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Jump Heights

Safety & the risk of injury in agility

For some time now there's been an ongoing debate in the agility press about the height of jumps in the UK, with the possible associated consequences of changes to this jumping height, and about the risk of injury, and safety in general in agility. Well-known agility competitor Peter van Dongen looks at this issue from a vet's perspective.

Quite a few people I know - many with many years of experience - have very strong opinions about what is right and what is wrong relating to the issue of jump heights in agility. I believe that these views are based on personal experiences as handlers or trainers rather than hard scientific evidence of injuries in agility dogs and their causes.

Having been trained in a scientific way, however. I prefer to see some facts rather than opinion, ideas, hearsay or other. This, however, made me look for these facts and unfortunately these are very rare indeed. There is, to my knowledge, and I have checked with various sources within my field of expertise, no actual scientific report on injuries in agility dogs in high enough numbers to make any conclusions statistically relevant. Therefore, we will have to do with information from other sources. I have tried to outline below my views, as a veterinary surgeon, on these issues, after studying various sources of information and speaking to many people within agility about this. Of course, you do not have to agree with me. Rather than that, I hope it will be yet another addition to the debate, so that together we can try to make agility as safe as possible, without spoiling the fun of it!

Risk assessment
Risk assessment is never easy! We can see this in life nearly every day! I can think of many examples in the last few years, where people have had strange ideas based on wrong interpretations of risks involved. For instance, the whole BSE thing: Yes, of course there is now documented evidence that BSE can be transferred to humans and this in itself is horrendous. BUT, the chance of getting BSE (or better nvCJD) from eating beef is incredibly small. On the other hand, the chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease from ingesting aluminum has been proven to be quite big. This can happen through the use of aluminum cooking utensils, but nobody has suggested to ban aluminum saucepans! Also, the chance of getting killed when stepping out of bed and tripping is many hundreds of times greater! So is getting downstairs in the morning! But nobody has suggested to ban beds or stairs!

To put this in perspective as far as agility is concerned
I think we can always try and make things as safe as possible. But what often happens is that people have a sudden, and often exaggerated, reaction to an event, such as an incident with a tyre. This should become a talking point for suggestions to improve, not to ban the tyre altogether for instance. If we do not want to put our dogs at risk at all, perhaps we should not do agility at all! In fact, we should probably not even take the dog out of its bed in the morning, or even better, not have a dog at all. Does anyone realise that the most risky thing you do with your dog on an average agility show day is driving 100 miles on the open road, often in the early morning, with the dog in the boot? As soon as you put a dog on the starting line of an agility course, which ultimately is a competitive and athletic sporting event, you put your dog at risk of injury. The reason that this does not happen more frequently than is the case, is that hopefully you are aware of the possible problems, and act accordingly.  It is impossible to have a totally risk free sport, or life for that matter. (See below under Suggestions.)

Injuries seen in practice
In my own experience, certain injuries are more common than others. I have been a vet for 11 years now and in the last 6 years I have been involved in agility as well. During that time, I have treated many dogs for various injuries. I have found the most common ones in agility dogs to involve the cranial cruciate ligament, the lumbo-sacral spine and the toes (See one of my previous ‘Vets and Pets’ articles, on ‘Lameness’). Other vets, physiotherapists or osteopaths may encounter different types of injuries however. To get a good idea about all injuries encountered in agility dogs, we would have to ask every vet etc. to keep records over a long enough time to get statistically relevant figures. Perhaps this is something that someone could take up?

Jumping height
With the risk of getting myself into trouble, I am going to write something about this issue. I have read the opinions of people in the UK, as well as from the USA and Canada about the effect of a change to the jumping height to the speed of dogs, the risks of injury and the relation to FCI rules etc. Everybody seems to have some very good arguments as to why to change or why not.

I have to say that personally I had an idea about the effect on dogs of high and low jumps and formed the opinion that lower jumps, and therefore smoother courses, must be less stressful on the dog’s legs than the sometimes very complicated courses we now see in agility, with high jumps, sharp turns and jumps from a stand still. However, after reading a report on a Dutch agility web site I have changed my opinion. This report has been written by three agility handlers and trainers, one of them a vet, one a physiotherapist and one a vet student. They have based this report on a lecture by the late Mr. Schamhardt, a lecturer in biomechanics at the Utrecht Veterinary University, as part of a day long seminar on injuries in agility in the Netherlands. He had done research into sports injuries and stresses of jumping in horses and dogs. This report discusses everything from basic anatomy and physiology, physics and the study of video footage of dogs doing agility (not just jumping!). It reaches some interesting conclusions. For instance:

  • It is the speed, rather than the weight of the dog, which mainly increases the kinetic energy when landing after a jump. Double the speed leads to a fourfold increase in kinetic energy! Most injuries occur at landing, rather than when taking off, as the time during which the stresses occur is shorter, and they all work on the front legs only.
  • The height of the jump is a smaller influence on the stresses than the speed at which the jump is taken.
  • The stresses on joints are much higher if the dog makes a turn while landing after a jump at the same time.
  • Flexed limbs absorb the stresses put on them much easier, with a smaller chance of injury, than extended limbs. Flexed limbs when landing occur when the jumping height is relatively high and the distance between jumps relatively short. It is the relation between height and distance which is ultimately important.
  • Injuries occur during training much more so than during competitions! This is because during training the dogs do more courses in less time, or do obstacles many times over as part of the training process.
  • Slats on touch point equipment can lead to enormous deformation of the structures in the foot, especially if the slats are thick. This becomes even worse when braking at the same time, for instance when coming down the A-frame. This can easily lead to injuries such as fractured sesamoid bones, arthritis in the ‘wrist joint’, tendon injuries etc. A less steep angle of the touch point equipment and the absence of slats are advised.
  • The one-legged weave (where the dog changes side using one leg at a time) puts much more stress on the spine and its muscles, as well as on the fore legs, than the two-legged weave (where the dog jumps from side to side using both legs together). This can lead to Spondylitis and elbow arthritis. Dogs doing the one-legged weave will automatically change to a two-legged weave if the distance between the poles is increased. It seems that the distance between the poles should ideally be directly proportional to the ‘length’ of the dog, which often relates well to the height. Therefore, there should be different weaves for minis, midis and standard dogs.
  •  Predictability is a great way to avoid injuries in dogs. If they know what to expect they will adjust their techniques accordingly. This explains why it is not necessarily more dangerous to train or compete on carpet, than on grass. After all, it happens very frequently that a grass surface is very unpredictable, with wet and dry patches, as well as differences in level. Carpet, however, is very predictable after the first few paces and most experienced dogs will adapt quickly.

For those who want to read the full article go to http://www.agility.net (mind that ‘dot’!). You can check out the Dutch version (as I did) or the English one.

Advice to reduce the risk of injuries
From all the above I have concluded that it is possible to reduce the risk of injuries to such an extent that agility should be a fun and healthy sport, without putting your dog at unnecessary risk. My personal view is that there are a number of things we should consider:

  1. Make sure that your dog is healthy, fit and never overweight. Have your vet check your dog if necessary. Make sure you tell him / her that you are intending to do agility with your dog.
  2. Make sure that your dog has not got long or overgrown nails with special attention to the dew claws.
  3. Always do a good warming up, both for you and your dog. Gentle running, possibly followed by faster running, perhaps after a ball, would be a good way to get the muscles warmed up nicely before taking your dog to the ring. A few practice jumps are probably a good idea as well, after the initial warming up.
  4. Work your dog according to the dog’s experience and ability. If a certain course looks too tight, too difficult, too high, too long or whatever, do not work your dog on that course. You have the choice of competing or not! The safety of your dog should be uppermost in your mind at all times.
  5. Do not exacerbate health problems by continuing to compete with your dog, when it has been diagnosed with problems such as spinal spondylitis, arthritis, a heart problem, etc. I know that it is better to keep your dog fit rather than to wrap it in cotton wool, but you have to weigh off the pros and cons carefully. Your vet should be able to help you make this decision.

Equipment

  • Slats - No slats on touch point equipment, if at all possible
  •  Less steep angle to touch point equipment, especially A-frame
  •  Size (as in Mini, Midi and Standard dogs) dependent weaves
  •  Collapsible tyre - There have been reports on the use of a collapsible tyre from the USA; I also know of suggestions to produce such a tyre, with the use of Velcro, for instance. I also think that the ‘Lolliframe’ tyre which does away with chains is a way forward!
  •  See-saw - this should have some sort of ‘shock absorber’ pad under the far end to prevent the sudden hard impact when dogs make the see-saw pivot, which can lead to spinal disorders in the neck. This suggestion has been put forward by Imogen Hemingway D.O., a registered osteopath, after seeing an increasing number of dogs at her practice with this particular type of injury.

Perhaps it is possible to rule that only registered trainers and judges are allowed to do these jobs, both at local clubs and at competitions. After all, if we are going to take our sport seriously, then we should do the best job possible. This would lead to more paperwork and further problems, not least in the finding of people to do these jobs in the first place, but it might be necessary to help prevent injuries.

Finally, I think that the jumping height will ultimately not make a great deal of difference to the risk of injury to the dog, as long as courses are set which are sensible and 'doable', dogs are fit and well, handlers are aware of possible problems and handle their dog accordingly and people continue to think about agility and discuss possible changes to the rules sensibly and constructively.

PS: Why do we always have all the jumps at the same height (apart from the reason that it says so in the ‘rules’!)? Horses in show jumping don’t! It forces them to look and judge each and every jump. Another can of worms?


About the author
Peter van Dongen, Drs. (Utrecht), Cert.V.R., M.R.C.V.S qualified as a vet at the Utrecht Veterinary school, The Netherlands, in March 1990. He worked in a mixed practice in Louth, Lincolnshire, for three years, before moving to Borough Green, Kent. At the same time he limited himself to small animals only.

In May 1995 Pete started agility (after years of just thinking about it!) with his Jack Russell Cross 'Basil' (a bitch!), then five years old. Since then they have qualified for many finals, including Crufts and Olympia. Basil, Peter's first and still only agility dog, is now an Advanced dog and still going strong at the age of nearly 11 years!

Peter passed the Agility Club Instructors' exam in October 1999 and has since done the Agility Club Judging Workshop.

Since December 1996 he has run a branch practice in Allington, Maidstone in Kent. Peter and his wife Carry still live in Borough Green with their two dogs and two cats.


From Lynn Anderson...
I am so pleased that Peter has pointed out just how physically demanding the weave poles can be for dogs. I am sure most people just don't realize the strain on the spine. The KC minimum distance between each pole of 1' 6" is far too tight for standard dogs. Ever watched a dog such as a German Shepherd attempting poles set at the minimum distance?

The minimum distance on the weaves for standards should be the current maximum distance of two foot. Keep your 1' 6" poles for Minis.

I am not sure that this 'Quickest 60 weaves' competition is a good idea!

From Susan Selby...
I have found the entire article most interesting, as I have not seen much written in the relation of jumps and injuries.

I had a great Dane very sound and excellent at Agility, we discovered Spondylitis the arthritic one treated with anti inflammatory, no one seems to know much about it, at the age of three years. I was told by my vet that Spondylitis would not have been caused by Agility, but probably escalated by it.

I only had my Dane put down a few weeks ago, she was just 6 years, and I felt it the kindest thing to do, as she wanted to be active, and pain was becoming very much part of her everyday life. She was on the full dose of Rymadle. I really would be most interested in the studies on weaving and Spondylitis caused by or escalated by - or is it inherited, her hips and joints were perfect. She was trained from a pup, not jumped until she was old enough her co ordination was brilliant and she was muscled up.

I would like to hear more on this if possible. Email me on sue_sel@bigpond.com. (17/10/01)


From Martin Pollard...
Peter van Dongen’s article on jumping heights is very well argued and a delight to read.  Facts are hard to come by, but the Utrecht report seems to combine a scientific approach and common sense.

Jumping
One point which I think might be looked at further is frequency.

  1. How many jumps does your dog vault a week? 50? 200? 300?

  2. Does repetition of a specific action can injury of itself, or does it just speed up the incidence?

Other obstacles discussed by the Utrecht report.
I have suggested possible action to find the best way forward, but these are only my thoughts.

  1. Slats on touch points
    These may be unnecessary as long as the weather is fine. In rain and mud the contact equipment will become unusable without slats.  I have many times brushed down contact gear at lunchtime 
  2. Weaves
    Different weaves for minis midis and standards. About eight years ago I tried to make an adjustable frame based on lazy tongs. It didn’t work as the joints in between the poles came to just where the dogs placed their feet. But how long is a standard dog?  It is known that some minis compete in standard classes; at the other end of the range GSD owners have been asking for a longer space for many years. Proposed action: Measure lengths of dogs in a typical class. Establish mean length and design weaves to suit.

Peter’s suggestions for equipment

  1. Slats
     The range of solution is thick slats to no slats (or may be some other idea?)  Proposed action.  Research needed to establish  compromise thickness.

  2. Contact angles A - ramp
    No problem to reduce angle, It may be that the result is either negligible or that the safety is a maximum at one particular angle; perhaps if the included angle is too obtuse speed increases and the safety factor decreases.
    Proposed action
    : Tests with A-ramps at different angles.

  3. See-saw
    The FCI pivot height is 500mm, whereas our see-saws are at about 600mm. 
    Proposed a
    ction:  Make see-saw stand with 500mm pivot. Test speed.

  4. Dogwalk
    This could be made lower.  However, same reasoning as A - ramp,  I am pretty certain speeds will increase. I once saw a dog fall off a dog walk, result - a broken back. 
    Proposed action
    : Research using adjustable height dog walk and testing speeds.

  5. Collapsible tyre
    In my opinion very difficult to make successfully.  One problem is that if parts are made to fall away, will they tangle with the dog?  Another problem is who is going to put it back together again?  Training needed for pole pickers.  Velcro doesn’t work very well covered in thick mud.  I have made a dog wash tyre where the internal diameter is made from 4” bristle. (picture?).  I don’t think it is quite the answer but it might lead to better things. 
    Proposed action:  Design further ‘tyres’ using safety materials and construction, make prototypes and test.

  6. Jarring see-saw
    It is obviously a good idea to absorb the energy caused by the circular motion in the board, but is a pad a good idea?  It would have to be made in an energy absorbent material which recovered after each impact, not easy. A springy pad might well be counter productive, driving the board upwards. Lowering the height of the pivot would reduce the kinetic energy, a reduction in height of 100mm at the pivot point turns into 200mm at the board end.

My idea - and I think a successful one - was to make the stand telescopic. With a rigid, staked down stand, the board hits the ground and comes to a dead stop, causing jarring as the energy escapes by taking it out on the board and stand. If the stand is telescopic, the board rotates on the end touching the ground, the centre lifts and the energy is dissipated smoothly over half a second or so.
Proposed action: Test all methods of reducing ‘emergency stop’ effect on board. Perhaps investigate training methods. A dog trained to crawl along the contact will reduce board rotational speed, and perhaps its bent legs will reduce the jarring on its body.

There is no question to my mind that agility equipment and its use can be made much safer for dogs and handlers. To do this scientifically research and testing would have to be carried out and proper designs made. There is little point in watching a few dogs and then coming up with the solution. A range of ideas should be generated by using conventional and creative problem-solving techniques, for instance Attribute listing, Analogies, Morphological matrices. (1). When using these techniques all factors are thought about; quite often the solution is very different from the first ideas. 

I would be very pleased to help by carrying out a design exercise, or by making new or adapting existing equipment for testing purposes.

Source.(1) Design Principles and Practice. T204 Block 3. Open University.

NB. I can get agility.net but I can’t make it work. Is it the site or do I need clicker training?


From Cheri Crane...
I felt the article was very interesting and informative.  I was drawn to it because of the information on how lower isn't always better.  I have a border collie who has been doing agility for 2 years and I recently found out she has hip displasia.  My vets have recommended that I continue in agility to keep her muscles toned, as long as she feels like doing it.  She's not a high-drive BC, and she does let me know when she doesn't feel like jumping.

I have been struggling with the jump height issue, since she has to jump only 14" for UKC, but 20" for AKC and NADAC.  We enjoy the later two more, but I am concerned about the higher jumps.

I would love to have information on the effects of some of the other obstacles (ie: crawl tunnel and A-frame), on a dog's hips.  I don't want to cause her any further problems, but I believe the exercise is good for her, and she sure would miss it if I made her quit. (15/03/01)


From Holly Evans...
Just happened upon this article and was very interested. Coming from a horse background and and being new to agility, why don't we have padding on the teeter if that would make it safer? It seems to make sense that the weave poles should be adjusted according to height just like the jumps are .so I suppose the answer is , just like at the racetrack, its always been done this way, so we don't change it now... (26/02/01)


From Melanie Behrens...
This is truly an interesting article, written by a European veterinarian. I especially find his recommendations interesting, especially the size dependent weave poles. When I watch my large dog weave, I know that he cannot weave as fast as a border collie, even if he wanted to, because he is forced to bend around at least 3 poles at once. And when you watch the small dogs weave, you realize that they are not bending around the poles at all... and weaving is a totally different exercise for them than it is to a medium or large dog.

I also like the idea of some shock absorbing padding on the down side of the seesaw. And his other idea is interesting, about having jumps set a different heights, requiring the dog to judge the jump height more carefully. This is an interesting way to create a new challenge in agility, that requires a dog to be a good jumper. (25/02/01)


From Steve Drinkwater...
This works well for us Down Under. The Agility Dog Association of Australia Ltd (ADAA) allows judges to set up to four Hurdles in a course at a height one below what would normally be required for that class:-

  • Maxi Class can have four (4) hurdles at Midi height.
  • Midi Class can have four (4) hurdles at Mini height.
  • Mini Class can have four (4) hurdles at Toy height.
  • Toy Class does not use this rule.

From Ace Russell
What a great article! Finally some common sense coupled with factual analysis. I've passed the link on to my favorite Corgi agility lists, so people can get educated about this and follow some logical suggestions. Thanks, Peter! Job well done! (22/02/01)