Sunday, October 16, 2011

More questions than answers

A good friend’s dog tore her ACL at agility class last week. In the last few years, this is the seventh dog I know of who has had an ACL injury. All were dogs who competed in agility, although not all the injuries happened while training or trialing for the sport. About 50 percent happened in an agility setting while the other half occurred in daily life – leaping for a ball, jumping off the deck, etc.

 Veterinarian, author and seminar presenter Chris Zink says most severe ACL tears (those requiring surgery in order for the dog to regain use of his leg) are not the result of one specific accident – like landing badly after a jump – but the result of an accumulation of many small tears that take place over time as the dog's body has been stressed. All those little slips, tumbles, face-plants, fly-offs and the like can catch up with your dog. And of course it’s not just little agility injuries either. Dogs bang themselves up as a matter of daily routine.

 I’m not pointing my finger at agility. I’m not blaming the sport, the instructors, the equipment, the judges, the courses or anything else. I love running agility and I love watching Phoenix fly over a course at top speed.

 But I wonder, as agility has evolved from luring dogs slowly over obstacles with cookies to today’s very advanced handling systems emphasizing speed and distance, are we breaking our dogs without realizing it? Will we see more dogs sustain injuries during training or trialing as the skill level required to get a clean run becomes more demanding? 

 Ironically, handlers today are more aware of the importance of their dog’s physical conditioning and of warm-ups and cool-downs than ever before. Instructors teach skills so the dogs can run fast without being reckless. We’re thinking about our dogs’ safety more than we ever did and we know we CAN run fast and be safe.

 But the fact remains – dogs are getting hurt. How many times have you heard someone say, “Sparky is going to the clinic for rehab because he hurt his (fill in the blank) at training last week” or “Brownie won’t be running for awhile because he came up lame after the trial last weekend.” How many handlers do you know who are constantly taking their dogs to the chiropractor or acupuncturist or giving medicine to relieve pain incurred because of an agility injury?

Accidents happen. That's a fact of life. They’re nobody’s fault, they’re just accidents. No one is going to hold their dog’s paw and say, “Slow down, darling. You’re running too fast.” It’s our dogs’ nature to go as fast as they can and being the adrenaline junkies that we are, we love to see it and push for even more speed.

But I wonder how long today’s competitive agility dog will be able to run as compared to 5 or 10 years ago? There’s no right or wrong answer, I’m just curious. Even with advances in training techniques, diet supplements and physical therapy for canine athletes, we're putting a lot of wear and tear on their bodies, even if it doesn't show on the surface.

I have yet to hear of an obedience dog (a dog who does obedience only, no other sport) tearing its ACL (although it could certainly happen). Obviously, obedience is a much less physically demanding sport. In the course of a three-day trial, a dog entered in Open and Utility would jump a grand total of 12 jumps and these would not be taken at top speed. Contrast that with an agility dog who might take 30-plus jumps each day if entered in Excellent Standard and JWW at an AKC trial. That number might double if you run in FAST and Time2Beat as well. A dog entered in multiple classes could conceivably fly over (or jump badly or crash through or land on or avoid entirely) about 150 jumps or more on a 3-day weekend, not counting time spent on the practice jump.

Phoenix is an incredibly athletic dog. He turns in fast, showy performances on the agility course and I think, from seeing our videos, that he is a cool dog to watch. There are thousands of dogs like him, fast, a little crazy, leaping and running with all their heart. They slip, crash, fall, mis-judge and get up and keep going. They are having the time of their life. Dogs live in the moment. They may not tell you something hurts until after the fact.

Phoenix is almost 5. He’s in awesome shape. I want to be able to say the same thing when he’s 7 and when he’s 10. When the time comes, I want to drop him from regular to preferred and keep enjoying running with him at trials. Of course I want the Q and being the fastest dog in the class is always fun. But most of all, I want his performance career to be long, safe and pain free. If that means not always pushing the envelope to get every last drop of speed or not asking him to turn himself inside out to make a turn, that’s fine with me.

I would never tell anyone how to run their dog. Everyone has their own personal goals and knows what is best for them. There are no right or wrong answers. 


  1. I forgot where I read it, but on some Malamute list they said some breed is trying to prove that ACL tears are actually a hereditary issue. Weak ACLs pass down to future generations. If that's true, it also makes sense in regards to agility since most people who get agility dogs - primarily the super fast dogs - get them from specific lines to try and capture the speed/accuracy/ability/whatever the parents have had.

    It'll be interesting to hear what they find.

    It does make sense though. My torn labrum in my shoulder wasn't the result of a specific injury. The orthopedist kept insisting it's a football injury from throwing overhand. I still don't think he believes me when I told him that I don't play football, and I'm a righty anyway so if I DID, I'd have torn my right labrum. Finally he conceded that it must have been a small injury which just got worse over time.

  2. I am fairly sure that Jazz tore his knees as a result of poor conformation and early neutering. He is not built very well - very straight in the front - he had lyme disease at 12 weeks of age and nearly died, was on liver function meds the first two years of his life and was neutered at barely 6 months old.
    He has always been a very slow, cautious agility dog. Since his knees have begun healing he is actually running faster.

    I suspect that without agility, (and with no pup to challenger him to play hard,) he might never have torn either knee. I think they hurt him all his life though and the surgery may have given him more pain free years than he would have had otherwise.

    I wonder if the increase in ACL problems is partly a function of poor conformation and some of the "problem" really might be longer active lives. Dogs that might have been sleeping on the couch at 8 or 9 are now running agility and playing outside. I know a great many non-agility dogs that have had knee surgery. Most of them recover more slowly, if at all. My vet is seeing lots of large male dogs that were adopted at a young age from a shelter (required neutering before they leave the shelter) who now have terrible knee problems.

    I actually asked my vet about it. She thinks she sees more non-active dogs with knee problems than active dogs with knee problems. I am a little concerned about the multitude of tight twisty sequences in the recent AKC courses, but in general, I think agility helps dogs live long healthy lives.

    Just the observations of someone who has been through this - twice! I obsessed about whether Coach should do agility and if it would hurt him. My vet says - let him run and jump - it is the very best thing for him!

  3. For what it's worth, my Berner tore her ACL, and she was never an agility dog. In fact, she informed me at the age of three that she was done jumping, and though I never figured out why, I simply haven't asked her to jump in years. That said, I'm sure I'll worry about my Aussie for life -- she just throws herself at, through, over, (insert preposition here)anything and everything. Agility may be a hazard for her, but so may running in the back yard (throwing herself off the retaining wall onto the concrete patio, etc.) Always hard, if not impossible, to know what is best.

  4. Fascinating questions. I'm trying to get into vet school right now and I wish to work mainly on canine sports medicine to help answer and solve these exact questions. I defiantly think there will be more demands for sports medicine vets in the future.

  5. I know my dog growing up tore both ACLs, two years apart. She never did agility (or any formal training of any kind), but was a crazy ball dog that played tons of fetch.

    I think the best we can do with our performance dogs is make sure they are in good condition, do conditioning in a safe way (such as running alongside a bike, rather than playing fetch, as the motion is more steady), feed them the best we can (including supplements), and either not push them too hard, or make sure they don't push themselves too hard.

    Injuries happen in life. Being active makes injuries more likely. We just have to do whatever we can to prevent them, and balance the prevention with fully living in a way that satisfies us personally.

  6. We get quite a few ACL injuries at work and most of them are overweight, out of shape dogs that don't do anything. They just "took off after a squirrel" or "were playing fetch" or "I have no idea what happened - he came in from outside limping".

  7. My Staffy Bull tore both acls - each during different flyball competitions.

    We had TPLO (tibial plateau leveling osteotomy) surgery performed on each knee. After each surgery and rehabilitation, she returned to competition as good as before. For the first surgery she was 5yo, for the second surgery she was 7yo. She died of liver cancer at 11yo and never developed any arthritis from the surgery.

    The Vet who performed both surgeries was a student of Dr Slocum, who developed the surgery.

    Here is a link to read about TPLO:

    Helping your dog recover from acl surgery is a labor of love.

  8. Well, my obedience-only dog tore her ACL (CCL really) this spring and had TPLO surgery. The sports medicine vet says some causes are hereditary, some caused by arthritis, etc. Gracie's was just an accident - she got t-boned playing in the muddy yard with my Welsh Springer.

    But - I was thinking this weekend about the orthopedic health of serious agility dogs. I have overheard lots of serious agility handlers talking about their dogs injuries, and I do see many agility handlers making regularly scheduled visits to the dog chiropractor here. It's an interesting question, Melinda, and time will tell how well our dogs hold up to this level of agility competition.

  9. It is true that CCL tears are more of a degenerative disease than one single traumatic injury. It's just that one injury that pushes them over the edge. I don't see a lot if performance dogs in my practices but do see a lot of CCL tears. I suspect there is more of a genetic component than we realize but only time and more research will tell.

  10. and...let's not even start with the handlers! How many knee braces do you see out there? If I've said it once, I've said it 100 times, agility isn't safe, but then again....either is life. I do know that it makes me very sad to see or hear about these injuries, especially when the owners are so great about keeping their dogs in condition, warming them up, cooling them down, and putting a lot of time and energy into their overall well being. How upsetting for all involved. FAST RECOVERY!!!

  11. When I started doing agility with my Beardie I spoke with my vet (whom I work for) about the chances that my dog would tear his CCL. He stated that it's more about structure, than activity, and he would be surprised if my dog ever has a problem. He's 8 now, and still running like a maniac, thankfully, no injuries yet. In our clinic (in a town where hunting dogs are the big athletes) we see a ton of CCL tears, they occur in virtually every breed, but many happen when the dog jumps off the couch. Actually not very common in the dogs (at least in our practice) that were hunting. 98% it seems are also overweight and very out of shape. Dogs kept in peak condition have an edge for sure. I work closely with my canine massage therapist who taught me to stretch and warm up before and cool down after every run. It is sad how many dogs are having a problem with this. I hope we find out exactly what is causing the rise in this issue.