What is Dog Agility?
Dog Agility was first introduced to the UK at Crufts in 1978. It is a dog sport in which a handler guides a dog around an obstacle course. The handler can’t touch the dog or the obstacles, with the dogs run off leash with no toys or food as incentives. The aim is to complete the course as quickly and accurately as possible.
As with any fast-paced sport; injuries and longer term health conditions are likely to be increased without carefully managing the dogs ongoing health. In this article we look at dog agility as a sport and common injuries and health conditions agility experience.
Injuries often experienced in dog agility
To emphasise the highly agile sport of dog agility and how that can effect dogs within the sport, it is worth noting the average agility course challenges each dog must go through when competing in the sport.
The majority of courses have fifteen to twenty physical tasks (whether jumps, weaves, seesaws, etc.) which require the following actions:
- Quick turns
- Rapid descents
- Abrupt stops/starts
The dog and the handler are then judged for both accuracy and time; so the goal is to get it all done as fast as possible. As a result, it’s no wonder that agility-related injuries occur with significant frequency.
The results of a survey, which was published in an edition of the ‘Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association’, quantified the different types of agility-associated injuries and their rate of occurrence. A second report within the same journal also identified the various risk factors for injury.
The surveys were completed by 1,669 handlers of 3,801 agility dogs around the world. Handlers were asked to provide information about the cause and nature of their dogs’ injuries, to the best of their knowledge.
Here are some of the key findings within those studies:
- Around one-third (31.8%) of the dogs experienced agility-related injuries.
- Just over a quarter of the injured dogs (27.6% ) sustained more than one agility related injury.
- Soft tissue strains, sprains and bruising were the most frequently reported injuries.
- Of the injuries analysed (1,523), the toes, neck, back and shoulders were the most commonly affected areas.
- 50.5% of the injuries were mild (recovery required less than one month)
- 44.6% were severe injuries (recovery required two months or longer).
- Faulty interaction/navigation with bar jumps, A-frames, and dog walk obstacles were a common cause of a number of injuries.
- There was no significant increase of injuries occurring from competitions at shows or events compared to practice sessions.
- Dogs were found to be at an increased risk of injury if they had a history of prior injury or a previous related issue.
- Dogs were at a greater risk of injury if they had less than four years of dog agility experience.
- Dogs which had handlers with less than 5 years of dog agility experience appeared to be at a greater risk of injury.
Although retrospective surveys such as these are never perfect, the data generated appears to make sense and warrants serious consideration. For example, it makes sense that a more experienced individual is less likely to push his or her dog too fast or too far. However, some findings are not as obvious, such as the increased susceptibility to injuries for Border Collies; although the risk factor could be put down to the breed’s intense work ethic, rather than any inherent musculoskeletal weakness.
The fast-paced nature of the sport naturally increases the impact on a dogs joints which has shown to increase the chances of developing canine arthritis later on in life.
Providing agility dogs with preventative health measures
What is clear across the dog agility community is the importance in providing agility dog’s with a selection of preventative measures, highly skilled medical support and the best recovery and rehabilitation techniques to their dogs as possible.
This was emphasised by The Kennel Club when they choose DOG StreamZ magnetic collars and CSJ Natural Dog feed as their chosen mainline sponsors of the Team GB Agility Squad in 2018.
This high-level sponsorship followed successful partnerships and endorsements by World Champions agility handlers and the England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales national agility squads the year before. Good enough for the best!
Commonly used treatments for dogs in agility
When it comes to treating a dog’s condition there can sometimes be a range of options, which is often dependent on the underlying cause of the issue, whether it’s related to age or injury; but any treatment that is decided for your dog should always be done in consultation with your veterinarian.
Due to the fast paced nature of the sport, agility competing dogs put severe strain on their joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments.
Many handlers look to complimentary therapies developed to assist the dogs wellbeing on an ongoing basis. These devices range from magnetic collars, ceramic rugs and coats, supplements and natural herbs and so on. Even with a carefully managed dog, injuries within the sport remain common.
In a typical plan to treat minor strains or sprains your vet may advise you to support the dog with the following treatments:
- Help reduce the inflammation by giving your dog a non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. These are a short term solution and may create side effects.
- Help reduce temperature directly where the strain is, using ice packs or cooling gels.
- Ensure your dog is on the correct balanced diet to support its recovery.
- Ensure that your dog has ample rest to recuperate and rehydrate. Many agility dogs are used to being active and managing their energy levels can be difficult. Providing a calm environment for them can help further.
- Provide complimentary therapies such as acupuncture and hydrotherapy.
- Buy complimentary devices such as magnetic devices and ceramic rugs.
Other options that your vet may recommend for stiffness and lameness, dependent on the diagnosis, include muscle therapy, also known as Myotherapy. Myotherapy is a form of treatment used to treat dogs with:
- A new injury
- An old or reoccurring injury
- A repetitive strain issue
- A compensatory or adaptive change issue
- An underlying condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis
Hands-on techniques such as physiotherapy and massage can manipulate specific problematic areas. This can enhance the targeted blood flow and facilitate a positive change within the body promoting natural healing. Widely used across other high active sports, regular treatments with canine massage experts and physiotherapists is now extremely common within the dog agility discipline. National teams travel the world competing for their country and within the coaching team will be fully qualified therapists providing these treatments to dogs before during and after competitions.
In addition, different techniques can have varied affects; some, for example, will stretch the whole muscle and facial connections facilitating greater mobility. Whilst other techniques target an area that is inhibited or congested. This could be due to a number of factors, such as scar tissue, compensatory change or an overloaded/strained muscle.
The majority of these muscle therapy techniques work on the myofascial connections, which help to ease physical, behavioural and postural issues and help release tension throughout the dogs body.
Another form of treatment becoming very popular within dog agility is Hydrotherapy. This form of complimentary therapy uses water to help relieve pain and rehabilitate any injuries your dog may have. It is especially beneficial for dogs who have injuries such as hip dysplasia, a torn ACL, hip dysplasia, arthritis or degenerative joint disease – all of which are conditions commonly found in dog agility and require a level of physiotherapy as part of the rehabilitation process.
Hydrotherapy uses resistance, buoyancy, hydrostatic pressure and viscosity to help a dog move the injured joints they are trying to rehabilitate. This form of treatment can work well for some injuries, as you are removing the pressure of gravity and providing a form of weightless physical therapy. The buoyancy of water reduces the stress on the dog’s joints, aiding their recovery. It is widely recognised that this form of therapy is also a natural anti-inflammatory, due to its ability to reduce swelling in body tissues, and although not proven this form of treatment is widely respected within the agility community.
Besides the benefits of rehabilitating joints and relieving pain, there are also other added benefits of complimentary therapies for dogs, such as:
- Tissue healing
- Gait modification
- Cardiovascular fitness
- Promote blood circulation
- Increased range of motion
- Faster recovery from injuries
- Alleviation of muscle spasms
- Relief of pain, swelling, and stiffness
When a dog’s muscles are tight or sore they can restrict joint mobility, which in turn can increase the risk of injury. As a result, this has seriously impact on their speed, drive and focus; all essential ingredients of dog agility.
Handlers within the sport look towards science and complementary treatments to support their dogs (both competing and retired) and do so on an ongoing basis.
Providing warm-up and cool-down programs to their exercise
As with any athlete, dogs also require a continuous program for warming up prior to exercise. Warming up your agility dog can help reduce injuries to muscles, tendons and other sport related injuries. Warming up before competing in the ring will also help mentally prepare your dog for the upcoming activity.
Similarly with warming-up your dog prior to a run, providing a cooling-down recovery program for your dog after the run is also an important step in maintaining their health and preventing injuries during dog sports. Providing agility dogs with a series of stretches and light-work activities after their run is essential in keeping them in tip-top shape.