Owners can be shocked to hear their dog has an injury when they're still enjoying normal walks and aren't visibly lame. But it's not as clear cut as lameness meaning your dog has an injury, and if they're not lame then they're fine. Lameness is just one of many possible signs of injury.
Why aren't we seeing lameness?
Dogs, just like people, are all different. They have different pain thresholds and different ways of showing pain. My dog Finn hops around on three legs with a high pitched squeal if he steps on a sharp stone. Whereas Fly once ripped her dew claw and sliced open her pad, and didn't even stop running.
When a dog is in a high state of arousal, whether positively such as doing agility or chasing a rabbit, or negatively when experiencing fear, their sympathetic nervous system is activated. This is otherwise known as the fight or flight response, and among other reactions the adrenal glands release a hormone called epinephrine which floods the body and blocks pain signals. The dog can then run and jump without feeling pain, and as a result won't appear lame. Once the activity has finished and the dog is relaxed and pottering round at home they may well be lame but we're less likely to notice it then.
Dogs can compensate for pain in one limb easier than humans can. If we have an issue causing pain in our right leg, we naturally put more weight through the left and our limp is obvious. Dogs have three other legs to compensate with, so although this will alter their gait and will cause further muscular problems, it may not show as obvious lameness.
And of course not all injuries will alter the gait. A strain to the Epaxials may cause soreness when the back is touched, and may lead the dog to avoid jumping or stretching, but is more likely to cause a short stride or slightly altered gait than what we generally think of as lameness.
So what can we look out for?
Gait changes - While your dog may not be lame, an injury will almost certainly alter their gait. When you see your dog every day subtle changes in stride length or pattern can be hard to spot. If you can get to know what's 'normal' for your dog, then you'll be more likely to spot subtle changes.
Posture and appearance - This can be as subtle as a dog choosing to sit whenever they stop on a walk, rather than carry on standing, or having a lower than normal head carriage. Unless the injury is in an acute phase and severe, gait and posture changes are more likely to be gradual and subtle.
Can your dog still do the normal daily things they used to? My Poppy dog has arthritis in her right hindlimb and paws, and I know she's struggling and needs a treatment when she walks very carefully upstairs instead of running up.
Have you spotted any behaviour changes? When I'm in pain, I'm grumpy and less likely to feel social. It's a fair assumption that our dogs would feel the same. All dogs, like people, are allowed an off day, but if it's more than the odd bad day it's worth considering pain as a cause.
Injuries can cause all kinds of problems in performance dogs, from slightly wider turns one way than another, to badly measuring jumps. It can be difficult to know what's a training issue, and what's physical (more on this in a future blog), but I would always want to rule out any physical causes before trying to retrain.
Lameness is caused by pain when weightbearing, and the dog then choosing to avoid putting as much weight through that limb. If we're seeing lameness consistently it could be a sign of a chronic injury, a severe strain or sprain or an underlying orthopaedic condition. Getting to know the subtle ways your dog tells you they're hurting gives you the best possible chance to pick up problems at an early stage and hopefully avoid them becoming lame.