This article was originally published in December 2017. Since then I have learned much more about conditioning my dogs and how to prevent injury by taking many classes on the subject. While I am still not a vet or a canine physiotherapist, I am sharing my knowledge so that others can possibly learn from my mistakes.
Disclaimer: I am not a vet or canine physiotherapist. I am simply relating what has worked for me and my dogs regarding their injuries and subsequent mobility issues based on suggestions from our vet at the time, and research that I have done. You will obviously need to consult a vet before starting any exercise, training or physiotherapy program for your dog.
Our Kuvasz AJ, Brantwood’s Anna Joya, was 11 and a half when she started to show signs of mobility impairment. Naturally I went on the internet and did some research about what it could be.
She had started dragging her right rear leg.
The first and most obvious diagnosis was Degenerative Myelopathy. She didn’t really have all the same symptoms, but I kept that in the back of my mind because of the dragging back right foot.
Three years ealier, when she was eight years old, AJ completely tore her Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL). This was my fault, as I had not been doing much with her in the way of exercise and then one day took her out in the country for a run.
The injury occurred at that time.
In the photo above, AJ is running, moments before she tore her ACL.
She hadn’t done any free running for months before this.
The above photo shows her holding her back right foot off the ground.
This photo shows the very moment after she yelped from pain. She was just standing there and then turned her body towards me while her foot stayed in one spot.
This tore the ligament completely from the bone.
This quick turning of the foot with the knee staying in one place is what causes ACL injuries. You can do it to yourself if you plant your foot and then turn your body quickly without moving your foot. But, DON’T actually do it. Just think about it.
In the picture, you can see that AJ had quite a bit of angulation in the flank. A lot of angulation is very unstable and can cause a dog (and owner) problems, as can a leg that has too little angulation such as a straight stifle. Both are what I would personally call health issues in dogs.
AJ had surgery to fix the injury and we began months of physiotherapy at home to rebuild the muscles around the joint to stabilize it. The therapy was very successful and AJ had four more years of good quality life. She was not too keen on exercising although we did our best to get her out and I did keep up with the exercises until that last year.
AJ did not pass away from DM as we had originally thought. Instead, as her hind quarters got weaker and weaker in muscle from lack of strengthening exercises, the repaired ACL (essentially piano wire was what our vet told us) had to take more and more of her weight.
It finally snapped one day and she could no longer walk.
More surgery was not possible due to her age (two months short of 12 years) and the severity of the injury. I felt that this would be too difficult for her to handle and because of the pain she was experiencing our decision was to put her to sleep. This was not something that we considered lightly.
AJ was never officially diagnosed with DM. In order to do that, you have to provide brain samples for testing, which we did not do.
I have every confidence that if we had kept her muscles strong in the first place with appropriate conditioning, it would have prevented this situation and would have slowed any future issue with DM, if there was really any to begin with.
It is possible that the dragging of the right rear foot was simply the old ACL repair starting to let go. This is my own opinion.
Some Preventative Actions – What I Did.
I have come to the conclusion that all dogs, especially large dogs and those doing dog sports, need to be given specific exercises (and their owners put aside time and effort) to do these crucial steps to prevent weakness in their dog’s hind end. Walking and trotting exercise is only a small part of the program.
I personally have found there to be a few really important exercises that have worked for me (and suggested by my vet who was specializing and taking courses in diagnosing and treating this kind and other rear end mobility afflictions).
There are several other exercises that are used and recommended by vets dealing with this issues in dogs, but I am only addressing the following three that can be trained with a normal, healthy dog.
ONE: moving from a sit to a stand. This is obviously important for a dog to be able to do, especially a large breed dog. This will assist your dog in getting up. You are simply getting your dog to lift himself off the ground from a sit into a stand.
The dog must start from a straight sit not a sloppy or “puppy” sit, otherwise the proper muscles will not be engaged during the exercise. Both legs need to be worked as evenly as possible.
Below: Huron’s Lyrics By Gershwin (Ira) learning perch work (pivoting) at 11 weeks.
TWO: pivoting around a paw target (perch work). This is also known as rear end awareness and is the most important and useful behaviour that you can train your dog to do in my professional opinion, aside from the fact that it helps strengthen your dogs muscles.
Your dog will have her paws on a low platform and learn to walk with the back feet around it. This is extremely useful in helping to strengthen the muscles because the legs are moving sideways.
This teaches the dog to learn to pay attention to what her back legs are doing – something most dogs don’t do. This may have helped prevent AJ’s injury as it was this movement, or the LACK of ability to do it that caused her to move incorrectly and thus tear her ACL.
THREE: flexing each rear leg in turn. This can be done by teaching a dog to stand on a wobble board. It can also be done by walking your dog up the stairs.
The dog needs to take each step one by one rather than leaping up a whole bunch at a time. The wobble board does more or less the same thing – flexes and strengthens the back leg muscles one after the other.
With regards to one of our other dogs, Emmett, an Australian Shepherd, I was able to heal his almost complete ACL tear (he was diagnosed by the vet in a thorough physical exam and surgery was recommended) by using the above methods under her guidance, starting out with complete rest of the affected leg for 8 weeks. Emmett got his injury by slipping on the floor in the house trying to run around a corner too fast (turning the body while the knee stayed in one place)
Emmett can now run and play normally AND play disc and does not get a limp or get sore afterwards. This will not be the result for every dog with this issues, but some improvements would likely be made anyway to help quality of life.
What More You Can Do
Since I first wrote this article, I have learned more things that can help active dog’s human prevent injury to the dog. All exercises are for healthy and un-injured dogs only and must be cleared with a knowledgable vet (not all vets specialize in canine leg injuries or mobility issues).
Warm up your dog
The most important thing is to WARM UP your dog before doing any hard exercise. Walking is likely the best thing you can do to warm up your dog (and you). It gets the muscles warm (blood flowing faster through them) which helps prevent injury when the dog starts to move faster.
Training your dog to do tricks is good for slow stretching and strengthening the muscles but should be done after warming up. Movements like “spin”, “back up”, “shake or wave the paws” (both legs), and sit pretty (beg) and many others will target specific regions of a dog’s body to help with long term fitness and mobility. You see, teaching your dog tricks is not just for circuses. It is important for physical and mental health of your dog.
In the photo below you can see Ira doing “cavalettis”, which was originally created to condition horses, and has now been adopted by the dog sports world to condition dogs for agility, conformation and other sports. The dog trots through a series of bars (that can be raised or lowered) to help him strengthen the muscles of the legs. SO IMPORTANT!
Another example of conditioning is in a video below showing Ira walking a line of couch cushions. This is instability training and is meant to improve balance and strengthen the whole body. The exercise originally used what is known as “Fit Bones” but I didn’t have any so I used the cushions. The rear legs are worked as well as the rest of the body with the idea of increasing muscle mass. In the video you can see how Ira has to work to keep his balance. This is what builds muscle.
In this next photo, Ira is doing “cookie stretches” which I learned from one of my classes at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. This stretches the back legs and stifle which is crucial to do before doing dog sports or any running. The dog leans forward on the pedestal to reach the cookie and pulls the back legs forward at the hips. This is a light stretch that prepares the dog for more movement.
How Can I Get This Work Done?
Sometimes, it can seem like there is not enough time in a day to do all the things you need to do. I’ll admit that doing these measures with your dog can seem hopeless because there is rarely any immediate visual payoff.
It takes some effort and time to get the training in and actually do the exercises. We humans like instant results, especially in our technologically advanced and fast paced world.
One alternative is to get referred to a canine physiotherapist and get the work done that way. That would also take quite a bit of time and some money, but possibly not as much time (and inconvenience) put into training on your own to get the results.
Some people help their dogs strengthen the back legs and whole body by doing water therapy as well but that is also only part of the solution and must be recommended by a vet. Canine massage also has amazing benefits for dogs but also must be vet recommended.
When it comes right down to it though, you will need to put some time aside to do the work. There is no shortcut in this situation.
Some dog people balk at the idea of teaching dogs to do “tricks”. In my professional opinion, the more you can train your dog to do the more likely your dog is to be healthy, mentally and physically. When you restrict your dog’s training due to personal biases, you are being unfair to the dog, who can do and be many more things than we give him credit for. This applies especially to working dogs on whom livelihoods may depend. There should be a special effort to maintain the mobility of working dogs for this reason, no matter what the job.
Avoiding doing this work will not help us dog fanciers in the struggle against the animal rights organizations, who are looking for anything to use against those who live with and keep animals.
It can also be difficult to feel comfortable training dogs to do anything like “tricks” at all because of the stigma. It is often thought that Livestock Guardian Dogs are troublesome or difficult to teach things to, but I have not found that to be the case. I feel that it is the method of training and not the dog that often prevents a high level of training.
The way I see it is that if the training is going to:
1. prevent injury to the dog
2. lengthen life span (because the dog won’t be put to sleep to stop pain and immobility)
3. provide stimulation for the brain which helps prevent dementia
4. help prevent animal right organizations from using our activities as fodder for taking away our choice to have dogs in our lives,
then I’m all for it.
If dogs are only used in one capacity, specifically ones in which they are likely to get injured or possibly killed at some point (such as livestock guardians) and are often kept apart from humans, you can bet the animal rights people will be all over it. Helping our dogs live more healthfully and at a high level of fitness will help with this issue.
There are definitely some things that can be done to help our dogs have long, very mobile and safe lives. Feeling resistance to some of this information is probably natural. What is much more productive is to instead, simply take some of the information and try it, and if it doesn’t work for YOU personally, then you can try something else.
It will most likely always work for the dogs.
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