Soft tissue injury is the most common injury in performance dogs and it is one of the hardest injuries to pin point or diagnose. If your dog has a suspected soft tissue injury, see a veterinarian that specializes in working with performance dogs. Most “regular” veterinarians won't see the subtle changes in gait and function that affect performance dogs nor will they understand the stress put on the dog’s body during canine performance sports. A canine rehabilitation expert will diagnose the problem, prescribe exercises to improve function, prescribe anti-inflammatories and monitor progress determining when it is safe to return to performance. An experts will tell you if surgery is needed and can refer you to known specialists in the field.
Frustrated handlers leave their home town veterinary offices with anti-inflammatories and prescribed rest, but without a definitive diagnosis. Diagnosing soft tissue injury in a performance dog is just not something they see on a regular basis. Similarly, your “family doctor’s” purpose is to diagnose illness but he would refer you to a sports medicine doctor for an injury to your knee, or a podiatrist for a foot injury. In addition, “function” for a pet dog differs quite a bit than that for a performance dog, as are the possibilities of re-injury. Performance dog owners have much higher expectations for mobility than that of pet dog owners. It is truly important that the professional helping you has a good understanding of the sport you are involved in and your level of participation.
Some of the signs of soft tissue injury can be limping, subtle offloading of weight, changes in gait (pacing, rather than trotting), knocking bars, head bobbing, refusing obstacles or refusing turns. These symptoms are a dog’s body responding to discomfort or pain. Masking that discomfort with pain meds, is only a band-aid and leaves the dog open to increasing the severity of the injury, if normal activity or performance is continued. Rest and rehabilitation exercises can regain function, muscle tone, and help the dog to efficiently utilize the limb or body part that was previously injured. Rest and anti-inflammatory medications are not always enough, especially when we ask our dogs to do extraordinary activities.
Keep in mind, small injuries left untreated, can turn in to larger more complicated injuries over time. Signs of smaller injuries may come and go before the injury reaches a point where it's obvious to anyone. Learn how to watch your dog move so changes are easy for you to recognize. High drive dogs often show very subtle signs of injury and the dog’s owner needs to be familiar with their movement to see small inconsistencies in gait, flexibility or function. Participating in a strength and flexibility program will teach you what is normal for your dog and make you more aware of his overall physical health. Changes of range of motion during stretching, noticeable signs of loss of strength, and refusing exercises are all signs of soreness or pain.
If you have ever pulled a muscle in your lower leg or wrenched your neck and tried to “power through” or ignore it, you know that often those smaller injuries become more severe. If you think your dog has a soft tissue injury, do not allow them to “power through” with pain meds. It's agonizing for many sport dog handlers to take breaks but if they don’t, they may end up with a much bigger injury to their dog, a continued decrease level of performance and MORE time off than originally required. It's important to understand that returning to performance should be gradual. Of course how fast your dog returns to activity depends on the severity of injury, how quickly the injury heals and how the dog responds to strength and function exercises.
K9 Fitness Coach
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Bobbie Lyons, CCFT, KPA CPT