What Is a Canine Athlete?


Canine sports medicine and rehabilitation is the newest specialty in veterinary medicine. It encompasses and integrates a variety of fields, including orthopedics, exercise physiology, neurology, cardiology, pulmonology, nutrition, and others. Rehabilitation, which includes conditioning, maintaining, and regaining fitness, is a critical partner to canine sports medicine. Canine athletes include dogs that compete in performance events as varied as agility trials, obedience trials, and disc dog competitions, as well as working dogs such as police/military dogs, search and rescue dogs, and assistance dogs for the disabled. Canine sports medicine and rehabilitation professionals play a pivotal role in helping canine athletes and working dogs recover after injury or illness. They work to prevent reinjury while moving the patient back to a state of muscular ability, endurance, coordination, balance, and flexibility that allows them to train and compete as well as or perhaps better than they did before. Understanding the physical activities that are involved in the different performance events and the jobs that working dogs perform is critical to devising targeted rehabilitation for sports/working dogs after injury or illness, and for retraining them to perform their specific duties. This is best accomplished by attending athletic/working dog training sessions and competitions.

Introduction to Canine Sports Medicine

Humans and dogs have been partners for at least 33,000 years (Galibert et al., 2011; Ovodov et al., 2011). As working companions, dogs have assisted in hunting food, guarding family and property, moving and gathering livestock, patrolling with soldiers, detecting drugs and explosives, and searching for lost humans.

With increases in disposable income and a change in attitudes toward work/life balance beginning after World War II, there has been an exponential growth in the number of sporting events devised by people to challenge their abilities to train their dogs for competition. The field of canine sports medicine has grown tremendously in the last two decades, from its beginnings with veterinarians working predominantly with racing Greyhounds or mushing dogs. Veterinarians now work with dogs that participate in dozens, if not hundreds, of different canine sports and work­­ing roles.

Canine sports medicine is the branch of medicine concerned with injuries sustained in canine athletic endeavor, including their prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. The field of canine sports medicine comprises many different aspects of veterinary medicine as well as nonveterinary ancillary roles in canine care such as athletic training and conditioning (Table 1.1), and encourages significant collaboration between individuals with different areas of expertise. In addition, canine sports medicine is intimately linked to canine rehabilitation, where veterinarians and physical therapists have an opportunity to work together to return ill or injured canine athletes not only to health but to full function as athletes or working dogs.

Table 1.1 Fields that canine sports medicine encompasses

Canine sports medicine fields of study

  • Anatomy and Biomechanics
  • Exercise Physiology
  • Sports Conditioning
  • Rehabilitation
  • Orthopedics
  • Internal Medicine
  • Pulmonology
  • Cardiology
  • Neurology
  • Gerontology
  • Nutrition
  • Integrative Therapies

There are many advantages to veterinarians and rehabilitation therapists working with canine athletes and working dogs (Table 1.2), as it involves assisting clients who have invested a tremendous amount of time, emotion, effort, and money into raising, training, and competing with their canine partners. These clients want the best care and the best outcomes for their dogs, so there is significant opportunity to practice state-of-the-art sports and rehabilitation medicine.

Table 1.2 Advantages of working with clients with canine athletes and working dogs

Canine sports medicine and rehabilitation advantages

  • Opportunity to practice state-of-the-art rehabilitation medicine
  • Highly educated clients with significant financial and time investment in their dogs
  • High client compliance
  • Work with healthier dogs
  • Higher success rate due to dogs’ higher plane of fitness
  • Measurable success returning dog to training and competition
  • Abundant research opportunities

Human athletes have entire teams of health professionals who work on maintaining and regaining their health and fitness. Canine sports medicine and rehabilitation professionals likewise play a pivotal role in helping the owners and handlers of canine athletes and working dogs keep their dogs in athletic condition, prevent injury, and recover after injury or illness. They help move dogs back to a state of muscular ability, endurance, coordination, bal­­ance, and flexibility that allows them to train and compete as well as or perhaps better than they did before.

Clients with canine athletes and working dogs are generally highly compliant. Once given detailed home exercise programs, clients will encourage their dogs to perform those exercises diligently. This is a key to success for the canine sports medicine or rehabilitation professional, and brings significant job satisfaction, allowing the professional to develop relationships with clients that last through generations of dogs.

Canine athletes and working dogs enter the rehabilitation program at a much healthier level and a higher fitness plane than most pet dogs. This provides the canine sports medicine and rehabilitation professional with the advantage and enjoyment of working with health more than illness.

There is significant opportunity for research in the field of canine sports medicine and rehabil­itation. Opportunities abound for retrospective studies of outcomes as well as prospective studies that formulate specific hypotheses and design test and control groups to address those hypotheses. Owners of canine athletes and working dogs are committed to participating in studies that will help provide information that they can use to become more efficient in training and more successful in competition and that will result in more longevity in performance.

As an example of the investments that clients have in their dogs, the annual cost to campaign a show dog in conformation shows in 2010 was $80,000 for a dog that had a single Best in Show win and $500,000 for a dog that won more than 100 Best in Show awards (Dugan & Dugan, 2011). This included the costs of entries, travel to shows, extensive advertising of the dogs, and payments for professional handlers. Many clients with competitive field trial dogs will spend $25,000–$50,000 per year if they have professional handlers train and compete with their dogs. Most agility competitors spend somewhat less than that because they do not advertise, and they generally train and compete with their own dogs. However, they do have significant costs for lessons, entries, and traveling, and many avid agility competitors will spend $10,000–$20,000 per year on their chosen canine sport (M.C. Zink, personal communication). This is concrete evidence of the significant temporal, financial, and emotional investment on the part of people with canine athletes and working dogs. As a result, they are interested in finding the best possible care for their canine teammates. They look to canine sports medicine and rehabilitation professionals to help their dogs recover quickly and completely from injuries and to be able to once again compete to their fullest potential.

To be most effective, canine sports medicine and rehabilitation professionals must become as familiar as possible with the requirements for canine athletes’ and working dogs’ jobs. It is also important that they are familiar with the training ter­­minology and techniques used with these dogs. Training and practice methods can significantly contribute to the types of injuries that performance and working dogs experience, sometimes more than competition itself.

In addition, understanding the functions of each dog is critical to devising targeted rehabilitation for sports/working dogs after injury or illness, and for retraining them to perform their specific duties. This is best accomplished by attending athletic/working dog training sessions and competitions. Local competitions can easily be found by searching the Internet. The sports medicine/rehabilitation professional is strongly encouraged to attend clients’ training and practice sessions. Clients’ videos and photos of their dogs working or training often capture evidence of potential tissue stresses that can lead to injury.

The ability to communicate effectively with performance and working dog clients cannot be overemphasized. Often, these clients are as driven as their dogs so that both handler and dog might ignore a problem, working through it until it becomes a major injury. This can result in critical downtime and even permanent loss of work or performance ability. Clients with canine athletes and working dogs are looking for veterinary and rehabilitation professionals who understand their dogs’ jobs and who can communicate with them about that work.

Types of Canine Performance and Working Activities

Canine Sports and Pleasure Activities

These can be divided into two categories: companion events and performance events. Companion events are those in which any breed (often mixed breeds as well) can participate. These are sports events with rules devised by diverse organizations and are usually meant to be inclusive—with events designed for the participation of as many dogs of different sizes and shapes as possible. Examples include the popular sport of agility, as well as obedience, rally, and tracking.

Performance events are sports that are designed to recapitulate the original purposes of various breeds or groups of breeds, and participation is often limited to those breeds. Examples of these sports include herding competitions for breeds such as Border Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs, and Australian Shepherds, and hunt tests for the retrievers, setters, pointers, and spaniels.

This chapter provides brief information on only a few of the most popular and most physical canine sporting events. However, Table 1.3 provides a comprehensive list of popular companion and performance events with websites that provide a wealth of additional information.

Table 1.3 Canine sports websites

Sport Brief description Website(s) and description
Companion events
Agility A popular and fast-growing canine sport in which a handler directs a dog over an obstacle course, running against time. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_agility
Obedience A sport in which judges instruct handlers to have their dogs perform a number of exercises on command including heeling, retrieving, jumping, etc. Dogs are judged on the precision of their responses and teamwork with their handlers. www.akc.org/events/obedience
Rally A sport with components of both agility and obedience in which the dog and handler complete a course that has been designed by the rally judge. The dog and handler proceed through a course of designated stations (10–20, depending on the level), each of which has a sign providing instructions regarding a skill to be performed. www.akc.org/events/rally/index.cfm
Conformation A competition in which purebred dogs are judged on their structure against a written description of the ideal dog of that breed. www.akc.org/index.cfm
Tracking A test in which a dog follows the scent of a person over a 400- to 800-yard track aged from 1 to 5 hours. www.akc.org/events/tracking
AKC tracking regulations and listing of tracking tests
Freestyle A teamwork sport in which dogs and handlers perform a thematic routine, moving together to music. www.canine-freestyle.org/
Flyball A relay race in which dogs run over 4 small hurdles 10 ft apart, retrieve a tennis ball that is ejected by pressing a pedal on a box, then return over the hurdles. www.flyball.org/
Disc dog A sport in which dogs retrieve flying discs while performing various movements, such as leaps and flips. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disc_dog
Dock diving A game in which dogs compete by jumping for distance or height from a dock into a body of water. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dock_jumping
History and regulations of the sport
Weight pulling A competition in which dogs pull a loaded sled across the ground for various distances. www.iwpa.net
Canine nosework An urban sport in which dogs search rooms, a vehicle, and an outdoor area for a specific scent. Dogs of all shapes and sizes can participate. www.funnosework.com/
Performance events
Lure coursing A sport in which sighthounds (Borzoi, Greyhounds, Whippets, etc.) chase three white plastic bags (to imitate rabbits) that are moved along the ground by a battery-operated string and pulley system. www.k9web.com/dog-faqs/activities/lurecoursing.html
Greyhound racing An ancient sport in which Greyhounds chase a lure on an oval track. In many countries, Greyhound racing is purely amateur and conducted for enjoyment. In the United States, Australia, and some other countries, Greyhound racing is part of pari-mutuel betting. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greyhound_racing
Herding A competition in which herding breeds herd sheep, cattle, or ducks over a specified course and move selected animals into a pen. www.usbcha.com/
Field trials/hunt tests Sports in which retrievers, setters, pointers, spaniels, and Poodles retrieve upland game birds on land and in water. www.akc.org/events/hunting_tests/retrievers
Earth dog tests A test in which terriers and Dachshunds run through underground tunnels to find a caged rat. members.tripod.com/∼Jerrier/Earthdog.html
Coon dog tests A competition that has many different facets, including bench shows, field trials, night hunts, and water races, providing owners with the opportunity to demonstrate the beauty and natural abilities of purebred coonhounds. www.akccoonhounds.org/
Fox hunting An activity involving the tracking, chase, and sometimes killing of a fox by trained Foxhounds or other scent hounds, and a group of unarmed followers led by a master of foxhounds, who follow the hounds on foot or on horseback. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fox_hunting
Schutzhund, French ring sport Competitions that combine obedience, tracking, and protection work. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schutzhund
History and current requirements of the sport
Mushing An endurance competition in which dogs pull sleds (or land rigs) over a specified course, which may vary from 1 to 1150 miles. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_carting
Carting A sport in which a dog pulls a cart filled with supplies, such as farm goods or firewood, and sometimes people. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_carting


Agility is an international sport in which handlers direct dogs over a course, designed by an agility judge, consisting of 15–20 obstacles, including jumps (Figure 1.1), tunnels, weave poles, seesaws, A-frames, dog walks, tables, and sometimes other obstacles, in a race for both time and accuracy. Dogs run off-leash and the handler cannot touch the dog, but instead guides the dog by voice, movement, and various body signals. This requires exceptional training of the dog and coordination of the handler. Dog–handler teams usually run outdoors on grass or indoors on artificial turf, dirt, or rubberized flooring. The handler can walk the course ahead of time to determine strategies to compensate for differences in his or her own running speed versus that of his or her dog, and for the different physical and training strengths and weaknesses of the handler and the dog. The height that agility dogs are required to jump is determined by their height at the withers (a point just cranial to the highest point of the scapula). Depending on the organization, dogs can compete in agility as early as 15 months of age, meaning that they begin training much earlier.

Jul 9, 2017 | Posted by in EQUINE MEDICINE | Comments Off on What Is a Canine Athlete?

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