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Canine Athletes - Does your dog have what it takes?

Pet Tales

by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.


Sporting dogs and the injuries they may sustain in the pursuit of their sport was discussed in a previous column. Sports medicine has come to veterinary medicine. It has also meant that once patterns of injury are recognized, attempts need to be made to prevent them from happening.


In any athletic activity, there are certain skills that an individual should possess to excel in the sport. In addition to increasing their proficiency in that sport, dogs who have those skills or abilities are less likely to be injured or have problems, as a result of participation in the sport. Therefore, in choosing an athletic activity for your dog, consider the individual and breed abilities it possesses. For example, dogs in agility must be able to sprint, execute sharp turns and be agile. To do this they must have strength and excellent balance. Lacking these abilities they will probably not do well and be more likely to experience injuries.


The benefits to be derived from conditioning and training in any sport should be obvious to anyone. Here again, they are necessary to do a sport well and they also protect against injury. Physical activity for a sporting dog will need to be done on a regular basis. This will require a commitment from both the owner or trainer as well as the dog. Though training may seem a bit boring and repetitive for some human athletes, I suspect dogs may be less likely to feel this way. Training exercises may be just as much fun and exciting as competition events, for them.


There are no well established training guidelines that can be followed. Training needs to be tailored to the individual. It’s also necessary to remember certain breed characteristics at training time. Brachiocephalic (flat-faced) breeds have less cardiopulmonary capacity and are more susceptible to heat stroke than other breeds. Extra care will be necessary to ensure they are not put at risk in training or competition. Also, though training is certainly necessary to achieve optimal performance when competing and to reduce the risk of injury, overtraining is bad. Research has shown that 60% of injuries sustained by human runners are due to training errors - erratic training, overtraining or too frequent training. Undoubtedly, the same issues apply to canine athletes.

Caution should exercised when it comes to conditioning and training a puppy. Some people may believe that intense training for a particular sport, if it begins early in their life, will create a canine superstar. In fact, beginning too early may lead to serious illness or injury. Trauma to bone growth plates, detrimental effects on the immune system and even pneumonia has been associated with overly intense athletic training in young animals. Pups should probably be at least 9-10 months old before engaging in vigourous training. In younger pups, the emphasis needs to be on socialization and play. The surfaces where this play occurs should have good traction and possess some cushioning if possible. Turf, for example, is much better than cement or asphalt. Dogs predisposed to hip dysplasia have been shown to have an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis of the hips even with relatively mild exercise such as retrieving a ball when they are young.


Good nutrition is also of critical importance in preventing injury to sporting dogs. Studies in racing greyhounds and sled dogs has yielded much knowledge with respect to caloric requirements, the benefits of dietary supplements and even the best timing to feed the athletic dog.


Finally, participation in the actual sporting event should be preceded by proper warm-up activities and followed by an appropriate cool-down period. Attention to the above guidelines for sporting dogs should achieve the same goal, shared by the canine athlete, the trainer and the veterinarian charged with its healthcare - a satisfying, perhaps gold medal performance. Barry Burtis is a local companion animal veterinarian. Past Pet Tales can be found at www.baycitiesanimalhospital.ca