Many people are not familiar with the benefits that body work can have on an animal and rarely think their dog needs work if it is not in pain. They are often surprised when after examination I find a slew of issues on a dog they consider ‘normal’. In my practice and just wondering around in life I see very few dogs (or people ) that I consider to be normal or without some sort of structural limitation that is keeping them from being their best. In general what we accept in an animal’s structure is rarely perfect and it is up to us body workers to be able to identify those more subtle indicators of musculoskeletal problems. The following discusses some other ways to identify problems in dogs and thereby assist you in recognizing when an animal needs work and how its treatment is progressing.
The last 10 years of my career has been doing integrated sports medicine on horses and dogs with a focus on structural alignment or animal chiropractic. I mostly work on working dogs that consist of show dogs, agility dogs, hunting dogs, hunt and field trial dogs and obedience dogs however the pet dogs have just as many, if not more issues. I have found chiropractic care to be an important component in keeping animals sound and happy and a great way to prevent injuries. Our physical superiority is determined by how accurately aligned our bones are, how balanced our muscle development is and how readily our different parts can communicate. Breakdown of any of these areas can lead to injury or behavioral issues. Regardless of your modality every animal can be helped some.
As part of a team involving an animal athlete it is up to us to be their stewards and speak for them. These animals will throw down their bodies and work through incredible amounts of pain. Most dogs will continue to work hard and show enthusiasm for their sport even when injured. This is why when behavioral or training issues do occur, it’s important to make sure pain is not a factor. A four legged animal has the ability to shift its body in ways that it can get the job done without physically limping. There is often a pair of limbs that are doing most of the work – you often see dogs (and race horses) pulling their hind ends along rather than pushing from the rear. I consider these to be compensatory gaits that modify the way the limbs and muscles are supposed to work. This is often a precursor to injury and may be more apparent in the pattern of muscle development than the actual gait of the animal. So how do we know if our animal is working through pain or perhaps refusing to work because of pain? Well the first step is to know what is normal.
Let’s start by saying there are not a lot of ‘normal’ animals out there so don’t be surprised if you find that most dogs do not exhibit all of these traits. Most of what I will be talking about is related to posture which refers to how you stand/sit. Any animal or person can have good posture which is different from conformation, a term more related to structure.
So how does a normal dog stand? Free stacking or neutral posture is how a dog should stand when it is just standing there doing nothing. I look for this posture when my dogs stop after running or playing: the front legs squarely under the dog with chest slightly raised and rear limbs out behind the dog with back flat (forelegs and hocks to the ground vertical). A dog in a neutral posture will not require muscle to be in contraction and we should not see tight muscle development around shoulders and hips of working dogs when at rest. Many dogs that do not stand square will require muscle tension to stay upright or if a dog that is high strung and is constantly bracing against the earth it will also show tension. Most dogs do not stand neutrally and are more likely to stand with their rear limbs up under them a bit and may have front legs positioned asymmetrically. It is important that your dog has the ability to get into a neutral posture as this is the starting point for all of life’s activities.
A normal dog sit should also be square with hips tight to body and legs the same on both sides, butt should not be tucked under and the back should be flat and straight with smooth transition to base of tail. It is common to see dogs sitting to one side, sitting with hips splayed, sitting with their butts tucked under them or their chest sticking out. All of these postures are indicators of weakness or pain in the system.
Working dogs can carry a lot of tension in their jaw and neck from carrying things and also being on the left side of handler can create issues on the right side of the neck. If you look at these dogs from the front while sitting they will often have a tilt to their head (usually to the left) and the jaw (often the right) will appear higher on one side. A normal dog should be symmetrical. The jaw is an important component of the system that tells our body where it is in space and thus also has an influence on posture. Tension around the jaw, poll and upper part of neck can change a dogs way of moving and underlie an abnormal gait. Pain in this area can also create problems in training.
The posture of the dog when it stands or sits as well as head carriage are just three of many points of reference to let you know if your dog is balanced in their movement. A dog with a strong core that uses itself symmetrically will sit and stand square. Young dogs are often weak and should be encouraged to sit properly at all times to help build that strength. A dog that is sore after a competition may appear more compressed and hunched for a few days indicating body soreness. Some dogs stray far away from normal posture and sometimes have dramatic roaching or bending of their spines creating a lot of asymmetries. Most dogs fit somewhere between normal and this extreme. When you see dogs exhibiting these abnormal postures, make it your goal to figure out why rather than just accept if because it has always been that way.
Posture is one of the many ways that our dogs talk to us and a good place to start paying attention. How comfortable they are in their bodies is clear by the way they stand at rest. Core strength is shown by how they sit and also rise from sitting/laying down. A good sense of normal will help us know when musculoskeletal issues need to be considered before there is an injury. If we sense that there is weakness in the dog’s posture then perhaps the training schedule is modified to allow more time for development and conditioning. If we see behavioral changes that coincide with postural changes then maybe pain as a source may be considered. It is important that we become aware of these more subtle shifts so we can help more animals before they get injured. Educating ourselves and our owners about what is normal is one way to identify problems before they become limiting.
About Dr. Heart:
Dr. Heart grew up in the western suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts in a rural town called Lincoln. Due to family allergies, animals with hair were not allowed in the house. After tiring of fish and reptiles as pets, she eventually convinced her non-horsey parents to put a horse in the backyard. Taking care of her first horse “Flame” on her own was just the beginning of a life spent learning about these amazing animals.
Rachel graduated from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec with a BSc. in Biology in 1985. She went on to Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine located in Grafton, Massachusetts, receiving her DVM in 1991. Her career since graduation has been dedicated to working with sport horses all over the United States. Ten of these years were spent working on the backside at racetracks in California, Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Arkansas, Florida, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. This time was filled with opportunities to work with and learn from some of the top veterinarians and trainers in the country. In 2001 Dr Heart left the track to focus on other disciplines in the equine industry – a move motivated by the birth of her daughter Camille in 2000. She spent 6 years at a busy equine referral clinic in Illinois where she focused primarily on lameness. This move exposed her to the most advanced diagnostic and therapeutic techniques available in the sport horse industry. She was able to refine her skills in all imaging modalities and attend clinics devoted to lameness diagnosis and treatment.
Dr. Heart began her training in Acupuncture at the Chi Institute of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine in 2003 with Dr Huisheng Xie DVM, MS, PhD. She completed her certification in Veterinary Acupuncture in 2005. She is currently working on her Masters in Chinese Herbal Medicine at the Chi Institute. She obtained her certification in Veterinary Spinal Manipulation Therapy (Also known as Animal Chiropractic) from the Healing Oasis Wellness Center in 2007 where she was trained by Pedro Rivera DVM. Rachel became certified by the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association (AVCA) in 2008. She is currently completing a series of seminars on Postural Rehabilitation in Horses with Judith Shoemaker VMD and Karen Gellman DVM. She has also trained with Marvin Cain DVM (Acupuncture), Jean-Michel Boudard (Osteopathy), and Carl J. DeStephano (Applied Kinesiology/Functional Neurology).
It is the integration of this career path which has led Dr. Heart to the concepts of restorative healing. Success with cases have demonstrated the obvious synergy that occurred when problems could be treated in relationship to the rest of the animal. Each year brings more opportunities to further learn about and refine the techniques used to help the animals and their owners.