When people think of strong, muscular, physically fit dogs, images of ripped Pit Bulls or formidable Rottweillers usually come to mind. But the reality is that all dogs, regardless of breed, require a certain level of physical fitness and can benefit from building muscle to achieve their optimum health and well-being.
Whether you’re trying to make your dog stronger for its general health, as part of injury rehab, or to help develop its athleticism for work, sport competition or show, the general principles for building strength, muscle, and fitness are the same for all dogs.
Reasons to Make Your Dog Stronger
Strength training is important for all dogs to some degree. The obvious candidates are working dogs and athletic dogs that compete in sports and dog games, but companion dogs also need to be in good physical condition to maintain their health and live longer.
Working and sporting dogs can improve performance by building strength as well as endurance. Skills like jumping, speed bursts, quick turns and stops, weaves, and climbs can all be improved with strength training.
Strength training can give conformation dogs more muscle definition and better posture, obvious advantages in the show ring.
Pet dogs who don’t participate in sports or aren’t particularly athletic still can benefit from a fitness regimen that includes some form of strength training. Just as humans of average athleticism regularly go to the gym for health reasons, so should pet dogs get regular exercise. Dogs in good shape with strong muscles, tendons, and ligaments are less likely to get injured.
Older dogs who have a history of exercise are more likely to enjoy healthy senior years. Strength and fitness can help with joint issues, balance issues, and prevent muscle loss — all common problems in senior dog life.
What Are the Main Principles for Building Muscle in Dogs?
Diet, exercise, and rest. These are the three principles that will decide how strong your dog will get. It’s the same muscle-building process that occurs in human beings.
Too much exercise with an insufficient diet can cause your dog to drastically lose weight and then lose strength as a result. Likewise, over-feeding without adequate exercise will cause weight gain. And proper diet and exercise with insufficient rest will not yield good results. These main principles need to work in harmony for your dog to reach peak condition.
What Are the Benefits of a Strong, Physically Fit Dog?
The physiological make-up of your dog plays a big part in determining its quality of life. If your dog is physically unfit, they won’t enjoy exercise like walking, running, or playing with other dogs. Just like people, out of shape dogs are prone to get tired more easily and lack energy.
Strong, fit dogs are more likely to avoid injury. An injured dog is an unhappy dog. If you’ve ever had to restrict an injured dog to a crate for an extended period of time, you know how frustrating it is for them (and you).
A healthy body also keeps your dog’s immune system in check. They will be able to fight off minor illnesses more easily if they are in good physical shape.
Furthermore, giving your dog a good workout can also get you in better shape! By participating with your dog in its workout, you stand to benefit as well.
Maintain Realistic Expectations
It is important to manage your expectations regarding your dog’s strength and fitness. Some breeds are naturally muscular, while others are not. Certain breeds are known for their stamina and endurance, while others are known for their short bursts of sprinting speed.
Your goal should be to try to maximize the physical attributes that nature has provided, not somehow abnormally exceed them.
Things to Know When Starting Your Dog on an Exercise Program
When beginning a new exercise regiment with a dog, always start slowly and build gradually. This is very important as you want to avoid injury at all costs. Injuries can result in vet bills and downtime for your dog, where he will be losing muscle instead of gaining it.
Warmups and Cool Downs
Likewise, warmups and cooldowns are important during each session. It is important to increase the heart rate and loosen up the muscles, ligaments, and tendons before a taxing workout.
Depending on your dog’s physical condition, a good warmup might include a short walk or brisk walk, and some dynamic stretching.
Dynamic stretching can be done by luring the dog with a treat (and once learned, just with your hand target) into different positions.
A simple and very effective stretch is to lure the dog to put their front feet on a small pedestal or stair-step, raising the front of their body above their rear. This stretches out both the hind legs and front legs as well as the dog’s core.
In this position, you can then lure the dogs head around to one side of its body, and then the other, repeating this back and forth for a few repetitions. Then lure its head up and then down in the same manner. This also stretches out the back muscles around the dog’s spine.
Other good dynamic stretches include luring the dog through simple spins on flat ground and, depending on their size, weaves through your legs.
When your dog’s workout is completed, the best cooldown is a simple walk. Ending a dog’s strenuous workout by having them go immediately into the house and assume a static position is not recommended as muscles can tighten up quickly.
Muscle Building for Puppies
Don’t try muscle-building exercises with a puppy unless a vet recommends it for a specific condition or rehab. Their bodies are rapidly developing and resistance training can disrupt this process as well as cause permanent issues.
Also, avoid long endurance work like running with puppies. Even though they may have the stamina for a lengthy run or other cardio exercises, the pounding on their still-developing legs and joints can create long-term issues. You’ll have plenty of time to run your dog after its body matures.
What Strength Exercises Should My Dog Do?
Since your dog can’t do bench-presses and deadlifts, you have to adapt your exercise to suit its physiology. Let’s look at some effective dog-friendly strength-building exercises:
A classic exercise reimagined. Squats will develop power and strength in your dog’s hind legs.
Get your dog to stand upright on its hind legs. You can incentivize this by offering a favorite toy or treat by dangling it in the air. Once they are upright, get them to slowly lower themselves to the floor. Aim to do this for a few repetitions and then reward them with the prize.
You can also get your dog to put its front paws on your hands and then lower and raise your hands to execute the squats.
Advanced dogs can learn to maintain balance on their hind legs while you move the treat or lure around in different directions, forcing them to shift their weight.
Another effective way to get your dog to do squats is to guide them under a low table or bench. Use an object that forces them to lower themselves into a squatting position in order to go under. If they are reluctant at first, you can guide them with a leash or lure them with a treat to teach them the game.
This form of squat strengthens all of their legs in addition to their core.
Ensure that you don’t go crazy on the reps at first – too many can risk injury!
Core Strength Exercises
Because dogs have four legs instead of two, they depend even more on core strength than humans do. The core stabilizes the spine, pelvis, and trunk as well as providing mobility strength for quick bursts and power. Just about every physical movement of theirs involves their core, right down to urination and defecation. Improving core strength can also help with balance, flexibility, agility, and posture.
Walking your dog across uneven surfaces forces your dog to use its core to stabilize its body. These surfaces can range from environmental ones like sand or dirt hills, or ones you create yourself. We have used patio furniture cushions, old pillows, inflatable pool rafts, etc. spread out in the backyard to guide our dogs across.
Guiding your dog backward with treats helps them use muscles in novel ways.
Rear Leg Lifts
With your dog standing on a surface that slightly elevates its front end, lift and hold up a rear leg while the dog remains standing and balanced. Alternate legs and build up the duration over time.
Front Leg Lifts
Just like rear leg lifts, but reversed so that the dog’s rear is higher than its front and you are holding up one of its front legs.
This classic dog trick is also a great core strength exercise. Teach your dog (with the use of a treat or lure) to start in a down position and roll onto their back and then back onto its front. Alternate the direction they roll.
Sit to Stand to Sit
Starting in a standing position, tell your dog to sit. Once sitting, have it stand. Repeat several times. You can either use a treat or your hand, luring above the head and back for “sit”, and luring away from the mouth for “stand”. If your dog doesn’t know these basic obedience commands, this is a great opportunity to train them and get some core work in at the same time!
Stand to Down to Stand
Start the dog in a down position (every dog should learn this command) and then either command (if they know it) or lure the dog into a sitting position. Then reverse back into a down. Advanced dogs won’t move their hind legs throughout the exercise. Repetitions of this sequence will build core muscle.
Sprinting uphill is a great way to build leg power and speed while improving cardiovascular fitness.
This is almost like the dog-version of HIIT training as it requires a lot of effort in a very short period. This exercise is pretty self-explanatory. Have your dog run up a fairly steep hill for a few repetitions.
You can either run with the dog (if you’re fit enough), ride a bike with the dog on a leash at your side, or have a human assistant stand at the foot of the hill while you stand at the top and call the dog back and forth.
If your dog likes to retrieve, you can stand at the bottom of the hill and throw the retrieve object (ball or toy) up them to fetch.
Unless your dog is already in great shape, start by just walking or lightly jogging uphill before starting sprints. Uphill walks are a great way for overweight dogs to shed pounds. When descending a hill with a heavy dog or one with joint issues, sidewind down to avoid putting as much stress on the front leg joints.
This can be extremely tiring for most dogs, so monitor your dog closely and stop before they overexert, especially in hot weather. Start with just a repetition or two and build up over time, depending on how your dog responds.
If your dog likes to swim, this can be a fantastic exercise as water provides natural resistance and is easy on the joints. Like hill running, swimming builds both muscle and improves cardio.
Dogs that don’t necessarily like swimming may still enjoy running through shallow water to play or retrieve. This also provides resistance and helps develop power in the hind legs while remaining a relatively low impact exercise.
And if your dog is not into the water at all, you can still take advantage of a trip to the beach by having them run in the sand, which also builds more strength than running on a harder surface.
Tug of War
A quintessential dog exercise. A game of tug of war with a tug toy develops power in the hind legs, neck, and builds stability in the core muscles.
One thing to be aware of is to not pull too hard on the object you’re play-fighting over as this can damage your dog’s neck. See our Guide to Playing Tug of War to learn more about this very beneficial exercise.
Advanced Techniques: Upping the Resistance in Strength Exercises for Dogs
Just as people increase the amount of weight when working out, your dog’s physical condition may reach a point where the resistance needs to be increased so that the exercise remains challenging.
Warning: these methods should only be used with very athletic dogs to avoid injury risk.
A weighted vest added to any cardio activity such as walking, jogging, or other exercise increases resistance and builds more muscle. Again, start with very light weights and add incrementally.
A vest made specifically for this purpose like the Canine Fit Vest is far superior to just adding weight to a dog backpack as it will fit better, movement won’t be restricted, and the weight distribution will be more even.
Watch closely to make sure your dog isn’t laboring too hard or looks uncomfortable in any way while using a weighted vest. Stop immediately if you notice something unusual as you don’t want to risk injury.
A flirt pole is similar to a cat feather toy — a pole attached to a cord with a toy on the end that can be manipulated to entice the dog to pursue it. Used properly, it can excite a dog’s prey instinct and provide a very exhausting workout as they chase and try to catch the toy.
If your dog has a strong prey drive (certain breeds are more likely to have this than others), a flirt pole can be a great addition to a workout regimen. You can guide your dog through desired movements to work specific muscle groups. For instance,
It’s a very effective means of getting your dog to make strong lateral movements and quick changes of direction, as well as improving their burst strength with sudden stops and starts.
It’s also mentally exhausting for the dog as it must maintain strong focus for sustained periods of time.
A spring pole is basically a tug of war toy attached to a fixed spring, anchored to the ground, which provides tension. In theory, it allows a dog to play tug of war by itself. While some hardcore dogs who love the game will do this, most dogs prefer the interaction (and unpredictability) of a human. But for those that will engage with the spring pole on their own, it can provide long periods of independent exercise.
As an elite training device, a resistance parachute is attached by a harness to a dog. By having to pull the drag of the parachute while running, the increased resistance helps build speed and stamina.
REST AND RECOVERY
Rest and recovery are essential elements in any strength-building program. Rest allows time for the body to repair the muscles that have been stressed in the workout. The workout tears the muscle down, and during the recovery period, the body rebuilds those muscles even stronger.
It’s important to take at least a day off between workouts to give this process time to work. This period gives your dog time to build new, stronger muscle. This is probably the most overlooked aspect of muscle building in dogs.
Even if your focus is on building strength in your dog, do not neglect endurance training. You don’t want a strong dog who tires easily. Stamina is part of a physically fit dog.
The best way to train for endurance is to find an activity that your dog naturally enjoys and then gradually build it up. Whether it is a game of fetch, jogging along with you, chasing another dog in play, swimming, or even just taking walks, a regular active regimen will help your dog’s cardiovascular fitness and endurance.
Start slow and incrementally build up the duration of the workouts. A good ballpark increase is in the 5-10% range. So if the dog is performing an activity for six minutes, try increasing the next workout to 6:30 (+5%) or 7:00 (+10%) minutes. And be sure to insert a couple of rest days each week if you are pushing your dog’s endurance. Rest is crucial to avoid burnout and/or injury.
All of these exercises have proven effective in developing a dog’s strength, power, and overall fitness. However, it is up to you to decide which ones are most appropriate for your dog when developing a canine strength and fitness training program.
Factors such as age, breed, physical condition, experience, and goals will play a part in exercise selection, so keep them in mind when deciding the best ways to get your dog in shape.
Always develop a plan and then stick to it for a set period of time. Progress doesn’t happen overnight, and your dog is only as disciplined in their regimen as you are.
Diet: What Should I Feed My Dog to Promote Building Strength?
When choosing a diet for your strength training dog, it’s important to consider both the quantity and quality of food. An ideal food selection can be negated by under or overfeeding.
Protein is, by far, the most important component in developing your dog’s musculature. Insufficient protein intake can lead to problems like:
- Poor recovery from exercise
- Weight loss
Why is Protein So Important?
Protein contains essential amino acids that serve as the building blocks for muscle mass. It’s also calorie-dense and low in fat. It aids in energy, focus, and mental well-being – which are all important facets of your dog’s health.
What Proteins Can I Feed My Dog?
There are a host of dog food brands on the market that incorporate various protein sources into their products. If you’re looking to make your dog stronger and build muscle, make sure their food has a quality protein. These include chicken, lamb, beef, salmon, and venison among others.
Dogs can also get protein from human food, either as their primary source or supplementally. Two options include:
Cuts such as chicken, turkey, and beef are beloved by dogs and are a great source of lean protein.
Eggs contain a host of amino acids, minerals, and are high in protein.
Cooked eggs make a great addition to regular meals for added protein. Just make sure the eggs are properly cooked and the portion size isn’t too large.
How Much Protein Does A Dog Need?
It all depends on how active your dog is – but a good guideline is around one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight for grown dogs. This will ensure your dog gets enough protein without running the risk of overfeeding it, which can lead to health and mobility issues. Don’t go too crazy on the protein – two to three servings a day are enough.
Providing your dog with too much protein can present a host of issues from kidney problems to liver issues. Some breeds react differently to increased protein than others so always consult a veterinarian before radically changing your dog’s diet.
Do Dogs Need Vitamins To Build Muscle?
Whilst vitamins don’t play a primary role in directly building muscle, they’re still an important part of your dog’s diet.
Vitamins contain anti-inflammatory ingredients that will reduce the chances of injury and heal an injury if one takes place. Vitamins also play a vital role in bone stability.
Most important vitamins can be found incorporated in good-quality dog food, so there’s generally no need to supplement with vitamins.
The same principles that apply to strength and fitness training in humans also apply to dogs. Exercise, proper diet, and rest are all essential to make a dog stronger and build muscle.
Specific strength-building regimens can be developed for dogs that focus on various muscle groups. Be sure to start with a sound plan and proceed slowly and incrementally as you progress.
Fortunately, dogs consider workouts to be play, so the only thing stopping your dog from successful muscle gains is you not following through with your plan. So set realistic goals, stick with the program, and your dog will likely see strength training gains.
Remember, a strong, healthy, injury-free dog has a much better chance of living a longer and happier life.