Whether your dog participates in competitive canine sports or just loves to run and play, he is at risk of sustaining a sports injury.
Injuries may be relatively minor, such as a strained back muscle. Or they can be more serious, such as a torn or ruptured cranial cruciate ligament (CCL). The CCL, an important knee stabilizer, is located in the hind leg.
CCL injuries (which are often referred to as ACL injuries) are not uncommon in dogs. Some breeds, such as the Labrador retriever, may have a genetic predisposition to CCL tears.
Dogs may injure their knee ligaments while turning at speed or if they catch their leg in a hole while running. Some dogs seem to injure their CCL slowly, over time. The exact cause of a torn CCL may even be unknown. One day the dog appears profoundly lame, often with the leg held up off the ground.
A CCL injury can require very expensive surgery and extensive aftercare. The dog’s activities usually have to be severely curtailed, which is often difficult and frustrating for both canine and human.
To add insult to injury, it’s not uncommon for dogs to rupture the CCL on the opposite hind leg some time after the first one has been torn. I’m sure you’ll agree that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!
There are many other types of injuries that dogs can sustain. Dogs can fracture bones, tear nails, and sprain joints. They can develop arthritis from repeated trauma to their carpal (wrist), stifle (knee) joints or spine.
Of course, many injuries are not so dire. Oftentimes, a lame dog has simply strained a muscle and will recover with veterinary attention and rest.
But our canine friends can also injure their spinal discs, which can eventually cause leg weakness, incontinence and even paralysis. Because it’s often difficult to judge the seriousness of an injury, it’s recommended that a veterinarian exam your dog right away if you suspect an injury.
A chronic condition such as arthritis can develop from micro injuries that occur over a period of time.
While no one can guarantee that your dog will not be injured, there are steps you can take to help your canine companion remain active, happy and healthy. Let’s explore five of these steps below.
A great number of injuries don’t happen suddenly, although it may seem like they do. A dog is running along just fine and then suddenly yelps in pain and holds his leg up. That injury took about a second to happen, right?
Many injuries occur because the dog has been moving in an unbalanced way for an extended period of time. The imbalance causes some parts of the body to undergo greater wear and tear, although not enough to cause noticeable lameness. Over time, however, those stressed areas become more vulnerable to injury.
Subtle imbalances may show up as asymmetrical muscle development. For example, your dog may have one hind leg that is more developed than the other. Slowly scanning your dog’s body with your hands can alert you to such asymmetries. We’ll refer to this exercise as a Body Scan.
A Body Scan has the added benefit of enhancing your dog’s body awareness, which in turn improves coordination. (We’ll talk about the importance of your dog’s coordination in Tip #2.)
It’s simple to do a Body Scan. Pick a time when your dog is relaxed and you are not in a rush. A Body Scan can be done with your dog standing, sitting and lying down. Skip any position that is uncomfortable for you or your dog.
With your dog standing in a relaxed way, slowly slide your hands up your dog’s hind legs to feel his muscles. Is one leg more developed than the other? If so, it may indicate that your dog is using that leg more than its mate.
Run your hands up the front legs. Do you notice any differences? Is one shoulder area more developed than the other?
Gently and slowly slide your hands from the base of his skull to the tip of his tail. Does your dog’s back quiver when it’s touched? Become familiar with your dog’s muscle tone throughout his body.
Changes in the way your dog sits or walks can indicate a potential problem too. Does your adult dog sit crooked, with one hind leg out to the side? This may indicate a problem with his knee, hip or back. (To learn more about what to look for, please watch my short video, “Recognizing the Early Signs of Injury and Arthritis.”).
With your dog lying on his side, examine his paws. Uneven nail or pad wear can indicate that your dog is using his legs unequally.
Feel the top-lying front and hind leg muscles, then have your dog gently roll onto his other side and repeat the inspection. Do you notice a difference in the development of your dog’s leg muscles?
Gently run your hands from your dog’s head to tail, including his ribcage and abdomen. Use a light, listening contact.
A daily Body Scan can help you notice lumps, bumps or sore areas so that you can seek veterinary attention immediately. This may prevent a minor issue from developing into a serious problem.
Closely observe your dog when he’s playing or competing. Learn when he’s had had enough exercise or other stimulation. A stressed, tired, sore or overheated dog is more likely to be injured, since he won’t have the physical resources to react quickly enough to prevent injury.
Many dogs, especially high-drive dogs such as border collies, Australian cattle dogs and other herding breeds, are masters at ignoring fatigue and soreness. They may not notice that they are tired or hurt, because their adrenaline is flowing and their brains are shouting Go, go, go! But these hard-working canines may be setting themselves up for an injury. It’s up to us to know when to give our dogs a break from the action.
So please be mindful of your dog’s physical and emotional state. Know when he’s had enough. If your dog seems a bit “off,” act on your hunch. Have the courage to buck peer or competitive pressure and be your dog’s true guardian. He’s counting on you!
Your dog knows where her legs are without having to look at them. This ability is called proprioception, and it’s used by your dog’s nervous system to coordinate her movement.
Agility, flyball and disc dogs perform complicated maneuvers that require exquisite coordination. But even dogs simply running and playing need good coordination and balance.
The more precisely your dog can coordinate her movement, the faster she can adjust her position and potentially avoid injury.
You can enhance your dog’s coordination through non-habitual touch and movement. The Body Scan is an example of non-habitual touch.
Creating an obstacle course is a fun and effective way to encourage non-habitual movement.
You and your dog can walk over cavalletti poles, step through tires on the ground, and weave around poles or pylons. Safely teach your dog to jump up on wide walls and walk along them. Let your imagination run free as you create a canine-human playground!
Both you and your dog will benefit from the novel sensory experiences and fun physical challenges as you both improve your body awareness and coordination.
Sounds simple, right? But how many of us actually do it? The following scenario is most common. You drive to your local dog park, your dog whining with excitement. As you enter the gate, you unclip her leash and she’s off and running!
You love that she’s having a great time. After all, she spent most of the day on the couch, waiting for you to come home. But that also means that her muscles are cold. Running at speed without a warm-up can predispose your dog to injury.
A better idea would be to take your dog for a walk before you go to the dog park. Let your dog’s muscles get warmed up. After several minutes of walking, trot for a few minutes more.
Jog some figure-eight patterns so your dog changes directions a few times. After all, she’ll be changing directions a lot, at fast speed, when she’s playing with other dogs or competing in most dog sports. Give her body a chance to prepare for these demanding maneuvers.
Then you can let her run!
This is true for the dog that does flyball, agility, lure coursing, dock diving or any other fast activity. Many people simply let their dogs out of their crates or off their leashes and go at full speed. That can be a recipe for a serious canine injury.
After your dog has finished running, take the time to cool her down. Trot for a little bit and then take a relaxing walk in the shade. Offer your dog water. Let your dog’s heart rate and breathing come down before you put him away.
Taking the time to warm-up and cool-down your dog properly can go a long way to preventing canine sports injuries.
We all know that overweight dogs are at a greater risk of injury than lean dogs. So it makes sense that maintaining your dog at a healthy weight is a good idea. And that’s a great start.
But it’s also important to condition your dog for the activity that he’ll be doing. Dogs that are active on the weekends should exercise during the week too. Weekend warriors are at risk for injury.
Take your dog’s current physical condition and breed type into account when planning an exercise program. Be careful not to let your dog get overheated. This is especially important for brachycephalic breeds such as Boston terriers, bulldogs and pugs, as their shorter airways make temperature regulation more challenging. Consulting your dog’s veterinarian is a smart idea.
Walking is generally a good exercise for most dogs. You can make walking even more beneficial by varying the terrain in your outings. Visit a sandy beach, a leaf-strewn wooded path, a grassy field and a cement sidewalk. The challenges and sensations produced by the different surfaces help stimulate the body and the brain, improving proprioception, body awareness and coordination for you and your dog.
Of course, be mindful of how the surface feels to your dog’s paws. Avoid hot asphalt, slippery surfaces, salted walkways and foxtail-ridden areas. Be on the lookout for gopher holes and other potential dangers.
Slowly add in short periods of trotting and running. Gradually build duration as your dog’s condition improves. If your fitness allows, you can run with your dog. Otherwise, play fetch or other activities which encourage running. Swimming can also be a fun and effective way to improve your dog’s fitness. As you enjoy exercising with your dog, ensure that you both stay properly hydrated.
Daily, consistent exercise can help your dog’s muscles and ligaments stay strong and resilient and minimize the chance of injury.
When I began working with humans as well as animals, I noticed something interesting. As I helped dog handlers develop greater agility, flexibility and coordination, they were suddenly able to notice things about their canine companions that they hadn’t been able to before.
Suddenly, their eyes became keener at seeing gait asymmetries and their hands became more sensitive to changes in canine muscle tone and development.
The handlers demonstrated that being tuned in to your own body can help you become tuned into your dog as well.
After improving their own body awareness, many of the handlers could now tell when their dogs were even a little bit sore, tired or stressed. In short, they were alert to smaller signs of discomfort in their dogs. This, no pun intended, is HUGE.
Why? Because we know that minor discomforts may, over time, lead to serious injuries. Small things become big things.
So how does one develop this awareness? Slowly down and paying attention to your breathing, movement and comfort is a good way to start. So many of us rush around without really feeling what we’re doing. We simply don’t pay attention. And that’s a shame. Because awareness can help keep ourselves and our dogs healthy.
Fortunately, awareness is a skill that can be learned. You can interrupt your “busyness” and begin to develop awareness by doing things non-habitually. Variety is indeed the spice of life.
Below are some suggestions for non-habitual activities. They can help wake up your brain and expand your awareness. I’m sure you’ll come up ideas of your own too.
Which arm always goes into your jacket sleeve first? Many of us habitually lead with the same leg or arm. Try putting on and taking off your clothes in a different way. You’ll have to slow down and pay attention.
By using your body and mind in novel ways, you can open the door to physical and mental nimbleness. Your body – and your dog – will thank you!
Note: the Feldenkrais Method is an effective and enjoyable way to develop awareness. And it can help reduce aches and pains while you improve flexibility, posture and vitality too.
Have these tips changed what you plan do with your dog? Or yourself? I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
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This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace veterinary advice. Mary Debono, Gary Waskowsky and SENSE Method, Inc. disclaim all liability in connection with the use of this information. Please consult a veterinarian if you have any concerns about your dog’s health or soundness.