Could Your Dog Have An Agility Injury That’s Affecting His Performance?

The other day I took what started out as an “under the radar” road trip to Baltimore to see a specialist about what I believed to be an injury that my dog Swagger endured last summer. I say “appeared” to be because to most onlookers there was nothing wrong with Swag… but to me, there were little signs that he was not himself. What I found out is that with the type of injury he had it can be extremely tough for even trained experts to diagnose without getting inside the shoulder.

Photo (c) by Olivier Morin

The other day I took what started out as an “under the radar” road trip to Baltimore to see a specialist about what I believed to be an injury that my dog Swagger endured last summer. I say “appeared” to be because to most onlookers there was nothing wrong with Swag… but to me, there were little signs that he was not himself. What I found out is that with the type of injury he had it can be extremely tough for even trained experts to diagnose without getting inside the shoulder.

You see it all started at the European Open back in July 2016 in France. It was a rainy day, and my hyper-speedy border collie Swagger got tangled in the weave poles, and then in the same run had his right leg slip off the dog walk sideways and hit the ground resulting in his entire whole body weight landing on top of his leg at full speed.

I was concerned at first but didn’t see any limping or signs of pain. Of course, I had him thoroughly checked out by three professionals at the event, but no real signs of injury could be found. Little did I know that my Swagger, like many driven dogs, is extremely resilient and can mask an injury!

Photos (c) by Jukka Pätynen / Koirakuvat.fi

Over the following 5 months, I started to notice a subtle change in his performance, especially when turning left. He began slipping more in weave poles and falling on his left shoulder almost exclusively while turning left. He knocked more bars and his turns to the left became slightly wider than to the right. His course times where down…way down. In the fall of 2016 even though he won the USDAA Grand Prix finals, his course times were down  2-3 seconds off of what he was running earlier in the year. Individually no one thing was ringing a big alarm bell because Swagger was still sound…but collectively my gut told me something was w-a-y off for a then five-year-old dog.

I sat down rewatching all our training videos and competition videos for entire 2016 season in slow motion…both those that occurred before the EO and those after. Here is a sample of what I saw.

Watching I knew then that Swagger needed to see a professional…

I confided in a close friend and former Canadian Team Veterinarian Dr. Leslie Woodcook and asked for a recommendation to an expert in the field, and she suggested Dr Sherman and Deb Canapp of the Veterinary Orthopedic Sports Medicine Group.

Their approach to medicine is second to none, and from the minute I walked into their centre, I knew I was in the right place….

Not only do they have the experience (they’ve done the exact same shoulder procedure on over 1,200 agility dogs!) they also are innovators in their approach to veterinary medicine.

While there I decided it would be in the best interest of many if I changed my mind about visiting VOSM “under the radar” and did an impromptu “FaceBook Live session” to help all agility enthusiasts better understand this rather common injury. In it I’m joined by Dr. Deb and Sherman Canapp to explain what to do if you suspect your dog has an issue, and what you can do to prevent it from happening.

Here is a recording of that FaceBook Live:

Here are some of the highlights that we go through in the video:

  1. What is “Medial Shoulder Syndrome” (MSS)
  2. Why agility dogs are susceptible to having MSS
  3. Warning signs your dog has MSS
  4. How you can test for MSS
  5. Different treatments for mild to severe cases
  6. What you can do for prevention

Plus we show you a behind-the-scenes look into Swagger’s actual procedure! (Don’t worry, it’s not gory).

I highly urge you to watch the video. Even if you don’t suspect your dog has an injury, there are so many great pieces of information that Drs. Canapp share on how to prevent agility injuries happening with your dog.

After watching this video if you suspect something is up with your dog, trust your judgement like I did and find a professional that knows sports agility and has treated thousands of dogs with similar conditions. At the end of the day, your dog is an athlete, and needs to be treated like one. You need that professional team on hand to ensure they are at their peak performance and supported in their working career.

Swagger is home and recovering well. Thank you for your well wishes, prayers and suport.

And please, please, please… if you have a young pup you hope to be an agility star one day, be PATIENT! I know there are SO many videos of agility gurus running puppies over agility sequences with bars on the ground before they are a year old. At the risk of sounding disrespectful to my fellow peers I’m going to suggest just because they are doing it doesn’t mean it is the best thing for you to do with a puppy.

Please STOP.

Just because a puppy CAN do it doesn’t mean he SHOULD do it.

Put your training hours into building body awareness, strong muscles, conditioning and when they are ready the skills to help your dog in agility. Trust me, there will be plenty of time to work on HANDLING once your dog is full grown. There are SO many puppy foundation games you can be play which will make the “sexy” part of agility (handling sequences) easy once you puppy matures into a strong, full grown dog. I personally don’t start working sequencing with my agility dogs until they are at least 15-16 months old. Starting them too young  can do lifelong damage to their bodies.

Next, once you do start training for actual agility please make sure you aren’t overtraining. Don’t “drill until you gets it right.” Take time between repeating sequences give your dog a breather, evaluate your own handling or consider why your dog may have failed before trying a sequence again. When you “drill” something like weave entries or tough sequences you are over-heating your dog’s muscles as you fatigue the dog thus creating a perfect environment for sloppiness and small muscle tears…which weakens your dog’s support for tendons, ligaments and bones. This is a recipe for a potentially career ending injury.

No one can be certain but all things point towards Swagger’s issue being caused by my decision to run him in the rain that day at the European Open. It was a conscious decision, one I felt he was fully prepared for, however accidents like the one he had, do happen.

After posting this video to FaceBook I had many people ask “can down time replace the therapy Swagger had”. The answer is highly unlikely. You see even if you rest the shoulder for 12 weeks or longer once you return the dog to full competition it is very likely he will injure it again. This comes from the Canapps who have treated literally thousands of agility dogs in their practice and have seen that exact scenario happen more than once.

Bottom line is…do what you can to keep your puppy and agility dog safe. Prevention comes from a foundation of common sense. I really hope you gain some amazing insights from this presentation, and that it might even help you address an injury your “master of disguise” agility dog has been hiding from you.

Here’s to treating our dogs like the athletes they are!

Today I am grateful to Drs. Sherman & Deb Canapp and their phenomenal facility and treatment of Swagger.

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