Physical Fitness And Rehabilitation In The Canine Athlete

Preparedness and the ability to perform functional movements at a higher more advanced level is paramount in athletic performance. Whether you are a human or animal athlete, preparing the body for the job at hand will produce better results, and lessen the overall rate of injury and strain placed on the body. Physical rehabilitation tools, and the ability of prehab and rehabilitation practitioners to understand what is required of an animal athlete will create a powerful team. This keeps the animal performing at peak capacity, lessening any down time due to overtraining, under training, or injury.

Dogs are involved in many sports and sports related activities including hunting, agility, fly ball, swimming, search and rescue, police and military work, tracking, and obedience to name a few 3, 4. They need to have the strength and endurance to perform these tasks when the time comes. Knowing the injuries that these animals are prone to, and how to prepare their bodies for the challenges that lie within their sport or job is an important and growing section of physical rehabilitation and physical fitness regimens. Below we will discuss some of the common injuries seen in dogs that perform specific athletic or work endeavors.

Working and sporting dogs have a lot of performance requirements, and with these requirements come the potential for injury. Several injuries that are seen in working and performance dogs include fibrotic myopathy (scar tissue within the muscle) muscle strains, and injuries of the shoulder 3. We can look at each injury a little closer to see how they relate to the actions these dogs are require to perform for their job or sport.

Dogs that are involved in tracking, obedience, and protection training routinely encounter muscle strain and fibrotic myopathy 3. As seen on the human side of sports medicine, many of these types of injuries occur when there is a powerful contraction in conjunction with a lengthening of the muscle 3. The muscles affected include the hamstring and adductors, which consequently are the same muscle commonly affected in fibrotic myopathy 3. When you look at the level of performance required by these dogs, you can see how these injuries may occur.

A muscle strain, another common injury seen in these dogs, is routinely documented in human runners because of the high speeds of acceleration 3. At any point in time you can see a working or sporting dog taking off at high speeds to accomplish their goal. Contributing factors to these types of strains and injuries include poor flexibility, inadequate warm-up, fatigue, sudden forceful contraction or extension, strength imbalances between muscle groups, and insufficient rest 3.

Several tools are used to treat these injuries and train or condition the animal so they are better prepared to handle the requirements of their sport or job. These include underwater treadmills, ultrasound, massage, warm up and cool down routines, rest, ice, heat, and of course FitPAWS training equipment used by rehabilitation practitioners or certified canine fitness professionals 3. If we look at one piece of equipment, for example the treadmill, we can see how it can be use in several ways with these athletes to help prepare them for their sport. When using a normal or underwater treadmill, backward walking is a great exercise for animal athletes 1. The major muscles worked when walking backward include the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and the superficial, middle, and deep gluteal muscles 1. These are all important muscles for sporting activities 1.

Another injury seen in many sporting dogs are injuries of the shoulder. Shoulder problems may result from the repetitive stress that the dogs have to go through to perform 2. Many times these injuries need surgical intervention, but physical rehabilitation plays a big role in recovery and prevention of future injuries. Exercises and equipment used include Cavaletti rails which allow for exaggerated shoulder joint flexion, swimming, therapeutic ball exercises (pelvic limbs on floor or forelimbs in the floor), walking through an agility tunnel, walking downhill, wheel- barrowing, jumping down graduated heights, walking in a figure-of-eight, pole weaving, walking through trails, playing, walking on an underwater treadmill, and pulling 2. Physical rehabilitation for these working dogs and athletes is essential to getting them back to what they do best.

Overall, when talking about any of the injuries or activities these animals are involved in, prevention and proper conditioning is key. According to Steiss (2002) “With regard to muscle disorders in canine athletes, emphasis should be placed on prevention, using appropriate progression of exercise during training and avoiding making the dog a ‘‘weekend warrior.” One key element of injury prevention that can be utilized in animal athletes is a warm-up and cool-down routine 3. A warm up routine serves several functions. It loosens up the muscles, and raises core temperature, heart rate, and respiration rate 3. It is also can be viewed as a rehearsal for the activity the animal will be involved in, improving skill and coordination 3. A warm muscle takes more force to injure, has more blood and oxygen saturation, and muscle-tendon junctions are more able to stretch 3.

As you can see we just skimmed the surface of some of the injuries faced by canine athletes and working dogs. For these animals prevention is the key. As is in many other aspects of life, optimizing training so that the dogs can be at their best will keep them doing the things they love longer. If injury does occur it is just as important to provide the right atmosphere for rehabilitation and recovery in order to bring them back to a level of performance and meets or exceeds where they were before.


GenevieveAbout the Author: Genevieve Cahill, founder of Modern Animal Behavior has been a Certified Veterinary Technician for 15 years. All throughout her life she has been very passionate about two subjects, fitness and behavior. She completed her two undergraduate degrees in Psychology and Communication and is now pursuing her Masters Degree in Companion Animal Behavior Counseling. Recently, Genevieve found a way to merge her two passions via the FitPAWS Master Trainer/ University of Tennessee Canine Fitness Trainer program and her masters thesis work researching how exercise enhances learning/behavior in shelter dogs. Genevieve believes that behavior and exercise can be completely intertwined and is passionate about bringing that message to pets and their owners. Genevieve’s background as a Certified Personal Trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and her many years as a Veterinary Technician have prepared her to jump right into this up and coming world of canine fitness.


1 Jurek, C., & McCauley. (2009). Underwater treadmill therapy in veterinary practice: Benefits and considerations. Retrieved from

2 Marcellin-Little, D.J., Levine, D., & Canapp, S.O. (2007). The Canine Shoulder: Selected Disorders and Their Management with Physical Therapy. Clinical Techniques in Small Animal Practice, 22, 171-182. doi:10.1053/j.ctsap.2007.09.006

3 Steiss, J.E. (2002). Muscle disorders and rehabilitation in canine athletes. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 32(1), 267-285.

4 Van Dyke, J. (2009). Canine rehabilitation: An inside look at a fast-growing market segment. Retrieved from