Canine Sports Medicine

There is a relatively new sphere in Veterinary Medicine called Canine Sports Medicine. It forms part of Veterinary Physical Rehabilitation domain and encompasses a variety of fields. These fields include orthopedics, neurology, cardiology, pulmonology, exercise physiology and nutrition to name a few.

The aim of Sports Medicine is to prevent, diagnose and treat common injuries sustained by your dog through sporting activities.

There are a variety of canine sports and activities that fall under the description of canine athletes. These canine athletes include dogs that compete in performance events, from agility trials, obedience trials and disc dog competitions to working dogs such as police/military dogs, search and rescue dogs, and assistance dogs for the disabled. A large portion of the canine population are active dogs, and whether you and your dog/s are weekend warriors and doing Muddy Puppy for fur or they train or compete, and the principles of canine sports medicine and rehabilitation apply to them all.

Here is a brief overview of some canine sport disciplines you can do in South Africa:

Agility – Contact and non-contact agility fall in this category. Contact agility is a fun sport with obstacles including jumps, weave poles, tunnels and contact equipment that the dog walks on. Non-contact agility is similar, but equipment is replaced with jumps only. Gamblers and snooker are two fun game variations of agility, each with its own rules.

Blocking Search – A dog and his handler must find four tennis balls inside a grid measuring 20m by 20m. The team with the fastest time wins.

Canine Good Citizen – A programme to promote trained and properly socialised dogs. Tests cover various training and obedience exercises. The Bronze Level consists of 13 tests. Once your dog achieves this, you move on the Silver and Gold Levels.

Carting – The dog is trained to pull a cart through an obstacle course. The size of the cart is relevant to the size of the dog. Carts may carry a load or be left empty.

Dock Jumping – Long jump for dogs from a platform (dock) into a body of water. The handler usually throws a toy to start the jump, but dogs do not have to retrieve it.

Dog Dancing – Musical Freestyle (any movements) and Heelwork to Music (dog and owner dance as one team according to the music score).

Field trails – Gundog field trails are designed to find the best hunting dogs who find and point game birds or quarter, flush and retrieve them. Each section is specialised and runs its own trials.

Flyball – Two teams of dogs run a relay race over a series of jumps to a ball box at one end. The dog hits the catapult with his forepaws to release the ball, and then races back to the start of the race. The next dog is then released.

Flying Disc – Also called Disc Dogs, the dog is trained to catch a Frisbee tossed by his owner. In competitions, the distance of the handler’s throw and the dog’s successful catch will determine the winner.

Jumping – Another part of agility where the jumps are placed higher than with non-contact agility. The competition includes a ‘jump off’ where round winners move on to the next section of the competition.

Mountain Dog Challenge – Dog and owner run or walk a hiking trail. Handlers enter the competition according to their age. The dogs must be on lead or harness and the team who achieves the fastest time wins the challenge.

Obedience – All canine sports are based on your dog’s ability to learn commands and be obedient to them. Puppies start from basic obedience training and continue through different levels of training.

Schutzhund – Originally developed in Germany as a test for working ability in the German Shepherd Dog, Schutzhund is now a popular canine sport. The word means ‘protection’ and the sport focuses on developing these traits in the dog and measures its stamina, endurance, tracking ability and ease of training. There are three levels. Other working dogs breeds can now enter.

Sheep Herding/Sheepdog Trials – Competitions are held to find the best herding dogs in the country. Training a sheepdog starts at puppy level but the dogs are only introduced to sheep at around eight months of age.

Sixty Weave Pole Challenge – 60 weave poles are placed on the course and the dog must complete them in the fastest time.

Sled Dog Sports – Dryland sports for sled dogs – includes mushing (caniwalk, canicross, bikejoring, carting) weight pulling and backpacking.

Tracking Trials – An activity where the dog is trained to find people or objects by using his sense of smell. Items like a toy, article of clothing (or the handler) are hidden in various locations and the dog will need to find it and, possibly, retrieve it.

Treibball – A relatively new sport in SA. The dog works off-leash and listens to the owner’s commands. He uses his nose or shoulders to drive large balls into a pen (herding balls, not sheep) within the prescribed time.

Working Tests – A fairly new discipline for Retriever owners. They are an artificial simulation of what happens on the shooting field. The tests were actually used in the hunting off-season to keep training current but have now become a popular sport in their own right.

Working Trials – Dogs are trained in many of the same disciplines as police dogs. The dog is taught to be an obedient companion and will learn heel, sit, retrieve, stay, jumping over objects and using his scent to find objects.

Exercise has significant physical and psychological benefits for dogs. One of the most important aspects for owners of canine athletes are the time span in which the dog can perform in a particular discipline and radiate optimal health and vitality. Therefore, the use of veterinary physical rehabilitation, which includes prevention of re-injury while assisting the canine athlete regain muscular ability, endurance, coordination, balance and flexibility in order to optimize their physical abilities, goes hand-in-hand with canine sports medicine.

To apply canine sports medicine in a veterinary physiotherapy set-up, the understanding of the physical activities involved in different sports and performance events, as well as a comprehension of what a working dogs’ job description is, is pivotal in developing a targeted rehabilitation program for sports/working dogs after illness /injury.

In order to develop an appropriate rehabilitation program for a canine athlete, knowledge of the various sports activities is very important. Emphasis should be placed on the biomechanical aspects that sporting dogs may encounter during practice and competition. Vet Physio Therapists should have and in-depth knowledge of common sporting injuries of the forelimb, hindlimb, spine, muscles, tendon and ligaments. Knowledge of current and often new treatment protocols available such as PRP (Platelet-rich plasma), stem cell therapy, along with modalities used in sports medicine included but not limited to therapeutic laser, therapeutic ultrasound, application of thermo and cryotherapy and manual therapy.

A clear distinction should be made at this point, that conditioning programs for sporting injuries are not therapeutic exercises. Although therapeutic exercises are included in a conditioning program, such a program encompasses a far more detailed, well planned and focused approach. Part of the forementioned approach also includes a team approach – which may consist of the veterinary physiotherapist, an overseeing or specialist vet or surgent, the owner, the trainer, acupuncturist and nutritionist. Owner compliance as well as clear communication and understanding with all parties involved, related to timelines, short, medium- and long-term goals for return to full sporting capacity is fundamental.

At Paws-itive Paws-abilities, we are fortunate to have a wide variety of vet physio modalities and a world class facility with a custom build hydrotherapy practice, indoor dog training arena and a Pet Active Gym which is fully equipped to cater for any professional and effective conditioning program we wish to design and implement. We also pride ourselves to have professional relationships with all the necessary team players to return our canine athletes to be on top of their game again.

In general, we can classify the dogs that come to us for Canine Sports Medicine into three groups:

  • Canine athletes (such as agility, obedience, and field)
  • Working dogs (such as police, farm, search & rescue, assistant)
  • Active pet dogs (hiking and running partners)

In our view, canine performance is based upon three major factors:

  • Anatomy (musculoskeletal system)
  • Physiological (conditioning and training)
  • Psychology (drive)

Management of the Canine Athlete can be divided into two areas of interest:

  • Pre-Performance:
    • This area of medicine includes conditioning and training for optimum output and
      prevention of illness and injury.

      • Influences includes:
        • Genetics
        • Training
        • Conditioning
        • Nutrition
        • Injury Prevention.
      • Post-Performance:
        • This area of medicine includes the decisions of treatment or therapy of an injury and then a rehabilitation program that allows the athlete to return to its work safely and efficiently.
          • Influences includes:
            • Nutrition
            • Medical Care
            • Injury Treatment
            • Rehabilitation

There are 3 general conditions that have a detrimental effect on performance:

  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Psychology (Drive)

We have 2 specially designed programs to accommodate our canine athletes: These programs are designed with the following aspects in mind:

  • Consider any underlying pathology that may affect the athlete’s ability to exercise.
  • Consider the athlete’s psychological state and willingness to perform exercises.
  • Consider the experience of the client.
  • Set short- medium and long-term goals.
  • Evaluate the athlete at every visit.
  • Ensure proper body mechanics for both therapist and athlete.
    Use assistive devices if needed.
  • Watch for signs of fatigue, pain and lack of enthusiasm.
  • Finish on a positive note.

12 Week Strengthening Home Exercise Program (HEP)

Apart from a conditioning program that we will follow at the practice, a home exercise program is vital to the success of an athlete’s rehabilitation; therefore, both the athlete and the owner’s capabilities must be met.  Owner compliance must be reiterated, and competence in performing these exercises are very important. Our 12-week program has been developed with a special focus on the canine athlete but is adapted for each individual patient’s condition. As every patient is different, so the exercise program is individualized and each week the progression of the exercises depends upon the athletes’ response, which is evaluated during each session.

Pet Active Gym Program (PAG)

Our imagination is the only limitation on the equipment used and the exercises created. As listed above balance and proprioception, core strengthening, endurance and flexibility are considered. For canine athletes, such as working dogs, we incorporate exercises that enhance strength and speed.

In general, our PAG Program are for dogs who have been completely rehabilitated and the owners which to keep them in an optimal condition and minimise the re-occurrence of injury. In most cases, I will incorporate hydrotherapy, therapeutic exercises, mind stimulation and some basic obedience.

Canine Sports Medicine Pawtraits

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