Aren’t harmony and balance what everyone desires? Your beloved canine companion gives you a measure of that every day. They also need it in a physical sense in the way they stand, walk, and function.
What you see in the normal canine posture and gait is like a symphony orchestra where all parts blend into a harmonious sound. For the dogs, it results in a fluid, smooth pattern of standing and locomotion. In the orchestra, the best sound is achieved through a coordinated effort. If one instrumental part is not attuned to the whole, a musical “fault” will be heard. In order to go on with the show, other parts l overcompensate in an attempt to restore relative harmony.
A similar scenario occurs in dogs when one area of the body is injured or missing (through amputation). This poses a challenge to maintaining homeostasis.
To achieve balance, the body adopts an abnormal posture that compensates for the weakness by a redistribution of body weight.
It is considered to be a strategy or an adaptive coping technique. This can be observed with the dog standing still (static) and during movement (dynamic).
During movement, there is a reorganization of the locomotive system, required in order for the dog to remain functional.
The basics behind maintaining homeostasis in balance are keeping the center of gravity (COG) over the base of support (BOS).
The BOS is the stance position of feet/ toes on the ground. The COG is the point in the body where mass is equally balanced or distributed in all directions. In the human, it is located just in front of (anterior) the upper lumbar vertebrae.
The canine COG is at mid-chest just behind the shoulder blades.
It needs to remain in an optimal position over the base of support to maintain balance. Therefore dogs always try to keep their COG just behind the front limbs. If the hind limbs are weak this pulls the COG backward. The dog will try to control it or compensate by shifting weight forward (cranially)/toward the head, to try to return it to a normal place. The result is an increased weight on the front limbs, beyond normal.
If this compensatory attempt goes on too long, potential problems can occur with overuse.
There can be overdevelopment (hypertrophy) of the neck, shoulder and scapular muscles, inflammation of the shoulder, elbow and wrist joints, and a widened stance. Broadening of shoulders and positioning of front paws farther apart is an attempt to widen the base of support during gait.
Hind limb weakness is usually the source and occurs from ligament tears, hip dysplasia, spinal disc disease, etc
Sometimes widened front limbs are due to general obesity with large body mass. In dogs with neurological impairments the hind limbs will cross over or “scissor” and the front limbs will widen to compensate.
A Veterinarian or animal- trained Physical Therapist will make a systematic observation from the back, front and side of the dog to analyze posture and assess gait as part of the total evaluation. The therapist’s eyes and hands are their most important evaluation tools.
They will look to see if weight is evenly distributed on the hind limbs, if there is a lowering of the hips and pelvis because of an injury and the muscles cannot support the hips, etc.
Normal weight distribution is 60% on the front limbs and 40% on the hind limbs (it can change to 70% /30% with hind limb weakness).
For this reason, “tripod” amputees missing a front limb are more challenged than those with an absent hind limb. In fact, there is very little gait change in a hind limb amputee.
The goal is to strengthen the weak areas and retrain the dog to shift weight back onto the affected area to avoid the compensation and restore symmetry.
Here are some tips and exercises for hind limb strengthening:
- Basic “sit to stand” exercises, using low calorie treats, a clicker or a toy as a training aid for motivation strengthens the hip and thigh musculature. Repeat the movement 5-8 times. Watch for symmetry as the dog will tend to sit just on the stronger hip and rise toward that side. A good technique is to start from a tight corner, such as in your kitchen, so the dog can’t “cheat” and use only the stronger side. Use a treat and hand signals to walk the dog backwards into the corner first, and then ask them to sit, and then stand, etc. You can also have them sit with their stronger side toward a wall and when they stand the wall will force them onto the weaker side, etc.
- An “indirect” way to force weight back toward the hind limbs is to alternately lift one front paw or limb and hold it up for a few seconds. Alternate between the left and right 6 times. You can progress to placing both of the front paws up onto a low step or platform and have the dog hold the position for 5-15 seconds. You may have to use a sling to support the hind section.
Ideally, you should have your Vet or PT demonstrate these exercises before trying them at home.
They should assess how the dog tolerates them and provide you with starting parameters as well as how to progress, etc.
Nothing beats the value of the controlled leash walk to increase hind limb strength.
Start slowly, then increase to a comfortable pace, but always “controlled”.
If the dog is limping, bobbing their head up and down with each footfall or “bunny hopping” you need to slow the pace until the proper gait is seen.
Start for 5 minutes and gradually increase the distance and time, 2-3 times per day. Gradually add variations such as leash circles around a tree, making wide turns in a figure 8 pattern, vary the walking surface (grass or sand), climb up and down low-grade slopes, hills, and inclines, to increase the strength. You can add intervals to increase endurance, consisting of short 10-15 second bouts of faster speed, every few minutes.
Many other exercises exist using sandbag weights, theraband, carts, sleds, weave poles, cavaletti rails, physiorolls, rocker boards, and treadmills, etc. They are best performed by an “animal-trained” Physical Therapist or a Veterinarian trained in rehabilitation.
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