“I had the dogs on a leash together and as I stepped off the curb, I twisted my ankle and landed on the ground.”
Linda Dunlop, who walks her energetic whippets, Harry and Paige, twice a day in the east end of Toronto, has more than one story of injury while dog walking. A friend of Linda’s broke their leg while walking their dog after slipping during last winter’s ice storm. This incident prompted Linda to get shoes with the best anti-skid soles she could find.
Who knew this great form of exercise can be a contact sport? Well, an athletic therapist, for one.
Dog chains, strains and pains
“We see lots of injuries. Twisted ankles and knees, even blown out Achilles tendons by being pulled awkwardly, like when you’re walking a dog” says Glenn Burke, a Certified Athletic Therapist at Advanced Physiotherapy & Sports Medicine in Hamilton, Ontario. “Of course, most injuries are less dramatic and usually occur over time through the overuse of muscles and tendons that are just not up to the task” Burke says.
“On a walk with a dog pulling on a leash, you’re constantly correcting yourself to bring the dog back, and your shoulder, your arm, and your back are all working hard, so many muscles or joints can be strained or thrown out of whack,” he says.
Burke sees many chronic problems that lead to extreme pain caused or are exacerbated by dog walking, including hip bursitis, shoulder tendonitis, plantar fasciitis and lesser-known conditions involving the sacroiliac joint (otherwise known as the SI joint) that can easily be overlooked by physicians.
“There are three bones where your tailbone meets your pelvis that move independently of each other and they can be thrown off by constant pulling of a leash, causing inflammation in the joints that can be really debilitating for a lot of people,” Burke says.
These injuries catch us by surprise because we tend to think of walking a dog as a casual stroll. But it can be quite demanding exercise. Linda walks her dogs at least twice a day, often for 45 minutes or more. As the editor-at-large for Dog Eyes magazine, she happily makes the commitment to their health, even if it’s sometimes at the expense of her own.
“My dogs don’t like the ball-throwing sticks for some reason, so I throw their rubber chew toy by hand. Last summer, my throwing shoulder was in such pain, I felt like a major league pitcher who needed relief. It hurt so much I couldn’t sleep.”
Warm ups and switch ups
So how can we prevent injury and enjoy our time outside with our faithful companions? “Always try to do a little bit of warm up,” Burke says. “Get your blood flowing and do some stretching.” Weight training is also a good idea to build up the muscles of the upper body, back and core.
It’s also important to give your dominant arm a break from the leash, for the sake of your whole body. “If you don’t switch the hand you hold the leash with regularly, you can really strain several areas by repetitive motion and your body trying to compensate.”
“Most importantly, listen to your body. If something hurts, it hurts for a reason. You need to seek help. Too many people wait too long. They say they don’t have time and then when something goes wrong they wonder why they waited and it ends up costing them in more ways than one.”
To help her arm heal, Linda began regularly switching throwing arms, worked at pacing herself and enlisted the help of others. Burke says she was likely close to tearing her rotator cuff and did the right thing by changing her behaviour. She’s being more careful now because pulling back on the walks is not an option—Harry and Paige just won’t stand for it. “My dogs need to run and if they don’t get their walks, they drive me absolutely nuts.”
Glenn is the Clinical Director and Athletic Therapist at Advanced Physiotherapy & Sports Medicine in Hamilton, Ontario. He is the former medical manager of the Canadian wheelchair rugby team and was an AT with the Canadian Football League. Glenn is a hockey dad to two boys and husband to a very understanding wife!