Caring for the Working Dog and Canine Athlete

Caring for the Working Dog and Canine Athlete

By Mark Davis, DVM, DACVS, CCRP, Small-Animal Surgery Specialist at Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital

All dogs are special – there’s no question about that! Some, however, go beyond being wonderful companions. These are the working dogs and canine athletes: police/K9 and military dogs; guide and therapy dogs; those trained for tracking, detection, and search and rescue; hunting, herding and sledding dogs; and performance/agility canines – to list just a few canine “professions.”

Caring for a working dog or canine athlete is a significant responsibility. From the outset, the owner (and trainer, if applicable) must realize that a dog’s potential for any type of activity is tied to his inherited potential, including his physical and psychological traits. Training and conditioning programs should focus on allowing the canine to reach his individual potential, keeping in mind that one’s own expectations of what a dog can do should not exceed that dog’s actual abilities.

People who care for working dogs should establish a strong relationship with a veterinarian experienced in the dog’s specific area of work or performance. Initial veterinary visits can include evaluation of athletic level, locomotion/gait analysis, and an examination to identify any musculoskeletal abnormalities or areas of concern.

Work with a veterinarian to consider all the physical and emotional demands the dog will face when in the field. With these demands in mind, shape a well-thought-out performance management plan for conditioning, training and nutrition, which will serve as a strong foundation as the dog builds and hones his particular skills.


The owner/trainer should keep a close eye on signs of weakness or lameness, or any negative change in performance. Alert the dog’s veterinarian as soon as possible, as it is best to identify problems early in order to quickly begin treatments and therapies. Regular, ongoing veterinary visits are recommended.


Of course, even with the best-possible performance management, injuries will sometimes occur. This is when rehabilitation and/or surgery may be needed. Common orthopedic injuries that require surgery include medial shoulder instability; cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) injury; and carpal and tarsal sprains, dislocations and fractures.


A veterinarian experienced or certified in canine rehabilitation can develop individualized retraining programs following injury or surgery. After determining and allowing for proper downtime, rehabilitation efforts focus on relieving pain, restoring function and reconditioning. From underwater treadmills to therapeutic ultrasounds to simple stretches, many effective options exist in the rehab “toolbox.”

Nutrition is also a major area of focus. A veterinarian can develop a suitable nutritional program specifically designed to provide the canine with the right amount and type of energy (i.e., protein, carbohydrates and fat), as well as appropriate vitamins and nutrients.

With proper management and care, working dogs and canine athletes can shine in their professional capacities for years to come.

Mark Davis, DVM, DACVS, CCRP, is a board-certified small-animal surgeon and certified canine rehabilitation practitioner. He joined Pilchuck in August 2011. To learn more about advanced surgical services and rehabilitation for dogs and cats at Pilchuck, call 360.282.4019.