Strains and an agility dog

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A diary of progress

This page is for those of  you who have searched high and low on the internet for information on rehabilitating an agility dog after a strain injury.  I couldn't find anything much. Typing "Hind leg lameness" into search engines brought forth some terrifying pages on cruciate ligament damage and hip dysplasia.  The vet is the first port of call but sometimes you need some extra help when you have an agility dog and you want to get back into competition.

How the damage was caused
Jamie was a large and very boisterous dog.  Behaving sensibly was never his forte and he had a tendency to go mad dog at the slightest incentive.  Thus it was when he went for a walk with his friends.  It was Lizzie who started it.  Hurtling round in crazy circles and then up into the woods with Jamie in hot pursuit.  When they both reappeared all seemed to be fine but a few minutes later we noticed Jamie was limping on his hind leg.  We weren't too concerned at this stage as he didn't seem to be in great deal of pain and it appeared to be just a temporary annoyance.  Jamie does sometimes limp if he treads on something sharp or if you've just removed a thorn but if you rub it better he's fine.  We had no idea that he'd done anything unusual.

The symptoms
I started to worry when we left our friend's house and Jamie struggled a bit to get into the car.  By the time we reached home he was clearly going to have a job to get out of the car and once indoors the lameness was all too obvious.  He could hardly put any weight on his right hind leg.   We watched him as he moved round and gradually the movement became easier.  We kept a careful eye on him and noticed that the injury seemed most painful when he had been resting for a while.  It was all very worrying and not at all like Jamie.  I'd better add that it was late Sunday afternoon and we had to decide whether to call the vet or leave it until the next day.  We decided to leave it and observe him so that we could give the vet an account of exactly how he was behaving.

The Vet's diagnosis
Unfortunately Jamie had trained the vet who saw him not to mess about with him too much.  There are one or two vets at the surgery who say "I'm not having that" and just carry on, but poor Richard usually ended up plastered against the wall saying "Nice dog, just put my leg down now would you."  He wasn't too worried about the leg (That's Jamie's leg, not his). Jamie had begun to walk more normally on it and he diagnosed a mild strain.  "Keep him on the lead for a few days and if it's not better in a week bring him back. I'm confident that there's no ligament damage."

One week later
Jamie appeared to be back to normal and so I let him off the lead and the first thing he did was to chase a squirrel.   Not just a little run and back again but a full blooded belt after the squirrel, up the footpath and over a ten foot high bank that's steeper than any A-Frame.  By the time he came back he was limping again but undeterred he took off after another squirrel.   When we caught him we took him home, and this time I decided to do some research.  Only then did I discover that a mild strain can recur in the wink of an eye and that  a week is nowhere near long enough to recover.  This was going to be a long haul.... and then the implications set in.  What had started as a mild strain was now more serious.

No Agility
To give the injury time to heal there was no chance that we would be able to compete at our match in three weeks time but maybe, just maybe we might make a show a couple of weeks after that.  I couldn't believe that my lively and otherwise very fit agility dog wouldn't be able to run and jump again very soon and that we would miss the start of the season.  More annoying was the fact that we had a very real chance for progression at the next show and it might be our last chance.  Jamie was then seven years old and he was not going to get a great deal faster.  Once the warmer weather came he ambled over the courses in his own time so the beginning and end of the season were our best times for him. There was no way he's going to get a speedy round at a summer show but the previous year he had been getting better and better.   He'd come away from every show with a rosette or two and the place rosettes outnumbered the clear rounds by about three to one.  At the winter matches the numbers on the rosettes were getting smaller and we had been placed several times in the top three.  To think that he would miss his beloved agility was almost unbearable but I would rather he missed agility all summer than risk causing him further injury.   Jamie didn't agree.

Rehabilitation
At first I decided to follow the advice of the vet who'd written an article for Agility Net.  I would keep Jamie on the lead until he'd been sound for a week and then start slow trotting several times a day on soft ground.  Minimal stairs, and level ground seemed to be the order of the day.  It took three days to realise that I couldn't follow this advice and this is why.
1)  We live in Cornwall and there is no level ground.  It just doesn't happen.   Even if you go to a beach you've got a load of sand dunes to negotiate. 
2)  Everything in our house is steps.  It's open plan and the stairs lead off the living room.  You can't put up a baby gate because Jamie would simply try to jump it and under normal circumstances he'd do this easily.  The garden is on a different level to the house so steps have to be negotiated and we even have a step up out of the living room and into the lobby and kitchen.
3) Jamie did not believe in sticking to plans.  He was a dog, a very lively dog and as soon as the leg felt better he wanted to run and jump.  Confining him on a lead frightened me.  Carrying on like this he was making him start to leap around in the house and it wouldn't be long before he'd start to race into the garden and have one of his mad turns.  This would ultimately do more damage.  I had a raving lunatic on my hands and I didn't know what to do.

So what do you do?

Most people would take their dog back to the vet but with Jamie the vets found it difficult to examine him as he kicked up such a fuss.  He was a rescue dog and we think he had been seriously mistreated in the past.  The vets had said that the only way they could examine him would be under anaesthetic but this wouldn't be any good for manipulating the joints to see where it was hurting.  You can see their dilemma.

The only thing left to do was to watch him and help him to recover at home.  He wasn't in any great pain but he wasn't completely sound either.   Observation over three days had confirmed that Jamie was capable of negotiating hills, stairs and steps without causing the lameness to become worse.  Day by day it was improving but I had noticed something odd.  When he stood still he shifted his weight to his left leg  but when he weed it didn't matter which leg he used.  This puzzled me until I saw him stand squarely but with both hind legs coming slightly forward.  Obviously the injury was a bit painful if the hinds legs were stretched backwards a little but he could find a way to stand that didn't cause any discomfort.   I immediately identified with this.  If you hurt something there's always one position that's more comfortable than another.
At this point I made a bold a possibly foolish decision.  I would let Jamie off the lead for short periods on very familiar walks and stay with him whether he stopped or trotted.  I also let him trot around his own agility garden but not jumping of course.  I decided to let him do what he could do as long as he trotted soundly and there was no sign of lameness when he'd been resting.  I've also kept a diary of his progress.

Update:

Sasha has also had mild strains from time to time.  Her vet is from the same practice and she's very experienced with working dogs.  Her advice with strains is gentle lead walking for a week and then gradually increase the exercise until you can start back with low jumps.  If you do too much too soon there is a risk of re-injury.  Sasha is a calm dog off the lead and she never chases anything so we have found it better to let her walk quietly with us off lead rather than have her pulling on the lead while other dogs race around.  If Jilly should hurt herself she wouldn't be able to control her urge to run and chase and play even if something was hurting and so I would definitely keep her on the lead.  Our vet says that working creates such a huge amount of excitement in a dog that they'll continue to run even with a serious injury.  The excitement at the time overcomes the pain and it's worth bearing this in mind. 

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