By Dr. Erica Kirsch
Recently I attended a local flyball tournament. If you don’t know what flyball is, I highly recommend checking out this video which shows the world record for a flyball run at just 14.182 seconds!
Flyball is a fast paced 4 dog relay race. Each dog jumps over a series of 4 hurdles, hits a box that dispenses a ball, and then returns over the 4 hurdles with the ball. I’m not kidding when I say these dogs move fast, and the speed at which they hit the box is astounding! Dogs and owners were clearly having a blast, and I felt excited to be a part of it. Of course, as a physical therapist, I spent most of the day taking slow motion videos and analyzing the movement patterns, body positions, and forces applied to these dogs as they repeat this course over 20 times throughout the weekend. Obvious injuries can occur with any sport, and flyball is not excluded. Some obvious and apparent causes of injury in flyball can include collisions with other dogs or people, falling off or hitting the box wrong, tears of pads, cuts, scrapes, etc. In this blog I want to highlight some of the more subtle things I noticed while watching that have significant implications for injury and injury prevention.
- Repetitive Stress
Flyball is a very repetitive sport. It involves running through the same exact course many times throughout the day. Dogs turn the same direction on the box every single time and jump over the same hurdles spaced at the same distance. While repetition and consistency allows for these dogs to become very fast, it is also putting repetitive strain on the same structures over and over again. Because the dog turns in the same direction on the box every time, they are stressing only one side of ligaments in their joints, only bending their back one way, and only using muscles to turn that one direction. This can cause muscle imbalances, weakened ligaments, and joint mobility issues. Dogs are very good at compensating and hiding these imbalances, but that does not mean they aren’t significant. Imbalances and repetitive stress are major factors contributing to injury. Prevention is the key—if these imbalances are identified early, a training routine can be established to possibly prevent injury. Let’s focus on the spine and forelimbs for a second.
As these dogs sprint between hurdles and extend over them, their spines go through an incredible amount of flexion and extension. They tuck their back legs close to their front legs, then explode into an extended jump over the hurdles. When the dog hits the box, we add in some spinal rotation and lateral flexion. After watching for several hours, I took note that many of the dogs approach the box in different ways. I learned that there is an ideal way to hit the box— a swimmer’s turn. In a swimmer’s turn, the dog lands on the box horizontally with the front feet hitting first, followed quickly by the back legs. This allows less stress on the forelimbs and a quicker turn. In doing this, the dog is using a lot more spinal rotation and lateral flexion to move through this turn quickly. As they repeat this turn over and over in the same direction they are building imbalances. Look at the still below for an idea of how much motion occurs at the spine during a box turn.
Spinal rotation occurs here as the back legs are still horizontal on the box, but the front legs are vertical.
Spinal flexion and lateral flexion occurs here are the dog performs a swimmer’s turn.
These dogs also put a great deal of stress on their forelimbs both while jumping and turning on the box. As I mentioned before, the box turn is ideally done as a swimmer’s turn to reduce stress on the joints. However, this can be difficult to teach and many dogs approached the box straight on, only hitting it with their front legs. This causes a large amount of force to be transmitted directly into the front limbs through the carpus, elbow, and shoulder joints. If the dog is able to successfully perform a swimmer’s turn, the compressive forces on the forelimb may be decreased, but we are now introducing asymmetry as the dog leans into the side they are turning towards. Just like runners sustaining knee and ankle injuries, these repetitive forces over time cause wear and tear on the joints, ligaments, and tendons.
This older dog does a straight on box turn. You can see that the carpal pad touches the box with the force of impact.
These two images show a dog just before impact and then on impact. You can see the compression that occurs from the paw to the shoulder.
- Human Movement
I didn’t spend all my time watching dogs— I also was observing the body mechanics and positions of the owners. A lot of these owners drive far distances for these tournaments—spending several hours sitting in the car. When they arrive, they focus on warming up their dog without any thought about warming up themselves. I watched participants lifting boxes (which weigh almost 60 lbs), bending to change hurdle heights, bending over to hold their dog back before starting, getting up and down from the floor, running after their dogs, and catching their dogs on tugs running full force. These are not movements that are easy on the body, and I can only imagine how many owners have injured themselves playing the sport they love with their dog. A proper warm up and targeted exercises could help reduce the impact of these activities on our bodies as well.
So is flyball dangerous!? Of course not—all sports have specific risks associated with them, but the benefits and enjoyment that comes from these activities outweigh the risks. I could see the joy on these dogs and their owner’s faces because they are doing what they love. I think acknowledging the risks and analyzing the movements can move us forward in trying to prevent injury. If your dog participates in flyball I would highly recommend bringing them to see a canine rehab therapist for a thorough evaluation to prevent injuries down the road. I am hoping to put out some new content related to this in the future, but for now let’s recognize the inherent risks involved in all sports and do our best to take care of ourselves and our dogs.