5 Ways I Taught Nala to be Ridiculously Agile

The first time I ever did a Fit Dog Friday post, I told you guys how I had gotten Nala down to a reasonable weight after allowing her to balloon up about ten pounds over the high end of her acceptable weight range.

Boy, have we come a long way since then.

nala on a log


Last weekend on one of our hikes, one of the trails was next to a steep cliff that stretched fifty feet almost directly overhead. Every four to five feet was a small ledge. A dedicated mountain climber might have been able to climb it, but, moderate acrophobe that I am, the thought didn’t even enter my mind. Still, I thought that it might make a cute picture to have Nala stretch up and put her paws on a ledge. I moved toward the wall and gestured toward it, but before I could tell Nala to put her “paws-up!” she had swiftly leapt from ledge to ledge twenty feet straight up the wall.

When did my dog become capable of launching herself straight up a cliff? When had she become so confident, so athletic? When had she learned where her butt was?!

In case you’re as curious as I briefly felt, staring up at my dog way overhead, about how I turned a dog who could barely will herself to move her back feet around into one who uses her body like a furry little gymnast, here are the exercises we’ve been doing for the past few months. Most of these can be do with simple household items, or DIY items that you can put together after a cheap trip to your local hardware store.

  1. Tuck Sit
    There are a couple of ways to shape this behavior using positive reinforcement and no lure, and both of them involve using a prop. One involves using a platform–a starter platform should be a little bit bigger than your dog’s tuck sit, but you should trim your platform down as your dog becomes more proficient at placing her feet.
    The other method uses a thin, barely raised platform like a small piece of wood (or, in our case, a knitting needle case, since I am cheap and overwhelmed by hardware stores). This is actually where Nala and I started so that I could shape the initial tucking motion. Thanks to Hannah Branigan’s Obedience Skillbuilding 1 class at FDSA, I learned how to shape Nala to keep her front paws “stuck” in place on the thin strip of platform and then click weight shifts forward and back paw shifts. Eventually, that turns into a tuck sit! And it’s a good foundation for the next behavior on our list…
  2. Kick-back Stand
    I used a combination of capturing (explained and demonstrated brilliantly by Eileen Anderson here) and the stationary front foot target that I described above. The kick-back stand strengthens the core as well as the back legs, whereas a stand that causes the dog to move forward just works her rear end. Both are useful, but this one is pretty new for us!

    Kick back and wag!
  3. Down-to-stand
    Easy-peasy to teach with a lure, a target, shaping, or capturing. Take a look at Tuesday’s unedited training video to see Nala warming up with down-to-stand exercises! Next, I would like to teach her to go back and forth between a down and a bow, but I’m not sure how to train it.
  4. Pivoting
    You can see this trick in action in Tuesday’s post, too.
    This skill took us months to get started, since Nala had barely any idea that her back end existed, much less control over it. If you’re just getting started, I have a couple of tips to help you out:
    Tall platforms with plenty of room for your dogs feet are easier than shorter ones. Tall platforms, in particular, are easier on your dog’s developing muscles.
    Make sure that you deliver the treat in the center of the platform so that your dog has to rock back a bit to get it (see in the picture, how Nala’s head and front paws are in basically a straight line?). This will cause her to shift her weight into her back legs instead of loading it all in her front legs and spinning her back ones around. Correct form leads to better muscle development!

    Nala demonstrates correct pivoting form and shows off her gigantic, powerful thigh muscles
  5. Back it up!
    Since we free-shaped backing up according to the instructions in Sue Ailsby’s old Training Levels, we’ve recently upped the criteria by shaping backing up onto an elevated rear paw target. At first, Nala was doing everything she could to back around the target! Now, though, she’s starting to enjoy this exercise in its own right.


Even though I taught many of these behaviors for the sake of Rally-O, I love that they have put her at less risk for injury as an active, adventurous dog. More importantly, I love the grace and confidence they’ve given her–her correct jumping form is simply beautiful to behold, even when I’m a little bit worried that she’s going to come tumbling down the cliff that she has fearlessly thrown herself up onto.

Do you do any conditioning exercises? or has some simple trick had unexpected payoff for you and your dog? 

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4 thoughts on “5 Ways I Taught Nala to be Ridiculously Agile

  1. I’ve been wanting to teach Barley to back up, but her back end is often doing something on it’s own (I often joke that her tail and butt have a brain of their own–she’s not necessarily unaware of what’s happening back there, but it’s not usually doing the same thing her front end is doing!), so we haven’t really done much serious work with it. Maybe that will be our next behavior when we need something to work on to take our minds off the cold weather soon 🙂 Glad that these things have had such positive benefits for Nala!


    1. Nala used to back up spontaneously when she was frustrated with how boring I was being, but a lot of the conventional methods for teaching–like stepping into her space while luring, or using a narrow space to capture backing up–wigged her out too much for her to realize why she was being rewarded. Add in that she really needed to learn what her back end was, and, well, yeah, we didn’t manage to teach this until a few months about! Now it’s a favorite trick–the magic of shaping!


  2. Great job! I love doing position changes with my dogs! I really need to teach Phoenix a solid back up. That’s the one thing she really doesn’t like doing and I’ve been avoiding it. I should probably get to training! 😀 The girls are also little mountain goats, sometimes it’s kind of scary. LOL


    1. Yeah, the fearless climbing freaks me out a little. I would be so scared up there!

      Like I said to Beth above, I am really glad that we found a method for teaching backing up to Nala that didn’t freak her out! Luring and channels would never have worked. We’re having a good time with the rear foot target now, though–I am planning to post video soon.


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