You usually need a veterinarian to tell you what's wrong with your dog.
You may notice signs that something is wrong. Your dog is limping, or not eating, or drinking more water than normal. You may have an idea of what it could be, but you will probably need a veterinarian's exam, and possibly some laboratory tests or radiographs (x-rays), to make a diagnosis.
But how do you tell what's right with your dog?
You might say that you know when your dog is normal. That is true, most of the time. Based on what you observe every day, you know that your dog is fine. Performance dog owners are often more attuned to their dogs, and may notice little things earlier than a pet dog owner.
For example, your agility dog is running just a little slower than normal, your obedience dog occasionally runs around the jump on the retrieve over the high jump, or your nose work dog is having a little more trouble than normal locating the source of odor. Are these training issues? Or is something wrong with your dog?
What's normal? How can we tell?
There are many things you can observe, but there are things you cannot observe.
You may notice that your dog is not urinating as much as normal. But can you tell if her bladder is large or small? A veterinarian can palpate the bladder to answer that question.
You may be able to tell if your dog is limping. But would you know if your dog is not able to extend her shoulder as much as normal? How much can she extend her shoulder normally? There is a way to know this, through palpation.
The definition of palpation in medicine is, "Physical examination by using one's hand or fingers on the body to determine the condition of an underlying part or organ to help with the diagnosis of a disease or injury." Veterinarians can palpate a dog's urinary bladder or spleen. They can palpate the rate and strength of the pulse. They can also palpate a limb to check for injuries or fractures.
Veterinary students are taught palpation skills in vet school. Veterinarians use these skills every day. Like any skill, it takes knowledge and practice to get good at it.
As a sports medicine veterinarian, I have used musculoskeletal palpation skills to examine the bones, joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments on thousands of dogs. I can usually tell what is normal and what is abnormal.
Can you, as a performance dog owner, learn musculoskeletal palpation skills? Yes. Do you have to examine thousands of dogs? No.
You just have to examine your dog.
If you examine your dog often enough, you will learn what is normal for your dog. Why is this important? So you will know when something is not normal. If you learn what is normal for your dog when she is not having any problems, you may be able to pick up an early sign that something is not normal. You may not know what is wrong, but you will know that something is not right. Then you can pursue a diagnosis with a qualified healthcare provider.
What to look at when evaluating your dog
One important palpation skill when examining a dog's leg is checking the range of motion (ROM) of each joint. Range of motion is the full movement potential of a joint, usually its range in flexion (bending) and extension (straightening). We can also palpate for internal and external rotation, and abduction (moving the leg away from the body) and adduction (moving the leg towards the body). These are skills that most dog owners can learn.
Other palpation skills for a musculoskeletal exam include feeling for joint effusion (swelling), joint laxity (looseness), and tendon thickness. These are harder to learn; it is not necessary for a pet owner to be able to do these.
I like to palpate a dog's neck and back while she is standing. I like to palate her legs when she is laying down. It helps if a dog is quiet and relaxed, but that is not always possible in a clinical setting. However, if you are examining your dog at home, it is much easier to teach her to accept the handling, the same as any other husbandry skill.
If you would like to learn to palpate your dog's neck, back, and legs, check out the Workshop I will be teaching for FDSA in April. I will teach you the basic anatomy you need to know, and show you, step by step, how to do a basic musculoskeletal exam on your dog. If you learn what is normal for YOUR dog, it will be easier to know when something is not normal. You can learn what is RIGHT with your dog.
If you want to learn a lot more about Sports Medicine, I will be teaching a whole class starting April 1. Check out the syllabus, watch the promotional video, and read a sample lecture here: https://www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com/index.php/courses/13186