Injuries and the Canine Athlete

Dog Sport Injuries

This topic comes up quite frequently in discussions on the game of disc and dog sports in general.

A friend of mine recently had an issue with a dog getting hurt by running into an object. He contacted me about his injured pup and how to treat and rehab the injury.

I’m not a vet or a rehab specialist, but I am an athlete and dog sport trainer and as an athlete and trainer, I have had a lot of experience with soft tissue injuries and rehab so I’d like to just give a broad overview of my thoughts on this topic.

First of all, there are three things I do not go to veterinarians for:

  1. Sports advice
  2. Nutrition advice
  3. Behavior advice

Look at human medicine. If you ask an MD about treating and rehabbing an injury he or she sends you to an orthopedic then a rehab specialist. If you ask an MD about nutrition, he or she tells you to speak to a nutritionist. If you ask about behavior, they recommend you speak to a psychologist.

Vets often do not have ready made access to these resources and many pet owners do not take things seriously enough or have the resources to devote to the problem, so the vet becomes a catch-all and gives out the best info they can on the subject. Traditional veterinarians stitch or staple things up, treat and prevent disease, set bones and perform surgery on dogs, cats, reptiles, birds, rodents, fish, and/or whatever other kinds of animals their clients bring in. That’s a lot of information to handle.

There are some vets I’d goto for sports, nutrition or behavior advice, but they are the exception and not the rule.

I’ve spoken with people who’s vets have told them to give a couple weeks of rest and resume normal activity after that. That may be fine for the couch potato lab or the family pet, and may be all time the normal pet family can dedicate to nursing along an injured dog, but it’s not enough time for the canine athlete.

Also vets often do not fully understand the rigors of your particular dog sport. Playing frisbee? Fine, but do they know that our disc dogs get 8+feet in the air? Or Flipping? How about a box turn? Weaves?

Athletic Experience is Valid

If you are or were an athlete, you have a great deal of understanding of injuries and rehab, probably more than many vets or doctors. Don’t allow a trainer or general vet to invalidate your personal experience with injuries. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. I’m not saying that your experience is equal or up to the task, on it’s own to treat and rehab canine athletes, but it’s a valid perspective. You can watch me gimp around on two ankles that I improperly rehabbed. It felt fine at the time…

Healing is Healing

Dogs may have a higher tolerance for pain, and may be able to better mask and deal with bad injuries, but healing is healing. A torn ligament takes 6 weeks to heal for a human with the best medicine that money can buy and conscious and thoughtful behavior by the patient. I’m not a veterinary specialists, but I find it hard to believe that dogs can heal a similar injury in 1/3 the time. I don’t think their cells regenerate 3 times as fast as a human’s do.

The thing with dogs is that they can’t tell us they hurt. They have thousands of years of evolutionary development designed to mask pain from predators and fellow pack members. Just because they can and do walk around doesn’t mean that they are healthy.

Getting off the recovery wagon early for family pets might wind up being OK, as the normal activity for these animals is not anything like the workload for professional athletes. Speed, power, pounding, repetitive stress… it isn’t even the same planet.

Rehab is Serious

Look at professional human athletes. When a football player sprains his knee, they’re out for 4-6 weeks minimum. They are on crutches, they have a team of rehab specialists working with them, they converse, in very fine detail, on the feeling they are experiencing during this rehab. They are also absolutely immobile if the rehab requires it. They do this, consciously, so when they return to duty they don’t break.

Dogs can’t speak, they don’t understand the injury, they don’t have the self awareness to stay immobile. They chew off their casts, for crying out loud.

It is the handler’s responsibility to keep the dog down, to keep them from chewing off their casts and to do the best job possible of being the conscience of the dog. It is our responsibility to set up a situation where recovery can be successful.

Pain is Valid

Experiencing pain is necessary to ensure that behaviors that will damage tissue are not repeated. Pain killers mask pain and enable the subject to do things that can damage tissue without experiencing pain. No pain and there is no reason to avoid the activity. Giving dogs pain killers so they can move, or work, is a bad idea in my opinion because pain is a valid and important part of being healthy.

Crate and Leash – 4-6 weeks

Part of the handler’s responsibility for setting up success is crate and leash. We have been very lucky as we have had very few injuries with our dogs. We put our dogs on a crate and leash regiment that ensures that no more damage is done. In the crate or walking on a leash – that’s it. No small task for a high drive dog, but extremely important. Doing this for 4-6 weeks is painful, for dog and handler, but necessary to ensure that healing takes place.

Ease Into it

When your pup is cleared for duty, take it slow. Ease into it. Don’t get an all clear from a doctor and go full out. Your dog’s muscles are weak, their desire to work is high and they, like me and many passionate athletes, don’t have the common sense to take it easy. Walking, trotting, lateral movement exercises, light duty work, should be worked before you step back into the game.

Personal Experience

When Leilani was a pup, she jumped out of my Toyota 4-runner on the way to the school to jam. It was a 300 yard drive through a residential neighborhood and I was doing about 15 mph. Her knee was whacked pretty hard and we had it checked out. My vet said 3 weeks. I waited two and tested it – she came up lame.
I then waited the proscribed 3 weeks and tested… lame again. 4 weeks the next time and she was lame. Six weeks later, crate and leash, and instead of testing, we eased into it. She was healthy. A 2 month recovery took 6 months. I learned my lesson.

Consult a Professional

If your dog experiences a soft tissue injury, serious lameness in a leg for some time, or repetitive lameness, consult a rehab specialist, someone experienced in treating and rehabbing canine athletes. There are many of them out there.

Related Articles

Disc Dog Training is not a Race

Some dogs come out of the whelping box jamming and some need to be taught. That’s the way it is. The point is that disc dog development is not a race and the sooner you stop looking at rapid development and comparing your pups development with that of another dog, the sooner you’ll be on the right page…

Throwing With Intent

Throwing with Intent is throwing a disc to your dog with the intent to make them look good. Throwing the disc to promote a big leap, to hit the dog in stride on the run or throwing a disc that your dog is going to flip for 10 yards away, is the sign of a mature handler.


  1. Fits perfect….think about opening a psychic hotline 😉

    He is on lead out of the house, no rough play inside (but not totally on crate rest, as we want to keep the muscle warm). Doing two 5 minute sessions at slow trot and/or fast walk on the treadmill a day and he went to be checked out by the chiropractor/acupuncture DVM we work with on Monday. We also have him living in the “back on track” blanket we have for both him and our oldest boy…..BTW LOVE Back On Track (they have clothes for humans too), highly recommend the coats for dogs, we have seen great things with our oldest and use it on Oliver at trials and intermittently in between.

    Think he injured left rear leg by taking out a triple at the trial (hit the standard with this leg), he came up lame (to my eyes only – really just knew he was performing oddly and something was wrong) two runs later in the day we pulled him for the rest of the weekend….and low and behold he was truly lame (to others) the next day.

    Tried to give him a week off and went to run him for class, first run okay second crap….knew we had not gotten past the injury, that’s when he went to have body work done, and is now on complete “monitoring rest” (coining a new phrase here….as we are not on total crate rest, but no silly stuff!).

    Good reminder in your blog, need to be okay with him being laid up for a few weeks. I did not enter the trials we were headed to next month due to the injury, yes bummer as we had taken strategic time off from trial to hone in our training a bit, and the plan was to come back next month (the trial he injured himself at was a test/assessment of where we were – ugh!)….so settling my ego down for my dog these day 😉

    On the flip side Tala is truly enjoying watching her brother work out on the treadmill while she gets to train with the mama 😉

    Thanks for the post Ron, even if you did not have full awareness it was what I needed right now!


    1. Funny… I responded to this earlier, but it didn’t sow up.
      We’ve talked about this. Hope he’s doing well.

  2. Great post Ron. I am not an expert either, but from taking a massage and a rehab class, it does seem canine and human muscle, tendons and ligaments behave similarly.

    Canine rehab can be helpful proactively too, in cases of poor structure or a muscle imbalance.

  3. Bummer about Ollie, Mary.
    He’s such a nice young man.
    Keep us posted.
    See you ladies soon!

  4. I’m not a canine sports or rehab specialist nor do I play one on TV however I totally concur with your post. Our eldest has had 2 knee (luxating patella) surgeries. This is a genetic issue but it was brought on earlier than it would have been while she was playing with her canine brother in the yard. I talked to several folks who had had the surgery as well as the surgeon who performed the surgery. The conclusion from all of that was to go SLOW on the recovery or else the surgery would not be a success. We did exactly that… 6 weeks in an expen on carpet with a low top so she couldn’t jump up. Leash walks to potty, etc. We spent 4-5 more weeks bringing her back slowly with long leash walks on a gentle leader and building from there. Happy to say she never had any issues with her knees after that point. Everyone I know whose dog had that surgery and it failed took a much looser approach to their canine’s rehab. It was a good lesson to learn early on and we’ve employed the same caution with other injuries with the other dogs (namely a chipped bone in the toe, a dislocated toe, and a partially torn meniscus) with the same success.

    1. It is a good lesson to learn early on. Mo was un-injured throughout his career, but Leilani’s experience was very important for me.

      I wish I could learn it for myself though. That gimpy knee and ankle that you can see when I move on video is there because when I was a young adult, I broke my ankle with some ligament damage and essentially ‘chewed the cast off’ getting rid of it before the doc said it was OK.

      Then I tore it up again snowboarding in Austria and pulled the Leilani schtick from the post above on myself. I’d go a few weeks and feel pretty good then play, and being the high drive Border Collie that I am, would play too hard and tear it up again. It wound up being an 18 month ‘rehab’ that failed pretty spectacularly. I have to warm up the ankles in the morning before I get out of bed to be able to walk properly these days… grr… Should have been on crate and leash. 😉


  5. Next time you get hurt come down here – I’ll stick your butt in an expen for 6 weeks! LOL

    1. Oh, if you’d schedule my food as well to take off a little weight, that’d be great!
      6 weeks in an ex-pen in Florida? I’ll come down at the beginning of January. 😉

  6. 13+ weeks into Emma’s recovery/rehab from grade 4 luxating patella surgery…Exhausted and Thrilled we stuck it out for strict crate & leash for 10 weeks and moved slow to TLC (tether, leash, crate) for 2+ weeks with tiny bits of heavily monitored loose time in the house and off lead in the small yard (armed with the BEST treats & hungry a pibble 🙂 for a short potty since. Not only has this been good for her knee it has been Excellent for her reactivity! We did use small doses (1/4 tab every 4-6 hours as needed of Acepromazine (sedative) to help her chill (she is HIGH Drive/Reactive) weaned off Ace with no issues and no need to go back to it. The whole ordeal slowed us All down and wish we had done the TLC much sooner! (ducks from flying object aimed at us from R or A 😉
    I understand it fully now and my dog is Happier for it. Emma is still a sass mouth terrier/100 mph pibble wiggle-nado but she Is calmer, tries really hard to get it right and the light at the end of the tunnel is no longer an on coming train 🙂
    Worth every minute and Emma is once again Blissfully taking up as much room on the bed at night she can & dreaming of PVybe farm & Soupy 🙂

  7. Yep, we are currently on week 7 of a prescribed 12 week crate rest for Raccoon Jack’s broken rear outside toe. He is doing quite well with the inactivity, but it helps that he is pushing 9 years old. We go in for xrays next week, to see how the healing is going………Seems great from how he is getting around on his leash walks!


    1. Ugh, T!
      Ryder went through that in Europe with a Sublexation. We wrapped his toe daily for walking on leash on complex surfaces (cobblestones). He was off 31 or 32 days and finally got to jam in Poland. He was almost 9 as well.

      Heal up Jack!

  8. For a high drive dog, what kind of distractions would you recommend can be used for 6 weeks of crate rest? Bruno needs to go on 6 weeks of crate rest for a hind leg muscle strain.

  9. Great post. My BC exploded her knee (in the words of her rehab vet, Dr. Carol Helfer) playing disc at the beginning of February. After a very complicated surgery, she is now starting to really be allowed to move again. Note that this is 11 weeks later, much later than a TPLO. She has a secondary iliopsoas strain from holding her exploded leg up so tight. She was masking her pain so well that our regular vet thought all she had was a partial tear of the cruciate ligament. I knew better. She had a complete tear, creased meniscus and fully luxated knee joint. We are easing back into it. She will be seven next month and we will not get many chances to make it back to competition.

    I have a teammate I hope reads this blog. He has two great dogs and absolutely loves playing ball, disc, flirt pole, etc. with them, and watching them play together. One has chronic joint injuries at age four and the other, not yet a year old, came up with his first limp recently. I’m very concerned and want him to really hear that it is up to him to moderate their exercise for safety. I don’t think he thinks they would “let” him — and yep, it’s hard when you have dogs used to 2-3 hours of intense ball play per day and ask them to stop.

    Crate time is great for extremely difficult food puzzle toys and clicker shaping games. In between, raw bones to chew are super. If your sports vet clears it, swimming is often feasible long before other exercise. My Borderjack is showing a little soreness in one front leg, so we’re going to work on “walk on his back legs” circus tricks for a while (no running) to build his butt and rest is shoulders and elbows. Tiring them out to the point of physical exhaustion is hard, but there’s lots of brainwork they can do to take the edge off.

    1. You mentioned that a while back, Greta. Sorry to hear about it. Amazing how they can just hide things like that, isn’t it?

      2-3 hours of intense play only conditions the dog to last 2+ hours going ape!@#$. I’ll take 5 minutes of moving and thinking over an hour of moving alone any day.

      Great point on the bones, kongs and puzzles. They’re nice tools for downtime for sure.

      Hope your pal slows down a bit. It’s hard to see when you’re there. I know this from experience.


  10. Well, I’m thrilled to be able to update and mention that my teammate has given this issue some good thought and is going to make some changes in how he exercises his dogs. He has already cut down their exercise a bit and noticed that they did not actually drive him mad as a result! Yay! Thanks again, Ron.

    1. Right on, Greta! Thank you for bringing this back into circulation. I’m happy your teammate has backed off a hair. Now you can help him start to get some thinking and moving going on at the same time. That’s the key for socking out the real drivey dogs.

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