Dr. Robert Taylor, an orthopedic veterinary surgeon in Denver, has designed postoperative therapies that have been remarkably successful in getting injured racing dogs back on the track. HM'S Mystique, a 4-year-old red-and-white greyhound whose great-grandfather Downing was featured in SI in 1977, bears witness to Dr. Taylor's work. Mystique, called Puzzle by his owners, Gail Hesse and Dr. Lester McLachlan of St. Petersburg, Fla., had been a top-level racer with Mountain Valley Kennels in Denver when he suffered a subluxation, or separation, of the intertarsal joint in his left hock in June 1992.
Such an injury could easily turn a champion sprinter into a lap dog. Puzzle was lucky. Dr. Taylor put the joint back together with screws and then put Puzzle through six weeks of physical therapy, including warm baths, slow walks, stair climbing, running, resistive swimming, weight bearing and neuromuscular stimulation. The dog returned to the track nine months after hurting himself.
"No one really thought he'd come back after such a bad injury," Hesse says. "But he was a grade-A racer again. Before his accident he was in the money 65% of the time. Afterward he was in the money 50% of the time."
Injuries suffered by field-trial dogs—pointers, setters and retrievers who prove their mettle by flushing or finding game—are more like those sustained by marathon runners. In some trials dogs may run for three hours. "A bad step in a plowed field or an awkward jump can really do damage," says ACSMA president Dr. Terrance Terlep. Hogan, a yellow Labrador, showed great promise as a competitive retriever until the spring of 1991. "He had always been a good worker," says his owner, Jan Martin of Victoria, B.C. "He was stylish, excitable and always showed enthusiasm. Then he stopped working well. It wasn't a specific accident. He just started doing stupid things."
Martin took Hogan to Dr. Barclay Slocum, a veterinary orthopedist in Eugene, Ore., who found that the 3-year-old had ruptured a cruciate ligament. Slocum had devised successful cruciate surgery, which he used to help Hogan, and the following spring the Lab won a major competition in Canada. Four months later, though, he ruptured another cruciate ligament and simultaneously tore an Achilles tendon. This called for a second cruciate operation as well as a pin job on the torn Achilles. Three months later Hogan broke the pin; it had to be taken out. The injury-prone dog is back in training, and Martin has her fingers crossed. "Who knows what will happen next?" she says. "But I have high hopes for this dog."
Sled dogs that race in Alaska's 1,157-mile Iditarod or the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest face still other problems, including accidents that are unique to life in the bush. Bugs, a 2-year-old husky, fell into a hole made by a moose's hoof and broke his hind leg. Josie, a lead sled dog, was run over by a snowmobile. Luckily the dogs' owner, Dr. Karin Schmidt of Anchorage, is a veterinarian. She put both of them back together again.
When temperatures dip as low as-60�F, even cold-weather natives such as the Alaskan husky get frostbite and sore paws. Mushers wrap their dogs' genitalia in fleece and put protective booties on the dogs' feet. Meanwhile, research veterinarians at Auburn University have been looking into "paw dynamics" to see which kinds of snow cause the most damage and whether team position plays a role in the types of injuries that dogs incur. The findings of such studies may affect racing strategies. Researchers at Auburn's Sports Medicine Program are also developing treatment and reconstructive-surgery techniques for damaged paws and pads.
Canine sports specialists are interested in other issues, too, including the diverse nutritional needs of sporting dogs (sled dogs typically consume 12,000 calories daily, 60% of which should be fat, while greyhounds need about 60% protein) and surgeries for hip dysplasia, a problem common among the sporting and working breeds. And researchers at Auburn are investigating "limber tail" (in which the tail doesn't point properly), olfactory functions and conditioning techniques for field dogs.
Despite recognizing the wear and tear sustained by canine athletes, ACSMA members are careful to distance themselves from any animal-rights debate. "We're equally friendly with sports groups and animal-rights activists," says Dr. Ronald Stone, the ACSMA's secretary. "As long as the sport exists, we want the dog to be healthy."
Says Terlep, "Most dogs love their work. Most handlers love their dogs. They can't win at the dog's expense."