Jumping into canine sports

Canine sports and rehabilitation medicine growing by leaps and bounds
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old
Dog jumping through a hoop
(Courtesy of AKC)

An astonishing number of physical therapy options are available at every level for the spectrum of human athletes who come to need rehabilitation, from recreational runners to Olympic athletes. But what about canine athletes with sports injuries and other dogs with conditions that could benefit from rehabilitation? Where do they go?

The field of canine sports and rehabilitation medicine is growing as canine sports become more popular around the country and dog owners see that rehabilitation can help dog athletes the same way it helps humans. In addition, this past April, the AVMA granted full recognition to the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, which certifies veterinarians as specialists in canine or equine sports medicine.

The American Kennel Club and numerous other organizations sanction competitions involving a wide world of canine sports. The most popular is agility, which attracts more than 1 million entries annually. Among the other canine sports are field trials, tracking tests, hunt tests, herding trials, lure coursing events, rally trials, coursing ability tests, flyball tournaments, barn hunt trials, scent work tests, and dock diving events.

Veterinarians who work in canine sports and rehabilitation medicine say most dogs really are athletes, from the tiny Chihuahua that jumps up on the couch to keep its owner company to the dog that plays ball for an hour with a kid after school lets out.

Agility and beyond

What looks like some sort of group modern dance is occurring on one of two courses set up for an agility trial at the McCook Athletic & Exposition Center in McCook, Illinois, a tiny suburb of Chicago. Handlers pivot and gesture as they walk around the obstacles. Each course is unique, so handlers are given a chance to inspect the course and practice their cues before they try to lead their dogs through the obstacles.

Joyce Polivka, secretary of the Blitzen Agility Club of Chicago, is helping run the trial today. The canine competitors at the highest level go first. It's quieter later, she said, better for the green dogs.

Polivka got started in agility in the 1990s. She saw an ad for classes and quickly got hooked. Over the years, she competed with a Bichon Frise, two German Shepherd Dogs, and another Bichon Frise. She said the sport has grown tremendously since she started.

"Agility builds a great bond," Polivka said. "You have to be a team."

Dr. Lisa Woodside is competing in today's trial with one of her dogs. She also owns Ready to Go Veterinary Rehabilitation. Her solo practice operates out of a different clinic each day of the week.

Dr. Woodside didn't get into rehabilitation through agility, though. She had an elderly dog that had trouble walking, so she took him to a rehabilitation center. She believes rehabilitation gave him an extra two years, so she decided to learn more about it. She earned certification through the Canine Rehabilitation Institute, based out of Florida and Colorado.

She began agility with a young, mixed-breed dog and is now competing with her fourth dog. Her second dog, a Golden Retriever, was dysplastic and ruptured both cranial cruciate ligaments. The third dog, a Border Collie, was also dysplastic and suffered nerve damage as a result of hip surgery. The fourth dog is a Miniature American Shepherd.

"It's becoming more widespread that people realize dogs are athletes," Dr. Woodside said.

She also stresses that pets get some of the same injuries canine athletes do, from torn cranial cruciate ligaments to psoas muscle strains to medial shoulder instability. Dr. Woodside sees more dogs injured playing ball than competing in sports. But repetitive injuries tend to arise in sports, so she tries to get dogs that compete in sports on a fitness regimen.

Like many veterinarians who practice sports and rehabilitation medicine, she incorporates veterinary spinal manipulation therapy and acupuncture into her practice.

AKC sports

The AKC started out offering two competitions—conformation dog shows and field trials—and now sponsors about three dozen types of competitions and other programs for dogs. For big events, the AKC requires a veterinarian to be on-site or on call.

Gina DiNardo, AKC executive secretary, said all AKC events combined are topping 3 million entries per year. Among the fastest-growing programs are scent work and trick dog, both begun last year.

"What people might not know is most of our events are open to all dogs, mixed-breed and purebred," she said. "We want to offer things for all dogs that are fun."

Field trials are offered for retrievers, Beagles, pointing breeds, spaniels, Dachshunds, and Bassett Hounds. The trials test these breeds' skills as hunting companions and ability to find, track, flush, or retrieve game. Some of the other older sports are obedience and tracking. Some of the newer sports are herding, lure coursing, and earthdog.

Herding is for dogs bred to herd. The events test the dogs' ability to move and control animals such as ducks, sheep, or cattle. The AKC also certifies dogs as farm dogs in a program open to all. Dogs must complete 12 exercises typical for a farm environment, including jumping on a hay bale and navigating irregular terrain.

In lure coursing, sighthounds chase a mechanized lure around a 600- to 800-yardslong course. The coursing ability test is a variation on the event open to all dogs. The Fast CAT is a timed 100-yard dash, run individually and open to all dogs.

In earthdog events, small terriers as well as Dachshunds and Miniature Schnauzers locate caged rats underground. In barn hunt, which is open to dogs of any breed, the dogs find rats—protected inside aerated tubes—in a maze of straw or hay bales.

DiNardo said canine sports provide dogs with exercise, mental stimulation, and socialization. The AKC encourages all dog owners to get involved in training or events. She said, "It's fun for the whole family, and you get a better-trained dog."

Physical medicine

Barry, a 12-year-old Jack Russell Terrier, is in for a visit with Dr. Rosemary J. LoGiudice of Integrative Veterinary Rehabilitation & Sports Medicine in Hanover Park, Illinois. Dr. LoGiudice and veterinary technician Anna Alberth work together to perform a variety of rehabilitative treatments, including veterinary spinal manipulation therapy, on the dog.

His owners, Janice and Roger Bentley, said Barry used to chase squirrels but then developed a disk problem. The Bentleys don't turn Barry loose to chase squirrels anymore, and they believe the spinal manipulation therapy helps prevent episodes of back pain.

Dr. LoGiudice said many dogs can benefit from sports medicine and rehabilitation, which helps maintain or restore normal form and function. She is secretary of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation and works with dogs and cats in Hanover Park and with horses at Animal Rehabilitation & Therapy in Yorkville, Illinois.

"To successfully practice veterinary rehabilitation and sports medicine, you need your knowledge and training, your hands and skill, your imagination for implementation of your knowledge and skills, and a very few tools," she said. These tools include a goniometer to measure passive range of motion in joints and a consistent-tension measuring tape to measure muscle girth.

Dr. LoGiudice sees geriatric pets, pets with neurologic problems, and pets recovering from surgery. She also sees agility dogs, working dogs, therapy dogs, and search and rescue dogs. With her own dog, she participates in barn hunt trials, hunt tests, field work, coursing ability tests, and Fast CAT.

In canine sports, dogs' physical problems vary by event. In barn hunt, dogs might have trouble climbing the hay bales. In agility, running and jumping can lead to injuries.

Dr. LoGiudice said sports medicine and rehabilitation involves a combination of pain management, manual physical treatments, exercise programs and other modalities, and surgery when necessary. She said, "The basis of veterinary sports medicine and rehabilitation is physical medicine, the science of musculoskeletal biomechanics and physiology."

She added, "A rehabilitation and sports medicine veterinarian needs to work closely with the owner to determine what the owner's goals are for that dog and to help determine if those goals are reasonable, appropriate, and achievable for that particular dog and how to achieve those goals."

Making a go of it

Dr. Chris Zink of Zink Integrative Sports Medicine in Ellicott City, Maryland, and Veterinary Orthopedic Sports Medicine Group in Annapolis Junction, Maryland, is president-elect of the ACVSMR.

She started participating in canine sports while in veterinary school. After she graduated in 1978, people would ask her veterinary questions at competitions, but she didn't have answers. So she delved into the literature and wrote a book for dog trainers. She was asked to give seminars, and the whole thing snowballed.

"What I learned from being a participant myself was that there was a huge gap in knowledge for veterinarians in this field," Dr. Zink said. "There was no rehabilitation whatsoever. It wasn't even thought about."

Yet, dogs were getting a lot of athletic injuries, and participation in canine sports was increasing exponentially. On the human side, sports medicine already was a specialty. In 2000, canine and equine veterinarians started to work toward establishing a specialty in veterinary sports medicine and rehabilitation.

In the early 2000s, Dr. Zink started teaching with the Canine Rehabilitation Institute, founded by another veterinarian, Dr. Janet Van Dyke. At the same time, Dr. Zink was a professor at Johns Hopkins Medical School.

"My avocation and my passion was canine sports medicine, so I was practicing that in parallel on weekends," she said.

After retiring from Johns Hopkins in 2015, Dr. Zink began doing canine sports medicine full time.

Dr. Zink said canine sports medicine was a grassroots development in response to the demands of dog owners. She said, "They were asking questions, really good questions, like, 'I had physical therapy after my injury. Why can't I obtain that same care for my dog?'

"So there was an immediate demand for it already when the field became a specialty. There had been a demand for it for decades, actually, and so it really was able to hit the ground running."

Related JAVMA content:

States start to address animal rehab by physical therapists (July 15, 2018)

Specialties in sports medicine, exotic companion mammals receive full recognition (June 1, 2018)

Pet rehab becoming mainstream practice (Oct. 1, 2009)