Myth 8: My dog knows when to stop

Updated November 29, 2020

In our daily work the problems we see cry out to be publicised so we can warn others. The joy of writing these blogs is that these articles sometimes seem to write themselves based on what we are seeing and doing. There is no better example than this week’s. It might almost seem amusing to read these stories, but the results can be severe and lifelong.

Below are five common scenarios based on recent cases. Although they may seem unrelated, at the end I will explain how they are linked together.

canine elbow dysplasia

A young male Golden Retriever was brought in two weeks ago with a foreleg lameness. He had previously been seen for problems with both hind legs several months ago. As a consequence we had advised he stopped going to dog parks, where he was playing energetically every day. He improved after this until the recent lameness, which was more severe and required X-rays.

An oblique elbow radiograph is shown. The circled area shows a fracture of the medial coronoid process. This is part of the syndrome known as elbow dysplasia, and is believed to be caused by abnormal development of the elbow. There is a suspicion that high impact exercise may play a role in the disease, along with genetic factors. He has been referred to orthopaedic vet specialists for ongoing management, likely to include elbow arthroscopy.

A six month Border Collie presented to us this week with a lameness of the left foreleg. She spent her holidays running on the beach and had a wonderful time. However, in the past five days, she has been hobbling badly and rest has not helped. On examination, shehas significant pain on extension and abduction of the shoulder joint. The possible diagnoses include osteochondrosis dissecans, biceps tendon sprain, fractures, or injury to the soft tissues around the shoulder joint.

She will have X-rays this week and in the meantime is on a regime of strict rest and antiinflammatories. The grave concern for her is that this injury is going to at least force her to have an extended time off exercise in order to heal, but there is also likely to be some permanent damage, hopefully minor. Either way, in the next six months she will suffer psychologically from a lack of sufficient exercise appropriate to her needs.

Jack is a middle-aged Jack Russell Terrier with a history of knee problems. A few days ago he  noticed a rat in the back yard. Rats are one of Jack’s passions in life, so when he saw it he took off like a bullet and caught it under a bush. Since that moment, he has not been able to walk on his right hind leg. Our examination showed he had ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

Jack had surgery to repair the cruciate ligament damage. With adequate rest and time, he should make a full recovery.

Jess is a 12-year old Kelpie cross. She was brought to us one day for several days of unexplained lethargy and seeming to be unwell. Previously she had been an active, bright and happy dog. We performed thorough blood testing which did not reveal the problem, and were on the point of investigating further when she began to improve. It turned out the problem had begun after a long walk on a hot day, and she had not been the same since.

We are confident she is an example of heat stress or heat stroke.

Buddy is a 9-month old Border Collie who spent his summer holidays running on the beach at Carrickalinga.  Since coming home he rarely left his bed, and when he did so, he hobbled and moved slowly and painfully. Examination at the vet showed swelling and erosions of the soft skin between the pads of all four feet. We think this was caused by sand abrasion.  An antiinflammatory treatment relieved his problem, and he is now back to normal.

So what do all these cases have in common? They are all dogs who have caused themselves injury or illness by exercising in ways that their bodies cannot cope with. It may be a sudden sprint, repetitive overuse, or not stopping when body temperature increases. It can be many other things, but all these cases illustrate one point. If a dog loves doing something, he or she will do it to excess if possible. And that we see more of these during summer holidays is no surprise.

The reason it happens so much is that their owners always think “he’ll stop when he’s had enough”. It’s quite reasonable to assume that an animal knows when they are hurting, and will stop to protect themselves.

So why don’t they? One theory is that we humans in selectively breeding dogs have chosen this trait accidentally. It’s easy to see how. Have you noticed how the breeds in the examples above are all working dogs in their origins? Whether keeping retrievers, herding dogs, or terriers, the breeder will always value most highly the best worker. The dog that stops when he’s tired, hot or sore is not going to look so good, and the breeder will not choose him or her to breed more puppies if there is a choice. Read more at Myth 25: Heelers, Kelpies And Collies Are Crazy.

It’s a great way to be; always living in the moment, feeling invincible, able to do anything. We need to remember, however, that if our dogs love doing something, they will do it to excess. We have to be their brains. Some of the dogs mentioned above will now have to live with chronic arthritis, and in the case of heat stress, the outcome can be fatal.

I would go further in saying we should be very careful allowing large breed puppies to go to dog parks. I believe the nature of the play is likely to be harmful to joint development and I believe we are seeing this now as dog park use becomes common. If we do allow them, it is best to only go for possibly ten minute periods, just to get them socialised, and start with a leash walk to settle them first.

Similarly, I doubt many vets would teach their working breeds to chase a ball. It’s probably not safe to do it under one or over six years of age, so we would consider it best not to start at all. The type of motion induced by ball-chasing is extremely high impact and creates severe, non-physiologic stresses on the joints. There are better alternatives; for example, one border collie owner who understands the danger has taught her collies to play soccer! Smart dogs.

Lastly, heat stress is poorly recognised in dogs. There is good evidence we humans evolved our remarkably hairless skin and ability to sweat as an adaption to hunting when other animals are at their weakest. This is the time when we can easily outpace, outperform and overheat our canine companions. Panting is a relatively inefficient form of heat loss, and together with a hair coat, most dogs will overheat if exercising for long periods at anything over 23 degrees. The poor things will not tell us, and try to keep it up, so it is up to us to recognise the threat. Read more at Heat Stroke In Dogs.

If this seems unbelievable, remember that  from a body function perspective, dogs are still wolves even if they behave very differently. Look where wolves live in the world and you can see why warm weather is not their friend.

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.

4 Replies to “Myth 8: My dog knows when to stop”

  1. I really don’t understand what you are saying, particularly having a working dog not chasing a ball. Have you ever seen a yard dog in action? They twist and turn on a sixpence, accelerate to cut off a sheep – the stress on their joints and bones must be immense. But they can cope with this if during growth they get appropriate exercise, which must include building sufficient bone mass to anchor their tendons and ligaments properly. And the only way to do this is to exercise and start some working while young.
    In the human sphere, how many extreme rock climbers tear their muscles because, as children or teenagers, they never built the bones required to carry the muscle they develop once they take up the sport? Bone stress injuries in young adults are increasingly common, due to a childhood which does not prepare their bodies for later exercise stress.
    I believe that dogs are the same. If a dog is to be an effective working dog, they must start exercising “hard” when young, which will include ball chasing, but probably not catching a frisbee as this leads to “high” jumping which could cause impact problems when they return to the ground.
    My farm bred border collie was introduced to sheep at 7 months and never looked back,though now at 13 yrs she is getting stiff in her hind legs but still active chasing a ball.

    1. Hi- you are probably right with the observation that dogs raised on a farm to be agile can continue to do so without injury. However, these dogs are very rare in the pet sphere. I would also say that my experience in South Australia with yard dogs is that they are usually Kelpies weighing around 15kg rather than Border Collies.
      Our experience with pet dogs is that they can invariably be injured by excessive ball throwing and that this type of play must be managed. As for frisbee throwing, the idea is to have a fetch toy that does not bounce, but lands predictably. There is no way we recommend the dog catches it in the air, and if this is happening, it is a bad choice of toy.

  2. Dear Andrew,

    I am so pleased that I have discovered your extremely helpful blog. I have two rescued dogs: a greyhound and a small mixture, and in just an hour or two I have read a great deal of very helpful, interesting and useful information. I thank you sincerely for presenting this for people like me who want the best possible care for their pets.

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