Agility dogs are the athletes of the canine world and, as such, they are subjected to far more stresses and strains than the average pet dog. In order to perform to their optimum ability, they need a good diet, a general fitness programme based on cross-training principles, sport-specific conditioning and training as well as adequate time for rest and recuperation. ACPAT Chartered Physiotherapist Sally Medcalf, herself an agility competitor, strongly believes that prevention is always better than a cure...
Injury prevention and performance enhancement training is all about minimizing the risks, but what can you do? Agility is a high risk sport due to fast running speeds, twisting, turning, and rapid accelerating and braking. That's why our Agility dogs need to have power in their hind legs, flexibility through their neck, back and shoulders, and to have highly developed core stability, body awareness, concentration and confidence.
I suggest injury prevention and performance enhancement programs for agility dogs. These include advice on competition warm up and cool down routines, stretching protocols, stability balance and strengthening exercises and hind leg awareness and proprioceptive training aimed at improving muscular reaction times, movement efficiency and mental focus.
If dogs misjudge the timing of an obstacle, they need to call on all their physical reserves to regain control and escape injury, which they can only do if their muscle co-ordination is highly tuned. Weaving is an unnatural movement and requires good co-ordination, and flexibility through the spine and shoulders. If dogs are lacking these elements, then they will be predisposed to muscle and joint strains.
Despite the best preparation, not all injuries can be prevented, as is the case for human athletes performing at their optimum level. As approximately 50% of a dog’s body mass is skeletal muscle, it's not surprising that a grade 1 muscle strain is the commonest injury in the working dog and one which often goes undiagnosed. Strains occur frequently between the shoulder blades as a result of concussion from repeated landings, twisting and turning can strain back, abdominal and intercostal muscles, as can repetitive stress from weaving. The power muscles of the hind legs are also a common site of injury due to uncoordinated muscle actions.
Other common injuries include ligament and joint strains. Carpal (wrist) joints are vulnerable on landing, especially on uneven ground or as dogs turn as they land, and weaving puts the back and shoulder joints at risk. When dogs are working, their intense motivation and high adrenaline levels can over-ride the pain from minor injuries.
Working through injuries in this way results in increased tissue damage over time. Often it is only when dogs have rested after working that injuries can become apparent. It is important that we, as handlers and owners, learn to recognise the signs of minor injury which may be no more than a subtle loss of performance.
If you notice any of these signs, I recommend that your dog should have a physiotherapy assessment as it is possibly carrying an injury which, left untreated, can cause more serious damage over time. I also advise pre and post-season checks to screen for minor injuries.
Before competing, it is essential that you warm up your dog
A warm up routine should mimic the activity the dog is about to do, but at a less demanding level - and not so prolonged - that it causes fatigue.
This is what I suggest:-
Cool Down Routine
Sally is a Grade 6 handler, trains at Trent Park DAC and is an Agility Club Approved Instructor (ACAI). She qualified and competed at Crufts in 2008 and 2009 with Millie Mops her terrier. Sally has a special interest in the treatment of working and competition dogs, and as a competitor and instructor she has a deep understanding of the extra stresses and strains that dogs are subjected to in the sport of agility.
Sally’s overall aim is to keep her clients’ dogs free from injury, and fit for a long and happy life. She believes in the philosophy of prevention is better than a cure, and therefore, in addition to rehabilitation programmes for animals recovering from injury, surgery or disease, she offers injury prevention and performance enhancement programs for puppies and canine athletes. Sally also offers mobile agility dog clinics by special arrangement with individual training clubs and will treat individual dogs at agility shows by prior arrangement.
First published 9 February 2013