Preventing Injury for Dog and Handler in Conformation Sporting Events

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Animal Medical Centers of Loudoun: Brambleton

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Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show 2018

Did you know that the Westminster Dog Show events are considered sports? In fact, Westminster is one of the nation’s oldest sporting events yet, many think of it simply as a beauty contest. Three years ago, the Agility and Obedience competitions were added, yet Conformation (as a ring event) is still considered a sport and requires precise physical functioning of not only the canine but the human body too. As a medical professional and member of the Westminster media team, I observe firsthand the movements and physical activity of dogs and handlers, and offer my expertise in Physical Therapy to apply to these unique roles. But first, allow me to clear up a myth.

The conformation events in the dog show are not beauty contests. Dogs are judged on how well their bodies conform to breed standard along with their posture, temperament and ability to move fluidly. Though the temptation for close breeding and selective breeding for specific traits that may be considered harmful is a potential, in most cases the breeders entering dogs at Westminster have high health standards. Many of the conformation traits compliment the particular breed’s job. Dogs, for the most part, desire to have a duty beyond companionship and do not wish to be idle. Their natural instinct is for movement toward a job, or mission. Each canine group has an occupation and skill set to match their body structure.

Last year a GSD named Rumor won Westminster. There were many critics about her crouched knee (called the stifle) and sloping topline posture. “Isn’t that painful?” “How can they make her do that?” I dealt with such questions for weeks afterward. The GSD, part of the herding group, serves many duties beyond herding. Herding requires some crouching movement, but police and protection work benefit from it as well, plus lunging and forward-springing. The sloped rear topline handles these functions well. The bent stifle posture is actually not painful and places the often vulnerable cruciate ligament at better angle to keep it from tearing. As a practicing animal physical therapist I have seen as many, if not more hip and stifle issues with straight-backed, straight-kneed GSDs, than those with the developed crouched postures such as that seen in Rumor.
Conformation sports require not just responsible breeding, but good nutrition, hydration and exercise. Both the dog and handler need to be fit. The dog has to be able to stand at attention, be supple enough for the handler to stack it into posture for the judge, hold that posture, trot, run and turn. The handler needs flexibility of the spine and thigh muscles, supple weight bearing joints, core strength, and proper body mechanics during bending and lifting, running turning and standing. Equilibrium and balance reactions are very helpful too. Here are my top 10 tips to promote fitness and prevent injury to both the dog and handler:

  1. Keep the spine supple with good hydration. The discs between the vertebrae need water content to maintain their shock-absorbing qualities. Handlers should do basic spinal range of motion exercises to maintain the ability to bend forward, backward, side bending to the left and right, and light twisting or rotation to the left and right. Such exercises should be done in sanding, with the hands on hips. For the neck, the same movements apply and a handler can cross their arms across the chest, while looking up, down, rotating left, right, and bending the neck to the side toward the shoulder. For the dog, regular visits from an animal-trained PT or Chiropractor for spinal mobilizations and adjustments are helpful, every 4-6 weeks.
  2. Encourage the dog’s body to respond naturally and smoothly to changes in position by learning how to stimulate its sensory nerves. The best way is to perform mini compressions, also called ‘approximations’ while the dog is standing. Place your hands on top of the dog’s shoulders and shoulder blades and gently press down and release, almost like bouncing. The rate of compression is 5 per second and should not cause the dog to move or stumble. The movement is light and steady. Do 10-20 compressions on the shoulders, then move your hands to the dog’s hips and pelvis and repeat the compressions. Have the dog standing on various level surfaces: table top, foam, pillow with the dog standing still in a static place (also called ‘in place’). Advance to placing the dog on uneven surfaces such as grass, a ramp, a slanted or uneven area in the backyard. Finally, advance to performing compressions during a movement such as asking the dog to stretch forward for a treat or while on a rocker board, rocking back and forth. If possible try to allow the dog to feel the compressions with their eyes covered, for maximum stimulation of the proprioceptive system.
  3. Advance to harder activities called ‘Perturbations’ which involved jumping up onto and down from various landing heights. Start with 1-2 inches and advance to 5-6 inches for small dogs. For medium dogs start/end with heights of 6 inches/ 8-10 inches and for large dogs use starting height of 10 inches, advancing to 14-15 inches. Use non-slippery surfaces, and modify or eliminate for certain breeds at risk for spine injury such as bulldogs, dachshunds and other chondrodystrophic breeds.
  4. Core Strength exercises, for both dog and handler. Handlers should learn to strengthen their pelvic floor musculature, important for keeping the spine stable in the upright standing position. Pilate’s instructors and physical therapists are skilled in these areas. Core routines for dogs include balancing on physio balls, flat inflated discs, rocker boards and BOSU platforms.
  5. Agility workouts for the dog using figure of 8 turns between weave poles or cones, placed at a distance apart allowing the dog to maneuver freely, yet having to make tight turns.
  6. Cross train: make sure the dog’s conditioning workout is not always the same. Vary the terrain and direction, and use both flat and hilly routes. Walking downhill promotes healthy ‘lengthening’ muscle contractions (called eccentric contractions). Don’t always walk on the same side of a street, as a natural slope exists near the curb for drainage, which can cause asymmetry of movement. As alternatives to walking, consider swimming, walking in thigh-high water, running on sand and dirt. Underwater treadmills, though most often used for injury rehabilitation, are a great way to cross-train in a way that lessens impact on the joints.
  7. Intervals: use mini-bursts of speed during longer workouts, to build endurance. This consists of a 10-15 second sprint within a normal wall of jog routine. Interval bursts may be inserted every 5-10 minutes.
  8. Body Mechanics: Handlers can learn efficient ways to bend down, lift and release dogs during conformation events, to lessen the strain on their spinal joints and intervertebral discs. Physical Therapists and Chiropractors are good resources for instruction.
  9. Stretching of both calf muscles for the handler: use the typical calf stretch used by runners, standing and facing a wall. To stretch the outer calf muscle (gastroc), keep the knee straight on the stretching leg. You should feel the stretch right in the calf, a few inches below the knee. Hold 30 seconds, repeat 5 times. Then stretch the deeper calf muscle (soleus) by bending the knee slightly on the stretching leg. You will feel the stretch lower down the calf, toward the heel. Hold for 30 seconds, 5 reps. The soleus muscle is very important to maintaining good balance while standing up and is often overlooked in stretching routines. Don’t forget to stretch the upper hamstrings, near the buttock area. My favorite way to do this is by placing one foot up on a step, then reaching down toward the ankle and toes of the leg remaining on the floor. The stretch will be felt on the upper region of the back of the thigh.
  10. Simple strengthening exercises for the handler include half-squats, half lunges, heel walking and toe walking. For dogs: use square sit-to-stand exercises, crouched walking thru tunnels or under low tables or picnic table bench, and backward stepping (stand facing the dog, hold a treat directly under its chin and walk forward, encouraging it to take retro steps).

Enjoy safe and happy dog show events!