Is Your Puppy Ready for Sports?

Work & Sport

Is Your Puppy Ready for Sports?

Sports offer a natural way for you and your dog to get exercise, and they challenge an active body and mind. Organized recreation also combats our increasingly sedentary lifestyle and the health problems all that inactivity causes. So it’s no surprise that more dog owners are training their dogs and signing them up for weekend competitions in sports like agility, flyball, field trials, Frisbee, field and track racing, herding and weight pulling.

Many of these sports take months or years to learn -- and owners want to start their puppies as soon as possible. However, when it comes to sports, the early bird does not get the worm. In fact, the early bird might be out of the game before it begins. So before getting your puppy involved in a sport, consider these few tips to help keep him safe.

Puppy Athletes Are Like Kid Athletes

Studies of children have shown that injuries in people -- some with lifelong consequences -- are caused by the repetitive motion, impact and stressful strain of playing sports at a young age. The same is true for dogs. Veterinarians who treat large populations of agility dogs and animal physiotherapists report that puppies that started before 2 years of age often do not have a career after age 5. In contrast, owners who delayed strenuous training find that their dogs can compete well into older years. A few rules to follow when starting your puppy in a sport:

  • Allow puppy’s bones to mature Puppies need time for their bones and cartilage to properly develop -- 18 months to be exact. Repetitive impact such as jumping, strenuous turns, pushing, pulling and long workout regimens can interfere with the bone’s growth plates or immature soft tissues, causing severe orthopedic problems, ligament instability and career-ending injuries.
  • Keep work brief Puppies can begin the mental, low-impact groundwork of a sport. But remember, puppies have short attention spans -- five to 15 minutes -- and their physical stamina isn’t much longer. Two or three short puppy sports sessions a day are more tolerable and produce a better outcome than one longer session. And overdoing it may cause a puppy to resist training.
  • Avoid overheating and exhaustion Keep training sessions short, because puppies can suffer heat strokes easily. Obviously, heat stroke can be caused by exposure to high temperatures, but overexertion is just as dangerous. Puppies aren’t yet efficient at dispelling body heat or conserving water: They heat up and become dehydrated quickly. It’s very important to give your puppy long breaks and plenty of water.

Signs that your puppy is overworked include excessive panting, reluctance to continue, or stumbling. These signs mean “Stop.” Limping, repetitive stumbling, missed strides or an abnormal gait might be warnings of more serious problems. If you notice any of the latter symptoms, visit your veterinarian to rule out a sports injury or congenital orthopedic issues.

  • Let your puppy play Puppies need lots of free play to build strength and motor skills. Avoid accidental injury by keeping play between dogs of similar age, not with larger, more aggressive/hyper dogs.

Be a Good Puppy Sports Parent

Remember, it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. To create passion for a sport, dogs need to enjoy their work. Associating a weekend sports career with happy times, not pain and discomfort, keeps your dog in the game.

Dr. Tracy Dewhirst, a graduate from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, practices small-animal and equine medicine in Knoxville, Tenn. She is a long-time columnist for the Knoxville News Sentinel. Dewhirst also sits on the East Tennessee Peer Review Board. Dr. Dewhirst blogs frequently for Exceptional Canine.
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