Sit Pretty — What if it’s not Pretty??

Sit Pretty is a commonly prescribed exercise in canine fitness, and has been advocated by many fitness trainers, enthusiasts, and canine rehabilitation practitioners and experts.  But is it the best exercise for every dog?  As far as I am aware, we do not have EMG (electromyography) studies on this exercise in a variety of dogs to determine what muscles are active or inactive. Ideally, as the dog moves into a sit pretty position, the lower thoracic and lumbar spines will be moving from a slightly flexed posture into neutral and/or slight extension.  This movement requires a significant amount of control of the pelvic and lumbosacral regions.  The pelvic area needs to be stable to move ahead with this exercise successfully. If the dog is unable to handle a good solid sit, I would then recommend working on that first. Sitting on the floor with an equal and tight sit where the pelvis is slightly tucked under is paramount.

My background is human physical therapy and by nature I break down every large movement into small components.  As therapists, we focus on the quality of a movement, rather than number of repetitions that can be performed.  When we teach a person about core control, and way before a sit up or any other abdominal work is attempted, we teach them how to do a pelvic tilt.  We want the person to be able to tuck their pelvis in posteriorly or backwards first and start the exercise from this position.  If the person cannot do a pelvic tilt, they should not and do not move on to another position.  To try this on your own, lie on the floor and place your hand under the small of your back.  Tilt your pelvic backward with control.

When this motion is performed, your hand should be flattened. This is a small movement, but is important in establishing control of the pelvis. Many muscles come into play with this exercise. In dogs, a pelvic tilt may be facilitated by starting with scratches on the pelvic area and the lower abdominal region.

It is interesting, when doing a google search on sit pretty, the first thirty or so sites to show up are related to trick training.  Was this a trick that we transformed into an exercise for our dogs and then pushed to an extreme as some sort of competition? As dog enthusiasts and trainers move forward with this, are we sure we are promoting safety? How many dogs actually have the correct spinal and pelvic strength and control to perform this movement?

In human exercise, sit ups have received a lot of bad attention due to the strain on the spine. However, if the pelvis is stabilized properly, the abdominals are able to contract in a safe manner. I am continuing to see dogs performing sit pretty quickly and on various pieces of equipment that may not be appropriate.  If a dog cannot perform this on the ground safely, should they perform this on a piece of equipment?  Many dogs will do it, even when they do not have the control.

Ideally, the epaxial muscles of the spinal extensors will be working while in spinal extension.  The abdominals will stabilize the spine as the dog moves back into extension. If the extensors or the abdominals are weak, the spine will begin to arch back or move into a dangerous position.  This may be detrimental for long backed dogs, dogs without proper core control, dogs with iliopsoas problems, arthritic dogs, and dogs with generalized weakness.  We do know long backed dogs are prone to disc protrusions and herniations.  Prolonged forceful extension may exacerbate the issue.  There is a significant amount of sheering force on the spine when the abdominals and epaxial muscles are not strong enough.

Getting the dog into the sit pretty posture is another concern.  If the hip flexors are activated, the pelvis will tilt forward and the weight of the dog’s upper body as it lifts will create shear forces in the lumbar area. If the pelvis does not have good strength and stability, the dog will not be able to go into a safe sit pretty.

The starting posture of a sit pretty is also very important.  If the dog is already in a flexed posture secondary to weakness or chronic iliopsoas strains, the dog starts off at a disadvantage.  Sit pretty is not a great exercise for these dogs and standing core control on the floor may be more beneficial for them.

This video demonstrates the components of a sit pretty demonstrated by Charlotte Rundgren’s dog.

As we break down the video, this is what we see:

:02 – the pelvis moves into a backward or dorsal tilt.  You can see the spine is flat as she lifts her forelimbs up.  There is also no forced movement and this is performed slowly and controlled.

If the spine were not flat, it would be in an extended position and there would be a sheering force.

:06 – the dog’s spine is in a perfect neutral position and she is able to do this with complete control

If the spine was extended, there would be a significant amount of sheering force on the spine.

:14 – she is able to maintain this position without faltering or losing her topline.  The topline seen here is held in a straight position.

If the topline began to arch, the spine is moving into extension.  This will stress the area.

:22 – focus on the pelvis will demonstrate that there is no movement here as well.  In addition, there is no stress on hip flexors

If the pelvis moved, she would be increasing the force on the hip flexors. In addition, the lumbar spine would pull forward into an extension force.

:25 – as she lowers herself, she maintains the control of her pelvis

Can you see the control?  Can you see how control means there is less chance for injury?   While watching other videos on the internet, compare the techniques……

Keeping it Pretty!

Dr. Debbie  

** You should always consult with a veterinarian before starting any exercise program with your dog.

8 comments

  1. Interesting.

    Do you have more information about how to teach a strong, tight sit? I’ve made the mistake of teaching my dog to sit pretty, when he still has a very sloppy sit. Haven’t experienced any issues from it yet, but of course I want to ensure he stays injury free.

  2. Great post! Thanks Dr. Debbie! Safety is definitely something I have been wondering about as I introduce the Sit Pretty to my dogs. I notice that some pick it up quickly and with little effort, while others really struggle.

    I am curious to know *how* one goes about teaching first a strong sit, and then a correct sit pretty. How can we work on the pelvic stability that you mentioned is so critical? Would work with any particular balance equipment help? Do you have any blog posts or videos explaining the training, or perhaps some recommended books or other reading? Any additional information to help us along would be extremely helpful. Thanks again!

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