Preventing injury in sporting dogs


Preventing injury in sporting dogs

Practice makes perfect—and possibly for fewer injuries. By discussing with owners the right conditioning tailored to dogs based on the activity they participate in, you can prolong your patients' healthy participation in canine sports.
Apr 01, 2012

Recently, sporting events for dogs and their owners have increased in number and popularity, with more than 940,000 entries in 2,461 American Kennel Club-sponsored agility trials recorded in 2010 alone.1 The North American Flyball Association registers more than 16,000 dogs a year in their events, and no breed or age restrictions are placed on the canine participants.2

Many pet owners enroll their dogs in sporting activities without prior knowledge of the sport and what injuries can occur, as outlined in the previous article, "Sporting dog injuries." Unfortunately, there is scant research on the risks to dogs engaging in these sports and on what is required to prevent injuries. But much research involving people and horses has been performed and can be extrapolated to dogs to help us educate owners and trainers and prevent injury in sporting dogs. By preventing injury, our goal is also to sustain performance and allow dogs to participate in sports for many years.


In people, maintenance of fitness is often defined as at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a day.3 Fitness in dogs has not been fully defined, and no physiologic studies have adequately determined canine fitness. But the required fitness level of a sporting dog depends on the sport it engages in and should be adapted to the amount of exertion, agility, and endurance required for the sport.4 A dog's training should reflect that effort and try to mimic the conditions as much as possible—this concept is termed specificity.4 The intensity and duration of exercises will vary depending on the sport the dog is training for.


Sled dogs must have high endurance and strength to pull a sled many hours over long distances and rough terrain. They must be exercised for extended periods every day and be required to strengthen muscles as well, so swimming would not be an appropriate exercise since it would not place the stress and strain on the musculoskeletal system that a sled would.


Herding dogs, similar to sled dogs, must have endurance for the long arduous task ahead.

Search and rescue

Search and rescue dogs must have endurance similar to that of sled dogs, while being able to navigate in never-before-experienced conditions. They must also have excellent balance to remain uninjured in conditions in which their safety may be in jeopardy.

Racing and coursing

Racing and coursing dogs can be subject to stress fractures since they often race on hard surfaces without shock absorption and always in the same direction on a circular or oval track.5 People participating in sprinting or military training can also experience stress fractures and muscle or tendon injuries by running on hard surfaces for extended training periods without proper orthotics.6,7

The skills racing greyhounds require are speed and strength. The large muscles needed for high speed have limited insertion to bones and tendons and, as such, can have the strength of force to rupture the relatively small tendons and origins to bones that attach to them, resulting in serious injury. Examples of common injuries in racing greyhounds include gracilis muscle and tensor fascia lata rupture.4,8

Field trials and hunting

Field trial dogs also require speed and strength, but agility is important as well to navigate the unpredictable terrain. They must also be acclimated to the environment or they risk suffering from severe dehydration and heat stroke. Hunting dogs often travel long distances but need only short bouts of strength, so their training should be geared toward sprinting, keeping in mind the difficult terrain they often face.


1. Flyball is a relay sport in which dogs on a team sequentially run down a series of jumps, hit a box to release a ball, catch the ball, and finally run back over the jumps to the starting line.
Flyball dogs require strength for the speedy navigation of the jumps, but they also must practice regularly to prevent injury. These dogs must be taught how to hit the platform and catch the ball in a manner that will not predispose them to chronic overuse injuries.4 Teaching them a "swimmer's turn," in which they hit the platform with their forelimbs to release the ball but push off the platform with their hindlimbs to reverse direction, may prevent forelimb injury that can result from twisting and pushing off the platform with the forelimbs (Figure 1).4


Agility dogs must be able to sprint and make sharp turns (balance) and, of course, be agile to run the course without injury. These skills require not only strength but also excellent balance and proprioception to prevent injury.