A Product of Kinaesthetics for Animals
This article is one in a series of articles designed to introduce key concepts from the world of bodywork as they are applied to the dog world. The author and founder of the Kinaesthetics system of therapy has worked with humans and animals for over 20 years. Her animal clients have included World Champion performance horses in a multitude of disciplines, dogs of innumerable breeds, and a variety of other animals.
Proprioception, which means self-perception, is the body’s ability to reference itself in space. It is a sensory ability just like vision and hearing, the proverbial sixth sense. Why is this important to the dog world and to canine professionals? The reason is that your dog’s sense of well being, his emotional balance, at a core level is based on his neurophysiological perception and awareness of himself in his universe. A dog perceives his world through his body. Leaving aside management and training issues for a moment, the more accurate and integrated your dog’s perception of his body, i.e. his proprioception, the more well balanced mentally he will be. High proprioception = increased mental well being. Low proprioception = impaired mental well being.
In very simple terms, proprioception is how your dog occupies his body. Proprioception is how his feet meet the ground, whether or not he moves through all his body or whether he seems to leave parts of himself behind. Proprioception has much to do with how integrated your dog is in his movement. Proprioception is what your dog has lost after surgery when he seems awkward and clumsy in his movements as if having to learn to walk and run all over again. That is in fact what he is doing. Proprioception is what babies and puppies are developing when they crawl, or roll and tumble. This may sound like coordination. Indeed, proprioception is an element of coordination. But proprioception has more to do with the body’s ability to orient itself spatially. Coordination also includes the speed and accuracy with which the muscles are recruited. Obviously, a human gymnast needs superb proprioception. Similarly, an agility dog requires a highly developed sense of proprioception.
Why is a physical sensory ability so key to behavior? The reason is that an animal who is out of balance physically, (who therefore has an impaired proprioceptive sense) is an animal whose limbic system, the autonomic reflex system, is also out of balance. Thus, an animal who is not balanced in his body, is an animal whose reflex arcs will be more volatile. The whole idea behind training is that we are replacing reflex with learned cognitive response. Where an animal is in reflex mode, it is impossible for them to learn as well, if at all, or as completely, as one who is not being distracted by a triggering fight, flight, or freeze reflex. So unbalanced physically means -- impaired proprioception means -- an animal who perceives of themselves as potential prey means -- an animal who has impediments to their learning.
While proprioception is a sensory ability, it is not immutable. What your dog was born with, or what he has at this moment in time, is not necessarily all that is possible. Impaired proprioception can often be completely healed. Low functioning proprioception can be increased. As this sensory skill is improved or altered, personality changes and improvements are often marked. Proprioception is obviously not the only ingredient in a dog’s personality. As we all know, lousy management or training can turn a perfectly lovely physical specimen of a dog into a blithering idiot. Equally, a good and patient trainer can turn a dog who seems to have six left feet into a modicum of happy coordination. However, beyond these factors, the level of proprioception in your dog will still always be behaviorally manifest. This may be revealed in the subtle differences in learning curves between two siblings in a litter; the speed and efficacy with which rehabilitation can be accomplished after an injury or illness; or personality issues such as aggression, timidity, a high startle reflex, or a dog with a very forward, obnoxious personality to name a few. Knowing how to look at, and work with proprioception can provide another problem solving tool.
O.K., so how do you gauge proprioception? What in the world are you looking at to make an analysis? The most basic level is your dog’s footfalls. It matters how your dog’s feet meet the ground. Footfalls are not only a major source of proprioceptive information for your dog, they are one of the easiest things to observe. For example, younger dogs as a general rule, dogs who continually forge at the heel, and often dogs with a very busy temperament that can't seem to settle, will all have the tendency of having their weight disproportionately on the forequarters. In the horse world, we call this being on the forehand. The animal’s weight is not evenly distributed during movement or stationery posture. Their proprioceptive picture is distorted. Where the footfalls are not squarely balanced, you will have an animal whose mental balance is not all it could be.
You might also find the footfalls distorted in other ways. You may have a dog who is balanced extremely backwards, with all of their weight on their hindquarters. Typically, this dog will have a more clumsy movement, perhaps even lumbering, regardless of breed, and may seem almost sullen to exercise. This may not be the dog’s personality at all, it may simply be difficult neurologically for him to get organized and moving forward. You also may see this pattern of footfalls in timid dogs, and it can be one of a variety of extreme proprioceptive imbalances found in fear biters. (Extremely forward might be another.) From a purely movement perspective, if your dog is balanced either forward or backwards, it will be impossible for him to move with the kind of freely flowing floating movement prized in many breeds.
While balance forward or balance back give you a rough idea of defects in footfalls that might lead to behavioral imbalances, there are an infinity of combinations ranging from crab-walking (where the dog seems to move diagonally sideways}, cris-crossing, paddling, unevenness in one leg, hitching a leg, flicking one leg more than others, etc. There is also an infinity of combinations of irregularities through the body that can cause behavioral fallout. Wherever you have areas that are tight or restricted or uncomfortable, you have an area of your dog’s body that is not receiving sensory information. Look at your dog as he moves. Leave aside rigid notions of breed characteristics for a moment, and look at the angles, waves, and ripples of movement. Observe your dog at the walk, trot and run moving straight away from you and straight back, then side to side. Observe the flight path of the feet, then the knees, hocks, shoulder, hip, trunk, head, and tail. What moves, what doesn’t? Movement should be a continuous oval or circular line. Often movement is broken, the wave flattens out or drops off suddenly. Where the wave breaks, look more closely at that part of your dog’s body. Feel it. Is it tight and unyielding? Is it soft and elastic, but surrounding structures tight and stiff? What is causing the break in movement? Remember, a break in movement, a break in body integration, means a break in sensory information coming in to your animal.
A great example of how lack of balance can affect personality is a female Jack Russell terrier I worked with. The first thing you noticed about her was her voice. She commented on or was into everything. Her idea of a long sit was 3 seconds. Her idea of stay resembled an obsessed child with a Jack-in-the-Box. Mapping of her body and an analysis of movement revealed that her weight bearing was so far forward it resembled a tipped up wheelbarrow. Her hind feet made minimal contact with the ground. It was as if she were perpetually in a handstand, with minimal contact behind. In addition, her hindquarters were extremely tight and tense. Needless to say, her idea of heel was substantially in front of a handler, actually a full on lean at the end of her lead. From a limbic system point of view, she was basically in flight at all times. There was no point of peace.
With her, I used bodywork and leading exercises to begin to initiate change. Touch is a key component to changing proprioceptive awareness. Just gently resting your hand on different parts of their body can affect change. With this dog, I paid particular attention to those hindquarters. Tight, tense, unintegrated hindquarters will often contribute to a very forward type of response. With her, my goal was not so much that I get her as soft and flexible as possible, like I might do to facilitate athletic performance, but rather that I touch every square inch of her, front to back, and top to bottom, repeatedly so that she had a better sense of herself.
Next, I wanted her to integrate these new body sensations into her movement. I use different kinds of ground exercises, some based on Linda Tellington Jones’ ground breaking work in this field, others from agility and obedience work, others of my own invention. I wanted her to get a feeling of balancing further backwards, so I used two leads, one connected to a harness ring in her mid-back, the other to a neck collar ring. At the heel, all of the backward corrections for forging or sitting (or failing to do so) were made first with the lead at her mid-back, then the regular lead, the idea being, that I wanted her to develope a different sense of her hind end.
I have also found that the more complicated I make the movements, the more we begin to get a thinking response rather than just non-stop reflex. So at the heel, I use a stuttering series of forward movements: for example, two steps forward, stop; half step forward, stop; three steps forward, stop; never the same thing twice. The idea is that the dog never quite knows what we are about to do. She has to pay attention, rather than simply memorize a pattern, as in walk across the yard and sit, walk across the yard and sit. The other result of this kind of stutter exercise is that it creates a rocking movement which not only “wakes up” the spine, but begins to displace the weight of the dog backwards.
In about half an hour’s work from start to finish, her weight bearing changed significantly. More pleasantly for her people companions, her behavior settled down, and she was able to go lie down quietly and rest. This is not meant to suggest that in a half an hour her behavior was “fixed”. Like anything constructive, the work would need to be continued over time. Nor is it meant to suggest that this was the only way to problem solve this behavior. However, bodywork and exercises focused not so much on classic obedience movements, but rather on increasing proprioception do create immediate and long lasting change. They are very powerful tools. Olympic level athletes are now increasingly incorporating proprioceptive exercises into their regimens along with skill, strength, and stamina training. They work in the dog world as well.
Another powerful tool for dog trainers to use in increasing the evenness and balance, and therefore the proprioceptive quotient of your dog’s footfalls is to use the stutter exercise over obstacles. Ramps and steps are especially great for this. When you do this however, you want to move the animal a footfall or two at a time. The stutter is now a matter of isolating footfalls. Do not allow them to rush. Insist after each step that they rock back squarely over all four feet.
Taking the animal out into rough country and letting them work is also extremely useful. Colonel Podkhasky, the famed head of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, used to take his most problematic stallions out to a nearby freshly plowed field. He would make them move in the crumbly, uneven, deep clotted ground through all of their exercises until they began to calm down and focus. It was not a matter of working them for hours, rather working them in a specific way so that they felt their bodies differently. As they increased the complexity of their neurophysiological coordination, they increased their ability to focus and calm. As the horses came back into their bodies, they came back into their minds, literally.
Work over uneven terrain, stutter exercises, and isolated foot fall exercises are also great ways to re-tune a soured competitor. You can take a campaigner whose attitude seems to be, “God, must I heel one more time around this bloody figure 8,.” or “must I run around this ring one more time,” and in a few minutes of doing proprioceptive leash work suddenly get a turned on, excited dog again. Exercises which increase proprioception are like lighting up lights on an old fashioned telephone switchboard. The more lights you light up, the more mentally aware and integrated your dog will be.
These kinds of exercises combined with bodywork on your dog are magic. They can be the key to reprogramming a whole sensory world, the world of proprioception. Body awareness changes an animal’s universe, physically and behaviorally.