As an agility instructor I often hear my new students say proudly that their dog loves to jump and boy oh boy can they jump high! They also want me to set the bar up higher than the 4 inches that I start all dogs at. Although dogs can jump quite high the standard jump heights are set by the agility association for the dog’s safety and those heights are based on the dogs shoulder height. Agility courses have multiple jumps and at a typical trial your dog will run up to 6 courses per day; on top of all those training jumps. Dogs should be jumping with ease over the bars and not straining to clear the bars; as long term wear and tear impacts on your dog’s joints.
When standing a dog’s forelimb fits into the shoulder sockets vertical to their forepaws. They don’t have collar bones giving them a greater range of movement to stretch their front legs out when jumping and running. When running or jumping their forelegs, along with various muscles, extend out in front of them. These muscles are attached to their neck, ribcage, spine and shoulder blades. At a full run a dog will lower its head and push its head forward that allows even more shoulder movement. When a dog lands a jump it lands with its full weight on its forelegs and shoulder sockets.
We might not be aware of or notice our dog has shoulder joint pain as a result of muscle strain or a stress injury to tendons. Although most strains or small tears in the shoulder will resolve themselves within a week we wouldn’t want to compact stress on their joints if we knew they had pain. A more serious shoulder joint injury may result in a dog limping but often handlers think it’s a forelimb muscle pull.
Our dogs will continue to work for us even if through discomfort. They will jump over those high bars. They will keep chasing those tossed balls. It is up to us as the handlers to understand their tenacity to keep going. We need to monitor their activity. If dogs are not accustomed to jumping or doing multiply short fast paced runs they can easily put too much strain on the shoulder joint. And although shoulder injuries are most common in large breeds smaller breeds can also succumb to shoulder injuries.
All dogs in my class jump at low heights to begin with. The dog has a lot to think about including the take-off point and landing place. When the dog shows confidence I will move the bar up. But to what height depends on the breed and the style of the dog jumping. Agile breeds such as Border Collies and Shelties can easily jump their assigned height with style. Chesty and heavy breeds such as Boxers I prefer to see jumping at a lower height. Remember we might not always know they are feeling pain so think of the impact of their weight on their shoulder sockets. As they get older the dogs jump height can be lowered again. What I look for is their style…legs stretched forward at ease…or are they tucked under them?
Dog agility is not just about obstacles and their ability to jump. It’s about being fit enough to run and jump without injury. Classrooms and practise sessions can give the obstacle training required but it is the keep fit sessions that includes short sprints with your dog outside the arena that will condition your dog to do agility injury free.
Salty Dogs Agility Club