Injuries Affecting Agility Dogs

Did you watch or read about the first-ever agility competition at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show earlier this month? A Border Collie named Kelso bested 225 other dogs by completing the course with the greatest precision and speed. I’ve been told more than once that the sport of agility is addictive. This, in part, may account for the fact that agility is rapidly becoming the world’s most popular canine performance sport.

Not without risk

No question, agility is a whole lot of fun and provides great exercise for everyone involved. There is, however, significant risk for injury associated with the sport (talking about the dogs here, although I’ve seen many a handler take a tumble). The typical agility course challenges the dog with 15 to 20 physical tasks that requiring climbing, descending, jumping, balancing, weaving, running, quick turns, and abrupt stops and starts. And the goal is to get it all done at warp speed. It’s no wonder that agility-related injuries occur with significant frequency.

Results of a survey reported in a recent edition of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association quantified the frequency and types of agility-associated injuries. A second report within the same journal identified risk factors for injury.

Injury survey results

The surveys were completed by 1,669 handlers of 3,801 agility dogs around the world. The data was collected in 2009. (Yes, there is typically quite a long lag time between acquisition of data and publication within the veterinary literature.) Handlers were asked to provide information, to the best of their knowledge, about the cause and nature of their dogs’ injuries. Documentation by a veterinarian was not required.

Here are some of the studies’ findings:

  • One third (31.8%) of the dogs experienced agility-related injuries.
  • 27.6% of the injured dogs sustained more than one agility-related injury.
  • Soft tissue strains, sprains, and contusions (bruising) were the most commonly reported injuries.
  • Of the 1,523 injuries analyzed, the shoulder, back, neck, and toes were the most commonly affected sites
  • Of the injuries 50.5% were mild (required less than one month for recovery) and 44.6% were severe (required two months or longer for recovery). The remaining 4.9% were unclassified.
  • Injuries were commonly attributed to faulty navigation/interaction with bar jumps, A-frames, and dog walk obstacles.
  • There was no significant difference between the numbers of injuries that occurred during practice versus competitions.
  • Dogs had greater risk of injury if they had a history of prior injury.
  • Dogs receiving alternative therapies (acupuncture, chiropractic care, massage, or dietary supplements) had greater risk of injury.
  • Border Collies had greater risk of injury, even after statistical consideration of the popularity of this breed within the sport.
  • Dogs with less than four years of agility experience had greater risk of injury.
  • Dogs handled by individuals with less than 5 years of agility experience had greater risk of injury.

While retrospective surveys such as these are far from perfect, the data generated here provides some good food for thought. Many of the results make perfect sense. For example, it is logical that a more experienced handler is less likely to push his or her athlete too fast or too far. However, some of the results are not intuitive for me. Why would dogs receiving alternative therapies be more predisposed to injury? I have to wonder if these dogs were receiving these therapies because of prior injuries. The Border Collie risk factor is an interesting one. I suspect this susceptibility to injury has more to do with the breed’s insanely intense work ethic than it does any inherent musculoskeletal weakness.

I would love to see some prospective studies to further assess factors that may prevent or predispose to injuries. Perhaps those of you who have invested years in the sport have some ideas about this. If so, your thoughts are welcome here.

Has your dog sustained an agility-related injury? If so, I hope you will share the details with us.

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

 

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12 Comments on “Injuries Affecting Agility Dogs

  1. I have only been training and competing in agility with my dogs for about 7+ years. Just within the last 2 weeks my oldest dog came up with a shoulder/neck injury. He is a 90 pound rocket that moves weave poles out his way. Foot work is good, he is just totally driven!

    He has been getting monthly chiropractic care almost his entire life. Perhaps the incidence of dogs using alternative modalities such as chiropractic is due to the fact that the dogs are in a healthy state and are not suffering from little aches and pains and can perform to high or higher levels and are not inhibited by any aches and pains and consequently end up over extending themselves.

    That would be the only explanation I can see regarding that statistic.

    Thanks for the info.

  2. I kind of think this statement is backwards: “Dogs receiving alternative therapies (acupuncture, chiropractic care, massage, or dietary supplements) had greater risk of injury.” The dogs get this kind of care after an injury or to help prevent injuries. Alternative care doesn’t cause injury. (Do I detect a bias on the part of the study authors?)

    Unfortunately, conventional vets are limited in their treatment options and often can’t offer much more than Rimadyl and an x-ray. Orthopedic vets are few and far between and alternative medicine helps fill the gaps.

    I have personally found chiro incredibly helpful for things my regular vet couldn’t help with and I don’t think my 10 year old dog would be consistently placing in highly competitive Masters classes if he wasn’t getting great care.

    If someone wants to do a quality scientific study, get some littermates from performance lines, place them with same owner, train them consistently and compete comparably. Treat one dog with conventional vet med only, and treat the other sibling with alternative therapies. Collect baseline data (PennHIPP and elbows plus chem profiles) and feed them identical diets. See which dog gets the best times and most consistent qualifying runs. Measure things like dropped bars. See which dog competes the longest.

  3. My first agility dog had a career-limiting injury about 15 years ago, when she was about 3 years old. She fell off the dogwalk and landed badly, damaging her shoulder. No one could give me a firm diagnosis without an MRI, but they thought it was probably bicipital tenosynovitis (spelling may be off — it’s been a long time!). I was never able to rest her enough to let her get back into agility shape although she did a little obedience and musical freestyle after that. In later life (I had her until she was 16), she developed a lot of arthritis in her forefeet. I suspect her structure and the way we trained back then (more reps, more slamming down the contacts into a 2-on, 2-off position) contributed.

    She had a lot of alternative therapies over the years: chiro, acupuncture, TTouch, raw food, TCM, massage. They pretty much were added to her life *after* the major injury, as part of trying to fix and/or minimize the injury and its effects.

  4. I have a dog that was suffering some injuries at agility. He would become somewhat lame or a little “off” and I would rest him, treat him with meds and physical therapy. A few months later it would show up again. It turned out it was not agility related. He has intervertebral disc disease – and he would have had it regardless of his participation in agility or not. He is retired now but I think his very athletic build will continue to help him.

  5. I’ve been doing agility for almost 10 years with a breed that has a great brain/drive for the sport, but truly not the body, Cardigan Welsh Corgis. Over the years both my boys have worked through injuries that have side-lined them for a while. But these injuries were never the result of agility, but rather rough-house dog play in the yard, slipping on ice or hard wood floors, jumping down from too high. Real life seems to be more dangerous than agility for my guys.

    As to the chiro/accupuncture, etc…..We in the sport know agility takes a toll on our dogs’ bodies, whether blatantly, like an iliopsoas injury, or subtlely with stiffness or soreness but no real lameness. As a result, we try our best to provide the full range of supportive therapies to keep our dogs feeling their best. So our dogs get massages and pelvic re-alignment, etc, etc., and I believe all this literal “hands-on” by vets/licensed practitioners probably brings injuries to light that might otherwise go undetected. Dogs are very good at hiding discomfort!

  6. There’s only been one injury in my five agility dogs related directly to agility, and that is a recent one involving metal jump cups. My six-year-old border collie made too tight a turn and scraped herself under the eye. It was more of a hematoma than anything else. We were lucky it was below the eye.

  7. Thank you for sharing these survey results! I will definitely share this post.

    As far as injuries go, I have been incredibly blessed that none of my four dogs have sustained an injury while doing agility beyond a torn paw pad courtesy of a bottle cap dropped in my backyard. One of my agility dogs has some chronic issues that stem from a transitional vertebrae, but he was born with it and agility doesn’t exacerbate it more than any other activity he enjoys (hiking, running, playing with my other dogs).

    I suspect that dogs receiving alternative therapies are more likely to have a minor injury that would otherwise go unnoticed by the owner – but that’s just a guess on my part.

  8. My speculation on injuries in BCs would be multifactorial. BCs tend to be handled by the top human handlers in the sport, who operate at the very edge of what is physically possible for human and canine. Those dogs also tend to get worked more often for more repetitions. But I bet another factor comes into play; we see a lot of BCs competing for a very long time. The breed tends to live a long time and because they are physically structured well for the sport, their sport career may be as long as 10 years. It would be natural for dogs competing for that long period of time to have more injuries.

  9. I have competed in agility for 15 years. We have had a few minor injuries, but nothing serious. I do use alternative medicine, especially chiropractic.
    And I agree with Lori, those of us who are experienced can immediately spot even the slightest change in gait or speed. We know when to push and when to back off, something only time and experience can teach us.

  10. I don’t have a dog who does agility but have been thinking about the correlation between reining with horses and agility.
    When I was studying equine acupressure, a lot of reining horses came through who had become injured due to the quick turns, stops, etc.

    I decided NOT to pursue pushing a career in acupressure because I realized that most of the horses I would work with would be performance horses, tied in some way to their owner’s competitive needs.

    Agility is similar, perhaps, though, gotta say, the dogs all look like they are having a blast.

  11. I wonder if the part about alternative therapies just indicates that those are the people who are more tuned into their dogs so they notice minor injuries sooner than people who are less in tune? Seems illogical that dogs getting regular preventive care would be more prone to injury.

  12. I have a very athletic boxer girl (3y) and I was just about to enroll her to agility class, we did not make it there though.

    Being a silly boxer she is extremely boisterous and bouncy and somehow managed to tear a muscle in her rotator cuff.

    I am now supposed to keep her quiet without crating her – haha!

    I am replying to this post because like you I was wondering about this:

    “Dogs receiving alternative therapies (acupuncture, chiropractic care, massage, or dietary supplements) had greater risk of injury.”

    Those therapies usually lower the risk of injury and I am inclined to believe that there were probably some pre-conditions in the injured animals in that study. This again would mean the study is not reliable since all dogs should have the same health history. Additionally dogs from all age groups were included (at least I could not see anything else) which makes me wonder how many of those injuries were age related?

    Just a few thoughts…