Responsible Canine Athlete Handling

Responsible Canine Athlete Handling

This may ultimately be more of a rant than an educational post but it’s something that has been getting under my skin recently.

_JAP4715Over the last year I have been to (not necessarily competed in) 4 agility trials, 6 rally trials, a dock diving event, and 1 frisbee event.  All of these competitions had one seriously concerning feature in common–they all featured dogs who were seriously out of shape or not necessarily sound enough to compete.  Some events had more than just one or two dogs who were borderline obese and there were one or two dogs I saw who seemed to have some joint/structural/etc issues.  These dogs labored intensely to do the task at hand and it was hard to watch them try to do a game they clearly enjoyed but struggled to complete.

Now, I’m not talking about senior dogs whose handlers take it out low and slow to let the dogs do something they love, but dogs who are being asked to do things that were seriously challenging because of a conditioning issue or a medical issue.

I am not a vet and do not play one on T.V. but I do have some concerns watching the overweight dog at a frisbee competition run for the 90 second round (more like run for 30 and then trot at best the duration) and nearly collapse afterwards or watch him jump a little off the ground for the frisbee and his whole body collapse on the impact of landing (I couldn’t even watch his freestyle routine fearing vaults of any kind).  It has got to be a point of emphasis within sport clubs, training classes, or competition venues that the wellbeing of the canine athletes is of the utmost importance and part of that well being is proper conditioning.

I, personally, do not think it is responsible for handlers to run dogs hard or compete with dogs who are seriously out of condition because the risk of catastrophic injury is so much greater.  Too much weight or not enough muscle can result in broken bones, ruptured ligaments, sprained joints, or tweaked spines.  If a handler is working on a general fitness or conditioning plan and they make efforts to go low and slow until the dog is in proper condition, it’s one thing, but I think most of the competitors I saw either didn’t know or didn’t take seriously their dog’s conditioning.  These were generally the weekend warrior type competitors who were in novice categories or lower levels–seasoned competitors tend to keep their dogs in good condition.

Part of being a responsible dog guardian is knowing what a properly conditioned dog should look like–but, much like human athletes, canine athletes in proper condition are generally leaner and more muscular than “normal” dogs.  Even a dog who would be considered on the heavier side of  “normal” in terms of the canine body conditioning chart, may be improperly conditioned to perform the high impact tricks being asked of him or have the required stamina.  Although not nearly as common, dogs who are underweight can be just as concerning.  I haven’t personally seen any in competition but I’ve seen pictures of dogs at trials with medium rough coats who I could see all their ribs, hip points, and who had sunken in pockets on their faces and heads where extra fats are generally stored.  These dogs, although lean, were also lacking muscle.  There was a lot of definition to the muscle (no fat layer), but the muscle itself was small and potentially inadequate to support them while doing their sport of choice in the long run.

The other piece of this puzzle is knowing when something is ‘off’ with your dog.  I watched the same young dog at two agility trials really struggle through all of her runs.  This is a potentially fast dog who stutter stepped and had a hitch in her gait before each and every jump and entries for the contact equipment.  On the flat, this dog was moving okay, but every time she was asked to jump she would stutter step the last few stride (maybe 5 or 6 stutter steps in two strides) and would skip/bunny hop on the last step before the jump and the same thing after the jump (sometimes even a few strides after the landing there’d be a second hitch).  The dog seriously struggled and the handler was really frustrated because the pup struggled to make the time limits.

Now, I have never seen this dog other than in competition, so maybe she takes jumps beautifully and perfectly in stride during practices, but if I were her handler, I would be getting her checked by a vet with x-rays of her back end.  Perhaps it is just an issue of striding, jump foundation work, or confidence on jumps, but it seemed like it had the potential to be something more. Due to fluffy ‘pantaloons’ on the back of her legs, it was hard to really see her structure but she looked to have very straight hocks.  If the wonky movement is indeed a joint or structural problem, I think the handler really needs to talk to their vet to determine if continuing agility is safe for that dog.  What is the risk of continued wonky jumping?

I really think it’s irresponsible to allow/encourage a canine athlete to run fast, jump high, vault big, or go hard when they are not in good condition or physically sound.  Again, I’m not saying don’t work your dog in their sport of choice while working on their conditioning but making sure the work they are doing is appropriate for their conditioning level is important.  We, as canine athlete handlers, have got to make sure our dog’s wellbeing is at the forefront of our concerns–conditioning may not always be fun or exciting but it is so important for the overall well being of the dogs.  The vet visit to check on a joint or structural issue can be a scary time, but it’s important to know what’s going on with your canine athletes on the inside.  Finding an issue isn’t necessarily a death knell to your dog’s sporting career in their sport of choice, it may just make you modify their work or be more vigilant for potential issues.  The vet may say that continuing in a sport would be dangerous to the dog or that another sport may be better but the well being of the dogs have to come first.

I know with Shayne and Rio, both have had their hips/knees xrayed before we started any big tricks or serious training.  Rio has also had his spine and shoulder x-rayed while Shayne has had her “funny foot” deformity and elbow x-rayed.  Shayne’s funny foot will eventually cause problems–but the vet has given his blessings that as long as there is no lameness, pain, or ‘off’ movements, that she had no restrictions on her tricks. Both are kept pretty lean and we do other conditioning exercises to maintain sufficient muscle.  I want them to remain safe while playing the sports they love and while nothing can prevent injuries completely, proper conditioning and taking note of movement can help prevent issues.

  1. I sooooo agree. It is painful to watch some dogs compete, especially if you see them time after time, always overweight, and it is obvious their owners are not working on getting them in better condition. The hard part is finding a way to say something without offending the owner of the dog- which can be even harder if the owner is also out of shape or overweight, as they will think you are attacking them, a lot of the time.

    • @Crystal, yeah, it is a really sensitive issue to tell someone that their dog is not “solid” but is actually overweight. We, as a society, are so used to seeing fat dogs that many people INCLUDING VETS have forgotten what a dog SHOULD look like. I think a lot of dog parents get offended that someone who brings up the weight of their dog is calling into question how they care for the dog–and that’s not the what is generally happening. LOTS of people have fat dogs because they simply don’t know their dog is fat–they look at their lab compared to show labs and say, wow, my dog looks JUST like number 1 lab in the country….. what they don’t know is that labs are often shown 10-15lbs over weight.

  2. Great post. There is nothing worse than a tragic injury that ends a dog’s competitive career especially if it could have been prevented. On top of just conditioning, you really have to know your dog as well. Some dogs are simply not built to participate in certain sports and you’re setting yourselves up for trouble down the road if you pursue it anyway.

    You also have to keep in mind that things change over time. Risa used to jump around like a fool without a single issue. At 9 years of age, arthritic knees and a bad back take their toll and she just can’t do it like she used to. Agility is out of the question for her at this point in life and we just have to adjust our freestyle routines to be more joint-friendly. Easy enough to do! The two jumps in rally she can handle, at least.

    • @Jamie–That is a REALLY realy good point. Things DO change as dogs age and we have to take that into account. One of the things I loved about competing in freestyle was that I could see 14 year old dogs go out with a handler and compete… but their version was the handler saying “go”, the dog walking out about 15 yards and the handler tossing the disc to the dog. So the dog was out there competing but he got in 2 maybe 3 tosses in 90 seconds… it was SLOW and zero jumping. The dog got to do something he loved at his level.

  3. Really nice post, good points.

    I am spending more time in the dog sports world and have observed some of this, unfortunately.

    My training background is originally horses and I think (from what I’ve seen so far) horse people tend to be much more careful about the animal’s physical condition.

    Also, something else I find interesting — the number of dogs who are missing very basic pre-requisite skills. That is — I’ve audited several dogs seminars this summer and I’ve seen quite a few dogs who were great running an agility course, but who were missing basic skills such as walking politely on a leash, waiting patiently in a crate, etc.


    • @Mary, I read an article recently about equine conditioning starting to become more and more an issue in recent years with people (again those who are competing) having their horses a bit heavier than ideal and the conditioning problems. It’s sad, hopefully it never gets as bad as i’ve seen in the doggie world.

      That’a REALLY great point!!! There are so many dogs who are missing foundation skills–both manners skills and sport foundations. PROPER jumping mechanics can absolutely prevent injuries from happening, proper striding (and understanding of their bodies) can reduce injuries, etc.

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