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Lann Morian’s Knife. French ring training. May 2014.

A few weeks ago, decoy Matt Nieuwkoop mentioned to us that Knife has a strong tendency to always attack and bite from the same side. Dogs are right or left handed just like humans, so that could certainly explain Matt’s observation. However we also realized that Knife could be favoring one side because of an underlying weakness or injury.

There were no other clues to suggest that Knife was suffering from an injury. This year he has had fourteen wins in AKC and USDAA agility, including two blue ribbons in USDAA steeplechase and another one in grand prix which gives him an automatic qualification to the USDAA National Championship. Knife also earned a brevet in French ring this year, one of only a handful of Groenendaels in the US to advance this far in one of the protection sports. Through all of the training and trialing, Knife has displayed beautiful jumping, strong running, and no glitch in his gait.

Just to be safe, we made an appointment for Knife to be examined by Dr. Wendy Baltzer at Oregon State University two weeks ago. Dr. Baltzer is the only dipolmate of the ACVSMR practicing canine surgery in Oregon. Her initial exam revealed that Knife had moderate pain in his left shoulder and she recommended an ultrasound procedure for a closer look. All of us were surprised at the findings. Knife had a 1-cm diameter lesion in his left supraspinatus tendon that was the result of a recent injury and another large lesion with calcification in his right supraspinatus tendon, probably resulting from a chronic condition. The diagnosis was bilateral supraspinatus tendinopathy. Dr. Baltzer pulled up the ultrasound video imagery on the display in the exam room and showed us the areas of calcification and the internal structure of each lesion which indicated how recently it developed. These were serious soft-tissue injuries in both shoulders, but Knife was completely asymptomatic (except for Matt’s observation).

In humans, much of the shoulder’s stability is owed to the clavicle.  Dogs have no clavicle.  The supraspinatus muscle is all a dog has to hold the shoulder in place under forward directed momentum

Knife is a 3.5 year old dog in otherwise excellent condition. Joan did almost a year of body-awareness exercise, jumping practice, and strength training with Knife before starting his agility foundation work. We have experience with retired performance dogs and know the toll that years of training and trialing can have on a dog’s physical condition later in life. We were going to make sure that with Knife and Sharpy, our eagerness to begin their performance careers did not cause us to rush into trials before these youngsters had skeletons and muscles strong enough to withstand repeated jumping, A-frame contacts, and 30-m face attacks. At 72 lbs and 25 inches tall, we were also aware that Knife is at an elevated risk of sports injuries. So he’s been conscientiously warmed up and cooled down during training and trialing. He’s had hours of fitness conditioning each week in addition to agility and ring sport practice. Knife also gets regularly treated by a couple of massage therapists in whom we have confidence to detect tight muscles and soreness when Knife is too stoic to show weakness.

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Lann Morian’s Knife. AKC International Sweepstakes Class. Mt. Hood trial, 4 July 2014. 1st place. Photo by Joe Camp.

Knife’s diagnosis is particularly disconcerting because we are committed to not making mistakes we have made with our previous dogs. We believed we were giving him the best possible care and he became injured nevertheless. Dr. Baltzer explained to us that it is almost inevitable that dogs of Knife’s size, speed, and intense drive will be injured in agility. Thousands of repetitive jumps, the pounding on shoulders from A-frame contacts, and spinal contortions from high-speed weaving cannot but have detrimental effects. Dr. Baltzer told us that if she were to bring a portable ultrasound to an agility trial, we would be astounded at the number of undiagnosed soft-tissue injuries she could find.   Some canine athletes have a remarkable capacity to play through their pain.

Last Friday Knife received the first in a series of platelet rich plasma injections into his shoulders. The growth factors in blood platelets have been shown to speed recovery of soft-tissue injuries in many cases. With five months of restricted activity and the PRP injections, the prognosis for Knife to return to agility and ring sport is very good.

Here are a few things we have learned so far from this incident:

  • We’ve been aware of the risks inherent in the sport of agility. Now we assume that very fast, large dogs are at a much greater risk than we previously believed. We can’t and wouldn’t want Knife to lower the intensity that he brings to sports, so we will be decreasing the number of jumps and contacts that Knife has to do in a month. Training will be very focused toward specific skills. No more sessions rehearsing long sequences of obstacles. Very few runs over an A-frame. No more 3 day trials.
  • Knife has always been worked by ring sport decoys that put safety first. We know there are wild and careless decoys out there. We remain on guard for them.
  • Joan and I have always watched our dogs for the slightest problem in their gait or jumping. This recent episode shook our confidence in our ability to always tell when one of our dogs is injured. We now believe that every performance dog deserves regular exams by a qualified sports medicine practitioner. At least every year whether or not an injury is suspected, more frequently for big and/or high drive dogs that throw themselves into their work. The average vet or chiropractor who hasn’t had formal training to recognize and rehabilitate the characteristic injuries of different canine sports is useless in helping the dog recover to their full potential.
  • There is no substitute for ultrasound to diagnose soft tissue injury (except for the much more expensive MRI). I will no longer be satisfied when a vet or chiropractor explains to me some vague notion of a sprain in my dog’s leg (or neck or whatever). I want to know exactly where and how big is the injury. How else to assess whether the dog is really recovered and ready to compete?
  • Last and maybe most important—we will do our best to breed dogs that are fit and well-built to meet the demands of sports and work. Dogs born with intrinsic structural weaknesses such as straight shoulders and front and rear assemblies out of balance start their performance careers with two strikes against them.

Read the sequel to Knife’s story of recovery

knife_shoulder_ultrasoundWhile I believe that there is no substitute for consulting with well-qualified vets and therapists, I see many competitors who are wholly dependent upon professionals and never really learn how to care for a high performance dog themselves. We owe it to our canine partners to understand their anatomy, take the time to keep them in good physical condition (agility practice is NOT fitness training!), and be prepared to assist them through most of the physical therapy ourselves when they are injured. Chiropractors and sports vets are so expensive and effective PT is so time-consuming that almost nobody can afford to delegate all the work necessary for recovery to these professionals.

So I’ll get off of my soap box now. I’d be very interested in hearing the stories of your dog’s recovery from a sports or work related injury. What lessons did you learn through the experience?

39 Responses to Caring for the High Performance Dog

  1. Barbara says:

    My dog Speck (border collie) has been recovering from a Psosas (groin pull) injury that he sustained nearly 10 months ago. He is 8 years old, and I am very careful about what training I do with him, I spend more time doing conditioning, and rehab with him AND my other dogs.

    His injury has made me revamp my training regiment FOR ALL MY DOGS and I spend much more time on conditioning and I am very thoughtful about training and making sure that the training sessions are short and focused on a particular subject/area/skill.

    I also spend much more time on cross conditioning like swimming and hiking and other general conditioning exercises.

    • Obsidian Master says:

      Same here Barbara. All of our dogs get more time in conditioning and fitness work than training for sports. Rogue and Rocky have been retired from competition for years, but they still go down to the barn for “agility” training, which consists of a couple tunnels and 12″ jumps mixed in with a lot of core strengthening exercises, cavalettis, and stretches. Its for more than just the physical conditioning. These old dogs still want to have that individual time with us. They need to know they are still our partners even if we are competing with younger dogs.

  2. Rise Quay says:

    My Standard Schnauzer bitch had and has had a recurring soft tissue problem, the origin of–we believe–was a car accident. She appeared sound and was run in three-day agility trial immediately following. She placed in her classes and triple and double-Q’d at that weekend. The following trial, she began popping weaves and failing to stop on the pause table. I had her checked again and “adjusted” and treated and she was pronounced “fine”—so I assumed these things were a training problem and worked on correcting these things. She was “off” intermittently and after consultation, was rested for about six months. When we returned to trialing, she was able to maintain soundness for only a month or so. This has plagued this dog for over two years. She is very well put together and showed no signs of problems before the accident, so we do believe that to be the root cause, however, I did not understand the degree of fitness that is necessary to keep her in condition for agility. We walk, she has free yard play, does fitpaws core work, and occasionally the treadmill. After a routine check six months ago, we found soreness in the same area and immediately pulled her from work and gave her some weeks rest and then added swimming to her routine. It has made a huge difference. The amount of “work” that an agility/performance dog’s body does is barely fathomed by the casual dog sport enthusiast. I’m afraid for most of us, having a reoccurring or serious injury is what “wakes us up” to the real needs of our dogs. Much more education is needed in terms of conditioning, weight control, and maintenance of the dogs’ bodies. We should not hold this information, but share it all in hopes of preventing another dog from having unnecessary problems with health/soundness. Thank you for writing and sharing this blog. I can’t wait to see Knife and Joan back in the ring.

    • Obsidian Master says:

      Thanks for sharing that story Rise. I hope my post causes some competitors to look at their canine partners more closely. Ring sport, agility, and fly-ball are a lot harder on our dogs than most handlers realize. I’ve come to believe these are moderately risky activities to drivey, fast dogs or to poorly structured ones. If we are going to participate in high impact sports, we owe it to our dogs to keep them strong enough to withstand the pounding they are going to take.

  3. Valerie says:

    Thank you thank you thank you for sharing your story and detailing your experiences. Unfortunately yours is a story ALL dog owners should read and be aware of not just performance dog handlers. I’m a K9 Fitness Trainer and have found that educating people to the benefits of conditioning their dogs can be a real eye opener to so many including performance dog owners.
    Since our dogs cannot tell us when they’re uncomfortable or in pain we just keep going and forget to pay attention to the smallest signs there may be a problem. Bless you for your keen eye and determination for caring for Knife as well as your desire to teach others to be more cognizant and mindful of their training, conditioning and activity of their dogs. Wishing Knife a full recovery and look forward to seeing her back in the ring. Thank you!!!

    • Obsidian Master says:

      Thanks Valerie. Any advice how we can choose a competent fitness trainer or PT? Anybody can put up a booth at a trial. How do we know that someone has the skills and experience to develop a conditioning program to needs of individual dogs, and most importantly, recognizes when a dog needs to be seen by an ortho or rehab veterinarian?

      • Valerie says:

        That’s a great question and my recommendation would be talk to your friends and others who have found a K9 Fitness Trainer or PT that they have been happy with and received comprehensive training and follow up from. Check out their education, experience and references. You are correct that anyone can set up a booth at a trial and sell fitness equipment. Just putting a dog on a ball will not magically create a strong core or stabilize weak areas etc. I am a certified k9 fitness trainer but not a PT so for myself I do not do rehab I teach conditioning to prevent injuries and I won’t work with a dog that has had an injury until they have been released from the vet to return to normal activity. I hope this helps a bit. Wishing you all the BEST in finding the right person to work with you and Knife.

  4. Kathie Till says:

    I have a recurring groin and now shoulder In my 9 y/o mini Aussie. She is a high drive dog on an agility course or when playing with my other dogs. She sees an acupuncture vet once a month and an ocassional chiropractor. I don’t train heavily and now do warm up and cool down exercises. I believe the weaves are her problem. I agree that there have to be considerably more injuries than people realize.

  5. Teri says:

    My very drivey cardigan experienced an injury last summer, which, like you, changed everything for me. We now focus a lot on core strength & stretching before practice and competing, a lot of swimming and small skill sets in agility practice. I have a ‘pit crew’ of professional medical people to keep him ‘buttery’. At 4 years old, he also jumps at a lower height. I have decided that his agility career will probably be a short one and increased his herding schedule as he is built more for working stock then doing a lot of repetitive jumping. Thanks for such a great article !

  6. Mary says:

    Dave and Joan, I am sure sorry that Knife has these injuries but so glad that you caught them and shared your story with us. I think all agility addicts with large or fast dogs should read your story. Last weekend, I watch dog after dog bash into the Aframe at the trial. I can’t imagine how long those dogs will stay sound. The quest for ever faster dogs sure seems destructive to our companions. Nick, 26.5 inch, Belgian is not that fast or drivey and while I miss the speed, I believe he will be less likely to be injured. I hope Knife recovers well. Thanks again for sharing your experiences with us.

    • admin says:

      Thanks Mary. My Rogue didn’t have the intensity for agility either. I wanted more from him early in his career, but I came to respect his instinct for self preservation.

  7. Peggy Richter says:

    I think this is one of the drawbacks of performance sports. Initially, it’s a fun thing, Then it gets competitive and soon we get the “more is better” syndrome. When I first encountered agility, some SAR folk were interested in using it for getting their dogs to go thru / over/ around unusual objects. But a SAR dog doesn’t RUN over these things. Both agility and protection sport have grown from their origins to be pretty competitive and asking a dog to do not just “enough” but it’s upmost. In my own chosen sport of herding, you see this also, particularly in ISDS type herding which has morphed from what it was in 1840s to the extreme outrun/ lift/ fetch competition familiar to BABE movie watchers. Dogs can and do get hurt in real life herding (particularly around cattle), but there is a fundamental difference in approach and attitude from the practical side and the competitive side. The same for SAR — because the results for SAR are success in finding someone (or as in cadaver searches, the body), NOT in a competitive mode, there’s a requirement for the dog to be fit, capable, trainable, etc, but not necessarily to have a ‘intensity drive”. A dog with a “workmanlike attitude” isn’t flashy, isn’t really often speedy, but the dog sticks with the task. This isn’t what’s wanted in high competitive sports. Consequently, dogs often are so driven that they are oblivious to injury. I think that to some degree, the attitude about dog competitions needs to be rethought. It goes much against human nature to not select for “more, faster, higher” and to be very competitive, but I think it often does some significant disservice to our dogs.

    • Obsidian Master says:

      All of these work activities and sports have their own “occupational” risks. I think one of the most important differences in the performance of SAR and agility is the duration of the activity. The SAR team needs to work at a pace they can maintain for a couple of hours. The agility dog does at most 6 runs throughout the day that total less than 6 minutes. The SAR handler is aware of the level of conditioning needed for their work because the dog won’t be able to get through training if the trainer neglects the fitness of her partner. Even an out-of-condition agility dog can turn in a respectable performance in the ring. But the consequence is a greater risk of sports-related injuries, which some handlers will attribute to bad luck, a bad surface in the ring….anything but the fact their dog that isn’t fit enough to be competing safely. Bad things DO happen to sport dogs in great condition, but handlers should do what they can to minimize the risk.

  8. Tammy says:

    Dave, Joan, so sorry. Joan told me about the diagnosis a few weeks ago. I have made appointments for both my dogs to see Wendy. Freddie was diagnoses with bilateral illiopsoas 12 weeks ago, we are just now getting back to some types of exercise. Through the process of rehabbing him I have decided to return to school and become certified in canine rehab, with a deep focus on sports dogs. It only makes sense for me to move in this direction.

    I do short skill based exercises with my dogs, if my dog understands, I move on, I very rarely ever repeat a correct exercise, for many reasons. Once the a-frame is trained, we rarely see it outside of a competition. After reading this I have decided to discontinue my time in USDAA until they lower their a-frame. I recently watched my young dog hit it one too many times in a day. Too many a-frames in USDAA at too high of a height.

    I also spend much more of my time with my dogs conditioning, cross training, and backpacking than I do on equipment.

    I love Knife so much and I hope to see the three of you back out on course soon.

    • Obsidian Master says:

      Thanks for writing Tammy. Very sorry to hear about Freddie’s illiopsoas injury. I hope he has a full recovery! I think your experience and ours has taught us that the best hope for a dog recovering from a sports injury is having an owner/handler that literally takes a hands-on approach to rehabilitation. Once a week treatments by a chiropractor or vet wrap and rest prescribed by a vet aren’t going to come close to helping a dog return to sports. Rehabilitation from a serious sports injury requires a daily program of physical therapy and conditioning. Personally, I think the handler needs to be spending at least as much time actively engaged in physical conditioning with the injured dog as was spent in skills training and sports practice before the injury. If the vet or chiropractor isn’t suggesting homework exercises between appointments, get a different professional to work with.

      I had a knee replaced last year. The surgery causes some pretty spectacular trauma to one’s leg. Nevertheless, my first PT session was just a few hours after I woke from surgery and continued every day thereafter for 6 months, either at the PT clinic or on my own at home. The surgeon told me I had 10-12 weeks at most to recover the range of motion in my leg. What I didn’t gain back in that time probably was never coming back. I took that warning seriously and did range of motion exercises 3X/day. They hurt like hell when you do them right.

      That experience with my own recovery really made me re-think how I had been treating our dogs rehabilitation after sports-related injuries. I assume the same rehab principles apply to a canine leg as my own. A dog is going to need help with those extension and flexion exercises because they aren’t going to willingly push their limb beyond the bounds of comfort. And so unless you can afford to hire a PT or chiropractor every day, the trainer needs to take the lead in the daily program of rehab. I’m talking about rehabilitating a dog with an acute sports injury here, not a senior dog with chronic, serious arthritis whose condition might be aggravated by such a program. Retired agility stars need stretching and core strength exercise as much as the active athlete, but its a different program than getting the agility dog back to peak performance.

      Perhaps the most important thing the handler can do for the dog during recovery to carefully analyze the cause of the injury in the first place. In our experience with performance dogs, soft tissue injuries usually can’t be attributed to a single traumatic event. Trainers need to at least consider whether their training and trialing program contributed to the problem. Training too hard, too young; too much time on the A-frame trying to correct a contact problem; Too much skills training and not enough core strengthening work….these are just asking for trouble. I’ve got to go practice what I preach. Sharpy and I are heading to the barn for cavallettis, time on the exercise ball, and some snappy heelwork.

  9. Kathy says:

    So sorry to hear this-Kinfe is my favorite Belgian!

    I have a very hard living, high energy lab and it has caused me to modify everything. I’ve always been a very conservative agility person, but with him I’ve branched out in to different competitive venues with him because I think it is much better for his body and actually his brain as well. Even though I got him to “do agility”, I have cut way back on the agility I do with him, because while it’s fun to run a really fast dog, I just don’t believe it’s good for him.
    I spend way more time conditioning, stretching and just hiking with him. I also have a definite age when we will be done with agility regardless of where we are in regards to titles. I want him to be my partner till the end of his life and if that means changing my original goals, then so be it.
    Good luck with Knife-the cool thing is he’s such a talented dog, you guys can excel at many different things with him.

  10. Rise Quay says:

    I may be wrong, but I don’t think this blog was written to scare people away from sport–but to increase awareness of inherent possibilities for injury. You don’t have to have a high drive dog to experience repetitive movement stress. Better conditioning and smarter workouts/training for most dogs will do the trick. Of course, not all dogs are built “correctly” for sport. That is an important consideration as well.

  11. Scott says:

    Excellent and informative article. I do however have concerns that with modern veterinary care we can find something wrong about all performance dogs. What makes a performance dog is not a perfect/flawless specimen, but an animal that is resilient to the stress associated with performance. We have tools now to detect physiological change, but how many performance animals had full careers with undiagnosed / unsymptomatic conditions. Second , blame the handler not the decoy, the handler should be the first line of safety. The handler needs to determine whether any environment is safe for the dog. Soft decoys, low jumps, less resiliency will lead to quantitative genetic change in any breed of dog meant for petformance sport.

    • admin says:

      Thanks Scott. There are no perfect dogs and I sure don’t want to imply that only super dogs should be competing in sports or engaged in a line of work. We have two retired agility dogs at home right now. One had excellent structure and movement, the other has a straight front, short humerus, and a short neck. The well-built dog was fast, impulsive, and charged through weaves and over A-Frames so fast that people would stop what they were doing to watch him when he ran. The poorly structured dog was fast enough to win once in a while, but never threw himself into agility like his cousin. Both dogs did a lot of conditioning activities. Now that they are retired and getting up there in years, its pretty clear to us that temperament/intensity trumps anatomy, at least in the case of these two boys. The poorly-build dog has better mobility and less arthritis than his cousin with the great conformation. I don’t want to read too much into this, but I think it demonstrates that an average dog can have a career in work or sports without too much risk. But the only way to keep our dogs safe in high impact activities is to understand the basic relationships between canine anatomy and function, recognize the specific weaknesses and strengths in our own dogs, and balance skills training with fitness and conditioning workouts.

      Sure a lot of dogs had long, successful careers while they had undiagnosed injuries. Some of the best performance dogs are experts at hiding weakness and pain. I just don’t want to be the kind of partner to my dog that would ignore her injuries, even if she is.

  12. Lynnette says:

    I’m so sorry Knife will be laid up for a time and I hope he has a strong, complete recovery. Knowing you, Dave, I can imagine the emotional rollercoaster you experience every time you look in his eyes, so I also hope you aren’t beating yourself up.

    I appreciate you sharing this information. I also would like to think your doing so can benefit people in another way, by fostering greater understanding about why those of us with working dogs won’t participate in competitive sports. These are the injuries we fear because they can cut short a dog’s job suddenly and permanently. There is scarring to the muscle during the healing process that can prevent a SAR dog from sure-footedly working in rubble or mud forevermore. A service dog might no longer be able to brace and support its person’s weight during a transfer from wheelchair to bed or toilet. A mobility service dog may no longer be able provide the balance its person needs to walk. It’s bad enough that similar injuries can occur on the job; it would be folly for me to tempt fate by participating in competitive sports where soft-tissue injury is par for the course. Your insight into Knife’s condition, training and sport participation can educate nay-sayers who discount working dogs that don’t also have performance titles, as if those titles rather than job performance, prove a working dog’s mettle.

    Heal well, Knife.

  13. Peggy Richter says:

    yes. I certainly don’t want to imply that I’m against performance. Those who know me are aware that such a conclusion would be far from the truth. However, I think that one needs to be careful in any performance venue — to be aware of the risks involved and the types of injury common to that venue. Also, I think that the tendency to be competitive drives people to push their dogs to the physical limits, making injury more likely — that isn’t unique. You see it in human sports (many human athletes, particularly those at the upper end of their sport, have major injuries and have physical consequences as they grow older) and in equine sports. Striking a balance between maintaining a breed capable of various performance endeavors & one’s own desire for distinction with your dogs / breeding program and the risks involved is always going to be a challenge.

  14. My Tani torn her tran. abdom. muscle back in March. She did manual therapy, magnetic field therapy, heat-packs and excercises, I published her videos here: http://barbara-rozman.wix.com/welcome#!Rehabilitation-Videos/c1p6h/0047A661-0AD3-45F1-AEF9-EA810635F3D7

    we will try first short training tomorrow. I am praying that it goes well. This experience completely changed the way I view agility.

    • Obsidian Master says:

      Thank you for sharing the videos Barbara. I’m familiar with some of them, a couple are new to me. I’d like to share the video link with some friends if you don’t mind. I hope Tani’s recovery is going well!

  15. of course I don’t mind. If there’s any dog that benefits from it, what more could we wish for! I am learning so much from this experience, this blog post came just in the perfect moment for me. Thank you for writing it!

    Sadly our first training didn’t go exactly as planned, she limped for 2-3 steps when she cooled down so her therapist suggested another week of 1st lot of excercises and then we will decide how to progress. We repeated all health exams but everything looks ok so the orthopedist suggested it could be a) spasm, b) soreness that reminded her of original pain. I hope he is right and that she will be back to doing what she loves the most eventually.

  16. Sharyl says:

    Thanks for posting. I had a fairly quick terv girl who I was cautious with in regards to contacts and weaves from the beginning because of straight shoulders. She still had supraspinatus problems in both shoulders, two surgeries on the left, one on the right all at WSU. Needless to say her agility career ended early. Lots to learn from her. I now do much less repetition in agility training, especially on contacts, do lots of other conditioning, compete lightly and am very appreciative of good structure. Happy to report my almost 10 year old half terv, Bandit, who is very fast is still sound and competing, and actually has never been lame. Same with my very fast almost 4 year old BC. Knock on wood!

  17. Lisa says:

    How is Knife doing after this injury? My golden was diagnosed with ST a year ago and we tried everything and have never been able to completely resolve it. We have avoided surgery because her limp is mild and only follows some exercise, but I have retired her from performance training. She has a straighter shoulder layback and a short upper arm. She’s also wild and doesn’t modulate her activity very well.

    • admin says:

      I’ve been holding off with a follow up post about Knife Lisa. He has been on restricted activity since my original post and he’s been confined to an ex-pen for the last 6 weeks. It has been hard on us all. In two more weeks Knife will have a follow up ultrasound and we are hoping for good news. Once we find out where he stands, I’ll write an update explaining all his treatments—PRP injections, omental transplants, and stem cell injections. It’s been an incredible journey at the leading edge of veterinary medicine. Fingers and paws crossed! Thanks for asking!

  18. Miriam Vriens says:

    My sister just forwarded your post to me. I am reading it with tears in my eyes… So recognizable. My agility Border Collie has been lame on and off since early last year. In April of this year (at that time 3.5 years old), I finally got a confirmative diagnosis through ultrasound: biceps tendon inflammation. This meant full rest for 8 weeks, shockwave therapy and after the 8 weeks very slow rehab program involving aqua training, all supported by a vet/chiropractor specialized in performance dogs and a physiotherapist/chiropractor. It took me many, many hours of rehab exercise over the past months, and now, 8 months later, he has run his first jumping course at an agility show one and a half week ago. We have to see how it will go from here.
    This is my 4th agility dog, I train agility for about 14 years. Like you, I thought I had done everything right this time. Very careful building up, not overtraining him. He is my first male, and he is not careful with himself at all, so I have to protect him from himself, which I thought I did.
    I see so many other people, being so careless with their dogs. Seriously overtraining them, no warming up and cooling down, yet their dogs never suffer from injuries. I am still often struck by the unfairness of it all, but I guess life is unfair.
    Hope Knife will fully recover, thinking of you….

    • Obsidian Master says:

      Thanks Miriam. What is really unfair is how careless some competitors are with their dogs. These dogs could really be hurting and their humans are oblivious. We are hoping for a great outcome with Knife. He is amazing in ring sport and agility. If he can’t do these sports safely, then he will be an awesome tracking and obedience dog. I hope your own border collie really is recovered and has a super career ahead!

  19. Jackie says:

    A very interesting article, thank you. It made good reading. I have been passionate about building fitness and core strength in my agility dogs for some years, and making sure that they are properly warmed up and cooled down before competing. I have a now 6 year old border collie who had a total hip replacement at 3 as she had severe HD. With excellent surgery and very careful rehab, following by equally carefully fitness maintenance, she has been able to return to competing in agility and has done extremely well, with many wins and places over the last two years. She is thoroughly checked out twice a year by a physiotherapist, and I work hard on maintaining her fitness, and giving her 6-8 weeks off each year.

  20. Lisa Carol Ross says:

    Very well-written article! I learned this lesson early on. I truly believe that limiting the amount and type of agility my dog does is key to his longevity in the sport. I compete at the bare-minimum # of local trials in order to play at national competitions that are fun. I believe another key ingredient is to lay down super solid foundation skills when dogs are young…so you don’t *have* to practice routinely throughout their career. And thirdly, I use visualization for almost all of my handling practice. When I do practice, I use videotaping so I can analyze and know what happened (to improve in the future), rather than repeating things over and over. And of course I also take all the other preventative measures that constitute care of a performance dog. And….I know that all of this still may not be enough to prevent injuries. Agility is a very demanding sport, especially for the big, fast, high-drive dogs. International-type jumping efforts, for the dogs, are very demanding on their bodies. While it is cool and fun that international type handling challenges are now popular in the USA….I think we have to be very careful of how much and what we are asking our dogs to do! Again, well-written ariticle!!
    Lisa Carol Ross

    • Obsidian Master says:

      We’ve also learned to compete more strategically and our training is a lot more focused than when we began in agility. I think cross training among different sports is also very helpful. You can strengthen the relationship with your dog and keep her excited for more training without always putting the strain on the same parts of her body. Thanks for sharing Lisa!

  21. Diane says:

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been competing in agility and other canine sports for over twenty years and like everyone else, have learned the value of working with a good physical therapist and cross training. In late 2013, one of my very high drive dogs seemed “off” after a three day trial. While we couldn’t pin point the exact issue we believed it to be soft tissue in his neck area. It turned out to be much worse than we initially thought….and he ruptured disc C5-C6 that following week even though being in very restricted activity mode. It resulted in almost instantly paralysis and emergency surgery to save his life. With the help of an amazing physical therapist we not only hot him back on his feet, we got him back into the conformation show ring (after a neurologist told us be might never gait normally again). This past February, he beat the top dog in his breed to win at Westminster! Of course he is permanently retired from high impact spots like agility, which be loved.
    A question for you is what, if anything, have you found in your research can be done to detect disc issues? Most people can’t afford MRI’s at a cost of several thousand to use as a diagnostic tool. This one experience has made me change the way I train, trial, and condition my dogs, but it still scares me that a bad disc might very well go undetected in one of my dogs. Your thoughts??

    • Obsidian Master says:

      Congratulations on your dog’s Westminster win Diane! I’m not a vet so I don’t know all the diagnostic tools available to neurologists. We got lucky that we live near a super rehab vet who is expert at using ultrasound for examining soft tissue injuries. Since writing the original post I have come to find out very few vets are trained to use US for this purpose. Its too bad because Knife’s US procedures were only about a third the cost of an MRI and the vet was able to get all the information she needed to come up with a good treatment plan for him.

      • Diane says:

        Thank you for your response. I am hopeful we will see more vets become proficient in utilizing techniques such as ultrasound to help our athletes but somehow I doubt it. Most pet owners would never even notice an almost imperceptible limp like many of us would spot immediately, nor might they be inclined to do anything about it. Heck many performance people don’t notice, or if they do, just choose to ignore it which is far worse IMHO than being oblivious.

        I once contacted the owner of a show dog who was out with a handler with my concerns about her dog, as he was obviously in pain (couldn’t stack or move correctly) . The handler also let this small heavy boned dog jump from the judging table. She completely ignored and snubbed me, and it got back to me that I was the bad guy for contacting her to rub my dogs win in her face when in fact I had good intentions. I didn’t want to ever see her dog or anyone else’s end up critically injured like mine was. I see people push their dogs that are in obvious distress in agility all the time and it makes me so sad.

  22. tapoodle says:

    My 60# 25′ standard poodle had a freak accident at 6 mos. that left him with one rear leg a little shorter than the other and 4 large pins in that leg. When I found agility a couple years later I thought long and hard about taking it up but decided it would be better to have directed exercise that would keep him sound rather than no formal exercise which could led to hurting himself playing. I quickly learned his tolerance for the sport (his compensating shoulder would go off slightly) and make allowances. I realized we would never be one of those teams that trained and trialed a huge amount. we always practiced on low jumps and didn’t bother much with contact and weave training once he’d learned the basics. From the beginning I ran him in performance level classes. I learned T-touch so I could massage him every night and learn his body very well. I retired him about 18 months ago at the age of almost 11 years. In spite of limited trialing he qualified twice for USDAA Nationals, had many, many blue ribbons, he sure wasn’t a border collie, but his speed was great and he loved the sport.

    I think going into the sport being mindful of the danger of over-doing things was the saving grace for us. I have a young dog coming up now and can see how the temptation to train and train and train (as I’ve seen others do) can be there, but we’re taking it slow and being moderate in both trialing and training. My experience with my older dog has set the tone for all other dogs that may come and my expectations for them. It was a tremendously useful learning experience for me and a valuable one to have with my first dog.

    • Obsidian Master says:

      Thanks for sharing your story. Its fantastic that you could be competitive with your poodle in spite of his accident and consequent limitation. No doubt that your young dog will benefit from everything you’ve learned. Patience during foundation training always pays off.

  23. Judy Tompkins says:

    I agree with everything that has been said. However, I believe there is more to the story than structure and conditioning. There is also the issue of training and surface conditions. If a dog is slamming into the A frame they are heavy on the forehand, and haven’t learned to rock back on their hindquarters. They are also going to have problems on the landing, are apt to land hard. If the dog’s turns are not planned or the andler is late and screaming at the dog to come, they land and plant turning on the forehand. That is very hard on the shoulders. The other aspect is the surface in modern venues. There are very few indoor venues that are designed specifically for agility/flyball. Most are converted soccer or other venues with underlying concrete floors, and surface mats that promote slipping. Even very good dogs can get hurt trialing on a surface where they are tensed up trying to hold on to their footing. Just something to think about.

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