Balance training is beneficial for any dog - old, young, performance or retired. The fun part of balance training is that the dogs enjoy the challenge and you will see improvement quickly. In fact, with consistent training of 3-4 times a week, improvement can be seen in as a little as 2 weeks!
How is it that your dog's balance can improve so quickly?
It is a learned skill with a basis in your dog’s genetic predisposition. What that means is that some dogs innately seem to have good balance and some do not, but if your dog is not a natural, don’t worry. Your dog can learn to balance better- and learn it quickly!
Neuroplasticity refers to the moldable nature of the brain to form new, and reorganize, synaptic connections. This is the driving force behind the generation of functional neural pathways in learning and memory. Of particular interest to canine athletes, neuroplasticity is what allows for learning and maintaining new motor skills, like balancing.
Motor skill learning is defined as the process by which movements are executed more quickly and accurately with practice. Your dog’s motor skills are acquired over multiple training sessions until performance then reaches a plateau.
There are 3 stages of motor learning that are identified.
The first stage is the cognitive stage. In this initial stage of learning, the goal is for your dog to gain an overall understanding of what is involved. Your dog must determine what the objective is, for instance, balancing on a wobble board, and then process environmental factors that affect your dog's ability to achieve it. The fitness coach must do everything possible to ensure the environment is ideal for learning. This stage is heavy in visual input and trial and error on your dog’s part. This is the fast phase of learning and it occurs during the training session itself.
The second stage is the associative stage. In this stage, your dog’s movements become more refined through practice. This is the slow phase in which the crude movements are refined through practice with small, steady gains developing over many training sessions. Your dog transfers from a “what to do” (what is the goal) to “how to do it.” Visual cues will become less important as proprioceptive cues become more important in that your dog will begin to focus more on how their body is moving and what input is being felt in joints and muscles. The more practice, the more proprioceptive input and the better the movement until your dog reaches a stable peak, the third stage.
This final stage is the autonomous stage in which the movements become nearly automatic. It is at this level that your dog can now perform the movement in nearly any environment with very little cognitive effort, as compared to the first stage.
Another way to look at learning a new motor skill, like balancing on a wobble board, is to break it down into neural processes. The first step is encoding. Encoding overlaps with the fast learning phase (or the cognitive stage) and refers to the process by which a motor skill is converted from an experience to a construct that is stored in the brain. The majority of encoding will occur during actual training sessions.
The second process is consolidation. Consolidation occurs in between training sessions. In consolidation, sleep is the critical time period when the majority of skill learning is consolidated in the brain. Consolidation is an intermediate phase between the fast phase of the cognitive stage and the slow phase of the associative stage.
The third process is retention. This occurs during the slow, associative stage, both during training sessions and in between. This is the commitment of the learned skill to muscle memory and the ability to retrieve this memory then at will. Muscle memory refers to the ability to perform the balance skill without conscious effort.
It is important to remember that the learning of motor skills is not linear. Instead, motor performance, like balancing on a wobble board, shows large improvements during the initial practice and smaller rates of improvement as practice continues. It’s also common to see periods of significant improvement followed by plateaus. During these periods, it is possible that learning is still occurring. Evidence suggests that memory consolidation for long-term storage continues during performance plateaus. These plateaus can be followed by new periods of improvement again.
With such fast improvement in balance skills, your dog can be balancing like a champ in no time!