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Injury or a training problem?

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When you’re seeing something not quite right in your dogs sporting performance it can be difficult to know whether it’s injury related, a training problem, or even down to something like the environment. And of course everyone who watches you will have an opinion they’ll want to share with you! You’ll be told it’s physical, due to poor training, totally normal, or stress related. And of course you’ll be given so many stories of how others solved it. So how can you tell whether a behaviour is due to injury or training?

I’m focusing on agility for this post, as that’s where my experience lies, but the principles are exactly the same for every dog sport.
 
Firstly I would always rule out physical causes. I say this as a clinical canine massage therapist, but also as someone who has always had issues investigated in my own dogs. This has picked up an orthopaedic condition that wouldn’t have been spotted if it wasn’t for jumping and weaving problems, as well as picking up numerous muscular issues from tight muscles to larger strains. Even if there are no serious problems, your dog will still benefit from having any minor issues treated before they become bigger.
 
Let’s assume you have seen your vet and been given the all clear. They’ve given consent for massage, and your dog has had treatment. Your dog has returned to training and competition, but although there have been some general improvements, you’re still seeing problems. Perhaps your dog is still measuring jumps or pole knocking, or missing weave entries. What can you do?
 
Chat to the therapist who knows your dog. Perhaps what they found would account for these problems even after treatment. We do thoroughly explain our findings to you post treatment, but I know it can be easy to forget what’s been said. If they found large amounts of scar tissue, despite remodelling what they can the tissue won’t be as flexible, meaning your dog could still be having trouble collecting and bending enough to hit certain weave entries despite being as fit as they can be.
 
Did you return to full training too soon?
You can’t just go from nothing, to full course running at competing height. Depending on the severity of injury and length of time off you need to gradually build your dog back up. Starting with low heights, simple sequences and avoiding twists and turns, to gradually reintroducing weaves and contacts, adding more turns and increasing height. Your trainer should be able to help you come up with a plan. The amount of time this takes will be individual to your dog, but to go straight back into competing from doing almost nothing will almost certainly re-injure your dog even if it isn’t obvious at the time. In fact I’ve seen dogs initially appear to be performing ‘better’ as they’re more cautious in their approach knowing they aren’t fit, and therefore are easier to handle and poles stay up. However it won’t take long for the adrenaline to kick back in, your dog returns to normal speed, and for you to see the same problems again as a result of injury from lack of fitness or lack of build up.
 
Look at your dogs conformation. 
Are they physically capable of doing what you’re asking? Perhaps they just aren’t built for what you’re asking them to do, whether that be jump height or tight turns. Not every dog is built for competitive agility, even in popular breeds like the Border Collie. While I know it’s tough to retire a generally fit young dog from competition, perhaps the truth is they would be more comfortable with just training on a low height, and running Anysize.
 
Are you doing any follow up visits, visits to other professionals or fitness work that was recommended? 
While a canine massage therapist will never see your dog for more than three initial visits without referring back to your vet if no improvement is made, ongoing maintenance visits will benefit the majority of dogs. The frequency of these will depend on the individual dog, but you can’t expect to just have your dog treated once and for them to not ever need further treatment. Our dogs are athletes and deserve to be treated that way to keep them fit and healthy, rather than just waiting for injury to occur and fixing it. If there was a problem with fitness levels or muscular imbalance hydrotherapy or physiotherapy may also have been recommended.
 
Have you considered medical / eyesight related causes?
Early take offs are now widely recognised as having eyesight as a primary cause (look for the Clean Run articles by Linda Mecklenburg for more information). If you have done the necessary building back up to fitness, and have tried retraining with gridwork, and yet jump styles don’t improve, eyesight may be a consideration. But if it’s an issue like a lack of speed, or enthusiasm, look at how your dog behaves in every day life. There may be some other subtle symptoms that may be worth investigating with your vet to rule out or perhaps confirm a medical diagnosis.
 
Is it learnt behaviour based on prior pain that you need to retrain?
If your dog has been in pain while training for some while, they may associate certain behaviours with pain. Therefore they still continue to measure jumps, tuck up, miss weave entries etc, expecting these to be painful and altering their approach accordingly. If you’re satisfied that your dog isn’t currently in pain, you may have to take your dog right back to the beginning of their training, for example going back to using 2x2 weaves or opening channel weaves right out, to help them learn that the behaviour no longer hurts and to re-educate their body to move correctly.
 
If all of these have been ruled out, consider has your dog ever completed these behaviours normally? 
If they previously knew them, it may just be that you’ve let your criteria slip a little and have been focussed on competing and results, and all it will take is going back to basics in training for a while. But if they’ve always been a little shaky on certain behaviours, and perhaps injury made it worse for a while, then it’s worth going right back to the start and retraining from scratch, rather than trying to put a sticking plaster on something that wasn’t great to begin with. And if you do this, and then come up against something your dog just can’t do, that’s when you then reconsider whether the problem does in fact have a physical cause.