How To Help Protect Your Canine Athlete From Injury

by Dr. Becker

If you’re a dog lover, you’re well aware that canines are physically-inclined creatures. They get physical with each other, humans, other animals, and the environment. Dogs are built to be active, and even if your canine companion is a small, dainty fluff ball or a bit of a gawky goofball, he or she needs opportunities to be physically active every day.

In addition to the fluff balls and goofballs, there are dogs that if given the chance, can excel as athletes. These dogs possess the physique, drive, stamina, and skill to compete in one or several types of canine sporting events.

Have you ever wondered if dog athletes suffer sports injuries like humans do? Let’s investigate one type of canine competitor: the agility dog.

Majority of Canine Agility Competitors Don’t Get Injured
In 2009, a team of researchers published a retrospective study of canine agility-related injuries.

The researchers set out to learn what factors put agility competitors at risk for injury. They surveyed over 1,600 agility dog handlers and discovered the good news that most agility dogs, about 70 percent, have never had an agility-related injury.

However, 529 dogs did get injured. Of those injuries:

  • Almost 60 percent happened during competition, the remainder during practice
  • The most frequent injuries were sprains, strains, and contusions. The dogs’ shoulders and backs were most commonly injured
  • Severity of injuries ranged from minor to major to severe, with 199 dogs out for 6 weeks or less, 236 out for more than 6 weeks, and 57 dogs who could no longer compete at all as the result of an injury
  • Injuries were primarily caused by dogs coming into contact with obstacles, followed by injuries from slipping, loss of footing, and overuse and chronic injuries
  • Most obstacle-related injuries involved the A-frame, with the dog walk and bar jump (hurdle) coming in second and third. The three obstacles combined accounted for nearly two-thirds of injuries. Weave poles, the seesaw, and the tire accounted for the fewest number of injuries

  • The Breed That Gets Injured the Most Is…
    The dogs more frequently injured were Border Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs, and Australian Shepherds. Border Collies were at higher risk than they should have been based on their exposure, with 25 percent injured and 17 percent uninjured. The researchers theorized that the speed, agility, and drive of the Border Collie may explain the increased risk of injury.

    Another similar and larger study was published in 2013 in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association2 that reached many of the same conclusions. Around 30 percent of 3,800 agility dogs had been injured. Strains, sprains, and contusions were the primary injuries, and shoulders and backs were the primary locations of injury.

    A-frames, bar jumps, and the dog walk were the obstacles most commonly associated with injuries.

    Getting Your Dog Ready to Compete
    It’s impossible to prevent 100 percent of injuries, 100 percent of the time, but it is possible to reduce the chances your canine athlete will be hurt by taking preventive action.

    Adequate training and conditioning for agility is obviously of paramount importance in preparing your dog to compete and prevent injuries. Swimming, hiking, sport-specific conditioning, and practicing agility will condition your dog’s musculoskeletal system to handle the demands of competition.

    A warm-up before competing helps your dog’s body prepare for action. A proper warm-up period is 5 to 15 minutes of light walking or trotting on a surface similar to the event surface. Among other benefits, this will allow your dog to mentally adjust to the new environment. This can be followed by short periods of running over low jumps to maintain the benefits of the warm-up until it’s show time.

    Part of the warm-up should include some active stretching to reduce the risk of muscle and tendon tears. Active stretches involve movements that stretch your dog’s legs and spine in ways that mimic the movements he will make during competition. Remember, these are active stretches (not passive or static stretches) performed immediately after the warm-up period, while your dog’s muscles are still warm.

    After the Competition
    After each training session or competitive event, your dog should have a cool down period. Decrease the intensity of exercise slowly over 10 to 15 minutes, which can be accomplished by taking her from a jog, to a fast walk, to a 5-minute slow walk.
    The time to do passive range-of-motion exercises and static stretching is immediately after your dog’s cool-down, while her muscles are still warm – never when her muscles are cold. Statically stretch your dog’s large muscle groups (quads, hamstrings, paraspinals, triceps) to maintain their length and flexibility.

    In between agility events, you can help support your dog’s frame with routine maintenance such as chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, physical therapy, massage, and stretching.

    Whatever you can do to keep your dog’s musculoskeletal system in good condition will not only help prevent injury during competitive events, but will also go a long way toward maintaining her mobility and quality of life, throughout her life.

    Feeding Your Canine Athlete
    Active, athletic dogs need nutrient-dense diets that provide optimum energy in a small quantity of food. The protein source should be good quality and animal-based, and the diet should be relatively high in dietary fat, including supplementation with raw organic coconut oil and omega 3 fatty acids.

    The main components of a balanced raw diet for an athletic dog with no health problems include raw meaty bones, muscle and organ meats, a few dark green vegetables, a constant supply of fresh clean water, and appropriate supplementation as needed.

    I have found that dietary micronutrient deficiencies, including manganese, can contribute to ligament weakness, so it’s very important to make sure your athlete’s diet is nutritionally balanced. Additionally, supplying an abundance of food-based antioxidants (berries) facilitates free radical scavenging, which is important after competitions.

    In addition to nutrient dense, fresh, whole food nutrition, athletes also benefit from supplements that support their musculoskeletal system. I recommend you consult a holistic veterinarian about the right nutraceutical protocol for your athletic pet’s individual needs.