Dog Fitness and Agility Classes Challenge the Body and Mind

I took my highly active Vizsla to The Martial Arfs for a KaRuffTe class. The activities not only engaged her mentally and physically, but they also strengthened our communication and bond.

Whitney C. Harris  |  Feb 11th 2015


I love my dog, Finley, more than I ever could have anticipated loving any non-human being. But most of the time, I feel more like a camp counselor or cruise ship director than a pet parent. Living with a two-year-old Vizsla means constantly coming up with new ways to occupy a highly curious dog’s time and attention.

Finley requires at least an hour of off-leash running and wrestling with other doggies in order to settle into her morning nap. And by mid-afternoon, she’s ready for more action, whether or not I have deadlines to meet. I usually resort to taking her on a run or letting her loose at the park again, but I’ve come to learn that fulfilling a dog’s need for stimulation isn’t all about physical activity. There’s the mental element as well.

So, like any modern-day pet parent, I took to the Internet to find a solution for my puppy problem. When I discovered The Martial Arfs dog training and fitness center, I nearly tripped running to the phone. The program requires no prior training and offers classes for dogs of all ages, abilities, and temperaments. The combination of physical challenge and mental stimulation sounded like the perfect outlet for Finley’s excess energy. (And while most Martial Arfs students are highly active dogs, many owners bring their pets specifically to slim down, which is not surprising given that 53 percent of canines are overweight.)

The 4,200-square-foot facility on Long Island opened its doors in October of 2013, and it offers 12 classes, each with its own unique focus on aspects of canine wellness, and an introductory private session. CaPawEra, for instance, combines disc dog training and injury prevention to improve strength, stabilization, flexibility, body awareness, coordination, and rhythm. Meanwhile, TaiPoochi is a low-impact option for senior, arthritic, obese, or physically limited dogs. Finley and I attended a KaRuffTe beginner class, which covers basic physical conditioning for health and behavior modification.

Our first challenge as new Martial Arfs students was for me to lure Finley onto four stability surfaces — a succession of FitPaws inflated discs atop rubber donuts, each one more inflated than the last — using a few of her favorite treats. Within moments, I could actually see her leg muscles twitching and practically hear the neurons firing in her brain as she attempted to steady her shoulders, elbows, knees, and hips.

As Martial Arfs Founder Jeris Pugh explained to me, dogs place about 60 to 70 percent of their weight on their front legs, so one of the goals of the movements is to force them to shift backward. Jeris also indicated that one of the primary purposes of the exercises is for dogs to improve their focus. Because of this, I was instructed to resist giving my dog verbal commands because it can be confusing and the idea is for your dog to do the hard work of learning how to earn the treat.

And work hard is just what Finley did. As I moved my goody-filled hand in, down, out, and up along her silhouette, she achieved various stances — some imitating puppy pushups and squats, others more like modified stretching. Once Finley was comfortable on the free-standing stability equipment, we moved on to a dog balance beam that Jeris assembles specifically for his students.

From the moment her fourth paw lifted from the ground, Finley became intensely shaky and nervous about following the lure, so we let her take a break. The point isn’t to make your dog feel forced into a scary situation; the activity should be a positive experience.

After the hour-long class filled with more dip, turn, and stretch postures than I ever thought imaginable, I chatted with Jeris to learn more about the inspiration and methodology behind his programs.

Essentially, The Martial Arfs is the marriage of his wife’s career as an emergency and rehabilitative veterinarian and Jeris’s own professional expertise in personal training. Dr. Eve Pugh, DVM, CVA, came up with the idea to help pets stay physically active and maintain a healthy weight to fend off arthritis, obesity, and other issues associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Given her husband’s more than 15 years of experience teaching martial arts to kids (many with issues such as ADHD), the couple was poised to combine their knowledge to benefit four-legged students.

The goal, at least for most pet owners, is to redirect their dog’s attention to something physically productive and mentally challenging, while discouraging misbehavior as the result of hyperactivity.

Granted, there are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to dog “academies” and “universities” for training, but The Martial Arfs stands out from the pack in how it combines health and fitness with behavior modification. Jeris refers to it as “Obedience Through Exercise.” So while your dog can learn to “sit,” “stay,” and “come” at any run-of-the-mill training class, the coordinating physical activities are what make the curriculum far more challenging.

These elements come from Jeris’s experience in dog agility and sports, like disc dog and flyball, along with specific aspects of canine rehabilitation from his wife’s practice. What also makes The Martial Arfs different from other programs is that everyone (and his or her dog) is participating at the same time, whereas traditional programs typically have dogs working one at a time while others simply wait.

This was probably the most valuable part of The Martial Arfs experience for Finley and me — the constant activity to occupy her attention. I was surprised to see that she seemed less interested in what the other dogs were doing (she usually can’t resist other pups) and more interested in working with me on maintaining her balance on an inflatable peanut.

In fact, it’s that very special dog-owner bond that The Martial Arfs works to strengthen. “Obedience training always works best when the owner works with the dog to improve behavior,” Jeris said. “I can train anyone’s dog, but then their dog would listen to me better than the owner. I’d have to teach the owner what to do, regardless, or their dog would never maintain the good behavior.” What’s more, the bonding experience during class helps build a trust between pet and person. The stability equipment and exercises can be daunting, but a benevolent leader assures the dog that everything is okay.

Beyond confirming my suspicion that owner-led training would solidify communication between Finley and me, Jeris told me exactly what I need to hear when it comes to my usual daily routine: “Taking your dog to the dog park and letting her run around with other dogs is great to burn off energy, but [it] doesn’t improve your dog’s behavior or the dog-owner relationship,” he said. “When you create a positive structure that teaches your dog interacting with you is the most fun they can have, they’ll want to do whatever you say.”

I left class with renewed optimism that my only option wasn’t just letting Finley run herself ragged at the park for hours every day. I could take what I learned in class and recreate it at home with inflatable gear bought at The Martial Arfs, or even using pillows, boxes, or chairs around the house. Since Jeris recommends making this kind of exercise a lifestyle, not just a once-a-week-at-class activity, I owe it to Finley and myself to challenge ourselves with the balance and coordination exercises we learned in KaRuffTe on a daily basis. I have a feeling she’s more than up for it.

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About the author: Whitney C. Harris is a New York-based freelance writer for websites including StrollerTraffic, Birchbox, and WhattoExpect.com. A former book and magazine editor, she enjoys running (with Finley), watching movies (also with Finley), and cooking meatless meals (usually with Finley watching close by).