Purina Canine Sports Medicine Symposium Helps To Advance The Safe Training of Sporting Dogs

Sports Medicine

When it comes to keeping canine athletes healthy, happy and injury-free, professional retriever trainer Mike Lardy of Handjem Kennels in Montello, Wisconsin, believes prevention is the best medicine.

“Field trial retrievers are similar to endurance sprinters,” says Lardy, whose tips apply to most canine athletes. “They run up to 25 mph, fighting wind, terrain and cover. It is physically and mentally demanding work.”

Lardy shared his insights from 35 years’ experience training retrievers for field trials at the Purina Canine Sports Medicine Symposium, held this past fall at the Purina Event Center in Gray Summit, Missouri. The first program of its kind in the country, the symposium brought together 30 top veterinary sports medicine experts who presented the latest sports medicine research and brainstormed innovative ways to work together.

Purina has partnered with the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation since its inception in 2010. The symposium organizer, RuthAnn Lobos, DVM, CCRT, of Purina, says, “It’s exciting to witness new relationships being formed as a result of this symposium, with great discussions and provocative questions being asked and a laser focus on increasing the level of care of canine athletes.”

Among the presenters, Chris Zink, DVM, PhD, DACVP, DACVSMR, CCRT, CVSMT, DVA, of Zink Integrative Sports Medicine and Canine Sports Production in Ellicott City, Maryland, discussed the use of smartphone technology to record a dog’s performance and gaiting movement as a diagnostic tool to detect signs of pain and to monitor a dog’s progress after surgery and rehabilitation. Robert Gillette, DVM, MSE, DACVSMR, of Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in Red Bank, New Jersey, covered the impact of physical activity on the energy demands of canine athletes. Here are highlights of these talks.

Attaining a Winning Edge 
Having handled seven National Retriever Champions, Lardy also has played a key role in training 23 retrievers to their National titles. His success centers on a training program built on respect and care for the dogs.

“We look for little things and take notes on our dogs’ progress every day,” Lardy says. “For example, a sloppy sit could indicate a physical problem. Some trainers think the more training, the better, but that’s not the case.”

Among the takeaways from his talk, Lardy encourages trainers to keep a watchful eye on each dog during training. Should you notice anything awry, time is of the essence in stopping physical activity and getting the dog to a veterinarian. “Be sensitive to your dog’s abilities and attitude. If your dog seems off, there’s a reason,” Lardy says.

The key, however, to avoiding injuries is to warm up a dog before exercise. For example, at a field trial, Lardy parks 100 yards away from the line so his retrievers are physically active before stepping to the line. The time walking the dog to the line is well spent.

Once a dog has been warmed up and is ready for exercise, trainers should stress the ABCs, or Attitude, Balance and Control. A dog should be obedient, independent and focused when performing a task. Trainers should find the right combination of positive reinforcement and correction for each individual dog based on success and failure. Maintaining these principles are crucial to a dog’s optimal field performance.

Downtime aids a dog’s physical and mental recovery. A dog should be given ample time off on a regular basis to recharge from the stress and strain of dog sports. If a dog has suffered an injury, he or she will need even more time to rest and recover. “Every year our dogs get six weeks off, plus a weekend to rest after every two field trials,” says Lardy.

Training should be supplemented with conditioning to help prevent injury and improve a dog’s performance. “Simply put, a well-conditioned dog delivers a better physical performance,” Lardy explains. “Exercises such as water sprints and kayak conditioning increase a dog’s aerobic base and decrease the risk for injury.”

Most importantly, take training slowly. It is a long haul to get from a puppy to 
a finished dog, so do not progress to advanced training until a dog masters the basics. An injury can be the consequence of doing too much too soon.

Energy Impacts Performance & Rehabilitation
For any dog, exercise can help positively stimulate metabolic state, and thus help prevent obesity. However, as the level of activity for dogs, especially canine athletes, increases, so do the physical demands placed on the dog’s body, says Dr. Gillette.

“We’re seeing an increased demand for information concerning the performance of canine athletes and appropriate veterinary rehabilitation,” he says. “These expectations are a result of the scientific advancements in human sports medicine and physical therapy.”

Because a dog requires energy to maintain homeostasis, additional energy is needed for physical activity. Dr. Gillette likens the factors of canine performance to a three-legged stool. Body soundness is needed for strength and power activities, such as lure coursing, dock jumping or high jumping. Meanwhile, body conditioning is a must for endurance activities, such as bird or game hunting, and scent tracking or trailing. Finally, drive is necessary to perform the task at hand, regardless of the type of activity.

“Energy utilization is dependent on which parts of the dog’s musculoskeletal system are working,” says Dr. Gillette. “For example, you may have a dog that has the desire to perform a task, but physically can’t. Or you may have a dog that’s physically capable and conditioned to do the work, but doesn’t have the mental drive to do so.”

Dr. Gillette says these concepts can be applied to rehabilitation with the difference being the physical state of the dog. “With a canine athlete, you have a healthy dog that you’re taking to new performance levels. When your canine athlete suffers an injury or becomes sick, you have a dog in a rehabilitative state that you’re bringing back to a state of normality,” he explains.

Structural, physiological and external factors, such as the environment, also play a role in metabolic utilization. Thus, it’s important to acclimate a dog to the environment in which he or she will perform to help minimize stress.

“Determine where you’re going and what the environmental conditions will be to get an idea of the effort a dog may have to put forth. This can help you appropriately condition the dog to handle stress,” says Dr. Gillette.

Conditioning is a unique balance of creating enough energy generated by the body and anticipating the stress a dog could encounter, so the dog will learn to adapt over a period of time. Conditioning should be a gradual program, as working a dog too hard too fast can strain the muscles and lead to injury.

“Optimal performance is a marriage between proper nutrition and conditioning,” Dr. Gillette says. “A conditioned dog handles stress better than an unconditioned dog.”

Early Injury Diagnosis Is Key 
It is sometimes difficult to diagnose an unexpected or unidentified injury in its early stage, long before a dog shows overt signs of lameness.

“Over the past decade, with an increasing number of canine athletes competing in dog sports, there’s an increased prevalence of soft-tissue injuries often leading to multiple injuries,” says Dr. Zink, a sports medicine veterinarian for more than 30 years.

Many dogs don’t show signs of overt pain or lameness right away. Instead, a dog may seem “off,” resulting in a slower or decreased performance. What’s worse, canine athletes can have more than one primary injury, resulting in multiple and chronic conditions.

“It is critical to look for subtle signs of an injury early on in order to catch a performance problem before lameness occurs,” Dr. Zink advises.

A smartphone is a readily available diagnostic tool to help see these subtle signs. By recording a dog’s performance and gaiting movement from a side view, sports medicine veterinarians can play the high-resolution footage back in slow motion frame by frame to detect signs of pain to help catch an injury before lameness occurs. This technology also allows veterinarians to monitor a dog’s progress following surgery and rehabilitation.

Veterinarians can use thermal imaging to detect inflammation in soft-tissue structures and compensatory muscular activity. Bruising, infections, frostbite, and harness rubbing also are visual.

“A thermal imaging camera is sensitive enough to show, for example, a strain of one flexor tendon on the bottom of the front paw amid all the healthy ones. It is a useful tool in quickly localizing an injury,” Dr. Zink explains. “The camera also can help identify the leg on which a dog is placing subtly less weight and can even show that a dog is placing less weight on one toe as compared to the others.”

There’s no doubt that canine athletes are reaping the benefits from advances in sports medicine and rehabilitation. Purina is helping to lead the way by holding events such as the Purina Canine Sports Medicine Symposium, sponsoring ACVSMR and communicating the latest findings to dog trainers and handlers. As a result, the future for canine athletes promises to bring an increased level of care, so dogs may accomplish more than ever before.

CCL Rehabilitation in Dogs
The cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) is one of the most important stabilizers in the canine stile (knee) joint. A major cause of degenerative joint disease in the stifle joint is CCL rupture. Risk factors for the development of CCL disease include poor body condition and excessive body weight.

Research at Oregon State University is helping dogs that have suffered from CCL injury and have undergone tibial plateau-leveling osteotomy surgery. A clinical trial of 48 dogs found that feeding Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets JM Joint Mobility Canine Formula, in conjunction with rehabilitation, had a positive effect on dogs recovering after surgery for CCL injury.

“We found that the combination of this diet and rehabilitation helped to improve the force dogs exerted on the affected limb, compared to dogs in other study groups. JM is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and protein,” says lead investigator Wendy Baltzer, DVM, PhD, DACVS, DACVSMR, CCRP, associate professor of small animal surgery and director of canine sports medicine and rehabilitation at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

Dr. Baltzer presented this study, which was funded by Purina, last fall at the Purina Canine Sports Medicine Symposium and at the American College of Veterinary Surgeons’ Surgery Summit. She also presented