Injury prevention and the canine athlete

Amie Lamoreaux Hesbach, PT, DPT, CCRP, CCRT
Empower Physio PeT, Maynard, MA

The number of dogs and owners involved in canine sports in the United States has grown exponentially in recent years. The American Kennel Club reports that, in 2011 alone, there were one million entries for agility trials and 22,000 athletic events.1

For the purposes of this review, the canine athlete is considered to be a dog that “works” (in herding, hunting, sledding, Search and Rescue, assistance, law enforcement, etc.), or one that “plays” (in agility, track racing, Rally, freestyle, obedience, flyball, dock diving, Frisbee, field trial, etc.).

Pochi agility seminar Jun 2010

Pochi demonstrating fast weave poles at an agility seminar. Image courtesy of Mich Powers, DVM, DACVS, CCRT, DACVSMR.

Unfortunately, more dogs involved in “work” or “play” with more entries and trials, and longer careers, means there are also more injuries. A survey of agility handlers in the United Kingdom in 2005 reported a 19% injury rate either during training or competition.2 These injuries were due to direct contact with obstacles, turning, twisting or jumping, or slipping or falling on the surface of the agility ring. Injuries were predominantly of soft tissues (muscle or tendon strains or ligament sprains) and related to the back or shoulder joints, though “non-specific lameness” accounted for 48% of reported injuries.2,3 Another survey reported lameness in gundogs at a rate of 25% per season, with a higher rate of tail and shoulder injuries.3

As injury rates increase, so do the costs of competition and veterinary medical care. Not only might a canine athlete’s career be limited by an injury, but his lifespan and quality of life in “retirement” might also be limited. Experiencing this firsthand, owners of working (and playing) dogs ask the question: How can we reduce the risk of injury in the canine athlete? As well, we should ask the owner: Are your expectations for your pet’s performance in his sport appropriate? Are they appropriate given your pet’s breed or age? Are they appropriate given the time, energy, and money that you are able or willing to invest in training and veterinary care? 4

This article will explore these questions through review of the following pertinent topics:

  • The veterinary medical evaluation of the canine athlete
  • Training, cross-training, overtraining, and rest
  • Warm-up and cool-down
  • Stretching and the role of flexibility in injury prevention
  • Additional suggestions for injury prevention

The veterinary medical evaluation of the canine athlete

Ensuring that a dog has a healthy career in his owner’s chosen sport goes beyond an unremarkable annual veterinary exam. It starts with the puppy’s first visit, when the owner might first suggest an interest in a given sport.

Prior to initiating serious training in a sport, a puppy should not only have a thorough veterinary exam, but also an eye examination and elbow and hip radiographs.5 The veterinarian should determine that the dog is skeletally mature (with growth plate closure) prior to advising that the owner initiate any conditioning or training program with impact, repetition, or forced exercise.5,6 Experts suggest that this delay continue until at least ten months of age and extend to nearly 18 months of age in any dog neutered or spayed at, or younger than, six months of age.6 To reduce risk of injury to growth plates, enthusiastic owners of skeletally-immature puppies might consider limiting early training to low-impact, ground-level activities with recalls, low obstacles and jumps, and with minimal activity repetition.6

In subsequent visits, the veterinarian might pro-actively suggest a pre-season evaluation for the athletic dog, not dissimilar to that of a high school or collegiate athlete’s “physical”, asserting a clean bill of health prior to competition.7 A thorough musculoskeletal assessment will check that the athlete’s body is symmetrical in static postures and that it has adequate strength and motor control in dynamic movements to tolerate the demands of the sport. The balance of muscle flexibility (or length) and strength has been shown to reduce the risk of muscle strain injury in human and animal athletes.8 Additionally at this visit, the veterinarian can assess for any deficits in range of motion, flexibility, or muscle development and objectively document baseline data. The veterinarian might suggest that the owner share a video of the dog at a recent trial or training session, so that she might have a deeper appreciation of the dog’s level of competition and fitness. Alternatively, a physical therapist with canine rehabilitation certification and experience in sports medicine might complete this assessment.

This pre-season meeting also encourages an open conversation with the owner, who is and will continue to be the expert regarding this dog and his sport, and who might vocalize concern regarding the dog’s performance in training or competition. Such concerns, which should neither be overlooked nor dismissed as inconsequential, might include the following:

June 13, 2010 Agility seminar

Pochi climbing an A-frame at an agility seminar. Image courtesy of Mich Powers, DVM, DACVS, CCRT, DACVSMR.

“He’s ‘popping out of weaves’.”

“She knocks down bars when jumping.”

“He can’t run a straight line when tracking the bird.”

“She hesitates when coming out of the cruiser after riding for a few hours.”

“He consistently misses contacts when coming off the A-frame.”

Training, cross-training, over-training, and rest

Training is essential for adaptation of the dog’s body to the demands of the sport and the first step by which we can avoid injury. Training activities should focus on enhancing the athlete’s cardiorespiratory function, muscle strength, motor control, endurance, flexibility, and coordination.5

Though it seems obvious, what happens outside the performance ring (and prior to the athlete’s arrival to the ring) can be more important in reducing the risk of injury to the athlete, than what happens inside the ring. Consideration of the SAID principle, in that the body undergoes “Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands” during training activities, requires owners to focus training regimens on the requirements of the specific sport and based on the individual athlete’s needs and expectations.4,5 For example, training activities for a sprinting athlete will be very different from those of an endurance athlete.5

Cross-training activities, such as hiking or swimming, are important to help the owner and athlete avoid over-training, stress, and boredom. These activities should be complementary to more sport-specific training activities and benefit the athlete by allowing a focus on developing strength and cardiorespiratory endurance.7

Studies show that more injuries occur during the final trial or run of the day, when the athlete is most fatigued.7 Relative rest should not only be encouraged in the minutes between runs and in the days following trials, but rest periods should also be incorporated into the athlete’s season. Periodization is integral to injury prevention, allowing for an “off-season” and “pre-season” with altered foci of training activities so as to avoid fatigue and injury. Periodization allows for rebuilding, not only of the athlete’s mind, but also of his body.

Warm-up and cool-down

Though the utilization of a warm-up and cool-down are not yet standard practice in canine sports, there is a need to educate trainers, owners, and handlers regarding the benefits of their inclusion in both training and trials.2

Incorporation of a warm-up into the training routine reduces the risk of muscle injury or strain as a “warm” muscle has improved flexibility and a higher tolerance for stress and strain forces than a “cold” muscle.8 The warm-up, increasing the core body temperature by 1-2°F, results in an increased heart rate and blood pressure or flow, improved oxygen and energy availability, and faster propagation of nervous impulses.5,7 Though warm-ups of 5-15 minutes are recommended for agility competition, only 26% of respondents in the 2005 agility survey warmed-up for longer than six minutes and only 12% performed a warm-up specific for agility.2 Studies suggest that warm-ups are comprised of two portions — a general warm-up and a specific warm-up. The general warm-up focuses on larger muscle groups through activities such as jogging or off leash play. The specific warm-up is similar to the actual athletic activity, and might include jumping over obstacles at reduced speed, reduced height (for a lower impact), or reduced frequency.2 This specific warm-up activity allows for rehearsal of the activity to improve skill, coordination, and focus of the athlete. Warm-up activities should be performed within thirty minutes of a “run” so as to maximize the benefit of the warm-up and minimize the risk of injury.7

Warm-ups are intended to be low intensity activities, at less than 60% of the dog’s maximal oxygen consumption or 70% of the maximal heart rate for less than fifteen minutes. If the warm-up activity is excessive, it can fatigue the athlete by depleting the body’s energy stores, causing a build up of lactic acid, and raising the body temperature to an undesired level.8 The intensity and duration of the warm-up, however, will always be dependent on the individual athlete, and should be modified based on the environmental conditions of the event and its facilities.

Following training or competition, the owner should lead the dog away from the area of competition at a trot slowing to a walk and finally to a slow walk. The cool-down is recommended to last from 10-20 minutes and will flush out metabolites to prevent muscle soreness, dissipate excessive heat, and shorten recovery from exercise.5,7,8 The cool-down should be a low-intensity exercise at 30-65% of the maximal oxygen consumption. This is also an opportune time to give the athlete a post-trial massage.

Stretching and the role of flexibility in injury prevention

Stretching is a contentious issue in the fields of canine and human sports medicine.5 Though stretching prior to training exercise or competition has not been proven to significantly reduce the risk of exercise-related injury, stretching should be an integral part of the athlete’s training program.8

If muscles lack flexibility and are “too tight”, they provide abnormal stresses on bones and joints, as there is not enough joint range of motion (ROM) to perform the required athletic activity. If there has been a past injury, especially a muscle strain, stretching is necessary to restore more normal flexibility and to preserve normal joint ROM. Injured muscles tend to heal with inflexible, fibrous scar tissue, thus restricting flexibility and range of motion even more. Studies do show that stretching immediately prior to performance of an activity which requires maximal strength (for example, a forceful sprint) actually negatively effects the strength of that muscle group which had been stretched. Alternatively, if the owner has been instructed to stretch, it should be performed after the warm-up but not too close to the start time of the run so that the muscle can recover from the stretch. Stretching should always be performed after athletic activities, during the cool-down, and should be held for thirty seconds.5

An alternative to passive stretches are “active stretches” in which the dog performs specific dynamic turns or static postures, such as play bows and crawling. These stretches are ideal in the warm-up period as they allow the owner to assess for symmetry, range of motion, and flexibility prior to the trial.7

Additional suggestions for injury prevention

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) cites five common causes of muscle injuries, including poor flexibility, inadequate warm-up, fatigue, a sudden forceful contraction, and forced flexion or extension of a joint. Injury may be due to muscle length-strength imbalances of agonists and antagonists, intense interval training, insufficient rest breaks, or over-training.8

The following are additional suggestions for injury prevention

  • Owners of canine athletes should maintain a regular training program in order to avoid overexertion in under-conditioned dogs.8
  • Chronic or recurrent injuries tend to be due to insufficient rehabilitation, inappropriate progression of activity after injury, and premature return to competition. For this reason, rehabilitation post-injury, even when obvious lameness has resolved, is essential.
  • Fatigue, over-training, and excessive repetition should be avoided.
  • A proper warm-up and cool-down is essential.
  • The surfaces upon which training and competition are performed can influence the athlete’s performance. Wet, slippery, and uneven surfaces increase the risk of injury. Traction and impact interactions between the paws and the flooring surface or ground will influence injury risk. To encourage further adaptability in the canine athlete, the owner might consider doing training activities on varied surfaces, such as rubber, dirt, grass, sand, or carpeting.4,5 In the same way, regular inspection of the dog’s paws, pads, and toes, and maintenance of nails and fur at an appropriate length will help to avoid slipping.
  • The athlete should not be allowed to be a “weekend warrior.” Training and cross-training on a consistent, regular schedule will maintain his consistency in competition.
  • Owners should not be discouraged from “scratching” the athlete from competition if he is under-conditioned or subtly lame. Canine athletes are “masters of disguise” and their injuries, especially of soft tissues, are challenging to diagnose. Running a dog with a suspected minor injury will more likely lead to a more serious injury and more time off from training and competition due to injury in the future.



  1. American Kennel Club
  2. Holmes L. Canine agility trials – survey of dog breeds, injuries, and the role of “warm up”. Proceedings of the 3rd annual Royal Veterinary College Veterinary Physiotherapy Conference. September 18, 2005; North Mymms, Hertfordshire, UK;2005, pp. 36-8.
  3. Edge-Hughes L. Reports of injuries in dog sports.
  4. Gillette RL. Optimizing performance and preventing injuries of the canine sprint athlete. Proceedings of the North American Veterinary Conference; 2007, pp. 1324-7.
  5. Edge-Hughes L. Canine treatment and rehabilitation. In: CM McGowan, Goff L, Stubbs N, editors. Animal physiotherapy: assessment, treatment and rehabilitation of animals. Ames, Iowa: Blackwell; 2007, pp. 207-37.
  6. Edge-Hughes L. Training your puppy for sport and concerns about growth.
  7. Canapp D, Zink C. Preventing Injuries. Clean Run 2008;July:60-2.
  8. Steiss JE. Muscle disorders and rehabilitation in canine athletes. Vet Clin North Amer Sm Anim Pract 2002;32;267-85.