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Is it worth the effort?

As a Chartered Physiotherapist and agility handler herself, Lesley Holmes has always been surprised that so few competitors appear to warm-up their dogs before a run. Human athletes like Linford Christy and David Beckham do so why not our canine athletes? As part of her studies for a MSc in Animal Physiotherapy, therefore, she decided to combine her academic studies with her own particular interest. So she devised a questionnaire to find out whether 'warming up' reduces injuries to agility dogs and circulated it around the agility community. The results have now been analysed and she's agreed to share the results, in précis form, with you here.

There has been much debate amongst the human sporting fraternity about whether warm-up activities are beneficial or not. However, if you watch any sporting event, athletes spend a great deal of time preparing mentally and physically for the task ahead. In the same way, few horse riders would consider entering the jumping ring without warming their horse up and going over the practice jump. I wondered if this was true in agility as well? Does it really matter or is it all psychological?

I contacted most agility clubs in the UK by email and had 52 replies. Altogether I sent out 500 questionnaires and received 185 back. The questionnaire was also put into The Voice magazine, and it was posted  on Agilitynet and other web sites. Thank you to all those that helped.

The Survey
The questionnaire consisted of 21 questions, and the aim of this survey was to investigate:-

  1. The use of warm-up procedures

  2. The breed types

  3. The injuries sustained

Warm-up your dog
  Q. Have you ever received any advice on warm-up procedures for your dog?

About 66% of people stated they had received some advice on warm-up

  Q. Do you do any type of warm-up exercise before you start to jump your dog/s either at training or competition? If so, how long do you warm-up for (in minutes)?

 83.2% claimed that they often - or always -completed some form of warm-up. However, only 25.6% warmed-up for longer than six minutes.

  Q. What type of warm–up do you do with your dogs?

The most common types of warm-up were one or a combination of the following activities: –

  • walk on lead

  • run on lead

  • throw a ball

  Q. On average how long is there between when you warm-up your dog and starting to compete (in minutes)?

Research has shown that any effects of warm-up can last for up to 30 minutes, and as most competitors (89%) waited less than 20 minutes between warm-up and competition, the dogs will have maintained any benefits gained.

  Q. When you are at an agility show, how often is there a space near the ring you are entered in, to warm-up and do a practice jump?

In response to the question asking whether there was an area near the ring to practice a jump or weave poles before competition, 89% stated no warm-up facilities were provided.

The research on humans suggests that the most effective warm-up combine general and specific exercises. For the general warm-up, throwing a ball, and running on the lead are good but need to be of sufficient length to increase body temperature, and reduce the relative stiffness in muscles. Ideally a specific warm-up should involve an exercise which is similar to the actual athletic activity but at a reduced level, such as jumping, turning weaving.

Would it be possible to provide this at Agility shows? There may be concerns over safety in a practice area, however, there are seldom problems in the practice area at horse shows, provided everyone acts responsibly.

Dog Breeds
Naturally the most common breed was Border Collies. However, only 44% of the dogs in the survey were pure breed border collies. There were 37 other breeds represented in small numbers, including a number of crossbreds, and 17% were rescue dogs.


 Q. Has your dog ever been injured while competing/training in agility?

Only 19% of handlers reported that their dogs had received injuries during agility competitions/training. There was no apparent link to the amount of warm-up they had received.

 Q. How long in weeks from original injury was it until the dog was fit for normal activity? To agility competition?

Over half of those injured returned to normal activity in four weeks, and 46% returned to agility within ten weeks. Unfortunately 26% of those injured never returned to agility.

 Q. What was the diagnosis?

The results of the survey indicate that most injuries sustained were reported as non-specific lameness (48%). Specific injuries included cruciate ligament rupture, luxating patella, prolapsed intervertebral disc, fractured coccygeal vertebra, fractured tooth, and dewclaw damage. Three owners stated that their animals had been diagnosed as suffering from hip dysplasia. One was advised by their vet to cease agility training. The remaining two owners continued with agility competition, and both dogs were reported to benefit from this activity.

The most common cause of injuries were twisting/turning during jumping and injuries on the contacts.

In a research paper investigating racing greyhounds, it was reported that the injury rate was 4.4% per race. It is hard to compare this study to agility however. If we assume all the agility injuries happened in one year and the average dogs enters three classes each show and competes in 15 shows a year, then this would give an injury rate of 0.5% per class. This supports the theory that agility is a comparatively safe sport for dogs which is borne out anecdotally as few injuries are seen at shows.

From the survey it is clear that the first point of call following an injury is the vet. However, 43% of handlers recognise the availability of animal chiropractors, 34% were aware of animal physiotherapists and 23% knew about animal osteopaths.

From this survey it can be seen that, although there is a lack of warm-up facilities near the ring, most dogs receive some form of warm-up before competition, albeit of a relatively short duration. The low injury rate, and the lack of correlation between injury and lack of warm-up suggests that the warm-up is sufficient to prevent injuries. However, the type of warm-up was very general, and not specific to the type of activity.

This survey does not investigate performance and warm-up. In the human field, it has always been hard to prove that warm-up reduces the incidents of injuries, but there has been evidence to prove that it aids flexibility and performance.  If there were an available space to practice jump, weaves, and contacts would the dogs and handlers perform better?

Lesley is planning to follow this study up with further research on the possible links between conformation and ability.
She wants to measure as many pure-bred Border Collies and WSDs (but not Cross-breeds)  as possible from all standards of agility.
If you, or your club, are willing to help please email her at

About the author...
Lesley Holmes, has been a chartered physiotherapist for 11 years, working in the human field, both in private practice and the NHS. She started her MSc in Veterinary Physiotherapy in May 2001, and is due to finish her research project by May 2003.

She became interested in agility when her husband started to train their Golden Retriever dog. They started competing at the end of last year, and have just completed their first year by winning out of Starters.

Once qualified she intended to specialise in dogs, especially agility dogs.

For more comments, see Rachel Woods comments on Speak Out.

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