I headed out to a Dock Diving competition and to teach some injury prevention classes last week. I was able to stay at a friend’s house near a lake and fit in some family vacation fun in the process. After watching and filming dogs dock diving, and boring my kids, I thought I would also give handling a dog and jumping off of a dock a try. Being the handler could help me see through the eyes of the other trainers and bring me closer to what the sport is about. I had a little experience sending my own dogs out into my pond, but that was about the extent of it. During this trip I also planned on jumping off a dock myself at my friend’s lake house on my BMX bike. That probably sounds crazy to most, but I was hoping it would help me empathize with the dock diving canine athlete on some level. It also sounded super fun to me. But in all seriousness, trying to empathize with patients and their humans is a big thing in my world. It can have profound impacts on patent care, and the understanding of pathology, prognosis, and recovery process with the veterinary patients’ humans.
Once I got to the Dock Diving event, I borrowed a friends dock diving dog, named Risk. I started up the maze of fenced ramps and gates, with a super excited Golden Retriever on the end of the leash who was eagerly anticipating his launch into the pool. I then made it to the end of the dock overlooking the pool. I asked “Risk” to sit and stay, then walked to the end of the dock that was two feet above the water. All of a sudden my thoughts were filled with details like, how I should throw, which side of the dog should I be on, is Risk going to stay and wait for me to get to the end of the dock? Is Risk safe with me handling him? Is everyone looking at me? Are they laughing? Am I doing this right? I took a deep breath, gave Risk his release word, watched him charge toward the end of the dock and I did my best to throw out his bumper (dog toy) facilitating a world record jump. Instead I got him to 12 feet. He generally jumps 16-18 feet so there was a lot of room for improvement. I repeated the process several more times with minimal improvements. Then, our turn was over and I got lost trying to exit through the maze of gates. Me getting lost on my way out was my oldest son’s favorite part.
Now on to empathizing with the canine athlete and for some BMX fun. My kids and I drove to my friend’s house from the Dock Diving event. I then put together a small BMX style jump and placed it on the end of the dock. I strapped a life vest on an old bike of mine and then sent it into the lake, full speed, about 10 times in a row before becoming completely exhausted. It was fun, it hurt, and I would always do it again.
Before I tell you what I learned, here’s a little back story. I have ridden some form of BMX since I was a kid. I am no where near a professional athlete, I battle old injuries on the daily, but each day I live, I continue to have a goal of riding everyday of my life. Ten to eleven years ago, I put the BMX bike away after sustaining a compressive fracture to one of my lumbar vertebrae and having several doctors tell me to change my lifestyle and sport. At that point I completely stopped riding, but the thought of it never left my mind. I had tried to replace my daily BMX exercise with other sports or hobbies but they never were as enjoyable, creative, or inspirational as the times I spent on my bike. I grew increasingly more depressed and just felt lost without my sport. I started physical therapy, worked hard, exercised daily, and started riding again several years after my injury. I’ve spent the last four to five years building dirt jumps in my backyard, relearning old skills, conditioning my body and mind, and I get to engage my old goal of riding my bike each day.
I say all this because many of my clients ask me if they should stop their dog from competing after an injury. I find this question very difficult in the aspect of ethical physical protection of an animal in someone’s care and also in the animal’s mental and physical wellbeing. Many people and dogs enjoy competition on numerous levels. Competition can help motivate, improve performance, and provide a goal to work toward. There’s also a social aspect of competition as well as a human-animal bond that can be damaged. If the competition does not exist, the motivation tends to decline, people within the community suffer and the canine athlete loses their sport and possibly their purpose in the human world. This decline can lead to depression for both the animal and the trainer. Many people tell me, “It’s okay, I don't have to compete them to have fun with them,” but dogs tend to know the difference, even when you think they don't.
There is not an easy answer for an animal athlete’s return to sport or not. Every case should be looked at individually and that decision should be based on all the above details and more. Details should be explored thoroughly before making a decision. The best advice I could give anyone is to do their best at keeping their four-legged athlete in shape. Keeping up with current training techniques and always working on becoming a better handler is top on the list. Good nutrition and a healthy body weight is an easy thing to do for most. Finally, conditioning exercises that are targeted at injury prevention should also be preformed on a regular basis. Many of the exercises I do within my conditioning program are also investigative and allow trainers to spot abnormalities before they become truly “career ending”.
We would love to hear about your experiences in how or why you have kept your dog in sports or taken them out due to injury. I think we all need to continue to look for solutions to continue to help our canine athletes live long and purposeful lives filled with joy and lots of fun.
Written By Robert Porter