What is a Proper Warm-Up in Canine Fitness

warm ups Sep 01, 2021

The benefits of a proper warm-up are numerous and indisputable. As canine sports competitors, we understand that we need to warm up our dogs before we ask them to run, jump, twist, turn, pivot, pull, catch, swim, or leap. This applies to dog sports, working dogs, and canine fitness.

While there are many approaches to a warm-up, there are components that are vital to include in a warm up every single time.

We must ask ourselves:

  • What’s the most important part of our dog’s body to warm up?
  • What is the best thing to do to prevent injury?
  • What must we avoid including in a warm-up?
  • What will give our dog the best chance for a peak performance?

To begin to answer these, we look at what the warm-up is intended to do.

The warm-up should prepare your dog’s body, physiologically, for the work about to be done.

There are physiological changes that occur in the body when your dog is asked to do a physical activity, sport, fitness training, or other work. These changes involve many systems including the musculoskeletal system and cardiovascular system, not unexpectedly.

Vigourous physical activity increases the body's demand for oxygen.  Cardiac output (how much blood the heart can pump out) must increase in proportion with the increase in metabolic rate. As such, one of the first changes is an increase in heart rate and, correspondingly, an increase in the rate and the depth of breathing. There is increased blood flow to the skeletal muscles as blood is redirected from inactive organs to the active muscles. As body temperature rises, there is increased blood flow to the skin to facilitate cooling. (Dogs cool themselves through convection, conduction and evaporative cooling. You can read about the dangers of excess heat in canine athletes here.)

These are the physiological changes we want to induce with our warm-up:

  • increased heart rate 
  • increased breathing rate 
  • increased blood flow to the skeletal muscles and away from inactive organs
  • increased body temperature (hence "warm"-up)
  • increased blood flow to the skin for cooling

When we see these changes occuring in our canine athlete during the warm-up, we know we are preparing the body to perform the work. The body is now in a peak state to provide a peak performance. For sports competition, we do not want these changes to occur after your dog has left the start line. To be competitive, these changes must occur before.

How do we achieve this peak state in our warm-up? What do we include?

The warm up usually involves both a general warm-up and a specific warm-up. The exact routine will vary somewhat with agility, flyball, dock diving, protection sports, fitness, conformation, or whatever the specific work is. The more vigourous the work, the more vigourous the warm-up must be.

The general warm up is done to prepare the heart, lungs, skin, muscles and other support structures for exertion in general. A general warm up frequently begins with brisk walking increasing to trotting for 5-10 minutes or until your dog develops a light pant. Ambient temperatures and humidity can affect the length of time needed to achieve this. This stage will take longer in colder weather and less time in hot weather.

After the general warm up, a specific warm up is done to prepare the body for specific movements that will be used in the activity. This is critical to help prevent injury, especially in the more strenuous sports and activities.

This will ensure that blood flow is increased to the specific muscles that will be utilized heavily in the work. If the activity includes twisting or turning (and most do) then these specific movements of the spine and core muscles must be included. The specific warm-up includes your dog moving in different planes of motion, as well as moving the major joints through their active range of motion: flexing, extending, rotating, sidebending, abducting and adducting. If your dog has had a previous injury in a particular muscle or joint then it is even more important to specifically warm up and target that area.

However, when we say to move the joints through their range of motion it is imperative that you do this in a dynamic way. In other words, passive range of motion exercises are not useful in a warm-up. Any movement that is passive on your dog's part has no place in a proper warm-up. Your dog must move the joints through their range of motion in a dynamic way, using their own muscles (and not yours) to do so, in order to acheive the desired physiologic effects. 

To summarize, the goal of the specific warm up is to:

  • Target the major muscles that will be used in the work
  • Target any prior injured area
  • Dynamically move the body through different planes of motion
  • Dynamically move the joints through their range of motion

In order to make it easier to remember everything that should be included in the specifc stage of the warm-up, your dog's body can be divided into different areas. We start centrally and work our way down the legs. These areas are:

  • The core: includes the muscles of the neck, back, the spinal stabilizers, and the abdominal muscles. 
  • The major limb joints: the hips and shoulders, elbows and stifles. Each hip joint moves in 6 different ways: flexing and extending, internally and externally rotating, adducting and abducting, as does each shoulder joint.
  • The smaller limb joints:  the hocks, carpal joints, and the toes of front and back feet. 

The final, and perhaps the most important, part of the body to warm up is the brain.

This component of the warm-up is to mentally prepare our dogs for the activity to come. This is the part that is similar to the visualization technique used in people (click here to read about it). This is where our dogs connect their mind and body together to focus on the work at hand. This is also where we connect to our canine teammate.

While it may seem like a lot, much of this can be accomplished in a series of simple exercises, that can be done without equipment, anywhere and anytime. Our favorite is the Box Drill with the Essential Elements added to each "corner" of the box. There are many functional movements and exercises that can be done without equipment that can be useful in warm-ups including spinning, crawling, leg weaves, hip touches, toe touches, and position transitions.

The timing of the warm-up is crucial.

Whatever exercises you do, you must keep your dog's body in that peak state of preparation right up until your dog is asked to do the work. In other words, you must maintain the warm-up until it is your dog's turn to run, jump, sprint, protect, heel, or hunt. Since your dog cannot maintain a peak state for long, the timing is very important. The warm-up should stop just as your dog begins the actual work. If your dog slows down or even stops moving altogether, the cool-down process will begin. The cool-down is the return of your dog's physiology to the normal resting state, so the opposite of the warm-up and the opposite of what we want.


Note- a proper cool down is just as important as a proper warm-up but this is a topic to discuss another day.

Remember that peak performance cannot occur if your dog's body has started the  cool-down process before your dog has done the work. You don't want to waste the amazing benefits of the warm-up. 

So, what are the answers to our questions about warm-ups?

  • What’s the most important part of our dog’s body to warm up? - the brain
  • What is the best thing to do to prevent injury? - a specific warm-up corresponding to the specific work
  • What must we avoid in a proper warm-up? passive movements
  • What will give our dog the best chance for a peak performance? - timing the warm-up properly

For specific examples of exercises including the Box Drill, sign up to receive our free newsletter and a free copy of our Canine Fitness Journal.

This blog was originally authored in February 2017 and was revised and updated to its current form.


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