How to Check Your Dog for Injuries After Outdoor Adventures
If you do a lot of outdoor adventuring, you’ve probably had a minor injury or two yourself. Whether it’s a scraped knee or a twisted ankle (or worse), the outdoors keeps us humble with minor injuries. The same goes for our dogs – but how do you know if your dog is injured after an outdoor adventure?
Of course, some injuries are obvious. My dog ripped open a paw pad on a hike up a 14,000-foot peak two summers ago. His white leg was covered in bright red blood. I couldn’t miss it. I cleaned his wound, wrapped him up, and we headed back to the car. He ended up needing staples from the vet.
But many other injuries are far less obvious. Just like us, our dogs love being outside. Many active dogs hide their injuries well. This is instinctive for many animals – showing weakness isn’t really an evolutionary advantage! High drive dogs (like many pointers, border collies, labs, and shepherds, to name a few) are even more notorious for hiding injuries.
In another case, my dog Barley was bitten by another dog. I checked him over after the scuffle (the other dog attacked him when he approached the owner, who was handing the dog a treat) and found nothing. But two days later, Barley wouldn’t come out from under the bed. He normally sleeps under the bed – that’s his choice, and I don’t judge him for it – but he also normally shoots out from under the bed for our morning run.
It felt wrong in my gut, so I rushed him to the vet. He had a tiny puncture wound in his armpit that had gotten infected. It hadn’t bled at the time of injury, and I had totally missed it despite a thorough check-over.
Now that I know a lot more (largely thanks to Dr. Sue Yanoff’s course at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy), I think I would be able to catch that injury and many others.
Here’s how to check your dog over for injuries after an adventure. Remember – catching injuries earlier gives you a better chance for fast, efficient treatment and recovery!
1. Know what’s normal for your dog.
If you don’t know what your dog’s shoulder muscle usually feels like or what his gait normally looks like, you’re a lot less likely to catch early signs of stiffness, soreness, or pain.
I do this by taking video of my dog trotting towards the camera, away from the camera, and past the camera. This allows me to have a record of his gait. A trot is best because it’s a nice, easy, symmetric gait. The videos below show me trotting Barley around to get these baseline videos.
You may also want to get a photo of your dog standing “stacked,” or in show dog position. Google what this looks like for your dog’s breed (or suspected mix) and then find YouTube videos on how to do this – it will vary from breed to breed. Then take a photo. Just last week, I caught a bit of soreness in my dog because he was resistant to me pulling his left hind leg back into stacked position.
2. Get your hands on your dog regularly.
I also stretch my dog after most of our big runs or hikes. This allows me to learn what his muscles feel like under my hands. Here’s what to do:
- Flex and extend your dog’s shoulders, hips, elbows, knees, wrists, ankles, and toes.
- Feel for trembling, resistance, tightness, off-balance, or a difference in size between different muscles or joints.
- Watch to see if your dog lifts his head, gives you the stink-eye, licks his lips, or pulls away. If you get a minor reaction the first time, try again – if you get a reaction two or three times in a row, it’s time to talk to the vet.
- Massage your dog’s muscles. You don’t have to be a massage therapist – just watch your dog for what seems to feel good here. My dog tends to like deep, slow kneading of his big muscles: shoulders, hamstrings, lower back. This helps him seem more flexible later. Even better, it helps me check him for lumps, ticks, and soreness. If I notice that one side seems tense when I flex and extend it, I’ll give it some extra time on the massage. This massage usually only lasts 5 minutes for Barley – that’s all he wants.
- Examine your dog for ticks, scrapes, and burrs while you’re doing all of this. Make sure their paw pads and nails look ok. While many dogs will make a fuss about sore paws or torn nails, many other dogs won’t! Be sure to check carefully.
Doing this regularly will allow you to notice if your dog’s hips are trembling, if your dog isn’t letting you pick up a paw, or if his shoulder feels tighter than usual. This regular check will help you catch injuries that might not cause an obvious limp or slowdown in your pup.
The video below shows how I examine Barley for injuries after a run. I did this video for a class I’m taking, so don’t mind my questions to the instructor! You’ll notice that I give Barley plenty of treats during the little exam. This ensures that we both stay relaxed and happy! I don’t always do this directly after a run, but I do try to make sure his muscles are nice and loose.
3. Watch carefully for small changes.
Again, your dog might be in pain but might not show an obvious limp. Watch to see if your dog stands with his weight slightly offset. I’ve seen dogs who always stand with one leg tucked in compared to the others, and later found out that that was a sign of pain. They didn’t have the strength to stand square!
Many dogs with hip or lower back pain will also be reluctant to sit “square” with their hind legs neatly tucked under them. Puppies, bulldogs, and large breed dogs like Great Danes can be notorious for “sloppy sits.” If that’s normal for your dog, it might not be a cause for alarm (or it might indicate some chronic pain).
But if your dog normally sits square when asked to sit, and suddenly one leg is slipping out from under her, that might be a red flag. Again, it’s all about knowing what’s normal for your dog!
As we discussed in our article about warm-ups and cool-downs, what’s really important is getting your hands on your dog regularly. And we’re not just talking about casual petting. Really massage the muscles, stretch the tendons, and feel if the joints are the same size.
A regular post-adventure checkup will help you catch injuries sooner. For many minor injuries, just taking it easy for a few days will help a lot. But in many other cases, this check will help you know that it’s time to go to the vet!