His posture, range of motion and the way he moves can have an influence on his mobility and overall well-being.
When was the last time you really watched how your dog stands, walks or stretches? How he moves and holds himself may not seem all that important, but his mobility and posture can have a profound effect on his general health. Many of the conditions that can affect him are related to the health of his spine and nervous system.
I’ve compiled a list of fun and simple things you can do at home to help appreciate the importance proper mobility has on your dog’s overall health.
Yes – dogs have posture too, and many have “bad” posture. In general, “good” posture means the dog’s back, or “top-line”, has a relatively flat appearance from the shoulders to the pelvis.
Dysfunctional top-lines are often described as having a “roach” or “sway-back” appearance. These abnormal postures are the result of mechanical and muscular imbalances, which can negatively affect the function of the nervous system.
Action step: Assess your dog’s posture. How does it look?
All dogs have a stretch routine that they instinctually perform daily. This is quite amazing as humans do not have this instinct. These “upward dog” and “downward dog” stretches are extremely important for maintaining balance between the ventral and dorsal (front and back) musculature, as well as for proper mobility in the low back and pelvis.
Dogs that have stopped stretching often do so because of joint stiffness, pain and muscle spasm. One of my biggest goals when treating senior dogs is to get them to start stretching again.
Action step: Pay close attention to how your dog stretches. Does he do both “upward dog” and “downward dog”? Is the depth of the stretch equal on both sides?
Our dogs are smarter than we think. We often see them shake off after they wake up from a sleep, or just after they do their stretching. The purpose of this “dry” shake-off is to mobilize their spines after a period of rest. This rapid rotational movement stimulates the joint capsules to produce synovial fluid, which lubricate joints.
Dogs may stop shaking off for a few different reasons. If they have sustained an acute injury to one or more joints they may stop shaking off all of a sudden, whereas senior dogs will progressively decrease the frequency and quality of shake-offs due to stiffness and arthritis.
Action step: How often does your dog shake off? Is it a full body shake or just the neck and upper body?
Range of motion
Range of motion can tell us a lot about a dog’s mobility. If joints are restricted or inflamed, they do not move as well as they should. This often causes a decreased range of motion in a particular direction in any region of the spine.
Assessing the range of motion in your dog’s neck is both fun and easy. It’s important to remember that all nerve supply to the front legs comes from nerves that exit the neck. I often find joint inflammation and restrictions on the same side of the neck as a dog’s front leg limp.
Action step: Hold a tasty treat in front of your dog’s face. Now, slowly move the treat around the side of his body to assess how far he is able to rotate. Repeat on the other side. Are the rotations both full and symmetrical?
Hind leg strength
Dogs are “rear wheel drive”, so to speak. All their driving force is meant to come from the lower back, pelvis and hind legs. What frequently happens in older dogs is that this propulsion system begins to shut down. As a dog ages, his joints become stiff and dysfunctional, which can cause compression to the nerves that control these hind end muscles. Over time, this results in progressive weakening of the hind end, which in turn leads the dog to compensate by using his front legs as a pulling force.
For example, we’ve all seen older dogs struggling to pull themselves up from a seated position, or pulling themselves up the stairs. All too often, this presentation is frequently ruled as “hip joint arthritis” or “hip dysplasia”.
Action step: Watch your dog move around the house. Does he have trouble getting up from lying down? Does he hesitate before jumping or ascending stairs?
Dogs have nerve endings in their paws that relay information about limb position back to the brain. The sensations picked up by these nerve endings are collectively referred to as “proprioception”.
Improper joint mechanics and inflammation can cause compression to these nerves, which can actually stop this pathway from communicating. When this occurs, the dog is not able to sense where his paws are in space and may actually start to walk on his knuckles instead of the pads of his feet.
Action step: Lift your dog’s paws one at a time and attempt to place his body weight on his knuckles. If he allows you to place his paw upside down without correcting it, it is usually a positive test for advanced proprioception problems. Watch him walk. Does he drag any of his limbs? Does he knuckle or scrape his nails on the sidewalk? Does he have a hard time finding stability on slippery floors?
Temperature is also a clue
When movement between adjacent joints becomes abnormal, it can change the way blood circulates in the area. Acute injury causes increased blood flow and inflammation to surround the area, whereas chronic injury can actually decrease blood circulation.
Acute injury can be felt as increased temperature on the surface of the skin or coat. The warmer it is, the more inflamed it is. One of the most common places I detect a warm area is in the animal’s mid-back, at a spot known as the “thoracolumbar region”. This area is especially prone to mechanical stress since the joint surfaces abruptly change direction at this point.
Action step: A simple way to assess temperature change is to slowly run the back of your hand down your dog’s spine. If you notice an area of increased temperature, this could be an area that is stiff and inflamed. What do you feel?
By keeping an eye on your dog’s movement and posture, and performing these simple observations and tests on a regular basis, you can help detect potential mobility issues early on, and get him to a veterinarian and/or animal chiropractor for assessment.