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A landmark occasion for working dogs

The inaugural FORWARD Symposium took place on Sunday, 31st January at the Wildwood Golf & Country Club in Surrey, organised by the well known veterinary referral practice, Fitzpatrick Referrals. The event set out to cover the conditioning of sports dogs and injury prevention, how to prepare for competition and keep dogs injury free, and what options are available when it all goes wrong. Jackie Bromwich reports on great day, with brilliant speakers - Prof. Noel Fitzpatrick, Natasha Wise and Dr. Chris Zink from the USA.

This event had proved to be very popular, and tickets sold out quite quickly. It was great to see so many agility people attending, even if it proved a little tricky to identify people when they were all dressed up, rather than in the usual garb of running gear. Thank goodness for name badges! The organisers had thoughtfully provided a well marked out area to exercise dogs, with water and poo bins available in abundance.

There were three key speakers. Dr. Christine Zink is a veterinarian and a consultant on canine sports medicine, and an author of several books on conditioning, training and rehabilitation, as well as being a successful handler and competitor in her own right in various sports. Professor Noel Fitzpatrick has treated working dogs throughout his career and is one of the leading orthopaedic and neuro-surgical specialists in the UK, and is also the Principle of the Fitzpatrick Referrals Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Facility. Agility’s very own Natasha Wise needs no introduction, but is a triple World Champion, a prolific winner of many finals, including Olympia no less than six times, and has an MSc in Sports Science.

Morning session
The day kicked off with an introduction by Noel Fitzpatrick, in which he acknowledged the love, and the strong bond between performance dog and handler, and the recognition that sports dog handlers generally have an excellent working knowledge of their dogs, and that the veterinary profession do not always appreciate the importance of this.

The first main speaker was Chris Zink, and she introduced herself as being 'one of us' – a dog handler. She started by showing a spectacular slow motion video to illustrate what can go wrong when a dog is competing, and how easy it is for injuries to occur. In most cases, the incident was so quick, that the handler may not have been aware of just what happened to the dog, particularly when the dog picked itself up and carried on. She emphasised that accidents happen, but that conditioning aids injury prevention – a dog that has good musculature and excellent physical condition and core strength will be less likely to be injured when things go wrong.

She discussed the idea of a complete physical assessment of a young dog before starting training, and identifying the dog’s individual physical strengths and weaknesses in order to plan a conditioning programme to target these, and talked about the various options available to incorporate into a plan for each dog, with video illustrations. She also covered the importance of a correct warm up and cool down for dogs prior to training or competing – something that is often overlooked by many competitors.

Natasha started her talk with emphasis on the longevity of her dogs. Her first Agility Champion, Maddie, was nine years old when Championship classes came into being, and won her final agility certificate at eleven and a half years. Dizzy is still competing at World Championship level at nine years of age, which is a tribute to Natasha’s care for her dogs and the successful training and conditioning programme that she employs to keep them fit. She discussed the importance of treating all dogs like athletes – the work they do makes them far more than just a pet, and the fact that all sport involves risk, therefore you need to minimise risk to the dog by conditioning, prevention and performance.

She talked about sports science, and how goal setting can help handlers, and the importance both of identifying weaknesses and training to them, and of focussing on controllable factors. She explained how she creates her own annual training plan, and the importance of a phased training programme incorporating conditioning, skills training, obstacle focus and sequencing, varied to suit the phase of training each dog is at. She feels that every dog only has so many jumps in them, so handlers need to use them wisely, and target training and competition appropriately to maximise results and minimise risk.

Noel Fitzpatrick was the last speaker before lunch, and again emphasised the love that the handler has for their dog, and the fact that agility handlers are often much more aware of potential problems and are more likely to investigate potential issues earlier than many pet owners might.

He talked about lumbosacral problems – something that he felt was the most under-diagnosed condition in agility dogs and the importance of differentiating between a disc leak and a disc bulge. If a dog has a disc leak, the last thing that handlers want to be doing is taking the dog to a chiropractor for manipulation. The importance of dynamic MRI was also emphasised, positioning the dog appropriately as disc bulge may be evident with the spine in extension, as it would be during jumping, but not in a neutral spinal position. Much hilarity greeted his demonstration of a clinical examination for lumbosacral problems, with well known agility vet, Peter Van Dongen, very ably playing the part of the unfortunate dog!

Also covered were hip problems, and the pros and cons of the hip scoring scheme, along with the fact that hip dysplasia can often be managed successfully in early life, but only for a limited period if the hips were bad . In later life, intervention was often necessary, and he discussed the available options such as conservative management and surgical options. He also covered cruciate ligament ruptures, and the importance of looking inside the joint to see what damage had occurred to cartilage – something that not all vets do. He also stressed that misdiagnoses can occur and showed a radiograph of a dog that had undergone TPLO surgery, but the bone tumour that was present had been missed. His words were 'Don’t miss tumours.'

There was a short break for lunch and to enable attendees to let dogs out, if they had them in their vehicles, although I suspect that a large number of delegates spent a good part of their lunch break queueing for the loos. It probably helped everyone feel very much at home as queuing is something that all agility handlers are, of course, well used to. However, this was the only real grumble that people seemed to have and I am sure that this was an unavoidable teething problem and will be rectified next time

After lunch
The afternoon continued with talks by all three speakers. Chris Zink put the emphasis of her second talk on tips and tricks for early identification of injuries, and I found this particularly useful. She showed the importance of video analysis for lameness evaluation, looking at jumping techniques and weave pole performance. A change in a dog’s weave technique can often be the result of an injury and subsequent reluctance to use that limb fully. Slow motion video analysis of the weaves on a regular basis through the season can often pick up a change in performance before clinical signs are shown. She also emphasised the importance of a definitive diagnosis before embarking on any treatment or rehabilitation plan.

Natasha’s second talk was about returning dogs to work following an injury, and the importance of a gradual reintroduction to agility. She also discussed the fact that many vets do not understand exactly what agility entails, and may advise that the dog can return to competition much sooner than is advisable. She gave examples of a rest and return to activity plan for one of her own dogs following spaying.

Natasha also covered the importance of a planned warm up and cool down when training and competing, and as a discussion item towards the end of her talk, the vital importance of ensuring that a healthcare practitioner is suitably qualified and competent to treat dogs. To illustrate this, she detailed the tragic circumstances surrounding the loss of her own precious young dog following a hydrotherapy session, something that was very brave of her to share with us.

The last speaker of the day was Noel Fitzpatrick who covered thoracic limb lameness. He used case studies to illustrate the difference between nerve problems, potential tumours and joint issues, and the fact that there can be solutions to nerve problems – even a broken neck does not necessarily mean euthanasia. He discussed shoulder pathologies, and the many different solutions for OCD – a common condition of working collies. Case studies were used again to show the different elbow problems, and solutions that were available, and the importance of bearing in mind that there were elbow pathologies which would be evident on CT, but not necessarily show on radiographs, and that arthroscopy is the gold standard of investigation of elbow problems.

There was a short question and answer session at the end of the day, with lots of people keen to ask questions. All speakers were informative and entertaining, and I think that everyone went away with something useful to fit into their own training programmes.

The whole day was very well organised with a friendly team ready to help anyone who had any queries. It was a first for the practice, but there are plans for it to be an annual event. Talking to various people afterwards, most really enjoyed their day, and felt that they had learned a great deal. I think that future events would be a welcome addition to the agility calendar, and personally I would mark the day with 10 out of 10. It was a great day!

Thanks to Lesley Hildrew and to Fitzpatrick Referrals for providing the photos.

About the author...
Jackie Bromwich first became involved in agility in 1984, and has been breeding Border Collies under the Foxtwist affix since 1987.

She has competed and judged at all levels in agility up to and including Grade 7, and has qualified with several different dogs for most of the major finals over the years, with the exception of Olympia, where she has always failed at the semi-finals due to terror and subsequent poor handling! One of her biggest agility challenges over the years was training four dogs with prosthetic limbs, and their owners, to complete an agility course in just a few hours for the Supervet TV programme in 2015.

She is also a Championship show judge of Border Collies in the breed ring.

Jackie worked for many years in a veterinary practice as a qualified Behaviour Counsellor, but had a change of direction four years ago and currently works as a Team Manager for the raw feeding company, Honey's Real Dog Food.

She currently has seven dogs and has always enjoyed the challenge of running multiple dogs in agility, but now she is getting older, feels that she would be doing much better if she could run as fast as she could 20 years ago!

First published 24 February 2016