Canine Sports Medicine

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Black and white dog performing cavaletti training

By Dr Tanya Grantham

Canine sports are becoming increasingly popular. In South Africa perhaps the most prevalent is agility but IPO, gun dog trials, tracking and herding competitions are also very popular. Not to be forgotten is obedience as well as participating in breed shows. In order to compete in these events, a dog should be considered and treated as an athlete. Other canine athletes include our security dogs, those that track rhino poachers, guide dogs and other service dogs and airport dogs. Not to be excluded are the dogs that run with their human companions, and the weekend warriors. Dogs that play fetch everyday with the children should also be seen as athletes.

Canine sports medicine is the new kid on the block. This branch of veterinary medicine includes orthopaedics, exercise physiology, neurology, cardiology, pulmonology and nutrition. A critical partner to canine sports medicine is rehabilitation. Rehabilitation includes conditioning, maintaining and regaining fitness. The obvious role of physical rehabilitation is that of post injury or post surgery recovery but physical rehabilitation practitioners can play a large role in injury prevention as well as establishing routines to prevent re-injury. These dogs must return to a state of muscular ability, endurance, coordination, balance and flexibility that enables them to train and compete or work again.

This branch of veterinary medicine is challenging from the perspective that the dogs must return to their absolute best ability. There can be no second best. Advantages include working with healthier dogs and measurable success when dogs return to training and competition. The clients are highly educated and invest considerable time and money in their dogs. This, in itself, may be challenging but partnering with such clients to achieve the best possible outcome is an incredible reward. Client compliance is high.

A typical rehabilitation program designed for a canine athlete will include exercises for strength, awareness, endurance and skills. Strengthening can have a general focus or be unilateral and specific, concentrating on an injured joint. Proprioceptive exercises play an integral role in improving the ability of the athlete. Being aware of foot placement translates into more control of the movement of the body and therefore a decreased likelihood of sustaining an injury. Endurance exercises are important but the amount of energy placed on this is dependent on the sport. Herding requires more endurance than flyball. The last type of exercise is skills training. Agility dogs will learn how to negotiate a jump but not follow a scent. Skills training is specific to the chosen sport.

Following on from the human trend of actively pursuing wellness preventative medicine is becoming a ‘thing’ amongst discerning human guardians. As Vets, this presents us with a wonderful opportunity to engage our Clients to optimise the health and performance of their Canine Athletes.

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