Preventing injury in sporting dogs - Veterinary Medicine
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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.



Athletic conditioning requires the owner or trainer and the dog perform physical activity on a regular basis in order to be fully prepared to perform a sporting activity to the best of the dog's ability with the least likely chance of injury.4 This training must be tailored to the individual. And be sure to factor in a dog's breed. For example, brachiocephalic breeds do not have as much cardiopulmonary capacity as dolicocephalic breeds do, and they are more likely to develop heat stroke.9

Appropriate conditioning has the potential to prevent injury, while overtraining may induce injury, and inadequate conditioning may predispose a dog to injury. In people training for long-distance running, overtraining, such as consistently running more than 40 miles a week, increases the relative risk of injury 2.88-fold.10 Researchers think that an estimated 60% of injuries in runners are due to training errors such as training erratically, overtraining, and training too frequently.11

Early conditioning

Beginning conditioning too early in a puppy may result in trauma to growth plates and could affect the puppy's immune competency. I have treated a 4-month-old Labrador retriever for severe pneumonia, lung abscess, and pyothorax. It had been training at a kennel where it was exercised two to three hours a day and housed with many other dogs. This level of activity may have affected the puppy's immunity.

In people, more than six hours a week of intense exercise doubles an athlete's risk of respiratory tract infection.12 That said, moderate physical activity reduces respiratory tract infection incidence in adults.13 It would seem that moderation in physical activity and controlled exercise in puppies may be the safest method of training until their growth plates close.

Because closure of the long bone physes in medium to giant breeds occurs anywhere from 9 to 18 months of age, dogs should not engage in activities that are high-intensity before at least 9 months of age.14 In addition, puppies should be socialized and allowed to play but on forgiving surfaces with good traction such as turf—not on cement or asphalt.

Play can be an excellent preparation for sports in puppies while they are still developing and can even mimic the future sport they will participate in. However, activities involving climbing (on dog walks, walls, or A-frames), continuously jumping, or short stops and starts should be avoided. For example, when retrieving a ball, dogs will make short stops and starts, which may place increased pressure on developing joints and could accelerate the development of hip osteoarthritis. Dogs predisposed to hip dysplasia that are exercised by retrieving a ball have an increased incidence of osteoarthritis of the hips.15

While there are no clear differences in abilities between male and female dogs, conditioning at the time of puberty, at least in males, may promote muscle development and, thereby, promote strength and speed.16 This type of conditioning must not involve jumping or quick, short stops and turns as described above since that could result in injury to the developing joints and bone. Conditioning in pubertal and young adult dogs regardless of sex must be controlled to prevent permanent injury since most of these dogs are highly motivated to perform until exhaustion and may not have developed their full sense of proprioception to prevent injury to tendons, ligaments, and articular cartilage. Adolescent humans are at high risk of sustaining sport injuries in part because of deficits in postural control and proprioception, and although no research on immature dogs has been performed regarding their proprioception abilities, it is possible they, too, have deficits at this time in their development.17


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