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.
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
While 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?