Canine Conditioning

Canine Conditioning

By Chris Bates M.Ost, Equine Therapist

Whether your dog is a family pet or sporting competitor, fitness and mobility are of great importance to maintaining well-being and general health. Sometimes dog owners can fall into the trap of walking their beloved canines, but not fully understanding their pet’s movement needs. Even dogs who do not suffer from a musculoskeletal condition or other health needs can benefit from a devised fitness plan, not only to enhance  physical condition but also to provide behavioral outlets and reduce mental stress.

What is conditioning?

Conditioning is the process of preparing and developing a system to cope with the demands placed upon it. This can apply to behavioral training as much as physical fitness, however in this article I solely focus on the physical aspects of canine development. Conditioning can be used in non-pathological cases (those without health conditions) to support good health and moderate behavior or in cases of rehabilitation and prevention for dogs with injury, illness and surgical recovery (Marcellin-Little, Levine and Taylor, 2005).

Dogs require adequate strength, mobility and range of motion (ROM) to perform tasks such as walking, running, and jumping simply to support a good quality of life as their evolutionary disposition is one of a nomadic pack hunter. Should a health complaint limit any of the dogs natural behaviors, they may experience mental stress as a result of having unmet needs. In Osteopathy and physical therapies, our jobs are not to train behaviors (Unless otherwise trained to do so), but we can have a profound impact on behavior by reducing pain and facilitating a route to natural behavior.

A therapist can aim to condition the cardiovascular system in order to increase endurance or work with strength and balance to support recovery from injury. The aims of conditioning will be dependent on the individual’s needs but the principles are the same:

Goal orientedMeasurableProgressiveAchievableAdaptableIndividualizedSAFE

Dogs as athletes

Sporting and working dogs require their owners to deeply understand how to adequately prepare them to avoid injury and promote high performance. An incremental “overload” of effort over time is one effective method of increasing capacity in a biological system. Overload principle uses training to challenge the limit of capacity such as strength or cardiovascular endurance to necessitate a change in the system to accommodate the additional stress. This is done over time with gradual but progressive increases in intensity. The overload at any point must not be sufficient to cause harm or injury but only to “stress” the system into developing increased ability.

Rest is equally important in conditioning to avoid injury and allow for physiological adaptations to take place. Rest during conditioning plans is also shown to be vital for dogs as it provides the time to feel physically and emotionally able to display natural behaviors as described in a paper following the training of sled dogs (Robinson et al., 2012). During rest periods, the body actually makes the changes to its ability to cope with higher levels of demand. Unlike the positive method of “Overload”, without adequate rest the dog will experience “Overtraining” which will deplete the body’s resources and lead to a sustained stress response which is detrimental to health.

Family Pets

Of course, not every dog will be involved in sport or high-level activities such as police work. Many dogs will be beloved family members but we must remember that family members of all ages benefit from maintaining adequate fitness and mobility levels. A pet dog may live with children or vulnerable people and so maintenance of good behavior is crucial. As discussed earlier and mentioned by Zink and Carr (2018) in their study of canine conditioning, exercise has significant benefits to a dog's psychological well being. A simple plan can be used to integrate the right distance, frequency and intensity of walks and other activities to allow owners to maintain their pet’s fitness and health. Importantly, general training activities such as obedience and playing games like fetch also contribute to overall conditioning. Alongside the psychological benefits of physical conditioning, maintaining a dog’s cardiovascular fitness and strength support a longer, healthier life.

Challenge makes Change

The body will adapt to the needs that different demands place upon it. If the body is supporting homeostasis (biological equilibrium) then there is no need for it to waste energy on making changes. Adaptations come from placing a challenge on the body systems. These challenges don’t need to be uncomfortable; many people will quit going to the gym or a new diet simply because they have done too much too quickly and found the process too difficult. The purpose of good conditioning plans is to gradually and consistently increase the allostatic load (demand) so that the changes occur without unwanted stress reactions. The other benefit of progressive but gradual plans is that it reduces the chance of overload injuries or accidents. Aspects of conditioning such as balance and proprioception (awareness of body position) are just as important and without challenging these to create change, dogs may fall, strain themselves or develop unwanted compensations.

The principles of Osteopathy, when learned well, allow a practitioner to understand the entire internal and external environment of the animal. Osteopathy considers the many facets that contribute to and affect conditioning. Armed with the right knowledge, the Animal Osteopath can assist the body to avoid obstacles to progression, assess progress and offer advice on progression and regression of any plans.


Marcellin-Little, D.J., Levine, D. and Taylor, R. (2005). Rehabilitation and Conditioning of Sporting Dogs. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, [online] 35(6), pp.1427–1439. doi: (n.d.). Strength and Conditioning. [online] Physiopedia. Available at:, E., Thornton, E., Templeman, J.R., Croney, C.C., Niel, L. and Shoveller, A.K. (2021). Changes in Behaviour and Voluntary Physical Activity Exhibited by Sled Dogs throughout Incremental Exercise Conditioning and Intermittent Rest Days. Animals, 11(1), p.118. doi:, C. and Carr, B.J. (2018). Conditioning and Retraining the Canine Athlete. Canine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, pp.227–264. doi:

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Blog Post written by:
Chris Bates
Osteopath (DO), Equine Therapist and Lecturer at London College of Animal Osteopathy