By Marty Grabijas
Photograph by Andrew Miller
I group dogs’ lives into three buckets. First is The Formative Years, when every experience is new and dogs absorb knowledge like a sponge. Next is The Athletic Prime, when dogs are masters of their craft and at their physical peak. Last is The Golden Years, when hunts become shorter and we tend more toward remembering our dogs’ past accomplishments than looking to their futures.
But what if we could stretch out their prime? One of the limiting factors is often joint degradation. Just like human athletes, dogs can benefit from sports medicine to help maximize performance.
To explore best practices, I turned to Dr. Sam Franklin of Colorado Canine Orthopedics and Rehab, in Colorado Springs. Dr. Franklin is a walking encyclopedia on sports medicine for canines and is a board-certified diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Surgeons and the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation.
The Formative Years
Your task of grooming a canine athlete starts when you first bring that furry ball of love into your home. You have just accepted the responsibility of being the prudent guardian of your dog for the next decade or more.
Start exercising that prudency by carefully supervising your pup’s activity. You want your young dog to enjoy its youth, but a pup naturally wants to go all out. This is not necessarily the best thing for it, and you need to make wise decisions to ensure the pup’s healthy future.
According to Dr. Franklin, the weak links in a pup’s physiology are growth plates, which are the portions of the bone that grow, or add length. There are tables that provide general guidelines on growth-plate formation; however, if you want the best possible information, you should have your pup evaluated radiographically. With that film, your doctor or radiologist has the best source to determine if bones are fully formed—and if your pup is at risk of injuring skeletal structures that are still developing.
How much activity is appropriate for a young dog? According to Dr. Franklin: “There are no specific guidelines for how far or how long a young dog can run before it risks injury. Many young dogs can run many miles per week without negative consequences . . . . Most of the growth-plate injuries we see are not attributed to overtraining in young dogs but rather to unlucky instantaneous injuries.”
This is where being a prudent guardian applies. Taking your pup on a long walk on loamy soil is a great activity. Mix in another high-output dog, a spirited chase and a rough tumble, and your pup may experience a life-altering injury.
If I have done my job as a trainer, I find that around year two my dogs are starting to hit their prime. They are carrying muscle mass and little body fat. They are nailing intermediate hunt tests and occasionally performing spectacularly with advanced tasks. We are functioning as a team, if not a seamless unit.
These days in human athletics there is a great deal of discussion regarding the creation of more durable athletes through movement analysis. For humans, a Functional Movement Analysis is accessible through most physical therapy offices. According to Dr. Franklin, for canines that information is not as accessible, is expensive, and often is used in the context of research.
For keeping your dog injury free, Dr. Franklin offers the following: “There are basic tenets of training that apply across breeds to keep in mind. First, warming up on a leashed walk/run prior to explosive activity is likely prudent. Second, providing adequate rest interspersed with intense work/training is likely beneficial in preventing injury. Third, having the handler moderate risky behaviors can protect a dog from injury.” When asked to clarify “risky behaviors,” Dr. Franklin said that allowing dogs to jump out of pickup trucks and SUVs is one of his pet peeves.
And just like with humans, perhaps the most proactive thing that can be done to ensure a dog’s long and active life is weight control. “A seminal research study evaluated limiting caloric intake in a group of 48 Labrador retrievers,” Dr. Franklin said. “The evidence was overwhelming. Dogs that were calorically limited and remained lean had a later onset of osteoarthritis and had less-severe progression of osteoarthritis. They also lived an average of about two years longer than dogs that were only mildly to moderately overweight.” Clearly, remaining lean is the most well-established factor affecting longevity in Labs—and most living beings.
When asked about foods and specific supplements, Dr. Franklin notes that we are left to trust the brands that we feed. When it comes to supplements, glucosamine cocktails and blends, Dr. Franklin says that there is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that such supplements result in more robust dogs. That said, “There is no downside to supplementing glucosamine,” according to Dr. Franklin. “However, few people read the scientific literature—and that is where the truth lives.”
I have noticed that when my dogs reach eight years old, they start to slow down. Long days become limited, and it is up to us to help our older dogs enjoy the best quality of life.
“Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are a mainstay for treating pain associated with osteoarthritis,” Dr. Franklin said. “They are more effective than a sundry of other drugs, including things like Tramadol, Gabapentin, Amantadine and oral opioids.” When asked to name some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications, Dr. Franklin said that Carprofen, Meloxicam, Deracoxib, Firocoxib and their various generic derivatives are effective choices.
Beyond medications, physical therapy and other non-surgical treatments are options. These may include controlled swimming in a treadmill tank, balance- and strength-building drills, and stretching. Not everyone has easy access to trained caregivers or facilities that can perform canine physical therapy. If you don’t, a road trip to a facility that provides more advanced care may be in order. As with human athletics, without a hands-on evaluation of your dog, you may be exacerbating muscular imbalances instead of remedying them. With a hands-on evaluation, you likely will return home with a to-do list of drills.
The resources that you invest in your dog are obviously a personal choice. Dogs dedicate their lives to us, and it is only fair that we reciprocate as best we can. By ensuring that our dogs remain as healthy as possible through all stages of life, we not only prolong their lives in the field but also the time we get to enjoy their company.