Functional Strengthening Exercises: the What, Why and How

by Susan E. Davis, PT

Have you ever heard the term “functional exercises” and wondered what it means?

Not only are these helpful to human beings in physical rehabilitation or sports enhancement programs, they are also used in canine recovery and fitness. So, what are they?

For an exercise to be considered functional, it utilizes the full body, using dynamic movement.  

It is an activity that replicates or mimics something that a person or animal normally performs in their daily life. It is performed without weight or machines, relying on the body’s weight and gravity for resistance.

In human physical rehabilitation after an injury or surgery, this type of exercise can also be referred to as “closed kinetic chain” and examples include squats, lunges, step-ups, etc.

These exercises do not replace stretching, isolated muscle-specific strengthening or cardiovascular conditioning.  

They are one component of a total exercise program, needed not only in rehabilitation but in the maintenance of overall fitness levels.  Think of functional exercises as those that link the entire body in a manner that carries over into everyday activities.

Why are they important?  

They are safe, relatively simple, and do not require expensive elaborate equipment.  They are efficient not only time-wise but also in improving performance by working multiple muscle groups together, optimally as cohesive units.

They prepare your dog for daily life movements, reducing potential injuries, strains, etc.

Wow—so how?

I am going to list and describe various examples of functional strengthening exercises with word of advice and caution.  It is good to be educated and aware of all possible types of exercises but even the most basic can potentially be harmful depending on a particular dog’s medical condition, age, breed, etc.  For example, some of these might not be appropriate for a young developing puppy, a geriatric dog with cardiac issues, a dog with spinal disc conditions, instabilities such as Wobbler’s, etc.

Ultimately a program should be designed and guided by your Vet (especially if they have received rehabilitation training) or an animal-trained licensed Physical Therapist who has consulted your veterinarian.  

These professionals will custom- tailor the activities and give you initial guidelines on reps, durations and other parameters so you can implement the program with your dog at home safely, with a favorable outcome.   

Here are some examples.

Step-ups:  use a raised platform such as a palette, hard durable plastic or wood box, oversized thick book or similar object that is approximately 15-20% the height of the distance measured from the ground up to your dog’s withers.  Have the dog start off with placing one front paw up onto the platform, then the other, then paws back to the ground.  During this exercise, the rear legs stay on the ground. 
Example: Up 1, Up 2, Down 1, Down 2.  Although it will appear to be strengthening the front limbs, it actually builds the thoracic and lumbar spine extensors and hip/upper thigh musculature.  This can be advanced to having the dog completely climb up on the platform with all fours, and then back down, repeated several times.
Sit to Stand: best done from a tight corner with the dog’s hind end backed into the corner.  Repeat 5-10 times.  If you do not have a good corner to use, place the dog’s stronger side next to/ against a wall and have him/her stand from there. 
You may find that some instructions tell you to place the weaker, surgical side next to the wall, but I have found that placing the strong side up next to the wall forces the dog to shift weight away from the wall and on to the weaker side, achieving a better result.

Dancing:  You can hold your dog’s front paws, but I prefer holding the dog’s upper arms, just below the shoulders for better control.  Have the dog hold the dance position in a “standing still” or” static” position. Then sway from side to side or “dynamic”.  
Progress the exercise by having your dog take dance steps with you going forward, to the left, to the right and backward.  Backward or “retro” dance walking is the hardest. Dancing can also be performed in a pool, with “chest high “water level. 
Wheel barrowing:  this involves standing behind your dogs, holding up the hind limbs and having the dog bear weight on the front limbs.  You can gently guide them forward to take a few steps with the front paws.  Be careful and check with the vet first if there is elbow dysplasia, spinal conditions. 
Weight shifting while your dog is standing on a piece of foam or thick carpet:  gently pick up a front paw; hold a few seconds, then place it back down.  Then the other front paws.  After that, lift a back paw, followed by the other.  
Progress the exercise by simultaneously lifting an opposite front/back paw at the same time, called “contralateral” (left front paw with right back paw).  Follow this by the right front paw with the left rear paw.  Final progression is lifting both right paws at the same time, then both left, called “ipsilateral”.  
Jana’s /Jasmine’s vet likes to recommend using a foam mat or pad 4-8 feet long, ¼ to ½ inch thick , then thicker as the legs get stronger, to encourage higher hip flexion by the dog actively raising up of the paws, also called “High Stepping”  Have the dog walk back and forth on it, turning around at the end.  You can also try using a toy or treat to have them take some steps backward on the foam. 
High Stepping can also be performed over a ladder placed horizontally on the ground, or logs spaced a few feet apart or low hurdles. 
Use toys for functional play.  
One of the best is “tug of war”, using a braided rope toy, encouraging the dog to “crouch down”, bending knees and elbows and to move sideways (“lateral”) and backward.  Use caution if there are any dental or neck issues.  If your dog likes to play with balls, you can quickly roll a small ball sideways between your palms to encourage the dog to lunge from side to side in response, following the ball. 
Rolling:  assist your dog to roll from side to side, initially by placing your hands on his/her shoulders and hips.  Progress this by using a toy or treat and moving it from side to side over the dog’s head, encouraging them to roll and “follow” the toy.  You can also hold the toy or treat over their tummy area and have them “reach” for it, simulating a partial “curl-up”.  These exercises will work the abdominal core region of their body.  
Timed Up And Go (TUG):  use a stopwatch (you may have this function on your cellphone) to time your dog, starting from a sitting position at a distance of 8-10 feet away.  Ask them to come to you and measure the speed at which they stand up and come to you across the room.  This is a basic measure of their mobility skills and is helpful for older arthritic dogs that show slower movements in getting up to stand.  Make it a fun game for them, gradually getting faster.  Currently there are no standards for this test in the canine world, so just start with your dog’s initial time as your baseline and try to increase it 5-10% per week.  In my experience, an older arthritic dog should be able to do this in 7-10 seconds. 

There are many other examples of functional strengthening exercises, but hopefully, this list will give you a good starting resource. Functional strengthening activities offer great variety for your dog to exercise efficiently and effectively from head to tail!

Further reading:
Walking with Your Dog: A Fun and Cheap Form of Dog Physical Therapy
A Dog Workout: Exercises and Activities


Susan E. Davis (Sue) is a licensed Physical Therapist with over 30 years of practice in the human field, who transitioned into the animal world after taking courses at the UT Canine Rehabilitation program.  She is located in Red Bank, New Jersey.

For the last 3 years, she has been providing PT services to dogs and other animals through her entity Joycare Onsite, LLC in pet’s homes and in vet clinics.

She also provides pro bono services each week to a shelter and sanctuary for neglected and abused animals.  Sue is the proud “dog mommy” to Penelope, a miniature Dachshund with “attitude”.  For more information see her website, or follow on Twitter @animalPTsue.

Further reading:
Assessing Lameness
Comparative foot morphology
Measurement method on static weight distribution

Articles by Susan E. Davis:
Functional Strengthening Exercises: the What, Why and How
One Thing Leads To Another: Why The Second ACL Often Goes Too
Compensation: An Attempt To Restore Harmony
Paring Down to the Canine Core
Canine Massage: Every Dog ‘Kneads’ It”
Photon Power: Can Laser Therapy Help Your Dog?  
Physical Therapy in the Veterinary World  
Reiki: Is it real? 
Dog Lessons: Cooper  
The Essentials Of Canine Injury Prevention: 7 Tips For Keeping Your Dog Safer 
It's Not Just Walking, It's Therapy! 
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part I)
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part II Physical Therapy)
Range Of Motion: It’s A Matter Of Degree…
The Weight Of Water And How It Helps Dogs 
By Land or By Sea? A Comparison of Canine Treadmills 
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part I)
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part II) 
Scar Tissue: Is it Too Much of a Good Thing? 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Ramps! 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Indoor Duo Dog Exercises!
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Best Practices After Your Dog’s Surgery 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Ideas to Chew on - Can Physical Therapy Help with my Dog’s Digestive Problems? 

Related articles:
Don’t Forget the Physical Therapy
Why The Second ACL Often Goes Too
Compensation: An Attempt To Restore Harmony


  1. Wow, creative tips. We will definitely do this with Viva to strengthen her muscles further.


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