When to retire your dog from agility (or any sport) can be a difficult decision to make. I am currently running my 12 1/2-year-old dog Synergy in a few classes a day at trials and practice with her few minutes a training session. She goes on daily walks and does fitness training a few times a week. I watch her like a hawk to see for signs that I should retire her completely. For now, she looks FANTASTIC. She moves great; she has great posture, can stand in a balanced stand, she is strong and flexible. Alas, this will inevitably change as she gets older.
As dogs get older, they may have mental and physical issues that can end their agility careers. They lose their eyesight; strength, flexibility, body awareness, strength etc. Dogs tend to lose muscles in their hindlimbs as they get older. They get diseases and ailments. We need to be our dog’s advocate and really pay attention to how they are moving and performing obstacles that were asking them to do and make sure that they can and are doing them safely!! I certainly do not want my dog to get hurt doing a sport that I am asking them to do.
Since Synergy is getting older and nearing retirement, I thought I would share things that I look for in making this decision. First, I watch my dogs in everyday life. Second, I watch to see if my dog can safely execute the path between obstacles and perform every obstacle in the class that I am or want to compete in. Yes, all obstacles have inherent risk involved but when dogs are younger, athletic and in better shape, they can handle it better if they fall off or slip; but if an older dog falls off or slips it can be life threatening.
Everyday Life Checks
Disease: Does your dog have a disease that can cause problems that will affect their ability to do agility? Seizure, arthritis, vestibular, spondylitis etc?
Mobility Issues:How does the dog look moving on the ground? Walking, trotting, running? How is their gait? Are they bunny hopping on the hind end? Do they fall down or lose their hind-end? Do they have a hard time getting up and down? Can they go up and down stairs? How is their flexibility in their neck and spine? How is range of motion of the limbs?
Other Issues:How is their posture? Do they have roached or sway back? Are their feet pointing out? Can they stand in a balanced stand? How do their eyes look? Do they have cataracts? Are their eyesight issues?
How is their breathing? Do they pant a lot? Are they breathing heavily?
Agility Related Movement Checks
Path between Obstacles: how is the dog moving from obstacle to obstacle? How are they turning?
Dog-walk issues: Is dog having a hard time performing the dog-walk? Does he hesitate to get on the walk? Does he look like he is losing balance as he goes over the walk? There are many reasons why a dog has difficulty with the dog-walk from loss of strength and body awareness, to eyesight to loss of balance due to diseases. If my dog is struggling to do the dog-walk, I will NOT ask them to do the dog-walk again! If the dog falls off the dog-walk they can really hurt themselves. They can break bones, break their back or other issues.
A-frame: Is dog struggling to get up and over the a-frame? Is he launching off the contact? It is possible they do not have the strength and balance to be able to get up the a-frame and to stop at the bottom. If my dog looks like they are struggling to get up the a-frame or starts launching off the a-frame, I will not ask them to perform a-frames again.
Jumps: Is he knocking bars on a consistent basis? Is he struggling to decide where to take off? Personally, I always jump my dogs as low as they possibly can. As soon as they turn seven, they get to move to the veteran division and jump lower. If my dog starts knocking bars on a regular basis or starts to hesitate to jump, I will stop entering classes that have jumps.
Weaves: Is your dog refusing to weave, popping out on a regular basis or going really slowly through the weave poles? Weaves are very strenuous on the dog’s body. You will never go out on a hike or even in your backyard see your dog go out and say hey look there are three trees in a row I am going to go weave through them. Weaving is the most unnatural thing we asked our agility dogs to do and is very hard on their bodies so we have to be very careful how often we weave our dogs especially as they age. Weavers and tunnelers are the first classes I retire my dogs from as they are hard on their bodies.
Tunnels: Is he slipping in the tunnels? Depending on how your dog does tunnels, they can be very hard on their bodies. Dogs can slip and get hurt especially as they get older as they don’t have the muscles and balance to keep them upright.
Other factors I consider are speed, flexibility and breathing
Speed is a consideration. If they are not making time or are even close to not making time, then it is time to retire my dog. They generally run pretty fast even as they age, so if they are not making time something is going on physically and or mentally. I also consider how flexible my dog is. I realize that they will lose some flexibility as they age, but they still need to be able to flex their neck and back to turn. Dogs should be able to turn their neck side to side up-and-down. They should be able to do tight circles on the ground or around my leg. If my dog does not have the flexibility in their neck and spine to do circles or move their head, then I will not ask them to do agility. Additionally, I consider the dog’s breathing. If my dog is breathing heavily, panting a lot, or coughing then I will retire from agility. Breathing issues can be a symptom of many underlying issues and needs to be seen by a vet.
Of course, aging dogs are going to slow down, take wider turns, be less flexible etc but it is OUR job to make sure that the dog CAN physically and mentally perform and execute what we are asking our dogs to do and they WANT to do it. We have to remember that dogs do not fill out entry forms; they do not write checks; they do not know about titles and awards. I absolutely guarantee you that dogs do not know or care about any type of awards. It is purely a human idea/goal. So, is it really worth the potential harm that you can cause your dog for just one more Q or title?
I highly recommend videotaping your dog moving around, your training sessions and your trials. Take pictures of your dog at a sit, stand and down from different angles. Try to look at your dog through objective eyes. I know this is difficult so ask a friend or an expert (fitness coach, vet, chiropractor etc.). Be prepared for the truth. I am constantly asking my friends and my dog’s health care professional team what they think of Synergy (and have in the past with other dogs).
There are many things we can do with our dog after retiring from agility. There are many low impact activities like nose-work. We can and should continue (or start to do..never too late) to do mental and physical exercises with our older dogs. Fitness exercises targeted for senior dogs is a great way to keep our dog moving and exercising! Plus they love it so will help with the mental stimulation and human/dog bonding.
~ Lisa Schmit, PhD, CCFT, CPMP
Owner: In the Zone Agility in Illinois