I often get asked why there seems to be such a high incidence of injuries in young, well-bred working dogs. In my practice, I see many agility dogs, so often the question refers to a dog or dogs that are currently undergoing veterinary treatment or therapy of some sort. There are many factors that contribute to the risk of injury in agility, and some researchers have looked into factors such as speed, jump height, the dog’s technique and type of surface competed or trained on, etc. However, one of the major factors leading to injury in many talented young dogs is this: they are simply just too talented.
So how can talent and natural ability in a dog lead to increased risk of injury, you ask? Quite simply this – the more talented the dog, the greater the expectation of the owner/handler, and therefore the greater likelihood that this dog’s career is going to be taken seriously. The result? Early specialisation in the chosen sport – in this case, agility. The dog is more likely to be taken to more frequent training sessions or workshops, there is likely to be more frequent training sessions at home, and it is likely that the dog will be entered in more competitions, to increase the chance of signings, enabling the dog to move up to the higher levels of the sport more quickly. The more talented the dog, the more likely the owner is to enter a competition rather than visit the dog park on a Sunday.
This emphasis on realising the dog’s potential leads to early specialisation in a particular discipline. Early specialisation is characterised by formal participation in a single sport at the exclusion of others (Read et al 2016). In human sport, risk factors for injury in young athletes who specialize in a single sport include year-round single-sport training, participation in more competition, decreased age-appropriate play, and involvement in individual sports that require the early development of technical skills. Early sports specialisation may also reduce motor skill development (Jayanthi et al 2015, Myer et al 2015 and Myer et al 2016).
Some trainers try to reduce the risk of repetitive strain injury in young dogs by keeping jump heights low. However, it has been shown that it is the speed, rather than the weight of the dog or the jump height (trajectory), which mainly increases the kinetic energy when landing after a jump. Double the speed leads to a fourfold increase in kinetic energy! Most injuries occur at landing, rather than when taking off, as the time during which the stresses occur is shorter, and they all work on the front legs only. In addition, the stresses on joints are much higher if the dog makes a turn while landing after a jump at the same time (From a report on a Dutch agility website, based on a lecture given by Dr H C Schamhardt, of the Veterinary faculty of Utrecht University. Report compiled by Swarte, Mouwen & Mouwen). This means that doing an average agility drill with a fast dog, even over low heights, has the potential to cause significant strain on the dog.
6 Tips for Reducing Injury Risk in your young Working Dog
Focus early training on teaching basics such as drive and how to learn (such as shaping exercises), rather emphasising specific behaviours.
Build body awareness and joint stability from an early age.
Practice skills in creative ways, but remember not to devalue your cues. In other words, decide what the behaviours are that frequently required in your primary dog sport (heel work/send aways/ wing wraps), and practice these in a variety o circumstances,but do NOT use the same cues as you would in competition.
Plan your training so that you can get the best results with the least number of repetitions.
Do different things. No learning is ever wasted. Work towards a trick dog title or train some other disciplines (www.domorewithyourdog.com)
#Play With Purpose – Remember to just play with your dog. It’s good for your dog’s physical and mental development, and also promotes a stronger bond between you and your dog.
Read PJ, Oliver JL, De Ste Croix MB, Myer GD, Lloyd RS. The scientific foundations and associated injury risks of early soccer specialisation. J Sports Sci. 2016 Apr 27:1-8. [Epub ahead of print]
Myer GD, Jayanthi N, Difiori JP, Faigenbaum AD, Kiefer AW, Logerstedt D, Micheli LJ. Sport Specialization, Part I: Does Early Sports Specialization Increase Negative Outcomes and Reduce the Opportunity for Success in Athletes? Sports Health. 2015 Sep-Oct;7(5):437-42. doi: 10.1177/1941738115598747. Epub 2015 Aug 6.
Myer GD, Jayanthi N, DiFiori JP, Faigenbaum AD, Kiefer AW, Logerstedt D, Micheli LJ. Sports Specialization, Part II: Alternative Solutions to Early
Sport Specialization in Youth Athletes. Sports Health. 2016 Jan-Feb;8(1):65-73. doi: 10.1177/1941738115614811. Epub 2015 Oct 30.
Jayanthi NA, LaBella CR, Fischer D, Pasulka J, Dugas LR.
Sports-specialized intensive training and the risk of injury in young athletes: a clinical case-control study. Am J Sports Med. 2015 Apr;43(4):794-801. doi: 10.1177/0363546514567298. Epub 2015 Feb 2.