When I first started out in canine conditioning, I made a lot of mistakes! I made even more when I started circuit training! I had a bunch of questions – how many reps should I be doing in a session, what’s the best equipment to use, how do I structure the circuit, how do I know when my dog is tired and more!! When first starting out with a new exercise it’s not uncommon to have uncertainty and questions. Making mistakes are to be expected as we learn. Remember that a mistake is only a failure if we refuse to learn from it!
I recently launched a new edition to my popular Do More From Home circuit series so I thought I would take some time this week to review some of the most common circuit mistakes I made when first starting out.
What is Circuit Training?
Circuit training is a fast-paced series of exercises in which you do 3-5 different exercises in a row, take a rest, and then do another couple of sets. Research in humans has shown that circuit programs carried out once a week for four weeks could be effective in maintaining physical fitness. Circuit training is a great way to target different parts of the body for a complete workout of strength, body awareness, flexibility, endurance, power, and cardio. Do you have a dog that easily gets bored doing the same exercise again and again? Maybe you also get bored repeating the same thing over. Circuits are a great way to challenge your dog physically and mentally! To put it simply, circuit training has a lot of benefits and is also an efficient and fun way to condition your dog. It can be boring for you and your dog to do the same exercise over and over again; by switching between exercises, you keep things fun and engaging for your dog! If you would like to learn more about circuit training check out my previous blog!
As an added bonus, circuit training doesn’t require a lot of space or equipment! I personally only use 2-3 pieces in a circuit – you may be surprised just how many exercises you can do with just a couple pieces! There are two ways you can then go about doing a circuit.
The secret to a successful circuit
I wasn’t always good at circuits! It took a lot of trial and error to figure out how to plan a circuit, how to best execute it, and learn what I need to do to set my dogs up for success. It took years of training and experimenting to improve my skills in order to make sure I was training efficiently and maximizing my dog’s benefits. I’m now able to share that experiential learning with you to avoid some common mistakes that can happen in circuit training.
The mistakes we make can be HUGE roadblocks to our success. When we first start out learning something new, we often have a low threshold for frustration and setbacks. We can get frustrated when we don’t know what we’re doing wrong or how to improve. When we encounter setbacks it’s important to take a moment and reflect upon what we could be doing differently and how we could layer back the exercise to make our dogs more successful. Often, our mistake comes from asking too much too soon and rushing the process. Let’s take a moment and go over some of the common mistakes I made when first starting circuit training.
1) Lack of warm-up
The first mistake is failing to properly warm up your dog! If I asked you to go for a 10km jog would you do so before doing a couple warm up exercises? You could, but I bet that the next day you’d deeply regret that decision. You may even have an injury as a result! Our dogs are no different and a proper warm up is critical to maximizing your dog’s performance and reducing their risk of injury in the physical activity we’re asking them to do.
Research shows that warm-up help to...
The benefits of warming up your dog extend beyond simply preparing them for the upcoming activity. It also prepares their minds!!! When we complete canine conditioning, we want our dogs to be focused on us and have a mindset that is conducive to training. Remember, precision work can be next to impossible with a dog that is not focused! My youngest dog Keeper absolutely loves to do conditioning but when I first bring her out to work the last thing on her mind is paying attention to me – she just wants to get started and work! While I love this desire to work, I also know I need to take a couple minutes with Keeper to work on getting her mind into the space I need for her to work on the equipment safely and with precision. If she can’t listen to me during the warm up, I have a very slim chance of getting the results I am looking for in a canine conditioning session!!
A quick warm up session can help our high dogs get focussed and it can help our de-motivated dogs get pumped up and ready for action!! For some ideas of warm-up exercises check out my video
2) Poor equipment choice
Circuits offer an increased challenge to our dogs so we may also need to take into consideration the equipment we use. While our dog may be able to do an individual behaviour on an unstable piece of equipment when we add that exercise into a circuit our dog may not be able to handle the challenge! Carefully consider the equipment you are using – is it too inflated, too high, or too small for your dog to have success?
Another common mistake I see is students and client adhere to rigidly to what they see in an exercise video. Remember, the exercise videos you see are often trying to showcase the ideal behaviour and that for a dog still learning or trying out a new exercise the equipment choices may not be something your dog is ready for. That’s okay! You do not need to set up an exact replica of the equipment you see in a video – perhaps your dog isn’t ready for the challenge of instability – don't fret about it! Simply swap out the equipment you need and proceed with the circuit. By choosing equipment that is appropriate for your dog you set your dog up for success, improve their confidence, and decrease your frustration tolerance when your dog struggles.
Don’t be afraid to be flexible – if your dog understands the individual exercise but you’re finding that their positioning is off or they’re struggling with it during a circuit then don’t be afraid to have the flexibility to change in the moment! Students of mine will be familiar with my saying, “if you don’t like the preview, don’t go to the movie!” Simply put, if you don’t like what you’re seeing in a circuit or in an individual exercise stop and break it down! Start with easier pieces and work your way up; this is the best way to grow your dog’s confidence and their proper execution of the behaviour.
Remember, that failure is to be expected. Each time we fail we get valuable information that can help us alter our approach. We can only truly fail if we refuse to learn and grow from our mistakes!
3) We let our criteria slide
One of the biggest mistakes I see in circuit training is we begin to let our criteria slide. Remember, that conditioning asks for a lot of precision. If you’ve watched my training videos you’ve probably noticed that I’m constantly checking my dog’s position and foot placement. This is because I maintain a strict criterion for my dog’s positioning – if I let a misplaced foot slide over and over again it won’t take long for my dog to become unbalanced and for my criteria in other areas to also slide!
When our form starts to become sloppy, our dogs can become unbalanced with the L and R side of their body working unevenly. Over time, this can lead to various muscle imbalances and compensation strategies. Imagine your dog’s start line wait – if you allowed you dog to creep forward every time you trained and competed it wouldn’t take long for you to lose that behaviour entirely! Similar to our sport specific training, we must continue to hold true to our criteria (regardless of what we are attempting to train) so that we get the results we are looking for. Taking short cuts in canine conditioning and letting their form start to slide will just move us further away from our goals. Canine conditioning is precise for a reason!! The precision work is what helps to target the specific muscles to improve strength, flexibility, body awareness, and power!!!
With circuits, I often notice trainers become preoccupied with the next step in the circuit and fail to pay attention to the current step they’re on! Remember to be present in the moment and work on each exercise with precision in the circuit. Slow is the new fast! In order to isolate and target the desired muscles we need controlled movement. The other thing to be mindful of is anticipation! Our dogs are eager to please and may try to rush you into the next step of the exercise – don't give into it! Positive reinforcement often encourages our dogs to offer different behaviours when working to see what “pays” but in conditioning we want to work on building in some patience. Sustained positions are a great way to build endurance and stamina so make a point to hold positing for varying lengths of time and vary your reward rate. This will help to prevent anticipation creeping in your sessions.
4) Not appropriate for our dog!
Before we start a circuit exercise, we should ask ourselves a couple questions to determine if this style of conditioning is appropriate for our dog. The first, and more important thing we must ask is whether our dog is capable of doing the workout. This means that our dog should not be coming back from a recent injury and is 100% sound. Circuit style conditioning is NOT an appropriate replacement for rehab exercises!
The next question we have to ask is does our dog have the foundational skills to do a circuit? If the circuit routine you’re looking to do asks for a specific behaviour that your dog doesn’t know, then don’t do that exercise! Instead work on the individual exercise first, get it to a place where you dog can do it well, and then combine it!
If the answer is yes, then it may mean your dog is ready to try a circuit.
You also want to make sure you dog is of an appropriate age. Circuit work with adults is very different then circuit work with puppies! With my adult dogs, the goal of the session is to overload and fatigue the muscles but with my younger dogs my focus is more on training. I only start circuit work and combining multiple exercises together once I know my young dogs have a strong foundation and I want to get them use to changing body positions quickly. By taking a moment to reflect on whether circuit training is appropriate for your dog you’re also being proactive in preventing injury. Remember that injury can easily occur when we ask our dogs to do something that they’re not physically capable to do – by reflecting on the appropriateness of a given exercise we’re acting as responsible training partners to our dog.
Give circuits a try!
Circuit training is a lot of fun and one of my favourite things to do with my dogs! I highly encourage students and clients to give it a try with their dogs as a way to increase their conditioning challenge, mix things up a bit in their training, and have some fun. I especially like that circuits can give our dogs a full body workout in just a small amount of time which can be great if, like me, you have a jam-packed schedule!
I recently had a live stream in this very topic in my Canine Athlete Pack Facebook group and I really encourage you to head over and check it out! In that live I spoke on the four common mistake that were mentioned here in the blog but I also went through an entire circuit breakdown with my dogs Shades and Keeper to show you how to do a circuit with precision and work through some issues.
Remember, when giving circuits a try, don’t be afraid to break things down and work on smaller sections before trying to put it all together – small steps build up into greater gains. If you find yourself getting frustrated or aren’t sure why you’re struggling don’t hesitate to reach out to me for some troubleshooting tips!