Identifying sports dog prospects in rescues and shelters, part 2: Body

Part 1 of this series provided background in what the life of a sports dog looks like.  It’s important for rescue and shelter workers who want to market dogs as sports prospects to understand what their lives would entail so they can pick dogs who match this well. You wouldn’t want to place a rambunctious 8 month old Lab mix in a home with a frail older person seeking a quiet lap dog.  Sports dog matching takes some extra work because it requires more in-depth knowledge of both physical function and behavior.

Sports dogs need to have sound bodies.  Of course, all dogs need sound bodies, but a wonky knee is not going to be nearly as disastrous for a quiet lap dog as for an active, restless agility dog.  Understanding anatomy and structure is hard, and even a lot of general vets may not be focused on issues that are really critical for a sports dog and its handler.  This blog cannot possibly substitute for years of orthopedic study with a specialty in sports medicine, so I’m hoping to provide at least a few relatively obvious pointers: features you can, with a little study and practice, see without needing X-rays or a lot of specialized training.

Before getting into details, a couple of caveats:

Different sports present different demands.  Some are highly physically demanding: Agility, flyball and disc are the popular sports which require the dog participants to use their whole bodies efficiently and fast.  Some are much less demanding.  Nose work is accessible even to partly crippled dogs, or those with hearing or vision impairments.  Barn hunt requires some jumping and crawling, though the surface is forgiving and extreme speed is not needed.  Obedience and rally don’t require a lot of physical competence compared to the more active sports; however, the judge will excuse a dog who is visibly lame.  Also there is some jumping and the dog should be able to perform these jumps without pain or danger.

Also, I am not spending a lot of time on specialized sports which tend to be highly limited by breed.  These include ring sports such as French Ring or IPO (Schutzhund); herding; retriever trials; pointer trials; and other activities based on breed-specific functions.  Suffice it to say that most of these are physically demanding, so if you find yourself considering placing a Dutch Shepherd in a ring sport home, or an Aussie in a herding home, assume you need a body as sound as that required for agility.

OK – moving right along, let’s get into some details.  Remember, I’m trying to keep this pretty simple and I’m picking and choosing what I think are the few most important physical traits which a normal, intelligent shelter worker can learn to spot.  If you would like more detailed information, I recommend checking out the tutorial on Diane Jessup’s Working Pit Bull site.

When assessing the features I’ve listed, it’s important to try to get the dog into a nice square stand.  Yes, I know this can be very hard with an agitated, untrained ball of muscle. Good trainers learn how to use a treat to lure the dog into a stand position — perhaps at least long enough to get someone to snap some nice side shots.  The photographer should try to get low, e.g. sitting on the ground, for the clearest, most helpful images.  Those dog show “stack photos” are the ideal for this.

Finally, I’m planning to add some photos and diagrams eventually.  However, these are much more time consuming than the writing, so I’ll publish the text now and add the images later.

Shoulders/front assembly: Almost all sport activities put pressure on the dog’s shoulders.  If there is jumping, the dog lands on the front feet, so a lot of force is transmitted into the feet, pasterns (wrists), elbows, and shoulders.  The higher, faster, or harder the jump, the more force is transmitted.  Frequency makes a big difference.  Obedience jumps can be fairly high, but they are very infrequent.  Flyball jumps are quite low, but the dog will jump dozens to hundreds of times a day in competition.  Also, the flyball box turn is a hard jump onto the box, with lateral motion as the dog turns.  Disc can involve some extremely high jumps at many angles.  Shoulders take a pounding in all sports, so I am listing them as the first most important physical feature that must be sound in your sports prospect.

What to look for?  The key here is good angulation.  We will use this word again, so here’s what it means.  Angulation is the angle between two bones which meet, when discussing animal skeletal structure.  There are a lot of resources on the internet to learn about angulation and structure and I am not going to reinvent the wheel.  Suffice it to say that we are looking for greater shoulder angulation.  A more angulated shoulder is much safer and more functional than a “straight shoulder.”  We don’t ask perfection, but a dog with a very straight shoulder should not be placed as a sports prospect.

Elbows:  We already looked at the vertical angle of the elbow in the previous section.  Notice one other feature: does the elbow show movement side to side when the dog is moving in a straight line at a walk, trot or gallop?  To see this, you must stand so the dog is moving directly toward or away from you; it’s hard to see from the side.  If the elbows seem to be rotating a little as the dog moves, you will the point of the elbow going in closer to the rib cage and then out wider as the dog moves through the gait.  This is unstable and inefficient and is going to create trouble for the dog down the line. A somewhat less active home would be better.

Hips: Everyone has heard of hip dysplasia and knows it’s bad, but we don’t know what it looks like.  Hip dysplasia is deformation in the hip socket, so that the ball of the femur is flopping around and eventually riding bone-on-bone.  Even relatively mild HD can end up painful and crippling as a dog gets older.  Mild HD is often benefited by staying very well muscled, but severe HD really needs surgical intervention to be fair to the dog.

There are two clues you can look for here.  First is the muscling in the back of the thighs.  Feel the muscle while the dog is standing pretty still and square.  It helps if you have felt the same area on a number of dogs so you have a sense of what is normal.  Find a pit bull with really thick thighs with defined muscles and see if you can sneak a squeeze.  Most dogs won’t muscle like this, but that’s what hard thigh/hamstring muscle feels like.  If the dog has long hair you must rely on feel!  If the muscle on one or both thighs feels soft and easy to compress, small, or like a soft rubber band, it can indicate a problem in the spine or hips.  The problem is severe enough that the dog is already choosing not to use his rear legs much for propulsion; you may notice his chest and shoulders are very well developed, in compensation.  The second clue is his gait when he gallops.  Does he ever separate his back legs or does he tend to keep them right next to each other?  The “bunny hop” gait results from using the muscles of the trunk to pull the rear legs together, as a unit, forward, rather than using the leg and butt muscles to move them separately.  This is a bad sign.  This dog will not have much speed or agility, and will probably be living in pain pretty young if he is not already.  A vet exam and hip x-rays can reveal more.

Knees:  Besides straight shoulders, straight knees (also known as stifles) are the most common serious issue I see in shelter dogs being proposed as sports prospects.  Straight knees are common, period.  Learn how to spot them! Fortunately, this is usually an easy problem to spot.  Once you learn to identify them, you will see them everywhere.  The basic question here is:  Does the knee bend?  And if so, how much?  If the leg is pretty much straight up and down like a broomstick… Whoa, Nellie!  You may have a very happy pet dog, but probably not a sports prospect.  There are some wonderful sports dogs with straight knees, but the lack of angulation in that joint sets the knee up to rupture a ligament very easily under strain.  Knee surgery is about $3-4,000 per knee (and once one side ruptures, the other is quite likely to rupture at some point down the line); the recovery is fairly grueling; and not doing the surgery can horribly compromise an active dog’s quality of life.

Sports which require rapid and/or unpredictable, propulsive direction changes will be hardest on knees.  Disc, agility and herding are the worst culprits here.  Flyball is quite a bit easier on knees, and the slower sports (obedience, rally, barn hunt, and nose work), should be quite safe for dogs with lousy knees, especially if the owner is aware of the problem and can take appropriate steps to strengthen and protect the dog’s weak point.

Neck: Neck? Really?  Yep.  Necks can have quite a surprising number of problems, but I am going to focus on just one which is particularly relevant here.  And that is length.  Very short necks are a real problem for a sport dog.  They prevent the dog from fully extending her forelegs out in front of her, which slows running, makes jumping difficult and clunky, and generally puts strain on the whole body by producing a choppy, rocking horse or bungling bear gait.  It’s not an accident that Greyhounds tend to have very long, arched necks!  An otherwise sound dog with a short neck may enjoy recreational sports, but will not perform well physically in competition in the longer term and will break down more quickly.

Feet: Often overlooked, feet are really important.  Standing on concrete surfaces with no give, or living in wire cages, can permanently ruin feet.  So can having nails left consistently too long.  With dysfunctional, broken down, or painful feet, a dog could hardly be expected to run/jump at speed.  High drive dogs will run on bad feet (and bad knees, hips, shoulders, backs, etc.) but it will hurt and shorten their careers.

“If there is a lot of space between the toes, or they are all pointing in different directions when the dog is standing at rest on a firm but natural surface, or if when viewed from the side they appear to be almost straight, with no upward bend in the knuckles,” then the feet are not sound and the dog is not a good prospect.  (Thanks to Anna Abney of Thunder Mountain Central Asian Shepherds for this succinct description.)

Hearing and vision: This may seem obvious, but hearing and vision and deficits will make sports training and competing more difficult.  Dogs with these deficits do compete, but they may need extra and more specialized training to be able to participate safely.  If a dog is surrendered because “he won’t listen,” check hearing before assuming the problem is the surrendering owner’s skill level!  It’s not hard to learn whether there’s some functional hearing.  Make a contrasting noise out of the dog’s field of vision (in a neighboring room, behind the dog, etc.) and see whether the dog seems to notice it, and if so, where the dog orients.  Repeat a few times.  If he orients correctly, he probably has some functional hearing.  If he reacts but cannot orient, he may have one-sided deafness.  For vision, place a low, inconspicuous, non-smelly barrier (a piece of 2×4, a pool noodle perhaps) across a path where the dog has walked before.  Walk him through and see whether he easily steps over the barrier, or bumps into it, or takes time examining it before crossing.  It can be a bit hard to rule out distraction in these tests, but if you run the tests on several dogs you will get an idea of what the normal range of response looks like, and an unusual response will be clearer to you.

A personal story: Years ago, I volunteered for a large rescue organization.  I was experiencing some burnout after years of work when, one day, I attended a public event where our organization had an information table and some adoptable dogs to meet.  One of the dogs was a bright, eager young bitch.  I was told she was being marketed as an agility prospect because she was keen and driven.  Then I saw her walking around.  Her knees were very straight and one seemed a little wobbly.  I mentioned this to the representative, adding a strong caution about putting this dog into an agility home with knees like that.  She was adopted within days by an agility enthusiast and one week later, the dog’s cruciate ligament ruptured.  The adopter was angry and so was I.  That was the end of my time with this rescue, a last straw.  Please don’t frustrate a well meaning adopter by allowing them to adopt a dog who is unlikely to be able to do the activity the adopter dreams of.

On the other hand, if you’ve got a prospect who looks good so far, read on.  The next part will address behavior.


One thought on “Identifying sports dog prospects in rescues and shelters, part 2: Body

  1. Pingback: Weekly Woof from the Web | AniEd Ireland

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