Gait & Lameness: Recognition & Treatment of Soft-Tissue Injuries in the Field

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Lameness in sporting dogs is nothing to ignore due to the risk of a minor injury turning into a chronic problem. Not only could an injury be painful for a dog, it also could mean sidelining a promising field trial season in rehabilitation. 
 
“Trainers should watch their dog’s gait closely every day, so they can recognize changes that may lead to potential problems,” says Jennell Appel, D.V.M., CCRT, a certified canine rehabilitation therapist and founder of the SportVet Canine Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine Mobile Clinic, which allows her to treat canine athletes in the field at trials and hunt tests. 
 
Appel was one of four experts who presented talks on ways to enhance canine performance at the 2014 Purina Sporting Dog Summit held in July. The two-and-a-half day program, titled “Achieving a Performance Edge,” was held at the Purina Event Center in Gray Summit, Missouri. Some of the country’s top dog handlers and trainers, as well as sorting dog journalists, attended the Summit.
 
“If a dog usually sits straight and then shifts from one leg to another while sitting, it could indicate something is wrong,” Appel explains. “You may notice a dog off-loading, or not placing all his weight on a particular leg. This could be due to an injury or something as simple as a thorn stuck in the paw.”
 

KNOW THE SIGNS

Dogs place 60 percent of their weight on their front legs — equally distributed between the legs — and 20 percent on each hind leg. Thus, even subtle front leg lameness or off-loading can produce major compensatory problems for the rest of the body before it becomes a chronic condition. It is important to consult an expert to determine the cause of lameness and how to treat it.
 
“My lameness exam begins with the dog in a standing position,” says Appel, who frequents field trials and hunt tests with her Sports Medicine Mobile Clinic, equipped to provide orthopedic and medical care to canine athletes. “I observe the dog standing, then sitting. I have the dog transition from a sit to a stand and vice versa.”
 
Observing a dog standing squarely should show symmetry of the legs and head and tail position. Signs of off-loading indicate a potential problem. A dog that has a sloppy sit, or shifts his weight from one leg to the other, could have an injury or could be lazy. A dog will never properly load a hurt leg by placing the weight on that leg. 
 
“I have the dog walk away from me, toward me, and back and forth in front of me,” Appel says. “This walking routine is repeated in a trot. I have the dog walk and trot clockwise in a circle and then counterclockwise. I am looking for things like a shortened stride and comparing the ‘swing’ phase when the leg is off the ground advancing forward for signs of weight-bearing lameness.”
 

WARM ‘EM UP

There are many things that can contribute to injuries in canine athletes. It is important to understand why an injury occurs to prevent future problems. Poor flexibility, inadequate warm-up and lack of conditioning are examples. Fatigue, overtraining and insufficient rest can be factors, as can forceful contractions, overstretching of tendons, repetitive stress and strength imbalances. 
 
 “Dogs need a five- to 10-minute warm-up before they exercise,” Appel says. “A fast-paced walk helps to improve flexibility and heat the muscles, which reduce susceptibility to a strain injury and facilitate oxygen utilization due to an increase in hemoglobin release.”
 

CONDITIONING MATTERS

A conditioned dog has greater stamina and longevity, with less stress on the body. “If you do core work with puppies, you’ll reap the benefits later,” says Appel. “The five components of conditioning are strength training, endurance, balance, body awareness and flexibility.”
 
A dog also should be gradually cooled down for 10 to 15 minutes after working. “A slow walk on a leash helps to dissipate waste products in the body,” she says. “This gradual decrease in cardiac output helps prevent the blood from pooling in the muscles and reduce soreness.”
 
Stretching should be part of a training regimen, but should only be done after the muscles are warm. Exercises to help stretch the shoulders, iliopsoas and hamstrings are beneficial. Although stretching before an event does not reduce the risk of injury, it does help decrease the force of muscle contractions. Regular active stretching is best.
 
Keeping canine athletes in their game is important, but overlooking a potential problem could lead to a chronic condition. “The bottom line is if you’ve noticed your dog limping or in pain and not getting better, you should consult an expert,” Appel advises.