Day 8: Body Awareness – cavaletti

Welcome to Day 8 of #100daysofenrichment and thank you for joining us on this journey!

Although our challenges are directed mainly at dogs, we want all species to enjoy and benefit from #100daysofenrichment so, please join in, adjust and adapt to help your pet or companion live a more enriched life.

Don’t forget to review all the information leading up to #100daysofenrichment and more here on playing safe. Know your dog!

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Cavaletti

At a glance:

  • borrowed from the horse world, cavaletti or ground poles are small jumps for stepping or trotting over, rather than leaping (for the most part)
  • cognitive and sensory based enrichment
  • often used in training for sports dogs and for rehab after injury, trauma or surgery
  • get the family involved in this one – kids love setting up challenges like this for their pets. It’s probably better that an adult help the dog move over the obstacles though as this requires a level of care and coordination, particularly at the beginning.
    Remember, supervise children in all enrichment activities and interactions with pets.
  • practice in very short sessions of 2-5 minutes at a time – this can be very tiring, both mentally and physically so it’s important that you work for very short sessions

What do you need?

  • eggboxes – you can stack them for more height, but is generally a suitable height for starting out

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  • drinks cans (empty) – crush them to adjust their height; just squeeze in the middle so that the ends provide stability

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Similarly you can rest poles on folded towels and we have even had participants use shoes or boots to rest poles on!

  • broom or mop handles
  • walk sticks, crutches
  • bamboo or similar light poles
  • flat lying ladder

ladder

  • food rewards – it’s better to use soft food rewards for this one so that they don’t roll on the floor too much, which is important for these challenges

We are talking homemade cavaletti here, but you can go all out on this one, if you have any of the following:

  • PVC pipes, cut to size
  • pool noodles

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  • sports cones – the collapsible types are ideal (lower right) for safety and because they have lots of holes in them allowing for adjustments and movement

cones

Some resources will show upturned laundry baskets being used, but we need to take care. We want what ever the poles are suspended into be easily moved should the dog bang off it or tumble over a pole.

You will see that we have used all sorts of things as cavaletti including chairs, cones of different types, plastic tubs and hula hoops. You can keep this as simple as you need to though!

Enrichment Goals:

  • to help dogs develop awareness of how their body moves, where their limbs are and how to adjust and shift their weight to compensate during physical challenge
  • to provide physical and mental challenge to pet dogs
  • to encourage dogs to interact with novel or weird things in their environment
  • to help dogs develop confidence through enhanced body awareness
  • to help dogs slow down and think about how they move and physically interact with their environment
  • to help prevent injury, improve fitness, lengthen stride, increase back and core strength

Cavaletti are used in the dog-world most often to improve an individual’s propioception. This refers to helping the animal develop better awareness of where their body is in space.

This might not sound like a terribly challenging concept, but I can assure you that many dogs have difficulty with this, and if dogs are to train or compete in sports, especially those that require repetitive activities, and dogs recovering from injury or surgery, these exercises can be very beneficial.

While this challenge is certainly cognitive, the dogs are also experiencing sensory challenge and we are adding enrichment to their environment, with lots of crossover between categories.

Cavaletti can be helpful for puppies, whose brains are forming resulting in improving coordination as the relevant brain areas mature, and for older dogs whose cognitive abilities and coordination may be disimproving as they age.

Shy puppies can be particularly helped and given a big confidence boost with cavaletti work. They are learning to interact with their environment, being exposed to novel stimuli and sensory experiences, and engaging their cognitive and sensory systems…literally growing puppy brains!

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What goals can you add to this list for your pets?

How can we achieve these goals?

  • take your time with this one and listen carefully to your pet
  • some dogs will be reluctant to pass over the poles on the floor or ground so just leave out the cavaletti arrangement and allow them to check it out in their own time, without you using food to lure them or encouraging them too much. Just let them become comfortable with the additions to their environment.
  • setting up cavaletti on grass or on a non-slip rug or runner, bath mat or yoga mat can help improve the dog’s comfort and increase their willingness and confidence; this is also safer
  • this is not a race – the goal here is to help the dog move slowly over each pole so that they need to think about placing each foot, weight shifting and compensating for different heights and strides
  • work with your dog on lead if required to help them move a little slower but don’t use lead pressure, otherwise they will need to further compensate
  • walk through the cavaletti with your dog and place a treat in each space so that your dog stops and steps over each pole individually and slowly
  • don’t lure your pet, with food in your hand; drop a treat in each space so that your dog has to get it

What adjustments will you make for your pets?

Applications of Cavaletti:

Cavaletti, in the horse, world are used to improve balance, fitness and stride. In dog sports and rehab, it’s applied for pretty similar benefits.

But, this work really can help in other, ‘everyday’ ways too.

My favourite application of cavaletti and other body awareness exercises is with dogs who can have difficulty coping with the ups and downs of the world; dogs who exhibit behaviour associated with cautiousness, shyness or fear, dogs who may show behaviours associated with excitability, frenetic movements, and who have a hard time calming after getting wound up.

Although these dogs’ responses may seem very different, their behaviour may be associated with having difficulty coping with swings in stress, having a hard time recovering and losing control fast.

Getting them thinking about their movement helps them to think rather than react and boosts their confidence on a number of levels.

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Enrichment Options

Option 1: Cavaletti foundations

Start by using similar poles in a course of at least four obstacles.

Roughly measure the distance from the floor to your dog’s elbow; that’s the distance between each pole. The dog should be able to complete one stride or step between two poles.
If you want to encourage lengthening of stride, measure floor to elbow and double.

For short legged/long backed dog like Dachsies, this needs to be a greater distance. These dogs will complete two strides or steps between two poles.

You might have to experiment a little for your dog’s comfort.

Have each pole at a similar height and the same distance apart.
This helps the dog get the game – they build their confidence because all they need to think about is stepping over the poles and they don’t need to worry about adjusting to varying heights or strides, yet.

No pole in the cavaletti arrangement should be higher than the dog’s hock.

Beginners:

  • set up a cavaletti course of four obstacles
  • work on a non-slip surface or on a yoga mat or similar
  • you will step sideways through the course (carefully!) alongside your dog
  • as you step, drop one treat into the space between the pole – try to get just ahead of your dog so there is continuous but slow and steady movement
  • while your dog eats a treat, you step ahead and drop the next one – it might take some practice to get into a rhythm so don’t give up!

Intermediate:

  • set up exactly the same
  • this time, drop one treat between the middle poles and one treat after the last pole
  • only begin to reduce the number of treats between each pole when your dog gets the game
  • if your dog jumps, knocks poles or moves too quickly, go back to the Beginners stage and continue to practice

Advanced:

  • set up as you have done before
  • have treats in a little bowl after the last pole only
  • if your dog jumps, knocks poles or moves too quickly, go back a stage

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With your dog progressing, they will begin to move a little faster through the obstacles. Speeding up to a trotting gait is fine, but they shouldn’t move any faster than that. If they do speed up, go back to feeding between poles.
Remember, the point here is to encourage them to think about each body movement, each step. The faster they go, the less they think.

Option 2: Mix it up

It’s important that your dog gets the cavaletti game before starting with this option. There’s no hurry here – progress according to you and your dog’s abilities. Take your time – really invest in building the dog’s confidence with this set-up.

As before, a course of four cavalettis is fine. But this time, we will be mixing it up a little; have poles that are at differing heights and vary the distance between them. This will engage your dog’s sensory and cognitive systems even more.

Beginners:

  • set up a cavaletti course of four obstacles
  • work on a non-slip surface or on a yoga mat or similar
  • you will step sideways through the course (carefully!) alongside your dog
  • as you step, drop one treat into the space between the pole – try to get just ahead of your dog so there is continuous but slow and steady movement
  • while your dog eats a treat, you step ahead and drop the next one – it might take some practice to get into a rhythm so don’t give up!

Intermediate:

  • set up exactly the same
  • this time, drop one treat between the middle poles and one treat after the last pole
  • only begin to reduce the number of treats between each pole when your dog gets the game
  • if your dog jumps, knocks poles or moves too quickly, go back to the Beginners stage and continue to practice

Advanced:

  • set up as you have done before
  • have treats in a little bowl after the last pole only
  • if your dog jumps, knocks poles or moves too quickly, go back a stage

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Body awareness work is very tiring for dogs because it is such exerting physical and mental exercise. Just like a good Sniffathon, you might be surprised just how tiring your dog will find these exercises.

Practice in short sessions of just a few minutes at a time. As you notice your dog becoming more clumsy, that’s a good indication that they are tiring, mentally and physically. The dog might knock poles, might attempt to jump or rush poles, or might show reluctance to engage with the obstacles.

Listen to your dog and let them go at their own pace. Slow and steady wins the race!

Your challenge

Now it’s your turn. Show us what you and your pets, of any species, can do with these challenges!

Post to your social media accounts, using the #100daysofenrichment so that we can find you and join our Facebook group to share your experiences, ideas and fun!
You can comment right here too 🙂

We look forward to hearing from you and your pets – have fun & brain games!

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