Preventing injury in sporting dogs - Veterinary Medicine
Medicine Center
DVM Veterinary Medicine Featuring Information from:


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.


Frequency of training

Regular conditioning prevents loss of physical fitness (both muscle strength and endurance). Activity restriction for eight weeks causes a 41% loss of endurance in dogs and requires eight weeks of recovery to regain the original level of fitness.18

The frequency of training depends on the sport involved and whether or not endurance fitness should be a factor. Sled dogs need much more frequent training to be able to perform in competition multiple hours (and days) in a row.4 Flyball dogs need frequent exercise to build muscle for strength and speed but not as much as do sled dogs that perform for more than 12 hours in a day. Adequate rest is required as well as frequent training sessions to prevent injury and allow tissues to restore normal electrolyte and lactate levels to the intensely worked tissue. Serum lactate concentrations have returned to preexercise levels within four hours after agility exercise in dogs and in less than 30 minutes after a race in greyhounds.19

Regular practice greatly improves performance in dogs participating in agility competitions. In one study, even when breed, sex, age, and height were controlled for, dogs with more hours of practice were more precise as well as generally faster through a course.20 Herding skill development increases with the handler's experience but is also independent of the handler and increases with practice.21 Even in greyhounds, training and the amount of time spent training leads to peak performance in a similar amount of time—about 9.1% of the dog's life, which is a similar amount of time spent training to peak performance in elite human track runners.22 Thus, the period of practice, training, conditioning, and development of expertise is vital for an athlete to reach peak performance. With the development of expertise, it is also likely that there is a decrease in injury as well.


Strengthening exercises are required for all sporting dogs as part of their conditioning program. As mentioned above, most exercise physiologists consider the term specificity to refer to the principle of applying exercises that will strengthen the muscles used for a particular sport and in an environment that is similar to the environment encountered in competition, whether that is sprinting or endurance running.4 The exercises used regularly in training will in most cases mimic the type of sport the dog is competing in, but early in the conditioning process the exercises may be less strenuous than the exercise encountered during competition. Strengthening exercises can take on many different modalities including uphill exercise, elastic band exercise, body weights, pulling a cart, dancing, or wheelbarrowing.4

Once a dog has developed enough skill and strength during training with the exercises, it can then be trained to exceed the work encountered during competition, which is called the overload principle. This principle involves the idea that in order to increase fitness and performance, the dog's muscular or cardiovascular system must exceed its current metabolic limit.4 By being able to perform at a greater level than what is needed during competition, the athlete will have the ability to perform well during the high stress of competition. To prevent injury, the overload principle must be used cautiously by the trainer and only after a dog has reached a level of training that is equal to the exercise performed during competition.


The development of aerobic endurance requires sustained aerobic exercise for longer than 15 minutes at a time. With endurance training, there is an increase in oxidative enzymes to increase ATP synthesis as well as an improvement of cardiovascular efficiency; the strength of bones, muscle, and tendon; and muscle vascularization, which in turn, improves oxygen delivery.23-25 The long-term benefits of endurance exercise far outweigh the risks and, indeed, do not appear to increase the incidence of osteoarthritis in dogs.26 Muscle development with consistent conditioning may reduce or at least slow the development of osteoarthritis.27 For sporting dogs, muscle development may be important for achieving peak performance and maintaining athleticism while avoiding overuse injuries.


2. A dog on a wobble board after surgery for removal of a fragmented medial coronoid process. Wobble boards are used to stimulate balance and proprioception for injured animals as well as for sports dogs during training for the development of muscle tone and coordination.
A decline in physical ability occurs with age but may be delayed by maintaining physical fitness. Part of this decline may be due to reduced proprioception with increasing age.28 Improved performance occurs with improved balance and proprioception, which reduces strain on tendons and wear on articular cartilage. Thus, any conditioning program must include balance and proprioception exercises including wobble boards (Figure 2), cavaletti rails, elastic bands, and figure-of-eight turns. These exercises must be performed regularly to have a lasting effect and marked improvement in fitness, balance, and proprioception.


Click here