The Quick Canine Musculoskeletal Exam
There is a lot that has to go into keeping an active dog healthy, but one of the most important in keeping a sled dog going strong is caring for the muscles, tendons, ligaments and fascia of musculoskeletal system.
Watching the fluidity and smoothness of a moving dog (watching how it gaits) is usually one of the first ways that a musculoskeletal issue is identified. However, localizing the problem from there can be a challenge, even for the best veterinarian, musher or handler. Early identification of a soft tissue problem is critical, especially during a race.
Finding the source of a movement issue can guide decisions on treatment and even whether a dog should be removed from a team before things get worse. Hoping a vague problem goes away is not an effective strategy – identifying where, what and even why is important to the now and future of a canine athlete. For example, a racing dog with a “shoulder” problem could have a biceps tendonitis, triceps muscle spasm or pectoral muscle strain – not all of these are equal in terms of seriousness and the dog’s immediate racing future. Usually, a dog with a “shoulder” problem is removed from a training or racing team and rested. However, while tendon issues usually worsen with exercise, many low-grade muscle sprains can be worked through depending on trail conditions, distance to be covered and how good a musher is at minor rehab techniques such as stretching and massage.
So, how do you know the difference?
Here are some tricks and exam steps I have used over the years to try to isolate where a problem might be lurking. Once I and the musher or handler can isolate WHERE the problem is, then it makes it easier to determine how serious it is and whether the dog needs to be dropped from the team or not.
First, have some idea what kind of structure is underneath that skin. It isn’t important that you know the name of the structure (although that does make communicating with your veterinarian, chiropractor or massage therapist easier). What matters is that you know how it’s oriented (from where to where) and its structure (muscle, tendon, ligament, fascia). Most muscles start with the muscle anchored directly to the bone (called the origin), ending with either a short or long tendon attached to a different bone on the other side of a joint (called the insertion). The muscle will contract towards the anchor, pulling the tendon and either extending or flexing the joint.
There are several anatomy books that show where those muscles and tendons are. I would recommend that non-medical folks stick to just learning basic muscles and tendons first before jumping into ligaments and fascia.
Second, know what those various structures will do in movement. For example, you don’t need to know that the large muscle behind the shoulder joint is called the triceps muscle but you should know that if that large muscle contracts, it will flex the shoulder joint. So that means if you want to test this muscle for any soreness or injury (which usually results in the muscle shortening), you will want to extend the shoulder to test its function. Gently moving the various joints through their normal ranges of motion (called mobilizations) can give plenty of hints that something is uncomfortable with the dog flinching, yipping or trying to bite. If that happens, you have now isolated a potential issue location and now you can start gently palpating various parts to figure out which specific structure is involved and how that could affect continued movement.
Third, know what normal feels like. One of the biggest problems with how dog people (including many veterinarians) feel body parts is that they palpate, squeeze or touch things as if they were trying to hammer a nail with their finger. That is not the way to successfully find problem areas.
Various tissues change with inflammation, swelling and injury response. Know how to recognize those changes. Healthy muscle feels like a “raw” steak and the more it feels “cooked”, the more it is in spasm (contracted, possibly injured muscle fibers unable to relax). Tendons feel thicker and may be sensitive (especially where they attach to bone or where they are transitioning from muscle to tendon) or may even have little “knots” in them (scar tissue and/or edema).
Palpate GENTLY! The more you put pressure on the tips of your fingers, the more you deaden their sensitive nerve endings. If you have calloused fingertips from work or guitar-playing, palpate with the sides of your fingers, not the tips. Once you find an area that doesn’t feel normal, then explore it a little more or have it checked by someone who is a good palpator (sports medicine/rehabilitation veterinarian, licensed and animal-certified chiropractor, veterinary physio or rehabilitation therapist, massage therapist).
Now we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of checking muscles through what are called “mobilizations.” These are brief descriptions with the names of the main muscles that are affected by each test.
NEVER force a stretch – the goal is to see what the dog can give you easily and without resistance
In a healthy dog, things should move smoothly
If a dog reacts in a negative way to what you are doing, stop doing it and have the area looked at by a knowledgeable veterinarian.
FRONT LEG EXAM
NOTE: I stand on the side opposite of the limb I am checking or I straddle the dog. This does not include the small muscles or those that attach the leg to the torso.
Flex the entire leg under the dog (this should flex the shoulder, elbow and wrist)
This isolates and stresses the extensor muscles of the shoulder, elbow and wrist
Extensor muscles are the antigravity muscles that allow a dog to stand up
Extensor muscles are on the front of the shoulder blade and wrist (supraspinatus, biceps brachii*, extensor carpi radialis, common digital extensor, lateral digital extensor)
Extensor muscles are on the back of the elbow (triceps brachii)
Stretch the entire leg forward (this should extend the shoulder, elbow and wrist)
This isolates and stresses the flexor muscles
Flexor muscles are on the back (caudal) of the shoulder blade and wrist (infraspinatus; teres minor; flexor carpi ulnaris; superficial and deep digital flexors)
Flexor muscles are on the front (cranial) of the elbow (biceps brachii*; brachialis; extensor carpi radialis; pronator teres)
*Biceps stretch (special isolation of the biceps muscle/tendons)
Unweight the leg and flex the shoulder by holding the dog’s forearm bone (humerus) – use the hand opposite of the side you are checking (eg, if you are checking the dog’s left side, use your right hand),
Use the other hand to GENTLY grasp the leg right below the elbow (with the limb flexed, this should put the knuckles of both hands touching),
Gradually extend the elbow while keeping the shoulder flexed.
The normal angle of a healthy elbow is about 110-130 degrees.
If the elbow only goes to <90 degrees, then there is either a very fresh injury to the biceps or there is an old injury that has significantly scarred in.
If the elbow goes >130 degrees, then the biceps may be ruptured.
If the elbow rolls laterally or outwards, then the pectoral muscle is probably involved.
HIND LEG EXAM
NOTE: I stand on the opposite side of the limb I’m examining and encourage the dog to lean on me as I pick up the leg.
Flex the entire limb under the dog. This should flex hip, stifle (same as our knee) and hock (same as our ankle).
This isolates and stresses the extensor muscles of the hip, stifle and hock
The extensor muscles of the hip and hock tend to be on the back side (caudal) of the leg (superficial & middle gluteals; hamstrings such as the biceps femoris, semitendinosus and semimembranosus; gracilis, gastrocnemius; superficial/deep digital flexor muscles)
The extensor muscles of the stifle tend to be on the front (cranial) of the leg (quadriceps – rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius)
Do this cautiously (or not at all) if you suspect an Achilles (Common Calcaneal) tendon injury
While the leg is flexed, rotate the leg outwardly as if the dog were marking a fire hydrant or tree.
This isolates and stresses the groin muscles (adductor; pectineus)
Extend the entire leg from the hip back behind the dog
This isolates and stresses the flexor muscles of the hip, stifle and hock
The flexor muscles of the hip and hock tend to be on the front of the hindlimb (iliopsoas*, pectineus, deep gluteal, tensor fasciae latae, cranial tibial, long digital extensor, lateral digital extensor)
The flexor muscles of the stifle tend to be on the back of the hindlimb (hamstrings - biceps brachii, semitendinosus, semimembranosus; adductor)
*Iliopsoas test: stand on the opposite side of the dog from the leg you are checking, unweight the leg and extend the leg behind the body, support the stifle joint with the hand opposite of the leg you are testing (eg. if checking the left hind leg, use your right hand to wrap around the stifle), gently hook the hock with the fingers of your other hand by placing the fingers under the hock, gently rotate the leg inwardly and outwardly at the hip making sure that all the joints stay aligned.
Sensitivity rotating the leg inwardly (the stifle moves towards the midline and the hock moves away) can indicate a problem with any of the gluteal muscles but especially the middle glute. Sensitivity or resistance to extension and/or rotating the limb outwardly (the stifle moves away from and the hock moves towards the midline) usually indicates an iliopsoas injury.
Besides being tests for muscle injury, these movements or mobilizations can also stretch the soft tissues of healthy limbs. Once you get a feel for doing these exercises gently and smoothly, and the dog knows what to expect, you should be able to get through the exam rather quickly, even at 20 below. Follow the link to the video if you would like to see how it’s done on a real dog.
Fischer & Lilje: Dogs in Motion (one of my most used references)
Gillette: Athletic and Working Dog: Functional Anatomy and Biomechanics
Hermanson & de LaHunta: Miller’s Anatomy of the Dog
See a short video of a musculoskeletal exam: https://www.youtube.com/@mushingmagazine-wg4qz
This isn’t meant to be a deep diagnostic tool – it’s meant to be a quick localization of where you, your vet or your therapist needs to go next.