Detecting Signs of an Injury in Agility Dogs Helps to Prevent Chronic Conditions

Brown agility dog

Agility is the most popular AKC performance sport, so it’s not surprising that there is a correspondingly high number of injuries seen in dogs that compete in agility. Soft-tissue injuries, even multiple primary injuries, are not uncommon and may occur in dogs while they are still qualifying during competition.

Canine sports medicine and rehabilitation expert Chris Zink, DVM, PhD, DACVP, DACVSMR, an agility competitor who has put MACH titles on two Norwich Terriers and a Golden Retriever, offers insights to help identify injuries at an early stage before dogs show signs of lameness.

Dr. Zink helped establish the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation in 2010. She wrote and co-edited the award-winning veterinary textbook, Canine Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation. In her veterinary practice, she consults with clients about injuries in their dogs and designs individual rehabilitation and conditioning programs for their recovery and fitness for performance. She also provides helpful information to owners of active dogs on her Canine Sports website.

“Dogs instinctually hide evidence of lameness until their condition is markedly painful. It seems that many dogs just accept mild to moderate pain as ‘just the way it is’ until the pain is so severe that they can no longer hide it,” Dr. Zink says.

“Agility dogs may have multiple, chronic conditions for which the signs are quite subtle. People might notice that their dogs have slower course times or just seem ‘off’ in training and/or competition but not realize that the cause is an underlying injury.”

“Once a dog is limping and is in obvious pain, it is important to consult a veterinarian,” Dr. Zink says. “It is important to be able to identify the signs of soft-tissue pain and to understand why an injury occurs to prevent future problems. This often requires a surgical or sports medicine specialist.

“Start with your general practice veterinarian, who knows your dog best and who will check for many causes of lameness including some that are not related to injuries, such as tick-borne diseases,” she says. “Once those are ruled out, consider getting an appointment with a specialist, such as a board-certified veterinary surgeon or a board-certified sports medicine and rehabilitation veterinarian.”

Ignoring lameness could cause a minor injury to become a chronic one. This could mean replacing a promising competition season with weeks or months of rehabilitation therapy or even expensive surgery.

Many factors can contribute to injuries, including poor structure, inadequate warm-ups and lack of conditioning. Fatigue, overtraining and insufficient rest can also be factors, as can repetitive strain on ligaments and tendons or strength imbalances.

Trotting is a good gait to detect an injury, as it is the only gait in which a dog has to place all of its weight on one foot or rear foot without any help from the contralateral limb.

“Try taking a slow-motion video of a dog at a trot and then focus on the side view, paying attention to the timing of the dog’s footfall. A dog that is short striding at the trot often will have one foot strike the ground before the diagonally opposite foot,” Dr. Zink explains. “A head nod and/or wide foot placement might also be seen.”

Dr. Zink encourages owners of agility dogs to provide their veterinarian with videos of their dog taken at a recent competition and at a competition one year earlier for comparison. She recommends using the highest resolution video format possible and a format that can be reviewed frame by frame. This precludes uploading videos onto YouTube, for example.

“This may help your veterinarian detect a dog using the wrong lead leg when making turns or maneuvering through weave poles,” she says. “Using incorrect lead legs is often a sign of a front limb injury, such as supraspinatus or biceps tendinopathy.”

Dr. Zink notes three signs of abnormalities that can indicate a possible injury and should be followed up with a veterinarian:

  • Not using the correct front lead leg on turning. The dog should use the leg as lead that is on the side to which the dog is turning
  • Short-striding on a front or rear limb when trotting
  • Head nod when trotting

It is important that agility competitors work with their veterinarian as a team. Bear in mind, it is always better to prevent an injury than to treat one later. Learn to look for the subtle signs of an injury before it develops into a chronic condition.