Have you ever woken up in the morning only to find that you somehow "slept wrong" and now your back hurts? The spine is a complex system and back pain sufferers can tell you just how debilitating injuries to the spine can be! Like us, our dogs can also suffer from back pain and knowing how the spine works and how to help our dogs avoid injury to this area is a crucial part to conditioning our dogs and keeping them healthy.
The Canine Spine
Our dogs' spine is a complex system made up of a series of small bones called vertebrae which forms a tube to protect the spinal cord. The spinal cord is a vital part of the central nervous system responsible for carry information from the brain to other parts of the body. Canine's have 7 cervical (neck) vertebrae, 13 thoracic vertebrae, 7 lumbar vertebrae, 3 sacral vertebrae, and a variable number of caudal (tail) vertebrae. Vertebrae connect to each other through two joints – discs and facet joints. Discs are the cartilage cushions between the vertebral bodies. Each disc has a thick fibrous outer rim (annulus fibrosus) and a soft jelly centre (nucleus pulposus) as well as a cartilage cap on each side that joins it to the bone. Facet joints are small synovial joints between the vertebrae that allow the spine to bend and flex. They also assist with load transmission.
Shock absorption between our bones is essential to perform normal physical activities. As dogs age the cushion in between the bones of the spine can begin to degrade. Causing inflexibility, pain and discomfort. But it's not just the bones of the spine we should also be aware of the spine also has a number of tendons, ligaments, and muscles that run along the spinal column. There are two muscle groups which sit above and below that spine that we want to strengthen to help prevent injury. The epaxial muscles which sit along top of the transverse processes (the small bony projections off the right and left side of each vertebrae) and extend down the spine. The epaxial muscles help with lateral bending, propulsion, and balance. The other group is the hypaxial muscles which sit below the transverse processes and flex the neck and the tail. Injury can occur in many different places in the spine and cause pain.
How to Determine if your Dog has a Long Back?
Certain breeds, such as Dachshunds, Corgis, and Basset Hounds, have noticeable long backs and short legs but other breeds can also have longer backs than normal such as Golden Retrieves, Labradors, German Shepherds, and Border Collies. The best way to determine if your dog has a longer back is to look at them! Depending on the breed standard generally, the height to the withers should equal the length of the back (from withers to tail base).
The Risks Associated with a Long Back
If your dog has a longer back you may want to take some special consideration in the sports and activities they do. Agility and Flyball for example required dogs to turn quickly and demand a lot of flexibility of the spine – this can be harder on dogs with long backs. Another thing to consider is that jumping puts increased stress on the spine. Unlike humans, dog discs aren’t designed for a compressive force like a human disc because they don’t walk upright. Jumping can cause compressive load on their discs and can over time cause issues to the spine.
Potential injuries to the back are:
How to Tell if your dog is experiencing back pain?
Any dog can be afflicted with back problems due to injury, age, or overexertion, but, certain dog breeds are somewhat predisposed to certain types of spinal trouble. Some breeds of dog are prone to experiencing acute cases of intervertebral disk disease, particularly dogs with long bodies and short legs. Dogs who experience back problems often have many symptoms in common regardless of the cause of the back trouble. Some common signs are:
Exercises that are beneficial for dog's with long backs
Knowing our dogs and the structural limitations they may have is crucial in preventing injury. As their training partners we can protect our dogs from activities that could lead to injury and work with them to better prepare them for the challenge their structure may present. Long backed dogs are by no means unable to participate in sport but may need some extra considerations in our conditioning program. By maintaining a strong core and better preparing our dogs for the demands of sport we reduce their chance of injury - keeping them active in the sport they love longer - and better preparing them to recover should they get hurt. With that said, here are three great exercises to help the dog with a long back!
The Back Up
The Back Up is a great way to strengthen your dog's core. Your dog's body position should have a natural head with a flat back (no roaching or arching) with rear legs extending straight out from the hips (vs. shimmying their butt side to side), reaching back independently with all limbs (each foot taking an actual step versus hopping or shuffling).
To start, I like to get my dog to back up to a foam pad or bath mat. Ask your dog to walk over the foam pad or mat you are using and reward them when they target it with their hind feet. Always reward lower (head below spine) as their rear feet are elevated. Then, ask them to take a step off the foam pad/mat - about 1-2 inches (towards you). Wait for your dog to then take 1 step back to the mat. Once they touch it with 1-2 back feet (initially, I will reward for one hind foot targeting it), reward. Repeat this process. One they start to understand this exercise, you can start to increase distance and add a verbal command (e.g. beep beep, back). Check out my video on "Teaching the Back Up" on my YouTube page for more guidance!
Sit to Stand - Tuck Sit
The Sit to Stand has two variations that are beneficial to strengthening the core and spine. With the Tuck Sit start with your dog on a large stable surface (e.g. book/balance foam pad) and progress to a smaller stable surface gradually. Have your dog's front feet targeting the piece of equipment you are using (e.g. K9 bone) and hind feet on the ground. Then ask for a tuck sit. Front feet remain stationary while the rear feet walk in and tuck underneath the dog to complete the sit. Once they have completed the tuck sit you can either a) ask for a kick back stand OR b) release them and re-start. To learn more on how to teach this exercise check out my video on Introducing the Tuck Sit
Standing Endurance - Stable and Unstable
For the standing endurance your dog should be standing in a natural stack position (front feet underneath shoulders, rear hocks perpendicular to the ground). Have them with their front and hind feet on stable equipment. The dog should not be moving their feet throughout this exercise.
Begin by standing in front of your dog and rewarding for standing endurance. Once your dog is well balanced in this position and remaining still (with little foot movement), you can progress this exercise by walking around your dog while they maintain their position on the equipment. The goal is to upset your dog's balance slightly, which will cause the dog to weight shift side to side and activate their core and small stabilizer muscles.
Activities to Avoid
Some Final thoughts...
The great thing about dog sports is that dogs of all shapes and sizes can participate in them! With that it mind it's important to take stock of the potential areas of concern your dog may possess. Having a long back DOES NOT mean your dog shouldn't being doing a sport! Instead, it means that you'll have to make some considerations when it comes to keeping them fit and the types of activities they'll do. If you need help figuring out what your dog needs reach out to your vet or canine PT for more guidance!
Schilling, Nadja, and David R Carrier. “Function of the Epaxial Muscles in Walking, Trotting and Galloping Dogs: Implications for the Evolution of Epaxial Muscle Function in Tetrapods.” Journal of Experimental Biology 213, no. 9 (2010): 1490–1502. https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.039487.
Elwood Vet "Back Pain: Oh my aching back!," https://www.elwoodvet.net/back-pain-dogs