Injuries and the Canine Athlete

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Dog Sport InjuriesThis topic comes up quite frequently in discussions on the game of disc and dog sports in general.

A friend of mine recently had an issue with a dog getting hurt by running into an object. He contacted me about his injured pup and how to treat and rehab the injury.

I’m not a vet or a rehab specialist, but I am an athlete and dog sport trainer and as an athlete and trainer, I have had a lot of experience with soft tissue injuries and rehab so I’d like to just give a broad overview of my thoughts on this topic.

First of all, there are three things I do not go to veterinarians for:

  1. Sports advice
  2. Nutrition advice
  3. Behavior advice

Look at human medicine. If you ask an MD about treating and rehabbing an injury he or she sends you to an orthopedic then a rehab specialist. If you ask an MD about nutrition, he or she tells you to speak to a nutritionist. If you ask about behavior, they recommend you speak to a psychologist.

Vets often do not have ready made access to these resources and many pet owners do not take things seriously enough or have the resources to devote to the problem, so the vet becomes a catch-all and gives out the best info they can on the subject. Traditional veterinarians stitch or staple things up, treat and prevent disease, set bones and perform surgery on dogs, cats, reptiles, birds, rodents, fish, and/or whatever other kinds of animals their clients bring in. That’s a lot of information to handle.

There are some vets I’d goto for sports, nutrition or behavior advice, but they are the exception and not the rule.

I’ve spoken with people who’s vets have told them to give a couple weeks of rest and resume normal activity after that. That may be fine for the couch potato lab or the family pet, and may be all time the normal pet family can dedicate to nursing along an injured dog, but it’s not enough time for the canine athlete.

Also vets often do not fully understand the rigors of your particular dog sport. Playing frisbee? Fine, but do they know that our disc dogs get 8+feet in the air? Or Flipping? How about a box turn? Weaves?

Athletic Experience is Valid

If you are or were an athlete, you have a great deal of understanding of injuries and rehab, probably more than many vets or doctors. Don’t allow a trainer or general vet to invalidate your personal experience with injuries. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I’m not saying that your experience is equal or up to the task, on it’s own to treat and rehab canine athletes, but it’s a valid perspective. You can watch me gimp around on two ankles that I improperly rehabbed. It felt fine at the time…

Healing is Healing

Dogs may have a higher tolerance for pain, and may be able to better mask and deal with bad injuries, but healing is healing. A torn ligament takes 6 weeks to heal for a human with the best medicine that money can buy and conscious and thoughtful behavior by the patient. I’m not a veterinary specialists, but I find it hard to believe that dogs can heal a similar injury in 1/3 the time. I don’t think their cells regenerate 3 times as fast as a human’s do.

The thing with dogs is that they can’t tell us they hurt. They have thousands of years of evolutionary development designed to mask pain from predators and fellow pack members. Just because they can and do walk around doesn’t mean that they are healthy.

Getting off the recovery wagon early for family pets might wind up being OK, as the normal activity for these animals is not anything like the workload for professional athletes. Speed, power, pounding, repetitive stress… it isn’t even the same planet.

Rehab is Serious

Look at professional human athletes. When a football player sprains his knee, they’re out for 4-6 weeks minimum. They are on crutches, they have a team of rehab specialists working with them, they converse, in very fine detail, on the feeling they are experiencing during this rehab. They are also absolutely immobile if the rehab requires it. They do this, consciously, so when they return to duty they don’t break.

Dogs can’t speak, they don’t understand the injury, they don’t have the self awareness to stay immobile. They chew off their casts, for crying out loud.

It is the handler’s responsibility to keep the dog down, to keep them from chewing off their casts and to do the best job possible of being the conscience of the dog. It is our responsibility to set up a situation where recovery can be successful.

Pain is Valid

Experiencing pain is necessary to ensure that behaviors that will damage tissue are not repeated. Pain killers mask pain and enable the subject to do things that can damage tissue without experiencing pain. No pain and there is no reason to avoid the activity. Giving dogs pain killers so they can move, or work, is a bad idea in my opinion because pain is a valid and important part of being healthy.

Crate and Leash – 4-6 weeks

Part of the handler’s responsibility for setting up success is crate and leash. We have been very lucky as we have had very few injuries with our dogs. We put our dogs on a crate and leash regiment that ensures that no more damage is done. In the crate or walking on a leash – that’s it. No small task for a high drive dog, but extremely important. Doing this for 4-6 weeks is painful, for dog and handler, but necessary to ensure that healing takes place.

Ease Into it

When your pup is cleared for duty, take it slow. Ease into it. Don’t get an all clear from a doctor and go full out. Your dog’s muscles are weak, their desire to work is high and they, like me and many passionate athletes, don’t have the common sense to take it easy. Walking, trotting, lateral movement exercises, light duty work, should be worked before you step back into the game.

Personal Experience

When Leilani was a pup, she jumped out of my Toyota 4-runner on the way to the school to jam. It was a 300 yard drive through a residential neighborhood and I was doing about 15 mph. Her knee was whacked pretty hard and we had it checked out. My vet said 3 weeks. I waited two and tested it – she came up lame.
I then waited the proscribed 3 weeks and tested… lame again. 4 weeks the next time and she was lame. Six weeks later, crate and leash, and instead of testing, we eased into it. She was healthy. A 2 month recovery took 6 months. I learned my lesson.

Consult a Professional

If your dog experiences a soft tissue injury, serious lameness in a leg for some time, or repetitive lameness, consult a rehab specialist, someone experienced in treating and rehabbing canine athletes. There are many of them out there.

[alert type=”danger” close=”true” heading=”Additional Disclaimer”]I’ve had many conversations with dog sport pros and rehab specialists, but I am not a rehab specialist. I do not pretend to speak the gospel. I’m offering this advice from my experience as an athlete and as a dog sport enthusiast. [/alert]