’t enough to warm up involved muscle groups and soft tissues.
In fact, most warm up exercises are designed only for that! Like doing spins, figure of eights, backing up, down-to-stands and other popular warm up exercises. They are great for getting the blood flow going and preparing your dog’s body for action in general.
Let’s look at an example!
These generic warm up exercises are not very useful for waking up the nervous system and preparing the body for very specific tasks ahead. Tasks that may need fine motor skills. It’s like going jogging before playing the piano. (While it may sound like a strange comparison – playing musical instruments actually does require warm ups just like physical activities do!)
Playing the piano needs warm up exercises that gets the blood flow going in the hands, brings the player’s attention to the fingers, feeling the fingertips better. That’s what waking up the nervous system means! It means bringing focus to the area of your body that you will be using during the activity ahead.
Jogging may be a great way to warm up the body in general, but it’s not really going to prepare the hands and the nervous system for the upcoming activity – playing the piano.
While there are definitely activities that do very well with generic warm ups – activities like hiking, running freely – tasks requiring precision from your dog would highly benefit from nervous system focused exercises.
Tasks like precision position changes, running to a target, dexterity challenges and similar all require great focus on the body parts that are highly engaged during these activities. Keeping the paws still while doing the position changes, focusing on hitting the target with paws, or placing paws on narrow surfaces.
Look at the images below: my youngest dog Mr Bo is in training to become a search and rescue dog. Both, running in the forest, looking for missing people, and walking on tires (a dexterity task for rubble searches) require a warm up. But running in the forest doesn’t require the level of precision and attention to paws as walking on tires does!
This focus on precision and specific movements of the paws doesn’t come from generic warm up exercises, but rather from warming up the nervous system and preparing the body to receive and act on relevant information.
What would a nervous system focused warm up look like in dog sport?
As you know, I love using running on the dog walk as an example. Running on the dog walk and hitting that contact zone is heavily focused on your dog knowing exactly where his feet are and how they are moving. Your dog will have to focus on his feet to get on the dog walk without misplacing paws. And he will really have to focus on his rear feet to hit that contact zone. Especially while still learning the whole dog walk exercise.
So for dog walk training (and agility in general) your dog would greatly benefit from warm up exercises that help him to focus on his feet better. Exercises that help him focus on the surface his paws are touching (ground vs a target) and that gradually introduce the main exercise you will be doing during the actual training session.
Some exercise examples are:
- paw target exercises with all 4 feet on targets
- paw target exercises with just rear feet on targets
- hitting a target while moving/running (yes, the running contact mat exercise!)
- getting onto and balancing on a narrow platform
- running around a cone and stopping on a narrow platform
These exercises would achieve both goals: warming up the body in general AND warming up the nervous system to pay attention to the paws, hit the dog walk surface without misplacing feet and also balance on narrow surfaces.
There are some HUGE benefits for warming up the nervous system!
Adjusting your warm up routines to meet the exact requirements of the training session will mean faster success during the training session – imagine how much easier it is to hit the contact zone if your dog is already thinking about it during the warm up!
Highly focused warm up also means fewer mistakes during your training session because the warm up has actually done its job by really preparing your dog for the upcoming exercises.
And in the case of potentially dangerous exercises – like running on the dog walk full speed – it reduces the risk of accidents because your dog’s foot placement and balance will be better thanks to the warm up!
What’s your plan for your next training session?
Before your next training session think how you could make the warm up more focused on the exercises you are planning to do. Is there a way how you could engage the nervous system better? So that the warm up exercises would actually focus on what your dog really needs for the session?
If you’re having trouble with dog walk training, your dog is reckless or super careful on the dog walk, then I’ve got just the thing for you. Enrollment to my online course Beyond Dog Sports: Dog Walk is currently open, helping you get a confident, fast and SAFE dog walk performance without your dog misplacing paws, losing balance or falling off. And yes, you can use the exercises in this course for sport specific warm ups 😉
Mari Valgma, CPCFT