The Weakest Link

Yesterday was a perfect day in my part of the Pacific Northwest.  The 70 degrees and blue sky screamed hike to me and mine, so off we went to Dog Mountain.  Yes, it really exists.  Dog Mountain is a short but challenging trail, which all the hiking books rank as difficult because it has about a 1000-foot per mile elevation gain. The 3.8-mile (one-way) hike is definitely worth the effort as it brings you to one of the most beautiful areas in the Columbia Gorge especially when the alpine flowers are in bloom.  If you’re lucky enough to time it right it’s like walking through a Monet painting.

Dog Mountain brought Tess’s weakest link front and center, her carpals (wrists).  She did fine on the way up but stoically ambled her way down.  This was Tess’s first time on Dog Mountain and being aware of her carpal issues ahead of time I had no expectations except enjoying some spectacular views.  Slow and steady was our mantra for this hike.  All the while keeping in mind that what goes up must come down for everyone in my hiking party.

Five years ago, during my early canine rehab days, when Tess’s every joint was evaluated on a daily basis, I noticed that she lacked full flexion range of motion in her carpals.  Her right carpal was significantly more limited than her left.  All my vet friends and fellow rehab buddies acknowledged her reduced carpal range of motion and patted my PT head reassuring me that all was well because she was walking, running, and jumping just fine and she never came up lame.  “What did I expect from a standard poodle?”  This one sentence resonated so loudly in my head that it set in motion my concentrated focus on the standard poodle’s structure, biomechanics, and performance dynamics.  What a journey so far!

Because dogs can’t talk and their genetically driven stoic nature allows them to hide behind a poker face, most owners are surprised when their dogs come up lame.  Slips and falls aside, I hear “he was just fine last week” quite often when a dog comes in for an evaluation.  Knowing your dog’s weakest link is imperative for staying one step ahead of an injury.  Dog’s stoic nature comes from their fear of showing weakness or slowing down, which would cause them to be exiled from the pack.  By the time our dogs start presenting with lameness they usually have been demonstrating performance decline for weeks, sometimes even months.  The cascading nature of repetitive actions that lead up to increased structural demands of the weakest link is how most soft tissue injuries occur.  Multi-day trials and sporting events are hard on the body, any body.  Being a past college-level athlete I understand this concept, but for some this is new learning.

Being aware of your dog’s structure, the physical demands of your dog’s sport and how it challenges that structure; knowing your dog’s weakest link (every dog has one); and especially acknowledging ANY performance decrease you or others might notice can keep a strain from turning into a tear/rupture or a sprain from becoming a subluxation.  Muscle tension happens, but its chronic nature doesn’t have to.

As for our hike, we had a blast!  We didn’t make it to the top, but we all got our fill of fitness for the day.  Tess didn’t come up lame and it seems we avoided the Poison Oak yet again.  There weren’t any reports of blisters and I still had water left in my water bottle for the drive home.  A perfect day!

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