It’s a given: Most athletes sustain injuries at some point in their careers. Some recover relatively quickly, but for others, it can take much longer to overcome a temporary setback like this.
Dogs are no different.
Take, Valkyrie, for instance. The Swedish Vallhund, owned by Whitney Heiken, of Norristown, Pennsylvania, wasted no time getting back in the groove of Agility after rupturing both of her cranial cruciate ligaments in 2020. These are essentially the canine version of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), which connects the thigh bone to the shin bone at the knee.
The initial injury never occurred during training, but ultimately happened while playing in the backyard with Whitney’s other dogs.
“I’m not sure how it happened,” says Whitney, who is also a veterinarian. “But I think she had mild injuries to those ligaments that worsened over time. I try not to treat my own pets for serious injuries because it is hard to think straight so I took her to a local emergency veterinary hospital, where the diagnosis was confirmed.”
Recovering from a Knee-Jerking Setback
The typical repair for this type of injury is called a tibial plate leveling osteotomy (TPLO). This involves cutting off the top piece of the tibia with a bone saw, adjusting its location, and securing it in its new place with a metal plate and several screws. The goal of the surgery, Whitney says, is to adjust the shape and angle of a dog’s knee so that the patient doesn’t need the cranial cruciate ligament to hold the knee in the correct position, and the torn pieces of the ligament are removed.
Once the tibia heals, the plates aren’t really needed any longer but removing them involves a long surgery so they are typically left there forever unless they trigger a problem later. It is basically a very carefully planned break of a major bone and then plating the bone in place.
In Val’s case, the left knee surgery was performed on October 29, 2020, and the right on December 3. Following each procedure, she was restricted to a crate for two weeks. During that downtime, Whitney did stretching exercises with Val’s legs two to three times daily, followed by icing and much-needed massage. After two weeks her sutures were removed and she began small amounts of exercise daily. It began with a five-minute walk every day the first week, and each week thereafter another five minutes was added to the outing. At that point, Whitney added the number of walks daily to three or four.
Going forward, her physical-therapy regimen continued with stretching exercises and massage, plus underwater treadmill workouts and cold laser treatments. And if that wasn’t enough, Whitney purchased a collapsible dog pool and set it up in the guest bathroom for Val to walk in circles with water resistance.
Near the end of her physical therapy, Val and Whitney were walking for 45 minutes twice a day, engaging in 15 minutes of exercises twice daily.
“It was very time-consuming and not always easy,” she says. With inclement weather, Val walked on a treadmill or Whitney would walk her at a nearby pet-friendly mall. At that point, Val accompanied her owner to work daily, enabling Whitney to find the time for the stretches, massages, and exercises.
“We all struggled, mostly Val, with keeping her separated from the couple’s other dogs,” Whitney says. “For months, she lived in a big exercise pen in our living room. I had to weigh it down with weights to stop her from pushing the pen into other rooms. At one point she shredded a canvas crate to get to the other dogs.”
Running With Legs Of Steel
Agility is built on teamwork, and at that point, Whitney woke up earlier to make time for longer walks with Val, in addition to engaging with many puzzle toys to keep her stimulated. And the other two dogs were there to bring the support, too, as they brought toys to her—pushing them against the pen bars and enabling them to play tug of war.
Val’s recovery is nothing short of phenomenal. “Generally when I counsel my clients about the return to normal function after a surgery like this I tell them to expect it to take six to nine months—and that’s after one knee,” Whitney explains.
Feeling confident and closely eying Val’s continued improvement, Whitney entered the now 5-year-old in a local Agility trial in early March — just three months after her second surgery — where she ran with no pain. Next, was the AKC 2021 National Agility Championship in Tulsa, Oklahoma, later that month, where she had three clean runs and was “close to perfect” in her Premier run.
On a fast track, Val earned her Preferred Agility Championship last September and had three perfect runs at the AKC 2022 National Agility Championship in Ocala, Florida, in April.
Though Agility is clearly her favorite sport, Val also competes in Barn Hunt. “She is good at finding rats in Barn Hunt but prefers to go say hello to the volunteers and wag her tail and wiggle at spectators on the sidelines,” Whitney says with a laugh.
Discovering the Swedish Vallhund
So what attracted Heiken to a Swedish Vallhund, a relatively unknown breed in the United States that ranked 160 in the AKC’s list of most popular breeds? It started with her Cardigan Welsh Corgi, Toby, who is now 12. Unable to compete in Agility with him anymore, she went searching for a different, yet similar breed.
“When considering another breed, I wanted something similar to the Cardigan—intelligent, hard-working, similar size, and biddable but less injury-prone,” Whitney says. “The Swedish Vallhund is lighter-boned than the Cardigan and isn’t quite as short.”
Funnily enough, in public, the pair gets a lot of “Is that a Corgi?'” questions.
In fact, Whitney had never interacted with one in person before she went to Echo, Minnesota, in April 2016 to pick up Val. Though she spent considerable time reading and watching videos of the breed competing before making her decision.
When it came to naming Valkyrie, Whitney wanted a Nordic/Swedish name to match the heritage of her breed but still kept it unique. Her registered name is Minkota’s Valkyrja, which is the Swedish spelling of Valkyrie. “I usually call her Val and used to get teased that I got a Vallhund and didn’t even name it,” she says. “Val is a ridiculously tough, fearless little dog with a sweet, cheerful nature.”
Make no mistake about it, though, Val is a velcro dog. On the Agility course doing jumps or weaves far away from Whitney can be a challenge. “She does not want to feel like she’s been left behind,” she says.”But that’s on me for not teaching her the foundation skills earlier.”
Fun-loving and happy, this Agility rock star also elicits plenty of laughs, too.
Val loves dogs—and things that appear to be dogs. At an Agility trial site they used to frequent in New Hampshire there was a painted statue of a dog. Every time Val saw it she rushed up to lick its face, just in case it was a real dog. It became a good luck thing for her before her runs.
Then there was the time she got so excited to see herself in a mirror assuming it was another dog, she play-bowed at the mirror, then ran full speed into it. Don’t worry. She was fine, just embarrassed.