Functional Training has been around for a long time in the human fitness world, in and out of favor. I remember when I was on the swim team in the 60's and how it seemed that every year something would change in the fundamental exercises we would do to improve our speed, strength and stroke. Many times it would fall out of favor to what appeared to be the smoother paved roads that promised faster and easier results. This deviation from the functional and the fundamental almost always led to an increase in injuries and failures.
This same path has been followed in the dog world as well. It's a longer path however and spans centuries rather than years or decades. Originally dogs were merely there to assist with the hunt and little actual training was done. Then man discovered that dogs could be trained to assist in other areas like herding domestic food animals, marching with armies and guarding the home place. The training that went along with these activities was all functional. Each dog was paired with another dog who already knew the job. With mimicry and observation, the new dog learned the ropes.
As a dogs role changed over the centuries, so did the manner of training. Man started taking a hand in teaching dogs the different jobs they were to perform. But dogs were still there to assist man for the most part. Eventually, most of those tasks were eliminated or changed and the dog became more a companion with no tasks at all. There were still groups of dogs that worked on farms, for the authorities, service and therapy, but for the rest, work became sport or in most cases there was no work at all.
With this major change in the role of a dog in our lives, strange behaviors and aggression started to explode. Companions dogs had little to no training; no purpose other than to just be there; and most humans did not take the time to educate themselves on what a dog is. Enter the training of police and military dogs into the general society. This training was rigid and rigorous and most dogs failed at this training because of the methods. Due to the nature of these training methods where quick results were necessary in times of way, the dog was treated much more as a machine then a thinking being.
But as history shows us over and over, things change and the circle comes around again. People are becoming aware that their dogs are more capable then they could dream of. Television and the Internet are creating a plethora of canine sports and the awareness of service dogs and the apparent freedom they have. But the quick and dirty methods are still there, the myth that the six major obedience commands are necessary for every dog, and the need for instant gratification which these methods appear to promise. The dogs know their jobs, but those jobs are done to avoid the rough handling of the training methods, and they have no clue how to live in a human world otherwise.
Functional Training changes all this. Functional training takes us back to the roots of our association with canines and getting back to the basics of movement, body awareness, the flow that should be inherent in moving from space to space and when navigating obstacles, balance, coordination, flexibility and agility. Functional Agility helps provide your dog with the strength, stability, power, mobility, endurance and flexibility that s/he needs to thrive as s/he moves through life and sports. Using basic functional movement patterns like pushing, pulling, lunging, squatting, rotating, carrying and gait patterns, Functional Training utilizes exercises that improve movement proficiency, enhance performance and decrease injury.
In Germany there are two activities (Degility and Jagility) for dogs that encompass Functional Training. Using agility, flexibility, strength, balance, coordination, scent and cooperation with humans as the basis for these two activities, I call these activities collectively Functional Agility. There is little need for speed in these two modalities, but speed can be built in at the higher levels and that adds a third activity that is rapidly becoming a sport in the US - Canine Parkour.
Life is unpredictable and unstable. So why would you develop your dog's training using stable and predictable routines and equipment? No matter your fitness goal with your dog is, treat variety and practical application as critical components of his training. You don't live in a vacuum; your dog doesn't live in a vacuum, so why would you train him in one?
For years I’ve been telling people that “dogs move”. People move also and yet basically static exercise has been the foundation for most sports and fitness. For decades most coaches have had their athletes stretching statically as a warm up to enhance performance and prevent injuries. Stretching is now a part of a dog’s exercise period as well and yet still done statically.
However, research shows that static stretching can and in most cases does reduce the strength and power output of an athlete for up to an hour after stretching. Research also suggests that static stretching before exercise and actual performance does not decrease the risk of injury.
An active warm-up that consists of exercises done while moving more aerobically enhances athletic performance and decreases the risk of injury.
Dynamic flexibility exercises affect the reach and speed of the muscles. These moving exercises increase blood and oxygen flow; activate the nervous system creating quicker responses; and maintains body and muscle temperature effectively preparing the body to work harder.
I can’t think of any canine sport where static flexibility would be a key to success. Dog’s need to increase their full range of motion and that requires dynamic flexibility.
Research also shows that dynamic stretches that resemble the motions of the sport being prepared for are the best way to warm up for the actual practice of the actions and movements of the sport. Dynamic flexibility exercises enhance coordination, balance and stability; reduce injury and keep the body moving and flowing.
Dynamic stretching consists of using controlled speed along with moving each muscle through its entire range of motion around a joint. This movement uses all the muscles involved when moving that joint. Unlike traditional stretching or yoga, dynamic stretches are not held but flow around the joints naturally and in relation to the movements belonging to the sport being trained for. The goal of dynamic stretching is to prepare the body for specific tasks or activities for the dog. Movements are performed slowly in multiples and integrate the entire body.
Dynamic stretching is a great strategy to not only utilize before activity, but also after the activity to restore motion and enhance recovery.
In traditional sports training, there were basically five areas that were focused on. These areas are strength, endurance, flexibility, body composition and aerobics. Some people add reaction time and agility to this list. Personally, I would also add posture. All the exercises used in training for any particular sport concentrated on one or more of these areas. Skill was increased only in doing the activity itself. The thought was that if you had the “basics” and the “talent” that the skill would just magically appear with practice.
I remember those days. In the winter instead of being in the freezing cold pool (the heater pilot was always blowing out), we would do land exercises involving weights, pulleys and gymnastics. Except for the pulley systems, nothing involved the actual skills in swimming the different strokes, and even the pulley system wasn’t like moving through water. I did have one coach over a summer in 1967 that practiced skill related fitness. All our exercises were done in the pool and all related to some movement that we did in swimming any of the four strokes (breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly and freestyle).
Functional training strategies now take advantage of encouraging exercises that mimic the skills of the sport within the fitness sessions. The difference between skills during training versus learning skills while doing is that field skills work very precise moves and have narrow scopes whereas skills training can cover similarities and differences without having to be precise. Because skills learned in the field are so narrow in scope, the vulnerability to injury is greater due to odd and unpredictable situations on the field. Functional training works within the scope of the sport but looks to increasing the ability to be flexible with the skills in order to meet all circumstances one might find on the field.
This is just as true for our dogs as it is for us. I remember the first time I watched Susan Garrett’s DVD “Success With One Jump” where she used one piece of equipment and taught every skill, every approach and release, every possible combination of moves that would involve any jump. This is functional skill training. Find the most common denominator and work everything from there. Full range of motion, all speeds, different surfaces, different weather, sounds, distractions, and anything you can possibly imagine could happen in the field or at trial.
Strength, flexibility, agility, reaction time, aerobics and endurance can all be built with this method and having been built this way are all more reliable in a crunch and are built to withstand the vagaries of life. with youtube video background and color overlay. Title and text are aligned to the left.
It's been common in dog sports for many decades to cull the unfit from obedience to protection sports and practice. The labels of "soft" and "hard", "dominant" and "submissive" are all an attempt to remove those who don't have the talent and personality to succeed with the methods being used. Injury has also been rife in dog sports due to a lack of skill and a lack of familiarization with as many situations as possible. Skills were and still are with many trainers, taught "in field" instead of as separate exercises. The dog either learns the skill or washes out. At trial time, those dogs with the greater talent and the greater ability to roll with the training methods, win. But there are accidents, missed bars in agility, reactivity and the inability to stay put without moving.
All for the lack of "skill".
Functional training teaches skills at their most basic level. Functional training programs enhance athleticism by honing skills and improve efficiency in every aspect of the sport and in daily life. Functional training takes into account that to prevent injury, increase situational awareness and function effectively within a sport demands a thorough and complete understanding of the demands of that sport.
Life and sports demand a certain amount of athleticism and a certain degree of skill. Athleticism is defined as the ability to perform movements with precision, style and grace. Skill development and general fitness are not mutually exclusive. Speed, for example, requires aerobic fitness and specific muscle strength. Muscle strength, as well as a sense of balance will affect coordination. Inadequate flexibility may hinder agility and reaction times.
The basic skills necessary for any sport and life itself for our dogs.
Balance and Proprioception
Posture and the Center Of Gravity
Back in 1980 I was doing a program that required an hour of jogging every day. After a couple of months of doing the daily jogging, I discovered there was this guy who had a crush on me from just watching me jog by the bus spot every day. Eventually he started talking to me and jogging with me from one bus spot to another (about 2 blocks). One day, the bus came early and he was too far from the stop to make it in time at a jog. So he teased me to race him to the stop. I did, I beat him; he had longer legs. I felt like I was flying.
The point here is that speed happens when you are building skill, strength, flexibility and balance. I’d been jogging over city streets, sidewalks, dirt, weeds, grass and other obstacles for over two months. It all contributed to allowing the speed when needed.
According to many fitness trainers in the human world, “to improve running speed requires a training program that focuses on leg strength and power, with appropriate technique training to best utilize your strength and power development.” Which requirement falls right in line with what I experienced when jogging and then taking off in a sprint.
Not all sports need speed on a continuous basis. Agility, fly ball, racing, and coursing are the ones that come to mind. However, all sports need speed of some sort. Speed is more than just racing through the countryside as fast as possible, it’s also quickness of mind, going from zero to hero in four strides, or maneuvering around obstacles with fluency and verve. All of this requires strength. So training for strength increases speed, the rest is aerobics to increase lung capacity and cardiovascular function.