Cavaletti is a type of conditioning exercise that has been in the equine world for years. More recently cavaletti has become popular in canine conditioning (dog fitness) and rehabilitation. The exercise involves spacing out a set of poles for a dog to step over. Your dog’s size, fitness/training level, and health status will all affect the setup and progression of cavaletti.
Benefits of Cavaletti in Dogs:
- Improve rear end awareness – Your dog will have to be aware of where they are placing their legs to miss the poles.
- Improve stride length – The distance between the poles can be changed to regulate stride length.
- Strengthen muscles involved in limb flexion (bending) – teaches your dog to pick up their feet.
- Increases range of motion in the knee joint and ensure your dog doesn’t develop stiffness following surgery (e.g. TPLO).
Before starting the exercise, you will need:
- Four to six poles about one meter in length. These can be purchased from a hardware store, or you can use pool noodles or tomato stakes. Cavaletti sets can also be purchased from companies like Fitpaws or Totofit.
- Something to elevate the poles off the ground slightly (~ wrist height). A set of small cones or squashed tin cans/bottles work (if your dog is not scared by their sound if they move).
- Measure your dog from the top of their shoulder to the floor. This will be a guide for the distance between the poles. As a guide – large dogs will be about 30-40 cm, medium dogs 20-30 cm, and small dogs 15-20 cm apart.
What to do:
- To start with, you need to place 4-6 poles a little closer than shoulder height apart.
- The poles need to be elevated off the ground to wrist height. Be careful working with the poles on the ground. If your dog accidentally steps on a pole it may roll away causing an injury.
- If your dog is new to this exercise or rehabbing from injury they should be leashed for this exercise.
- Once set up, slowly guide your dog from one end of the poles to the other. Make sure one leg goes in each section at a time. You want this to be a slow but continuous movement.
- You can modify the distance between the poles if your dog is not single-stepping the spaces. You can also modify the height if your dog is knocking bars. The height should never exceed elbow height.
- Turn your dog and repeat the exercise. If your dog is rehabbing from injury ensure you take a wide turning circle and pivot on your dog’s non-injured leg.
- Build to 10 repetitions in a row – one repetition is one row of poles.
- Build to 3 sets (sets are a collection of repetitions with a rest in between).
- Complete the exercise 3-4x a week.
- There is no correct amount of exercise for a dog. You need to learn how to recognize fatigue and terminate an exercise and/or workout accordingly. This article talks more about common exercise terms and signs of fatigue.
- If your dog is rehabbing from injury please see our ACL rehabilitation article for more information on rehabilitation protocols.
- Always talk to your vet before starting new exercises with your dog.
Cavaletti in Young Dogs:
Cavaletti can be a good exercise for young dogs.
- In dogs under 18 months old, you need to be careful with the number of repetitions and frequency of the exercise. It’s more about introducing your puppy to the exercise rather than making big fitness gains. Our Puppy Exercise Chart will give you more information on age-appropriate exercises.
- Healthy dogs over 18months old can build repetitions. As an example, you may progress the exercise until you can complete 10 repetitions, building to 3 sets, 3-4x a week.
Cavaletti in Older Dogs:
As dogs get older they tend to get a little lazy in their back legs and not pick them up like they did when they were younger. In more extreme examples this might lead to scuffing of the nails in their back feet. Cavaletti are an excellent exercise to remind older dogs to pick up their legs and keep the muscles that bend their legs strong.
The last dog in the video (Digger) is a 10yrs old Kelpie. He had bilateral hip surgery as a young dog and has also had epilepsy most of his life. He is a really cool dog and completes cavaletti regularly to try and keep his back legs working as well as possible. In the video where he is coming towards the camera, you can see how hard he is working to stabilize and pick up his back legs. Daisy (Kelpie) and Kate (Border Collie) are pretty healthy 13/14yr old dogs.
Problem Solving Cavaletti:
It doesn’t always go perfectly…
When completing cavaletti there are lots of reasons it can go wrong:
- The exercise isn’t set up correctly for your dog – the spacing and/or height of the poles may be incorrect. See the Cavaletti Progression video below for examples of different pole height and distance.
- Your dog doesn’t understand the exercise / what is expected – using a leash can help guide your dog over the set of poles. If you are unsure of what is going wrong, video yourself and your dog completing the exercise. The video will often give you ideas on how to improve the exercise.
- There are too many distractions – try completing the exercise at home without too much happening in the background (kids playing, food being prepared).
- The reward value is either too low or too high – Often times if the reward is too high value your dog will be over-excited. They may throw out lots of behaviors or move too quickly. In the young dog video above you’ll see my dog, Patrick is a little too excited, racing off to get his reward. Lower value treats like kibble would have slowed him down and kept him more focused on the exercise.
Similar to other exercises, cavaletti can be progressed to make them more difficult. The Cavaletti Progression video above gives some ideas on exercise progression:
- Increase the height and/or distance between the poles – note that there is a sweet spot where adding more height and/or distance is detrimental to the exercise.
- Vary the height of the poles.
- Vary the direction of the poles so some are diagonal.
- Vary the path of the poles e.g. rather than a straight line have a half-circle.
Caveletti forms an integral part of a complete canine conditioning or rehabilitation program. The benefits of cavaletti include increasing rear-end awareness, increasing muscle strength and range of motion in flexion (bending of the leg), and improving stride length. They are one of the few exercises that target strengthening in the bending phase of the leg, making them an integral part of most rear-limb rehabilitation programs.
Before starting any new exercises please talk to your vet to ensure your dog’s suitability.