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Common injuries in Working and Sporting Dogs: Prevention and Treatment

Neil and Gary Barnsley have been treating Steve’s dogs for years, most times just for structural soundness ensuring everything is working at 100%. Steve only trusts the Barnsley’s with his dogs.


There are various injuries that are common in working and sporting dogs alike. Depending on the kind of work they are doing and how repetitive the work is they are performing.


For those of you that are unaware of the fly ball routine it consists of three evenly spaced jumps and an angled platform. The dog takes a long runoff to gain speed and then jumps over the three jumps, hits the platform and catches the ball that is propelled out of the platform. Once the ball is caught in the mouth they then run back over the same three jumps.

Due to the distance between the jumps most dogs of medium to large size only have enough room to land from one jump and then immediately launch into the next jump.  This can cause the spine to hyperextend (stretching past its normal range of motion) when the dog stretches out its front and back legs to clear the jump effectively.  This sort of stress on the spine is fine when they only need to perform a single jump, but when there are multiple jumps (total of 6 altogether) this can cause strain in the middle of the back (thoracic vertebrae). From the many fly ball competitors that I see, this middle back strain would be the most common injury.


Agility dogs appear to have different injuries due to the varied equipment that is used in the course layout.  With equipment such as high jumps, weave poles, “A frame”, and tunnels that are not in a straight line but spaced out at angles (the more advanced the competitor the sharper the angles) this can cause a number of stress’ on the animals body. When they are expected to jump over a 500mm jump and then quickly change course to the left or right to perform another jump or enter a series of weave poles this can strain the ligaments and muscle groups in the lower back, the pelvis and sometimes hips. Additionally, if they are not prepared for that change in direction when landing from the jump this can put a twisting strain on the wrists and toes.


The Working dogs in the herding arena appear to have the least amount of injuries due to a number of reasons; Flat working surfaces, wide arcing turns with little or no quick directional changes in movement and no jumping are examples of why they are less prone to injuries. As long as the surface they are working on is grassed with even ground they have very little injuries.


Working dogs in the security and defence sector are more prone to neck and lower back injuries. In the fast paced, high energy section of the training regime where the dog is biting padded forearms and thrashing the neck side to side, this can cause strain to the muscle groups in the lower neck and upper back between the shoulder blades. Additionally, when they are up on their back legs this can strain the lower back and saccro-iliac joints (the joint between the pelvis and the spine).

With most of the working and sporting activities there are risks and possible injuries that can be acquired. Is it therefore detrimental to your companion to continue with these sports and working activities? No, of course not.  As I am sure you have realised, your companions love the work as much (if not more) than you do.

So what can you do to help prevent these injuries from occurring? There are many things that can be done but for the purposes of this article only three will be covered.

1)     Fitness

2)     Age

3)     Warm up/warm down



Fitness is probably the most important factor in preventing injuries from occurring. If you are expecting your dog to perform athletically, they need to be fit enough to cope with the strain on the body.  Training once a week and competing on the weekend is not enough exercise for them to cope with the strains on their body. Extra exercise is required if you want your dog to perform well and injury free. Regular daily walks are a good start, but there are specific exercises that can be beneficial.

A good topline is most important. If your dog has a well-developed top line of muscle to protect and strengthen the spine then there is less chance of injuries occurring. Walking your dog ON LEAD with them out in front pulling up and down inclines and hills will develop top line strength very quickly. Admittedly it may not be the best for your arms and shoulders but its good for them. Swimming is also a good exercise to develop top line and neck strength, especially if you are in the water with them walking them up to their shoulders in water strengthening the upper leg muscles as well. But this may not suit everyone…. yes you will probably need to get a little wet yourself.

Too Young Or Too Old

The age of the dog needs to be taken into account as well. It can be detrimental to the dog’s health to start them too early in their life, as well as performing them too late into their twilight years. If you are in the situation where you have acquired a young pup/ dog and you just cant wait to get them started on the work/sport that you have in mind for them, please remember that their bodies need to mature before any serious work is expected of them. In most breeds of canine, the body reaches full maturity between 18-24 months of age. Before this time the bones aren’t fully strengthened, the cartilage in the joints is still soft and vulnerable and the muscles have not fully developed enough to perform correctly. If you start your new wonder dog before 18 months of age in serious athlete level work, then you are in danger of injuring your companion or reducing the years they have ahead of them in the chosen sport. On the other side of things if they are older in years and have had a wonderful life of performing for you but you notice they are not jumping as high, running as fast, showing signs of pain/discomfort after working, then it may be time to consider retirement. Consider this especially if you are noticing they are showing the same signs of pain or discomfort every time they perform (for example; limping on same leg every time).

Warming Up / Warming Down

Warming up and warming down are important parts of any athletic regime, so make it part of your routine as well. Taking your dog for a brisk walk for 10-15 minutes before and after work will dramatically reduce the chance of injury during exercise and will also reduce the after work “soreness” you may notice after a big weekend of competition. It may not seem like much but allowing those muscles and joints to warm up before expecting them to fly into action will make a big difference in reducing risk of injury and may even increase performance.



It is important to always look for signs that your dog may be injured or not performing at their best ability. There are the obvious signs such as limping, yelping in pain and holding legs off the ground, but there are more subtle signs that you can look out for as well. Here are some of the main subtle indicators to look for:

  • Refusing to jump,
  • Unable to turn sharply,
  • Roaching topline,
  • Shortened length of stride,
  • Reduced speed,
  • Hitting jumps they would normally clear,
  • Unable to hold a “sit/stay” position for long periods of time.
  • Head held low and not raised up high
  • Altered gait


These signs may not be noticeable all of the time, but if you can see one or more of these symptoms occurring periodically there is the possibility your dog may be suffering from strain or discomfort.

If this is the case it is recommended to consult your Veterinarian for possible treatment options for your animal. Your veterinarian may be able to treat the condition or recommend a qualified animal physiotherapist, acupuncturist, or chiropractor that can offer alternative/complementary treatment to help get your companion back to full health and working at their very best.

Neil Barnsley   Bach. App. Sc (TCM), Dip. V. Ac.(University of Nanjing, China)

Ph: 02 47748491

More about Neil & Gary available here.

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  1. Hi, I enjoyed the article on common injuries and how to prevent them. I recently completed a Canine Myotherapy Function Course. This therapy looks at conformation, movement and gait and the relationship of that to the muscles. We are trained in both pre-event massage and post-event massage to lessen the likelihood of injury as well as how to treatment muscle injuries to get the dog back to health and keep him there.

    It also has the added benefits of promoting better circulation and digestion, reducing toxic load, lubricating the joints, fascia and skin and overall improving the overall health of the animal.

  2. That sounds like a great course Linda!

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