Supporting agility dogs with specialist lifetime cover


A Royal Veterinary College study

The question of the introduction of a 4th 550mm hurdle height in Kennel Club Agility has been around for a good few years now, with discussion items and formal proposals being submitted by the agility community for consideration by the Agility Liaison Council. The results have recently become available for two pieces of research - one looking at differences due to distances between hurdles with dogs jumping the KC Large height and the other examining the top-lines of a sample of 'elite' Large and Medium dogs jumping at a GB training day. Neither project had involved dogs jumping 550mm nor measured the dogs’ heights. Chris Garrett helped with research at the Royal Vet Collage earlier this year.  

In April 2015 I was asked to help with organising a range of dogs that were broadly representative of those currently in the KC’s Large category, to take part in three days of data collection at the Royal Veterinary College to try and address these issues. I was also given permission to attend as a very interested observer and would like to thank the research team and, of course, the dogs and their handlers for their co-operation in the production of this article. 

The dogs taking part illustrated several shapes, sizes, breeds, ages, grades and heights - all above the KC Medium height of 430mm. They were all passed fit to take part by a veterinary inspection, warmed up before jumping and given appropriate rest periods.

The experiments were conducted in the Structure and Motion Laboratory at the Royal Veterinary College, using kinetic (force plate) and kinematic (optional motion capture) systems to collect data about ground reaction forces when dogs were in contact with the ground and also whole body/joint kinematics of the dogs throughout the whole process of jump take-off and landing.

One of the dogs having the markers applied.Methodology
Each dog was vet checked for fitness and weighed. They had their height at the withers measured and reflective markers applied.

An ingenious measuring device was used which was manufactured from a spirit level, a builders electronic tape measure and some sticky tape. It was so quick and fuss free that the dogs weren’t even aware they were being measured. Weighing them was easy, too, as they simply stood on one of the force plates.

Their hair was clipped and the markers were applied with double-sided tape. Anatomical landmarks included the head (poll), withers, sacrum, tuber coxae (hips), as well as limb joint centres.

An array of force platforms were embedded in the ground, covered with an artificial surface identical to the one used at Crufts. Twelve kinematic cameras were positioned on either side, to form a jumping lane.

Data was collected via the force plates and kinematic cameras and relayed to computer screens, closely monitored by the research team. The cameras bounced light off the markers and picked up the reflections, which were displayed as dots on the computer screens. There was also some data captured by standard and high speed video.

The researchers aimed to capture three valid repeats of take-off and landings. Valid jumps were defined as contacting one or several force plates with all four limbs at take-off and landing and not knocking down a pole.

Gait Analysis
In addition, the research team made use of a pressure mat system (Gait4Dog) to collect symmetry data of walk and trot, representing how symmetrical the dogs provided weight bearing between pairs of limbs as an objective indicator of soundness.

The Gait4Dog system was able to track each “walk” and “trot” along the mat, and even each limb - as indicated by a different colour paw print on the screen.

It's a good diagnostic tool which would show up an injury or imbalance. I was very impressed with the hands-on diagnostic skills of the assessing vet who was able to pin point slight problems in their initial examination which were also highlighted in the gait analysis.

Proposed Data Analysis
Data analysis will aim at analysing peak forces (in particular peak vertical force) exerted onto the ground by front and hind limbs. It will be nearly impossible to separate the effect of contralateral limbs, since they are both contacting the ground at the same point, but it will be possible to distinguish between the force provided by the pair of front limbs and the pair of hind limbs.

There will also be further analysis of the relationship between forces and some joint angles. Markers were placed on joint centres of all the limbs, as well as some upper body markers to estimate body posture during jumping. Analysis will also examine how the first jump affects the dog’s performance over the second hurdle. 

Personal observations
I noted on the day I attended the RVC that even the most accomplished, but very small, Grade 7 dog was required to push herself to the extreme to clear 650mm. Some ordinary slow motion footage highlighted this extremely well and the hyperextension in her spine during the landing phase, in particular, was an impressive but possibly worrying feat (in my opinion).

When you factor in the tight turns, wing wraps, round the backs of jumps and other manoeuvres that are required in agility nowadays, then that makes it even more of a concern. It also appeared to me that her performance at 550mm was markedly more in control than at 650mm.

These are just a couple of my personal observations, and I am looking forward to seeing the in-depth results from the scientific data analysis. I really hope this research provides some insightful information that can be used to help not only the smaller Large dogs that so many people have been campaigning for but all dogs in the future.

P.S. You can see the ingenious dog measuring device on the desk in the bottom centre of the photo of the research team. Patent pending!

L - R: Thilo Pfau, Lowri Davies, Gary Doyle, Emily SparkesMeet the Research Team
Thilo Pfau is a Senior Lecturer in Bio-Engineering at The Royal Veterinary College. He is currently focusing on the use of inertial sensor based technology (as well as traditional kinetics and kinematics) to detect and quantify movement anomalies, covering a range of tasks and animals.

Lowri Davies qualified from Bristol Veterinary School in 1992 and spent some years in Equine Practice working with performance horses. She set up the SMART (Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Therapy) Clinic in 2003 and a second clinic in Cardiff opened four years later. Agility dogs now account for nearly half their case load. She has lectured internationally on the subject of rehabilitation and canine sports medicine, as well as authoring chapters on the subject in several textbooks. She is currently president of the British Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Society and sits on the KC’s Activities Health and Welfare Sub-Group.

Gary Doyle is a senior lecturer in Sports Biomechanics at the University of East London. His research interests include investigating movement and motion patterns, with the use of three-dimensional motion capture and force plate analysis. He has been an agility competitor for over fifteen years and has judged all grades and sizes. Gary also sits on the Kennel Club’s Activities Health and Welfare Sub-Group.

Emily Sparkes has been the Senior Technician in the Structure and Motion Laboratory at the RVC for the past four years. Her expertise lies in biomechanics data collection techniques and movement analysis. Her main research interests are investigating how to optimise performance and preventing injury. Prior to her appointment at the RVC, she worked for British Swimming as the Head Performance Analyst and Biomechanist to the GB Waterpolo squad through to the London 2012 Olympic Games.  In this research project she is able to use the knowledge she gained from working in elite human sport, and apply the same ideas and techniques to measure jump performance in agility dogs.

About the author...
Chris Garrett has been involved with agility for 14 years and currently shares her life with two Manchester Terriers and two Border Collies, competing with them all.

She is a qualified agility instructor and lucky enough to have her own equipment and training venue.  She also trains with Dogmanics DAT, a great KC Listed club that offers multiple height training to many types of dog.

Although some dogs are more naturally athletic than others, she thinks it is likely that the KC Large height category might be unfair to, and unsuitable for, many dogs.


© Copyright Agilitynet