Lateral walking is an important fundament skill for canine fitness training. Lateral stepping means that your dog walks sideways in shuffle steps - think “step-together-step.” His spine stays neutral, which means fairly straight and not curved or roached. Pay close attention to the position of the neck during lateral walking – the neck should be at a normal, relaxed standing position and not looking up to high at you or the treats.
Sideways motion, called adduction and abduction, may help your dog prevent shoulder and knee injuries. Lateral walking strengthens the small stabilizer muscles in the limbs, core, shoulders, and hips. This enables your dog to better change direction suddenly while playing with another dog, avoid potholes on a walk, step over tree roots on a hike, regain his balance after stumbling, or descent safely down the stairs. Further, learning to move his body deliberately and with control uses a lot of brain power. Fitness training satisfies many physical and mental needs!
Getting started with guided walking
Use a hallway or other area with lots of space, such as an area rug in your living room or your fenced in back yard. It may be helpful to have your dog on a rug so you can align his front paws with the edge of the mat – this will allow you to see if he is going “straight” sideways and also give him some traction. Avoid lateral walking (and generally any fitness training) on a slick surface. You could also line up his front paws with a seam in the floor to ensure that you are going “straight” sideways instead of diagonally.
To have your dog learn to laterally step left, start with your dog on your left side as if you are both looking in a mirror - this is similar to heel position. Then, take treats in your closed right hand and turn your body (not your dog’s body) 90 degrees so that if you took a step, you’d be walking into your dog’s shoulder. Your feet will straddle his right forelimb. Put the treats in front of your dog’s nose as a lure and so you can quickly reward when he does take a lateral step. You take a small step into the dog – do not physically push or touch your dog, but simply use your “force field bubble” to knock into your dog’s “force field bubble.” Moving into your dog’s “personal space” will put some spatial pressure on the dog, which encourages your dog to take a lateral step. The instant your dog takes a sideways step, click or verbally mark (“yes”) and give him a treat. Continue to put the “force field bubble” pressure on your dog with the treats in front of his nose. Whenever he laterally steps, mark (verbally or with your clicker) give treats. Over time, he’ll get better with coordination and require fewer treats for more steps. Soon he will look like a graceful dressage horse shimmying sideways!
Switch sides and practice the right side, too. As usual with canine fitness, be sure to do equal repetitions on each side of your dog so that you do not create any imbalances.
At first, try doing three repetitions on each side using five treats per repetition. Later, you may only need 1-2 treats to have your dog lateral step 5-10 feet per side.
Using props for highway lanes
You may also want to create “highway lanes” (or foot targets) for your dog’s paws. Use a textured or nubby surface, such as two yoga mats set side-by-side lengthwise or two rows of Flexiness SensiMats, for your dog’s feet so your dog can see and feel a “target.” His front paws will be on one lane and his back paws will be on the other parallel lane. These lanes give your dog’s paws a pathway.
Progressing to face your dog
After your dog is fluently walking sideways with your guided walking, the next step is to have your dog learn to laterally walk with you facing him. If using highway lanes helped, continue to use those. Face your dog and walk your own legs in a tiny shuffle step to the side. Wait for your dog to follow suit by lateral stepping while facing you. Be sure to mark (say “yes” or click) and reward rear paw movement as often the hind limbs are the lagging portion of the body once the handler moves in front of the dog. Keep your hips and feet facing your dog, but use your shoulders to steer your dog’s limbs into lateral walking if needed.
You may also find that using a chin hold or sustained nose touch hold is helpful. Have your dog face you and request the chin or nose hold position. Take a small shuffle step to the side and when your dog laterally steps, mark and release your dog (“ok”) from the chin or nose target position, and provide a treat. Over time, ask for more and more sideways steps while your dog holds the targeting position.
After your dog is fluent in lateral walking, add a verbal cue (“lateral”) with a body language cue (an open hand - facing your dog -near your hip towards the direction in which you’d like your dog to lateral walk).
Use unstable objects - such as a row of sofa cushions, a giant FITbone, balance pads, or multiple K9FITbones - under the dog’s forelimbs or hindlimbs. You may also do lateral walking on a gentle incline and decline – perhaps your backyard or a nearby park has a small slope. Consider using the curb during a walk for ten feet of lateral walking with the forelimbs elevated. Finally, have your dog walk sideways over a pool noodle, golf club, broom handle, or cavaletti rail so that he must pick up his feet a little higher and further engage his core and stabilizer muscles.
~ Jasey Day, CCFT
Owner: Day Fit Dogs in North Carolina