Caring for Sporting Dog’s Skeletal and Muscular System
What do we imagine under skeletal and muscular system? We mostly mean the bones, but the system also includes ligaments and tendons that work closely with the bones. The skeleton of the dog forms a passive part of a large unit, the locomotor system. I have tried to emphasize the vastness of this whole complex system in previous parts of this series. I would therefore like to remind you, that the ideal view of a dog’s body in relation to some (but not only) sport performance is especially in its complexity. The complexity is in the fact that there is a skeleton which determines the shape and size of the body, protects the important organs in the body and the muscles clamp to it. Muscles, as opposed to the passive component of the skeleton, are an active component that creates movement and other desired body positions. I also would like to recall that if the muscle cannot function properly for any reason, it will become either reduced during the period of overloading or atrophy sets in during its weakening. However, if we connect a muscle with a skeleton, the joint also cannot work properly when the muscle breaks down. This term was called a “functional blockade” in the previous part. That’s enough as a reminder.
How can we take care of a passive component of the sport dog’s musculoskeletal system? Because it’s not just bones, but also cartilages, joint capsules, ligaments and adjacent tissues, the care is quite complex. The work with the skeletal system of the dog already requires relatively considerable anatomical knowledge. When it comes to muscles, I would not hesitate to entrust the dog to a human masseur. He/she would certainly do the job very well without a risk of damaging the dog. However, in the case of skeletal system, there are big anatomical differences. Although we are all vertebrates, there are some significant anatomical and physiological differences between the species. I would like to say that work with the skeletal system belongs to the hands of an experienced animal therapist. In domestic conditions I would recommend to limit yourself only to the work with limbs for example, which I will describe later. Any kind of manipulation with the spine definitely should not be done at home.
However, the handler can prevent many injuries and avoid problems by precautions and reasonable training workload. Here, it is very important to mention excessive overloading of the dog with one-sided movement. This in the long run will always lead to the continuous stress in certain areas and to the formation of the functional blockades. Subsequently, it will result in the development of degenerative changes in the joint or in the overloaded area. So let’s have a close look at such overloading with focus on dogs in the sport. I would like to emphasize that it is not just about competitions, there is of course a lot of stress also in training. It all adds up in the body.
Before I go into dissecting the stress of sports on musculoskeletal system, I’d like to say that this article is about introducing you to the topic of stress placed on your dog. It is not about looking for faults in a dog sport and its influence on the dog’s body. This stress is, in my view of an animal physiotherapist an integral part of a dog’s and handler’s life, which I fully respect and often admire. I have no intention of telling you that sport is bad because it always leads to a one-sided overload. I’ve learned to work in a way to alleviate stress in sport dogs as much as possible and prepare their musculoskeletal system for the overload. I do not evaluate what is good or bad for a dog, what is in the norm and what is extreme, if it does not clash with the intention of my work. Sport will simply always lead to overloaded areas. That is a fact and we have to put up with it. For example, many of the dog sports handlers, who come to me know that in order to do the work well, I require a period of rest after the treatment. Of course, if we are trying to sort out a problem, we try to adapt the training plan to the given problem. I do understand you have to train, but you also have to understand that if the physiotherapy should be effective, it is necessary to cooperate.
Let’s begin with obedience and protection. Which movements does the dog generally do in these disciplines? In particular, those are quick starts, impacts and sharp breaking (retrieves, protection, one meter hurdle, “A” frame, attack on the helper, take – off from the motion exercises etc.), and from my point of view maybe even worse movement – heelwork. A dog really does not naturally move this way. Heelwork when the dog is almost trotting with his front legs in the high action and the hind legs must work slower in a more pronounced angulation of the entire leg so that it really isn’t trot, coupled with unnaturally bent position of the head backwards often with a rotation that encourages the over angulation of the back legs even more – that’s exactly the opposite of how a dog moves naturally.
The “engine” of the movement forward is naturally at the rear of the dog’s body, which from the skeletal system point of view is pelvis, transition part of the lumbar spine to the cranial bone (very problematic part) and hip and knee joints. The dog will use it whenever he/she takes off before the jump over the hurdle or during sudden movement forward and sharp breaking. We often find a lot of muscular overload in the back of the body such as blockades in pelvis and sacrum. In more serious cases this stress can be seen on X-ray images even in young individuals, predominantly in the region of the lumbar spine. Conscious of this problem, excessive exercise needs to be avoided by a rationally chosen combination of training procedures. Of course, with good warm up before training session and followed by stretching afterwards. For example, if you are training a lot of heelwork, then let the dog do a short track so he/she can stretch the overloaded area herself/himself by walking with his/her head down. Of course, regular visits to the physiotherapist should be a must for a sporting dog. A therapist should be able to evaluate which areas of the body are overloaded, or in which joints the functional blockades are and “fix” those places. We are not talking about some time-consuming frequencies of visits. It is enough to visit physiotherapy preventively once every 2-4 months, always taking into account dog’s workload. If there is a problem, then of course the frequency of visits is usually shortened until the problem is resolved.
Another hot topic is the time of introduction of the dog into a sport. Let me nip off into another sports such as agility or flyball (stress on the front part of the body, cervical spine and front part of thoracic spine and joints of the foreleg), Greyhound racing on the track or coursing (the load on the back “motor” part of the dog’s body, on the ligaments of the fingers that carry extreme stress load at the high speed), so we are not talking about obedience all the time. On the other hand, it’s about sport in general, so I will speak in a general context and everyone will have to apply what is said to his/her favourite sport. My advice here is still the same and I am already known for my strict approach to this subject. In a nutshell, a dog under 12 months of age has nothing to do in the sport.
I know you want to stone me to death now, but look at it from another perspective. I am not saying that a dog cannot practise his/her skills or to learn about sport not from the performance point of view, but from experience and skills. However, the situation usually is that the dog is ready to perform for almost hundred per cent at 12 months of age and everyone is just waiting for official adulthood so he/she can enter the competitions. Then we are surprised that a dog tears cruciate ligaments in the knee at the age of three and by the age of four on the other leg. If that’s not the case, then a dog is usually retired at the age of six, because he/she is that much beyond his/her performance levels. At the same time, the dog that is “saved a bit” and sensibly introduced to the stress of sport can perform with excellent results perhaps even at ten years of age. Yes, of course, it depends on sport and intensity of performance. A sprinter at the age of ten probably won’t be the same as a long distance runner.
But why a dog should be “saved a bit”? Because (back to dog´s skeletal and muscular system) the skeleton needs its own time to form and develop. The closure of growth plates of the bones usually appears between the 10th and 18th month of age (of course, it differs according to bone´s type and dog´s breed or size). The skeleton is developing even after the growth zones in bones are closed – bones are strengthening, ligaments and joint capsules are firming up. We often hear questions during this time of dog´s growth about how it is possible that the dog has no muscles. It is logical – first the skeleton has to mature and grow, and only then the muscles appear. The body usually begins to build mass between the age of 2 or 3 years. During this time, it is very important for a dog to have different exercise load, not just a one-sided movement or training.
What other options of caring do we have in addition to the well-chosen load, timing of introducing a dog into sport and preventing overload? A relatively new famous method in the Czech context is the Dorn Method. It is a method that uses free natural movement of the limb during the therapy (movement from flexion to extension). The therapist leads the movement with a simultaneous light pressure on the treated joint or bone junction. Pelvis and spine are treated in a stand position. The therapist is looking for a wrong position of vertebrae to the right or left from the correct axis, and exerts a light pressure on the vertebra towards the axis while the limb is being moved by the therapist or the dog´s owner. I have to admit that I didn´t encounter such a radical boom of the Dorn Method in animal physiotherapy abroad. Not only sporting dogs are often treated there really as a whole. I like the Dorn Method (DM), but for me it is just one method out of many. It is a tool that is very effective in removing tension in the area of moving joints and spine. It helps to protect the articular cartilage and to reduce light subluxations that will occur during sporting dog´s life. However, from my point of view, a method that is strictly focused on working with the skeletal apparatus has its limits, and it is often a muscle that has the last word and that DM cannot work with. It is true that in a “fresh” blockade, the correction of the bones position can also influence the muscle tension in the vicinity of the joint. Unfortunately, long overloading is nothing “fresh”, and then it often happens that blockades return soon after treatment.
However, this method has many positive aspects especially for sporting dogs. First of all, working with the skeleton is taking place under natural physiological movements and a very gentle pressure. Secondly, this method is absolutely painless when properly and gently conducted. It is simply for the reason that the therapist is moving the treated segment freely and the dog has to agree with this manipulation. 🙂 If any pain appears, the dog pulls the muscles around the treated area and we can no longer call such therapy the Dorn Method, because one of its definitions is “in cooperation with the muscle”. Third, the dogs cope very well with this method and its effects are considerable and fast. No part of the body is pushed or pulled somewhere and there are no thrusts. The dog should rest for about three days after the DM treatment so that the body can adjust to the changes made by the therapist. Sometimes I hear that if a dog goes training or practises some sports right after the therapy, he/she will have a slipped disc due to the correction of vertebrae position, and that is why he/she has to rest. This is nonsense, of course. If it were like that, it would happen immediately after the therapy, for example, when the dog was jumping into the car. 🙂 The dog should relax so that his/her body can “get used to” the newly set skeletal and muscular system and to prevent the blockades from returning. However, the risk of slipped intervertebral disc indeed exists in certain situations, because there is a clear physiological difference between human and canine spine. Only a brief comparison – if the dog´s intervertebral disc is slipped, it tends to go straight upwards into the spinal cord. In humans, the slipped disc goes to the side so the spinal cord is not endangered, but it affects the nerve root. (Attention, of course, there are some exceptions to the rule on both sides.) Therefore, I personally never treat dog´s spine (not only the spine) with DM when there is some doubt about the slipped disc. But you don´t have to worry about anything if your dog is healthy and without any neurological problems. Due to the circumstances of previous years and content of the last paragraph, I have to say that I am expressing my personal opinion based on many years of experience and complex approach to the dog´s locomotor system. Someone may have a different point of view, that´s ok with me. 🙂
Another option is chiropractic. This method, or rather its whole philosophy, is in comparison with the “soft” Dorn Method a relatively invasive, rapid and impact method. However, thanks to a quick, precise and intense treatment conducted by a chiropractor, an immediate removal of the tension in blockade is guaranteed. Nowadays, veterinary chiropractic is going through a significant development and people go abroad to get training in demanding chiropractic courses. I can really recommend chiropractic for sporting dogs as effects of this method are long lasting. It is not appropriate to apply this method very often, which will surely suit the handlers of sports dogs who are in full training.
There are, of course, many other mobilization techniques apart from the Dorn Method or chiropractic that we use in physiotherapy. But how can you, as a dog owner, contribute to a better condition of the dog´s joints even at home? For example, by passive movements with dog´s joints (we are talking about the joints of the limbs – i.e. shoulder, elbow, wrist, finger joints, hip, knee, hock and finger joints again). Such care is going to loosen dog´s joint capsules and shortened tendons around the joint, and you can even reduce muscle spasms. Muscle spasms can form due to overload or limited use of the joint, and can retrospectively influence the quality of joint movement and thus also dog´s performance. At the same time, such passive movements will stimulate the connective tissue membrane to produce joint fluid, which is not only responsible for correct “joint lubrication”, but also for cartilage nutrition. So what is the procedure? To perform passive movements, your dog should be relaxed and cooperate with you – he/she should not be trying to take his/her limb off you and the limb should not be contracted. It is good to massage the area of the joint first. Try to keep your hands as close as possible to the joint you are working with. Then, you move the joint in slow movements to its maximum flexion and extension (in other words, you slowly bend and stretch the joint without any pulling). When you reach the maximum extent of the joint, hold it there for about 15 seconds and then slowly move the limb into the opposite direction. Be careful not to spring at the end of the movement. Work separately with each joint and do not fold the limb as an accordion. Each series of motions should be repeated 2-3 times. Do everything slowly, calmly and carefully. You will see that after a few sessions, the dog´s joint will have better mobility and extent.
Text and photo: Kateřina Plačková, www.PhysioDOG.cz
Translation: Markéta Braierová and Eva Fiedlerová