Injury Prevention for Dogs: Keeping Your Dog Adventure-Ready!
We expect a lot out of our adventure dogs and their bodies. We hike, fish, trail run, and mountain bike with our canine companions at our sides. Whether you’ve got an exuberant pup or an aging best friend, you’d probably like to see your adventure dog staying healthy and injury-free for as long as possible.
When you’re training your own body, odds are you’re constantly evaluating how your body feels. Do you need more protein? A potassium boost (banana) before your next big run? Does that Achilles feel tight? Are you just flat-out burnt-out?
The problem is, our dogs aren’t great about telling us about those things. Most of our dogs are so enthusiastic for our weekend adventures that they don’t show any lameness or exhaustion until it’s pretty serious. It’s easy to believe that because your dog’s tail is wagging and he’s excited to go, he’s feeling great!
But what if he’s not? What if your dog has a naggingly tight shoulder or a pinching pain in his hip? What if he’s getting hunger cramps during your 10-mile hike? How would you know?
Injury Prevention Tip #1: Know What’s Right With Your Dog
Fenzi Dog Sports Academy recently put out a podcast episode called, “What’s Right With Your Dog?” In the episode, Dr. Sue Yanoff talks about how important it is for you to know how your dog’s body looks and feels when he feels great. If you don’t know how far he normally can stretch his shoulder, how would you know if it’s tight?
Dr. Yanoff recommends spending time rubbing your dog down (kind of like a massage) and stretching your dog regularly. This will obviously help your dog’s muscles feel great. Just as importantly, though, this will also help you notice if your dog’s muscles feel unusually tense or tight, or if your dog is resisting a stretch. She also recommends having a video of your dog trotting from the front, back, and from the side while the dog trots in each direction of a circle. This, again, will help you compare notes if you think your pup is slowing down or “walking funny.”
Knowing how your dog looks, feels, and moves when he’s “right” will help you catch injuries earlier. And catching injuries earlier means fixing them faster!
I didn’t know it, but I was using these basic assessments last summer. Before going for a long run with Barley, I try to always give us both a warm-up. We both stretch as part of our cool-down. I also pay close attention to his gait and his enthusiasm. Last summer, during a 5-mile death run up Snow King ski resort in Jackson Hole, I noticed Barley’s right rear leg was a bit concave. It was hard to describe, but I could tell his right knee was cocked in just a little bit. It looked weird.
I kept watching until I was sure something was off. It was really subtle, but Barley was favoring that rear right leg. He was still happy to join me on 19-mile runs. He still wanted to sprint full-tilt up and down the ski hill after a stick. But his gait betrayed a bit of stiffness anyway.
The orthopedic surgeon thought it was an iliopsoas tear (hip flexor). The sports medicine vet thought it was more of a structural problem (like hip dysplasia). We decided not to pay for the MRIs and X-Rays required to be 100% sure of the diagnosis, because the treatment plan was basically the same given Barley’s level of injury. Our basic treatment plan was pretty simple: increase stretching, go for walks and leashed jogs only (no leaping over boulders!); no sprinting or tight turns or leaping for Barley for 12 weeks. The sports medicine vet said that she was surprised I’d caught Barley’s injury – it was really subtle and quite minor.
But if I’d missed it, Barley could have ended up with a full-blown injury that could have really limited our activity. Instead, we’re back to competing in canicross (competitive running with dogs) and skijoring (cross-country skiing with dogs) and spending our weekends getting lost in the mountains.
Injury Prevention Tip #2: Warm Up and Cool Down
Look, we all know we should be better about our warm-ups and cooldowns. But do you think about your dog before you take off on the singletrack with him sprinting behind of your bike?
Barley and I start our runs with a quick, basic warmup. We don’t do much stretching before workouts, as you don’t want to stretch when the muscles are cold and stiff.
- 5-10 leg weaves. This gets his back and core loosened up.
- 5 sit pretty pop-ups. These are also a good warm-up for the core.
- 5 bow repetitions. These – you guessed it – are great for your dog’s core and back. They also hit the shoulders and hips!
- 5 paws-up repetitions. This really helps get your dog’s hips and shoulders ready to go!
- I gently massage his paws to loosen up his toes and wrists/ankles. I spread his toes, then gently push his feet forward and back. Toe injuries are quite common for active dogs, so don’t skip this!
- 5 minutes of walking, getting faster as we go along before breaking into a jog.
After our workout, Barley and I both walk for about 5-10 minutes. I start with a brisk walk with no sniffing, then gradually slow to allow Barley to sniff if he’d like. Right before we go inside, we do a few stretches for him:
- 30-second hold of him standing on his hind legs. I call him to jump on me, then I hold his paws to keep him steady. This is a big hip stretch for him! If he pulls away, I let him go.
- I pull each of his legs gently out to stretch as far forward (for forelegs) or as far backward (hind legs) as I can. I gently rotate the back legs up and out – this is a tricky area for his hip injury. Again, if he tries to pull away, I let him.
- We repeat the toe stretches.
- 30-second bow hold. This helps really get his back and hips.
I try to also incorporate some massage into our evening routine as many days as I can. I’ll admit, I’m not as good about this as I should be!
While I’m brushing him (he’s a long-haired adventure dog, so he needs a lot of brushing), I try to also massage his big muscle groups – back, hips, shoulders, and butt muscles. He didn’t seem to like this for a long time, but after keeping at it for a few months, he’s starting to really enjoy it!
This ties into tip #1 – knowing what’s right with your dog. If I notice that he’s extra-tense when I try to massage his right hip, I can guess that injury is bugging him again and we need to be careful. The same goes for all that stretching! I know that Barley’s shoulders are usually pretty flexible and that his right hip generally doesn’t rotate as far as the left. If something is off, I’ll know right away!
Injury Prevention Tip #3: Pursue All-Around Fitness and Avoid Weekend Warrior Syndrome
Most athletes cross-train. Sure, they’re primarily into a single sport – but they also do some running, climbing, yoga, swimming, biking, or weight training. This helps to ensure that your body is balanced! I neglected this aspect of fitness as a competitive runner in high school, and I ended up with weak hamstrings and tight quads that ultimately led to an MCL tear. Now, I make sure that I incorporate a variety of physical activities – not just running.
This is just as important for your dog.
There are tons of dog tricks that help your dog build strength and stay fit. If you pair these during the weekday with adventures on the weekend, you’ll likely maintain a healthy dog. Mix up your adventures with obedience (sit-down-heel repetitions are hard work!), agility, or any other dog training class you can find!
We also put together a few tricks that are especially great for canine fitness and a guide to some indoor dog-friendly workouts. Be sure to check those out and mix up your dog’s fitness routine!
Above all, though, it’s important to keep your dog active and at a healthy weight. Go to the vet regularly and don’t hesitate to make an appointment if something seems off. As I learned with Barley, it’s much better to catch an injury when it’s “not quite right” than to wait until your dog is completely lame!
Even if you’re just being a worrywart, your dog and your vet will both appreciate your concern!