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Agility needs movement and muscle...

Dogs generate and control immense muscle power, ideal for agility. It enables them to create speed, jump obstacles, balance and change direction. However, this does intensify the stress placed on their body. That's not to say all injuries are caused by agility, but it does increase the risk. Jenny Youdan, owner of K9 Elements and a member of the Canine Massage Guild, explains.

Did you know that there are nearly 700 muscles attached to 320 bones (depending on tail length) in the dog's body. The combined function of these muscles, bones and joints all working together create movement, whether it's walking, running or jumping.

Human athletes have to look after their body to maintain and improve performance, whilst increasing longevity in their field. This includes warm-ups, cool-downs, training, rest periods, good nutrition and hydration levels, sport massage for muscular health and appropriate injury management. Why should it be any different for our dogs?

Your dog is an athlete, training and competing in a high impact sport. It is important for owners to consider all aspects of the dog's life as they all ultimately impact their performance.

Consider your dog a finely tuned, well-balanced animal. If he injures just one muscle, it can affect his entire muscular balance. However, his natural resilience means he hides his pain, making it harder for owners to see he's carrying an injury. Instead, he will overcompensate for the injury, placing further stress on other muscles, creating a potential ever-increasing spiral of injuries.

Muscular injuries
To understand muscular injuries, you firstly need to consider what is a healthy muscle? It is smooth, supple and flexible. All layers of muscle can slide and glide over each other easily, to allow the body to move fully. An injury is something that prevents or restricts this movement.

There is a variety of muscular injuries.

  1. Strains are one of the most common injuries. 
    A pull to the muscle which occurs when stretched beyond its normal limits, causing a tear to the muscle fibres. Strains are quite often trivialised as ‘just as a strain'. However, the resulting scar tissue can reduce a muscle's flexibility by up to 50%, so whilst it may sound minor, it can have a major impact. Clinical Canine Massage Therapy remodels the scar tissue to improve muscle flexibility.

  2. Hypertonicity is an extremely tight muscle.
    Many people assume a well-muscled dog, with strong defined muscles is more powerful and very fit. However, in the majority of cases, this has been confused with a hypertonic muscle. A rock solid muscle is not fit and healthy. In fact it is a sign that it has been over-used and remained in a shortened, contracted state. There is no softness or suppleness and ultimately is more prone to injury. Clinical Canine Massage is extremely effective in reducing hypertonicity.

  3. Trigger Points are a taut band within the muscle fibres.
    Not only do they cause local and referred pain, but in their worst form can cause ischemia, which deprives tissues of oxygen and nutrients. They can restricts a dog's range of motion and also cause the muscle to tire more quickly.

This, for instance, is Nell the Greyhound. Here, she has experienced a severe strain, with swelling and bruising. Not all strains appear this clearly, especially on those dogs with lots of fur covering the legs, but it clearly demonstrates how serious can actually be.

Whilst people are familiar with muscular cramps, acute pain during or immediately after exercise, it is worth being aware that dogs can also experience Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS).  This is seen as pain, soreness, tenderness or stiffness but occurs several hours or days after strenuous or new exercise.

Is your dog holding an injury?
Don't be fooled, just because your dog is 'fit' does not mean he is injury free!

Owners may develop their dog's cardiovascular fitness levels and focus on training, assuming injuries are more likely to occur from trauma or impact.  However, a lack of rest and recovery time can contribute to the risk of potential muscular injury.

Dogs can accumulate muscular tension and suffer injuries caused by daily activities or sports like agility, just like humans.  Whilst dogs are great at hiding injuries and soldier on regardless, please be aware that the muscular pain can be debilitating.  By the time dogs are displaying signs of lameness, they are normally in a reasonable degree of pain.

Signs of a potential muscular injury
As an owner you can look for signs and changes in your dog that indicates a possible muscular injury.

Some obvious symptoms include:-

  • Pain response – yelping, discomfort, reluctance to be touched
  • Mobility problems – lameness, limping, not fully weight-bearing or stiffness
  • Physical issues – slowing down, reluctant to go for walks, change in muscle tone
  • Everyday obstacles – difficulty going up and down stairs, getting on and off the sofa, jumping in and out of the car
  • People often describe their dog as 'seems old before their time' or has 'aged overnight'

Some lesser known signals might include:-

  • Change in behaviour or personality, appearing depressed
  • Posture irregularities – roaching or swayback
  • Gait irregularities – crabbing or single-tracking
  • Twitching down their back, quivering skin or coat flicks.
  • Tickly spot
  • Issues with sporting performance

For example, my own dog's coat changes from smooth and straight to wavy in his lumbar region when strained.

Case study
Tali is an American Bulldog, a gentle giant with a wonderful nature, who was four years old when Jennifer Coates of Dogstar Therapy first met her. Tali 's enthusiasm for agility had dropped and her owner Laura was concerned about the strain of doing agility on Tali's joints. Laura wanted to check that Tali wasn't harbouring an injury that was making her uncomfortable.

Jennifer found that Tali had a strain in her iliocostalis in the lumbar region and persistent trigger points (knots) bilaterally in her latissimus dorsi. These are common issues for agility dogs. Laura was a brilliant owner. Tali was rested to allow the strain to repair. Rugs were strategically placed around the house to stop Tali slipping and Laura was fastidious in warming Tali up before all agility work.

After three massage treatments and a staged return to training, Tali was successfully working with her usual levels of enthusiasm and she competed later in the year at Discover Dogs where she was placed 5th.

Agility performance
A change in your dog's agility performance may not necessarily be a training issue. It can be indicative of a potential muscular injury and he is avoiding the obstacle to prevent the pain.

You may see your dog:-

  • Knocking poles
  • Missing contacts
  • Refusing weaves or leaving mid-way through
  • Change in jumping style, measuring or going under jumps
  • Jumping off equipment
  • Sudden loss of interest, refusal or slowed down considerably

Case study
In October 2014 Lily stopped jumping and wouldn't put full weight through her right back leg. Her vet prescribed pain killing drugs and referred Lily to Emma Overend of Paw Dimensions for treatment. Lilly had strains or muscular tears in the muscles used for jumping and for propulsion forward, namely her Gracilis Muscle, along with pain in her sacral area of the spine and trigger points throughout the muscles supporting her spine (her Longissimus Dorsi, Multifidus and Iliocostalis Lumborum) which were causing her pain and restricting her movement. These are fairly common issues found in working dogs, and it's the niche job of the masseuse to be able to locate these.

Lily had three massage sessions with Emma who put together a recovery and reconditioning programme. Lily gradually returned to training and was spotted at Crufts with her handler Julia Durrant. They were chosen for Agility Team GB in May 2015 where she was placed 33rd overall out of 187 Medium dogs from all over the world. Her speed was recorded at 4.3 meters per second!

Lily went from being completely lame to representing Great Britain in Agility and her owner Anne Hamilton puts it all down to the rehabilitative effects of massage. Without it, Lily might not have made it back to Agility for a long time - if at all - but with Emma's treatment and help she made a speedy recovery, so much so that she qualified for Agility Team GB 2015. Hurray!

Massage Therapy
Whilst no one wants their dog in pain, Clinical Canine Massage Therapy can help. It is a natural therapy that uses specific, measured strokes to manipulate soft tissue. Please note that the Canine Massage Guild provides remedial or clinical treatments, more akin to human sports massage. It is definitely NOT a pampering massage!

This non-invasive treatment works primarily on the skin and muscles, but it also influences all of the dog's physiological systems. Consequently, it provides numerous benefits, including:

  • Improves mobility
  • Reduces lameness
  • Restores muscular balance
  • Drug-free pain relief
  • Supports dogs suffering with orthopaedic conditions

Specifically for agility dogs, it can:-

  • Resolve muscular injuries so your dog can complete all obstacles
  • Improve muscle flexibility
  • Improve performance
  • Increase speed over the course
  • Enable your dog to jump freely
  • Minimise the risk of injuries (warm-ups)
  • Promote quicker recovery times (cool-downs)
  • Reduce muscle stiffness

Canine Massage Guild
The Canine Massage Guild is a national network of therapists, promoting safe practice, high standards and continuing professional development. The Guild therapists are trained to locate and release the fascial network (body's 3D cobweb). They all have to achieve exacting standards before they become members. This means you can be confident that any Guild Therapist will provide you and your dog with the highest level of service. The Guild Therapists work with a wide variety of breeds enjoying agility at all levels, whether it's a pet dog having some extra fun or top competitors.

Not only are Guild Therapists qualified, professional and fully insured, they have:-

Expert Techniques
Advanced palpation and injury identification skills – to assess the muscles, locate and identify the injury and specify the muscle affected.

  • Progressive Canine Massage Techniques – for injury treatment. Trained in 4 disciplines (Swedish, Deep Tissue, Sports and Myofascial Release), these are reviewed and enhanced annually.
  • Injury rehabilitation – the wide variety of massage techniques at their disposal means they can work with various injuries and find one that suits your dog. They can also advise on how to get your dog agility fit post-injury.


  • Canine anatomy and physiology – Detailed understanding of how treatments affects the dog's body and what is required for dogs to achieve different movements and the demands from various sports including agility.
  • Orthopaedic conditions – Therapists appreciate a wide variety of orthopaedic conditions and the associated impact on the body.
  • Other complementary therapies – As powerful as Canine Massage Therapy is, if it is not suitable for your dog, the Guild Therapists will help you find an alternative.
  • Canine sports and activities – Understands the demands various sports places on the dog's body


  • Complies with UK law
  • Refers back to your vet for diagnosis, if an underlying condition is suspected or anything abnormal is identified
  • Mindful of contraindications to massage therapy
  • Adheres to best practice, by only treating your dog a maximum of three times initially
  • Suggests alternative therapies and products that may benefit your dog

Case study
When Jack, an 8 year old Patterdale, went for his first treatment with Vreli Middleton of K9 Body Works he was screaming out in pain. After one treatment there was no more screaming and he was a much more relaxed dog. He had two further treatments and, at his next agility show, he won all three classes. A fantastic result!

Top tips for agility dog owners

  1. Warm-up your dog before training and competition, to reduce the risk of injury

  2. Know the signs of a potential muscular injury. You know your dog best, so are more likely to spot any changes
  3. Consider all aspects of your dog's life – nutrition, hydration, rest and exercise
  4. Regular health checks – Guild Therapists offer muscular health checks at various shows across the country which provides a quick overview
  5. Find your nearest Therapist – a full treatment allows potential deeper injuries to be located and treated, whilst improving your dog's movement

Booking your dog a treatment with a Guild Therapist provides results you can see and your dog can feel.

Canine Massage Guild is a national network of Therapists, promoting safe practice, high standards and continuing professional development.
Booking your dog a treatment with a Guild Therapist provides results you can see and your dog can feel.
For more information about the Canine Massage Guild or to find your nearest Therapist, please visit their
web site

About the author...
Jenny Youdan, is a professional Clinical Canine Massage Therapist. She runs K9 Elements Massage Therapy, providing remedial massage to resolve muscular injuries, support dogs suffering with orthopaedic conditions and maintain sporting performance.




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