A new fitness class is proving a real hit with handlers and their dogs, as Andrea McHugh discovers.
If you are looking for something really new and different to do with your dog, then Wag and Tone could be the solution.
International dog trainer Karen Laker, who lives near Newark in Nottinghamshire, recently joined forces with fellow trainer Sue Holstead and fitness coach Ruth Macgill, to design an exciting new fitness programme for dogs and handlers.
Wag and Tone consists of a series of simple, fun exercises done to music, which are designed to improve the bond between dog and handler, and help them to get fit and healthy.
Wag and Tone has now been developed into an e-book, and as awareness grows, Karen hopes that more trainers around the country will hold classes.
A human fitness coach and an animal physiotherapist have approved all the exercises and handlers work at their own pace, but Karen advises anyone with concerns about fitness to seek medical advice prior to starting Wag and Tone.
To find out more about Wag and Tone, freelance writer Andrea McHugh and her daughter Maddie went along to Karen's weekly class in the village of South Clifton in Nottinghamshire.
All good fitness classes start with a warm up and Wag and Tone is no exception. Karen began by playing some music and inviting handlers to walk their dogs around the room in a large circle. The pace was varied from fast to slow, with lengthened strides and normal ones, and then we were asked to walk on tiptoe and on our heels and to keep changing direction. The dogs thought this was nice and easy!
Each week Karen sets up little stations around the hall and every dog and handler has an opportunity to try out an exercise using the equipment provided. "You don't have to have a lot of specialist equipment," said Karen. "For example, you could use garden canes or plumber's piping on upturned plant pots instead of cavaletti, or you could use a plump pillow to balance on instead of a wobble board.
"The good thing about Wag and Tone is that people are able focus on their own dog and they don't feel any pressure to do better than anyone else. It's a very relaxed, no-pressure class, and I have seen a marked and very fast improvement in the behaviour of the dogs that come each week. None of the dogs in this class does any other kind of training, they are just much-loved pets, and some were very nervous or a bit out of condition but they have all benefi ted from coming. The owners say they really enjoy Wag and Tone too, as it helps to build up the bond they have with their dogs, plus they can spend quality time together and get fitter."
The Wag and Tone e-book incorporates a wide range of exercises and dogs can be rewarded with treats or toys. Here is a selection of the exercises we tried:
Exercise 1: Cavaletti work
Karen set up a grid of half a dozen very low cavaletti and, using her demo dog, three-year-old Rhyme, demonstrated how to walk across them with the dog, first forwards, then backwards and also sideways.
"Like many of the exercises you can make this more challenging and aerobic over time by varying the pace, lifting your legs higher, or carrying weights," she said. "From your dog's point of view this exercise might be quite challenging at first, but it will really help him to think about where he is placing his feet and encourage better body awareness. You could also put the dog in a sit while you run up and down the grid."
Exercise 2: Mat to mat
Karen placed two mats on the floor and, starting with the dog in a sit or a stand, began to skip sideways from mat to mat. The handler should have bent knees and hips throughout this exercise.
"If you need to bend down to place a treat on the mat make sure you bend with your legs," advised Karen. "You can make this more challenging by putting the mats further apart, speeding up, or taking wider steps. This is a great coordination exercise for the dog and helps them to understand about targeting a mat. They really seem to enjoy this one."
Exercise 3: On the lunge
This exercise is called ‘The Bow Tie.' To start, the handler lures the dog with a treat around two markers, always using the same side leg and arm to direct them.
Initially, as the dog reaches the furthest point around the cone the handler lunges forward with the front leg and holds position to feed the dog a treat, then repeats the exercise on the other side. As the dog begins to understand the exercise, the cones can be placed further apart. The handler then simply continues directing the dog around the cone and repeating the lunges, rewarding with a toy or treat at the end of the exercise.
"This exercise works the handler's legs and trunk," said Karen. "It also improves the dog's coordination and back flexibility as they go around the cones.
"You can increase the intensity by placing the cones further apart, and moving more quickly."
Exercise 4: Wobble wobble!
For this exercise Karen demonstrated by balancing on a wobble board and luring Rhyme around her in a circle, then rewarding with a treat.
"This is quite hard," said Karen. "It really helps your core stability and balance, as it's quite difficult to lure a dog round while you are standing on the wobble board! If you get really good you can speed it up and even try balancing on one leg, or put one hand behind your back."
Exercise 5: Having a ball
A gym ball is a very useful piece of kit, and Karen demonstrated how this could be used to help benefit dog and handler. She began by sitting on the gym ball and with her feet fl at on the ground and keeping her back straight gently rocked her pelvis backwards and forwards. With Rhyme in a stand in front of her, Karen simultaneously held out one arm, asked him to touch it with a paw, then rewarded him with a treat.
"This exercise helps the owner to work the lower stomach area and develop core strength," said Karen. "The dog is also developing core strength each time he balances on three legs. Rhyme is a large dog so can easily reach my hand with his paw but for smaller dogs you could lift a foot up and ask them to touch that."
Exercise 6: Step to it!
Anyone who has been to a step class will recognise this exercise, but Wag and Tone includes your dog as well. Use a simple step and encourage the dog to step on to it with his front feet. If necessary kneel down and lure the dog on to the box, rewarding him when he puts his front feet on it. Once the dog understands, you can step up and as you step down, the dog steps up. The idea is to create a nice flowing rhythm taking it in turns to step up and down but take your time at first, it's not as easy as you think!
"This is a nice aerobic exercise for the handler and dog, and the dog also gets a nice stretch through the back," said Karen.
As the hour-long class drew to a close, Karen directed the group through a cool down routine, using relaxed, loose lead walking and slow direction changes. "Dogs and handlers can build up lactic acid after exercise so it is important to cool down," she explained.
Afterwards the dogs were treated to a top to toe massage from their handlers and by the time this was finished all the dogs were very relaxed and happy.
"One of the big benefits of Wag and Tone is that it builds up the bond between handler and dog," said Karen. "The massage at the end of the class is a really nice way to encourage the dog to enjoy being stroked all over, even in between their toes, down their legs and along their tail. It's quality time and they love it."
That was the end of the class for the dogs, who were put into a sit while the handlers completed a series of stretches to help relax the muscles and prevent injury.
Wag and Tone is a brilliant idea! It's fun, the dogs enjoyed it, there is no pressure, and it has great physical and emotional benefits for dogs and handlers. It's also nice to work to music and try out all the different exercises, which Karen varies every week so that there is always something new.
I am definitely very tempted to get the e-book and have a go and would love to attend a class if a trainer opened one up in my area.