Preventing Injuries in Canine Athletes

Preventing Injuries in Canine Athletes

Preventing Injuries in Canine Athletes

preventing injuries in canine athletes

Many dogs engage in regular physical activity and can be considered athletes even when not competing or on active duty. Here’s how to help prevent injuries.

The focus of modern healthcare is to prevent injuries and disease. Dogs, like humans, are enjoying longer active lives and many people are looking for progressive medicine that integrates a variety of care approaches for their pets throughout each stage of life.   Many dogs engage in regular physical activity and can be considered athletes even if they are not competitive champions or on active duty in the military or police force.

An athlete is defined as an individual who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports or games requiring physical strength, agility or stamina.1 As with humans, there are different types and ages of canine athletes participating in work, sports, competition and play. Canine athletes can be found in the military, police departments, on search and rescue teams, or working as service dogs. Many pet dogs can also be considered athletes when they engage in regular physical activity with their owners. According to the AKC, in agility alone, 1,223,660 entries for competitions were recorded in 2016.1

Key components

There are many opportunities for veterinary teams to integrate injury prevention into general or holistic practices. Key components of injury prevention include client/handler education, age appropriate conditioning, nutrition, and early recognition of warning signs.  Expanded general health assessments and a knowledge of the sport or pet’s activity and associated risks will further assist the veterinary team in prevention and early recognition of injury.

Veterinary technicians and assistants can be instrumental in empowering handlers and dog owners to take a proactive role in maintaining a healthy lifestyle with their canines. Many different preventive programs can be implemented to educate pet owners and handlers, beginning with puppies, or at any age. Although most agility and canine sports have minimum age requirements of 12 to 14 months, owners may start at any age. They may be exercising or conditioning dogs with little or no professional guidance.

Age appropriate conditioning: puppies and adolescents

Recently, I was asked to review age appropriate exercise with an owner after a puppy exam due to “joint stiffness and pain”. The owner was jogging with the 12-week-old puppy to help “work off puppy energy”.  This notion can lead people to push puppies into inappropriate levels of exercise in an effort to solve behavior problems. But puppies are prone to injuries that may affect them for the rest of their lives.

Growth plates dictate safe activity levels for a growing puppy. These soft areas at the ends of long bones are vulnerable to injury until closed, which may occur from 12 to 18 months of age, depending on breed and individual. If a dog has been spayed or neutered prior to that time, a more conservative approach of waiting until 20 months may be indicated for heavier impact activities.2

Puppies also have softer bones and are at a higher risk for fractures caused by falling off furniture, accidental dropping, having their limbs or feet stepped on, or rough play with other dogs. Mind-body awareness is a good focal point for both puppies and adolescent dogs. Slowing down movements, promoting hind end awareness, and promoting a sense of balance help build confidence and prevent injury.

Exercise guidelines for puppy owners should be reviewed by the veterinary team. Educational tools can range from a simple handout, guidelines listed on the clinic website, or integrated into a puppy preschool or socialization program. Some clinics or rehabilitation practices also offer individual sessions to review and practice appropriate puppy exercises, in addition to providing training resources. This is a good opportunity to create educational programs to review safe exercises and provide socialization.

Basic exercise guidelines for puppies

  • Allow self-directed play on varied moderately soft ground such as yards or gardens.
  • Avoid repetitive exercise such as long hikes or long walks, especially on hard surfaces.
  • Avoid going up and down stairs until the puppy is three months of age or older.
  • Don’t allow jumping or jump downs higher than “wrist” height until the pup is six months of age; and no higher than elbow height until 18 to 20 months old.4
  • Avoid pulling during tug games.
  • Allow short training periods for learning commands.

In preparation for work or sport, certain baseline health screenings are recommended, usually between nine and 12 months of age, or prior to beginning a sport in older adults.

  • Physical exam, including lab work (CBC, Serum chemistry).
  • Radiographs for hips, elbows, check patellas.
  • Consider referrals to check eyesight and/or heart as needed.
  • Gait and postural assessments: stance, sitting, walk, and trot.
  • Fitness level and conformation assessment (evaluate risks for injury).
  • Consider referral to sports medicine or rehabilitation professional.

Once baseline health has been established, determine what type of conditioning is required.  Conditioning programs take into account the types of activity to be performed and their frequency, and the overall health of the canine. “Weekend warrior” activity should be discouraged and replaced by consistent, appropriate exercise and play.

Senior athletes

As we already know, old age is not a disease and aging athletes will continue to benefit from exercise. Many working dogs reach age ten or older before retiring. However, seniors may develop other health conditions, including arthritis, heart disease or diabetes, which may require adjustments in their exercise program or activity. Sporting events often offer different levels of competition to allow seniors to participate at lower levels of stress or impact.

Osteoarthritis management programs designed to treat the condition in the early stages will help pets remain active longer. Pain scoring as a vital sign is also an essential aspect of monitoring any veterinary patient, especially the aging canine athlete.

Disability in working dogs

The veterinary team can help keep older working dogs moving, even with a disability. Many working dogs retire following a back injury and surgery. A common recommendation is to never allow the canine to jump down again. Although ideal, not many dogs I know will heed this recommendation. The rehabilitation professional can help develop exercises to keep such dogs active and to minimize risks of future injury. A variety of holistic health approaches can be taken in the clinic or by the client at home. TCVM, homeopathy, chiropractic, osteopathic, massage, Reiki and more can keep these older dogs as active as they wish. There are also increasing numbers of assistive devices available, such as carts or braces, to help keep canines active. Disabled pets require a higher level of nursing care from owners, who look to the veterinary team for guidance and education.

Components of a conditioning program

  • Warm up: athletes have improved performance with warm ups.A warm up may include walks of five to ten minutes, and activities to encourage active range of motion or movements to be performed during the sport or activity.
  • Exercises: strength (core strength, front limb, hind limb), endurance, flexibility, skill training, balance and proprioception. Careful attention to form is essential!
  • Cool down: a slow trot or walk for five to ten minutes, active stretching exercises.
  • Periods of rest: one month off from competition, and jumping at full height only a percentage of the time during training, to help avoid repetitive injury.
  • Environment: surfaces should ideally be non-slip and compressive during training.
  • Therapies: massage, acupuncture, chiropractic
  • Caution: to avoid overheating and dehydration.

Nutrition and supplements

Obesity is considered an epidemic and is so common that owners may not recognize their dogs are overweight. Avoiding excess calories and calcium intake is also important for growing dogs.

Along with nutritional counseling, maintaining objective measurements such as body condition scores and weight:height ratios will help owners and handlers better understand how weight might contribute to injury. The weight:height ratio can be obtained by dividing the dog’s weight by his height (measured at the withers or top of shoulder blades to the floor). “Dogs with ratios higher than 2.5 experience greater amounts of stress on the musculoskeletal system during running, jumping, and turning.”4

Nutritional counseling programs provide further details to help dog owners calculate energy requirements and percentage of fat and protein recommendations for high energy sports. Supplements such as Omega-3 fatty acids and chondroprotectants may also be helpful for long term joint health.6

Dogs should also avoid large meals prior to activity.  A light meal with access to water is recommended.6

Knowledge of the sport or work, its risks and associated common injuries

A wide variety of activities are available beyond the dog park. A basic knowledge of what is expected of the dog during such events will help the veterinary team prevent and recognize injury. The once popular method of treating injury with rest and Rimadyl often leads to a recurrence of the injury once the dog returns to activity. An understanding of common sporting injuries will lead to earlier diagnosis and improved outcomes.

Sporting injuries often initially present as performance issues, such as decreased run times, “knocking poles” in agility, or a new reluctance to perform a specific duty. Working dogs are often stoic and may work through pain, only showing obvious signs once the condition has progressed. A survey of agility handlers revealed that the most common injuries incurred during the sport were soft tissue injuries such as sprains and strains. The same survey cited shoulders as the most common location of injury.7 Unfortunately, many cases of strains or sprains are not presented to a veterinarian for early diagnosis, and therefore become chronic conditions.

Common sporting injuries

  • Biceps brachii tenosynovitis
  • Supraspinatous insertionopathy
  • Medial shoulder instability
  • Teres minor strain
  • Lumbosacral disease
  • Iliopsoas strain
  • Stress injuries to carpus or tarsus
  • Superficial digital flexor tendon injury
  • Achilles tendon injury
  • Gracilis myopathy
  • Foot pad injuries
  • Partial or complete cruciate ligament rupture

Canine sporting events: (non inclusive)

  • Agility
  • Flyball, disc dog, Triebball
  • Dock diving
  • Schutzhund
  • Field trials, retrieving trials, tracking
  • Nosework, barn hunt, earth dog
  • Bikejoring, mushing, carting, scootering, skijoring
  • Conformation showing, junior showmanship
  • Dog parkour (urban agility)
  • Dog hiking, pack hiking, trail running
  • Hare coursing, lure coursing, herding
  • Musical canine freestyle, trick dog
  • Obedience, rally obedience


There are many opportunities for the veterinary team to further their education in providing quality care for canine athlete of all ages. Many therapies, including massage, also offer diagnostic benefits such as picking up on vague lameness, structural imbalances, or myofascial trigger points.

Start asking your clients about activities their dogs participate in, and attend local events.  Obtain pain scores as part of the medical history to help monitor trends. Develop educational programs to assess fitness and develop exercise programs, manage nutrition and weight, monitor for pain and osteoarthritis, or offer rehabilitation therapies. Learn about and practice fear-free handling, because sporting dog handlers expect it and all pets deserve it. Your patients will love you for it.

Author: Lynn Nalepa


Need help with your canine athlete?  Contact one of your Rehab & Conditioning Experts - Virtual consults from Vital Vet to your home.  

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