When I am teaching I see many dogs that don't seem comfortable when using their bodies in other context then moving forward. Sometimes it seems they are not aware of their hind legs at all. I have always taught my dogs a bunch of tricks and later I found out how great this is for their body awareness. There are many benefits from teaching your dog all kinds of tricks. As Silvia Trkman from Slovenia points out: Tricks teaches you how to teach your dog while in the same process you also teach the dog how to learn. Obviously this statement is only true if you shape tricks instead of luring the dog. An extra bonus is tricks are fun. They are fun teaching and they are fun showing to friends and family. You usually don't emit the same sort off seriousness while teaching your dog new tricks as you do when training to do perfect heelwork. This affects the dog and the training process becomes very positive.
When I teach my dogs a trick that can be performed both left/right or clockwise/counterclockwise I make sure my dog is able to do the trick equally good on both sides i.e. my dogs can do a twist to both left and right. Not doing this can have a huge impact in the dog's body. Imagine a dog doing nothing but clockwise circles. When performing the circles the muscles on the right side on the spine are compressed and those on the left side get stretched. Taking in to consideration that dogs always has a preferred side when they turn (left or right), sort of like us being left or right handed, the result will be a dog that is much more flexible in one side then the other. When teaching any trick to both left and right you compensate for the dogs preferred side plus you have a dog that with practice will be equally good at both sides.
Here is a list of behaviors you can shape your dog to do that will enhance their body and hind leg awareness:
- Backing up
- Backing around you or an item
- Backing in figures of 8 between your legs
- Backing up stairs
- The Elephant trick
- Reverse elephant (hind legs on the bowl)
- Twist (360 degree circles on the spot)
- Weaving between your legs
- Weaving figures of 8 between your legs
- High five, left or right paw
- Lifting hind leg left or right
- Lifting feet diagonally
- Crawling backward
- Dog in a box
You can also teach your dog to stand on hind legs or front legs, but considering what you are asking your dog to do these exercises have more focus on strength then on body awareness. Of cause these are fun tricks to teach, but start out carefully! Dogs are not build to stand on two legs, so start out with only a few repetitions. Increase the repetitions as the dog gradually build up muscle mass. From a veterinary point of view these tricks are not for puppies.
Not only tricks contribute to higher body awareness. Balance exercises are very important for any agility dog; when the dog crosses the dog walk in full strides it has to have a great understanding of balance. You can use your environment to build up your dog's balance. When I take my dog for a walk anything that can be used to improve my dogs balance is used. This could be overthrown trees, benches or so. You can also use a wobble board or fitness ball which besides strengthening your dog's balance helps the dog grow accustomed to being on a moving object.