The lights are dimmed and the candles—strategically placed on the agility equipment pushed to the room’s perimeter—are lit as people and their pups (ranging from pampered purebreds to rescued Pit Bulls) make their way to a circle of cushions. Here at Andrea Arden’s training facility at the Animal Haven shelter in Manhattan, yoga is about to begin. The instructor is agility legend Chris Ott, though most of those in attendance don’t know her reputation; they’re just here for their dog’s yoga class.
Ott’s accomplishments include representing the United States on the USA/AKC Agility World Team, holding a Guinness World Record for weave poles, and numerous appearances and wins at national championships. Her experience extends beyond the agility arena, however. Most recently, she brought her three decades of dog training know-how to the creation of what she calls Four Paw Fusion yoga. The class, originally designed for high-level performance competitors and their handlers, was so successful that Ott modified it for pet dogs.
Companion dogs who take part in enjoy many of the same successful outcomes the performance dogs experience, including increased flexibility and decreased rates of injury. Ott says that she was most surprised at “how quickly the dogs took to it and how much they enjoyed it, right from the beginning.” Unlike doga which is geared towards human yoga with dogs, dog yoga is for pups only and leaves dogs more flexible and focused, less prone to injuries, and calm; it also increases their bond with their humans.
Like all yoga instructors, Ott leads participants through a series of stretches. But unlike yoga for humans, participants lure their dogs into place with treats and praise, enticing them to hold the position for optimal stretch. Some of the positions start with the dog on the ground, while others utilize pillows and FitPAWS Balance Discs (inflatable rubberized cushions originally developed to help humans tone and increase balance) for support.
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Because dogs are gently lured into position, even those without extensive training can be very successful in the class. Ott says that, much to her surprise, the dogs who are anxious and struggle to relax are often the biggest beneficiaries of the course. “The dogs we see the most dramatic improvement in are those who start out stressed and are described by their owners as ‘difficult’ to live with and train. To see a dog who was previously uncomfortable with any kind of touching now able to lie on his back in his owner’s lap while doing stretches is a wonderful experience.”
Ott punctuates her calming instructions with lessons in canine anatomy; descriptions of what a particular stretch is designed to achieve; and important reminders about not pushing a dog too far, which could cause injury. Similar to human yoga classes, everyone works at their own pace.
As the session goes on, the dogs visibly relax, and by the end of the two-hour workshop, even dog-park warriors who require marathon games of fetch are panting. Although the dogs aren’t running around or doing activities that on first glance seem strenuous, they leave class happily tired.
And it isn’t just the dogs whose attitudes are changed. Even the most distracted human participants—those who entered class sipping lattes, texting and chatting with one another— pocket their phones and turn their attention to the eager dogs, influenced by Ott’s gentle demeanor and the energy she creates. Although the class is designed for canine relaxation, the peace, tranquility and connection that develop between dogs and their people are delightful side effects. The stress of big city life falls away, and they’re able to refocus on one another—what could be better?