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Or what can be achieved if you really really want...

You've read about Peter van Dongen's little JRT X Sky on Agilitynet before in Peter's Pup and Sky's First Show. What more could a puppy want than to belong to a vet? This is a story about her fight to overcome a seriously debilitating developmental joint problem in her early life and a spinal problem later on to become a successful agility dog.

Sky was born on 7 March 2002. It was the first day of Crufts that year and I took it to be an omen. After all, this little dog was to be my next agility dog, after having had a very successful agility dog Basil before. Sky is a small nearly completely white terrier, from a Parson-type Jack as a father and a ¾ Jack mother, with ¼ Yorkie in her. So Sky's 1/8th Yorkie and 7/8th Jack. She was the only long legged puppy in the litter which is why I chose her. However, this might have been the reason for her problems later on.

I did all the right things with Sky from a very young age, such as puppy parties, basic obedience classes and then more advanced obedience classes to make sure she was a well adapted, well behaved, well trained little dog. Obviously I had agility in mind all the time, and I adapted the training to this purpose.

But when Sky was about eight months old, I noticed that she was very slightly stiff on both of her front legs, but more so on the left than on the right, especially when trotting.

Being a vet myself, I decided to examine her properly and take radiographs (x-rays) of her front leg joints. These showed that there was indeed a problem. The joint space between her humerus (upper arm bone) and radius (one of the lower leg bones) was bigger than normal. The same changes were visible in both fore legs. This indicates short radius syndrome, one of the many different forms of Elbow Dysplasia, and is caused by an uneven growth in length between radius and ulna, most likely due to premature closure of the proximal radius growth plate, the cartilage area from where the bone growths in length. It normally leads to elbow incongruency (mal-fitting) and subsequent osteo-arthritis. I was shattered, as this meant she would nearly certainly never become my next agility dog at all.

Sky was operated on very shortly after diagnosis by Noel Fitzpatrick, an orthopaedic specialist and a personal friend of mine, to try and reduce the joint incongruency as quickly as possible. This was done by placing a trans-articular external fixator (pins, placed from the outside into the bone, then connected, crossing the joint) on both fore legs, whilst placing a compressive force across the proximal and distal pins before connecting them externally, to establish a spring-like compression. This would lead to compression between radius and humerus, establishing a correct surface re-modelling of the proximal radial head.

Sky was forced to have cage rest for several weeks, which was not easy with a young and bouncy puppy, unable to use her front legs properly! She was also on daily pain killer injections and antibiotic tablets. Follow-up radiographs showed good realignment of the bones after only about 4 weeks time. The external fixator was removed at this stage.

Rehab and maintenance
This is when we began our rehabilitation program. Sky started to swim regularly in a heated canine swimming pool, initially freely and then against jets after she became stronger and accustomed to the swimming itself. She didn't really enjoy the swimming but got used to it in the end. We also performed magnetic field therapy at home for several weeks to reduce pain and inflammation, as well as manual therapy such as daily massage and range-of-motion exercises.

Slowly but surely, Sky started to make a full recovery and I began to think that perhaps she would be able to do something like obedience or heelwork to music. I still thought that it would prove impossible to do agility with her.

However, due to all the hard work we put in, and with lots of help from Mother Nature, Sky made such a super fast and complete recovery that, when she was two years old, I began to slowly train her for agility. She never looked back, was never lame after exercise or training and started her career in the competitive world of agility when she was already three years old.

At the moment, at six years old, she is an active and relatively successful agility dog, competing at Grade 6 and regularly bringing home some rosettes and even trophies. I look at her all the time, especially whilst doing agility, wondering whether she will start to show symptoms of wear and tear in her joints, an uneven gait, any lameness or stiffness or other problems. But, so far so good.

The only treatment I have her on is a chondro-protective (cartilage sparing) supplement, called Seraquin which contains glucosamine and Chondroitin sulphate, substances which help the cartilage in her joints to stay as healthy as possible. She is not on any anti-inflammatory drugs or pain killers at any time, as I strongly believe that dogs shouldn't compete whilst on these drugs. The only other preventative care I give Sky is regular pre- and post exercise massage, to help prevent injury.

Last year Sky was starting to slow down a bit when doing agility and I had the feeling something was not quite right. I took her to see Jackie Grant, an ACPAT Cat A Veterinary Physiotherapist, who I now work with at my Veterinary Practice. She found mild spinal pain, with the presence of various trigger points in the back musculature. These are very painful areas of tight muscles. We immediately started a proper physiotherapy program, including laser therapy, daily massage, exercises and hydrotherapy. Within a few weeks of starting her intensive treatment, she was back on top.

This year, Sky and I qualified for the European Open Agility Championships 2008, in Germany, which was a great achievement especially taking into consideration the problems Sky's had in the past. I was so proud to see my little dog run amongst the best in Europe. It will probably be the highest we can possibly achieve.

We are now taking a little step back from the world of agility, for various reasons, not in the least because I would certainly never like to think that excessive exercise would cause possible further damage to her joints. However, I actually think that agility has helped her to stay a fit and healthy dog over the last few years, without any deterioration to her health status

The importance of early intervention
In my opinion, early rehabilitation after surgery and injury, using the various  modalities available within veterinary science and physiotherapy, has made a huge difference to the health and well-being of my little dog Sky!

At our practice, Pennard Veterinary Group, in Sevenoaks, Kent, we strongly believe that certain kinds of complementary therapy can help, in a major way, in the recovery from injury, as well as in keeping dogs fit and healthy throughout their life. We already work with a veterinary physiotherapist (ACPAT, Cat.A) on a regular basis, to help treat mainly orthopaedic and neurological cases. We also offer acupuncture at our practice, performed by one of my colleagues.

Recently we have built a brand new hydrotherapy suite, to accommodate an underwater treadmill. A hydrotherapist will work with me and the physiotherapist, to help treat dogs needing rehabilitation after injury or surgery, as well as those dogs with arthritis or soft tissue injuries. Hydrotherapy can also help obese dogs to lose weight and is used for sporting dogs needing fitness conditioning.

If you like to receive any information about the Pennard Veterinary Group practice, or about the hydrotherapy service in particular, call on tel. 01732 452344?

About the author...
Pete van Dongen, Drs. (Utrecht), Cert.V.R., M.R.C.V.S.
qualified as a vet at the Utrecht Veterinary school, The Netherlands, in March 1990. He worked in a mixed practice in Louth, Lincolnshire, UK, for 3 years, before deciding to limit himself to small animals only. In 1993 he joined Pennard Veterinary Group, in Sevenoaks, Kent. From December 1996 till January 2005 he ran his own branch practice in Allington, Maidstone. Currently he is a Director at Pennard Veterinary Group, now a 13 vet, four branch, small animal veterinary practice. His special interests are surgery, orthopaedics, radiology and, more recently, Canine Sports Medicine. He has just set up a hydrotherapy service at his practice.

In May 1995 Peter started agility (after years of just thinking about it!) with his Jack Russell Cross Basil (a bitch!), then five years old. Since then they qualified for many finals, including Crufts and Olympia. Basil won the coveted Crufts 2001 title in the Individual Mini Agility. Peter’s little Jack Russell X Sky, is now at Grade 6 and has recently taken part in the European Open Agility Championships.

Peter passed the British Agility Club Instructors' exam in October 1999 (first class) and then did the British Agility Club Judging Workshop. He regularly writes for various agility magazines and web sites and has been the official British Team Vet for the Agility World Championships for the last seven years.

Since last year Peter has started to do yearly charity treks, first to the Norwegian Arctic, then to the Namibian Desert and this year to Machu Picchu in Peru. You can read his adventures on Agilitynet.


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