Thoughts on injury prevention in agility dogs
by Hannah Banks
Are more dogs getting injured now that jump heights are lowered? It seems far too often now that I hear of another dog that is injured. I don’t remember so many dogs getting injured five years ago, are there just more dogs doing agility now, or is there a reason why so many are getting injured? Some people have asked my for some thoughts on injury prevention, so here they are!
1. Your dog should be fit before it starts doing agility. Do not make an overweight dog do agility!
2. Every dog has an injury threshold. Agility is a high impact sport; do too much and something will eventually give way. Just how much ‘too much’ is will vary from dog to dog. Of course, our goal is to avoid injury. In human sports, top trainers warn people in training to beware the 'terrible toos' - doing too much, too soon, too fast. Every research paper and every expert agrees that this is the number one cause of sports injuries. The body needs time to adapt from training changes and jumps in duration or intensity. Muscles and joints need recovery time in order to handle more training demands. Intense muscle usage causes muscle microfiber trauma, and this activates the development of more muscle fibres, which is how (during the rest period after such activities) muscles become bigger and stronger in response to exercise. While muscles can respond to exercise in a time scale of days and weeks, it has been estimated that it takes six weeks for human ligaments to repair after injury. If you rush the training process, you could break down rather than build up. It is worth starting with a very small amount (on lowered equipment if possible) and following ‘the 10 per cent rule’ used by many sports coaches as a general guideline. This means that the weekly increase of training would never exceed 10% more than the week before (ie if the total amount of agility the first week is three ten minute session, the second week would be three eleven minute sessions.) However that does not take into account the intensity of your sessions, so if the equipment is being raised that should be taken into account as well (so reduce the total time spent training and only raise the equipment very slowly). In addition to following a hard day/easy day approach, many top athletes use a system where they scale back by 20 to 40 per cent on a regular basis, maybe once a month.
Action Plan: Increase the amount of agility you do with your dog very slowly. Keeping a detailed training log can help you gauge your balance of injury prevention with improving performance. Record your training and how your dog is behaving. Look for patterns. For instance, too much training could cause your dogs’ performance to suffer rather than improve. Try to find the perfect balance!
3. If something is not quite right with your dog, if it isn’t jumping smoothly, or starts having problems with something, if there are behavioural changes (doesn’t seem to want to ‘play’), or you just have a gut feeling that something isn’t right, then stop training! Most sports injuries don't just suddenly appear. They produce signals - aches, soreness, and eventually persistent pain – but your dog cannot tell you this in English! It's up to you to notice – and not dismiss - the signs. Get to the root of what's causing the changes that you notice, you could prevent a major injury by spotting problems early on. Regularly massaging your dog may also help you to notice sore, hot or tense spots that signal potential problem areas, and massage may also help alleviate minor problems before they develop into something more serious.
Action Plan At the first sign of atypical behaviour that might indicate pain stop training your dog and get it checked out by a professional. Follow the advise the professional gives you regarding treatment and a recovery period, then ease your dog carefully back into work, do not rush it back into doing the same amount of work as before, you may cause the same damage again, especially if your dog has lost fitness during its’ time out. When unused, muscles degenerate and after a period of time muscle wastage is apparent. (See points above!)
4. Core muscle strength can help keep your dogs body properly aligned. Healthy movement should be as symmetrical and as fluid as possible. If you don't have muscle balance, then you lose the symmetry, and that's when you start having problems. Just like human athletes, a well conditioned and muscled dog that is properly warmed up is far less likely to suffer from sprains, pulls, tears, back or joint problems. Strong muscles protect the joints and back from injury, as anyone with back problems who undertakes pilates classes will tell you. Bodies are susceptible to injury from carrying out the same movement repetitiously (resulting in what is commonly called repetitive strain injury (RSI) or overuse injuries). So a mixture of exercises (swimming, walking, trotting, long walks, free running over different types of terrain, ladder work, wobble boards, tricks and games, as well as agility) are less likely to cause injuries and more likely to build a happy, fit dog, than carrying out the same exercises repetitively (ie only doing agility). Twisting, braking, landing impact, and sharp turning movements are demanding on muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints and bones. A dog must be fit in order to be able to do all these things. Slow controlled core muscle exercises will help develop muscle groups that ‘fine tune’ exact movement. These muscles also help stabilise joints, and therefore protect them against excessive movement of the joints that lead to wear between the joints, or overstretching that may lead to injury of ligaments, muscle or tendon. Rest periods are just as important as exercise. It is during rest that the body rebuilds itself and becomes stronger in response to the demands of previous activities. Without adequate rest, the wear and tear of exercise would weaken rather than strengthen the body. It is also interesting to note that gentle exercise is much better for the dogs’ recovery than complete inactivity.
Action plan: Give your dog a variety of activities, with regular gentle activity days. Balance the routine of more demanding agility alternating with days of gentler walks, core-muscle strength exercises, co-ordination and balance exercises, or tricks.
5. Get into habits that prevent damage. There are a few things that are done habitually by many people that regularly cause injury (and sometimes fatal injury). Releasing a pack in an exercise area to charge off racing each other has caused many terrible accidents, as the dogs are looking at each other while they are racing, and not where they are going. It is easy to prevent a catastrophic event by getting into a habit of releasing individuals in a controlled way, either releasing them one by one over time and distance as they settle into the walk, or keeping one (or some!) on lead throughout the walk, swapping individuals from free running to lead walking if necessary. Throwing toys is another danger area. If you talk to your vet about how many injuries have been caused by sticks being thrown I doubt that you will ever throw a stick for your dog again! In fact I would not recommend throwing a toy constantly for your dog, as the concussive force and twisting caused by the dog braking and snatching at a toy that it is chasing at full speed can cause acute or chronic physical damage. If you are throwing toys and there are a number of dogs likely to chase it, the statistics of an accident happening are significantly increased!
Action plan: Manage your dogs’ daily exercise habits to prevent accidents.
6. Warm up your dog properly before training, and cool down gently after.