Using Neurophysiology for Dogs: Canine Athlete Injury Prevention beyond the Traditional Means

There is a little-known technique used by rehabilitation professionals–priming the joints to respond to the unexpected stimulus, using neurophysiology.

Using Neurophysiology for Dogs: Canine Athlete Injury Prevention beyond the Traditional Means

These techniques use principles utilized in human rehabilitative medicine. Yet, the veterinary field is just beginning to appreciate their effects for injury treatment and prevention.

Neurophysiology? What is that?

The primate human and non-human body uses sensory receptors to monitor external changes. Some are considered conscious and others unconscious.

These receptors convey information received from the outside world/sensory input, thru the peripheral nerves, into the central nervous system, to determine motor output/get the desired motor response. They connect to and transfer information to tiny small diameter ‘afferent’ mini nerves.

Conscious receptors are in places such as the skin, letting you know when getting burned, bruised.

Overburden protection

Unconscious receptors exist in tendons

Golgi tendon organs respond if the maximum or too heavy of a load is placed on that part of the body. This causes the muscle and tendon to relax which prevents it from being torn.

Unconscious receptors also exist in muscles

Muscle spindles, consisting of 3 types responding to quick stretching, bouncing, prolonged static stretching, and maintained stretches at the extremes of range limits. Similar to the Golgi tendon organs, the spindles can help a muscle relax if too much stress placed on it. Other times it helps a weak or partially paralyzed muscle contract if the spindle is stimulated.

Receptors also exist in the joints

And, similar to skin, have conscious receptors or proprioceptors to monitor movement and position. Joint receptors are particularly helpful in reducing injury to muscle groups that cross over major joints. These muscles are commonly strained in agility sports and include

  • biceps brachii in the forelimb
  • psoas in the groin and hip, and
  • quadriceps long rectus femoris

All major articulating joints in the animal’s body also have mechanoreceptors.

These are located in ligaments, capsules, and cartilage. IEncapsulated Pacinian corpuscles and Ruffini receptors are found at the ends of ligaments, in the capsules, cartilage of major weight-bearing joints including the TMJ/ jaw disc.

The positive aspect of the sensory receptors is the protection of the joints and maintaining joint integrity.

We can use this protection to help influence a canine athlete to respond more favorably to stress, strain, force and loads placed on its joints, tendons, and muscles. This will help prevent injury as well as maximize performance.

The negative aspect

The negative aspect is that the body is designed so that these tiny afferent nerves to which the receptors connect are very sensitive and have a very low firing threshold. They are kind of like a child that cries easily over spilled milk.

If the sensory receptors are not often stimulated, they are triggered easily. When a stressful movement occurs they cause afferents to get too excited and send out distress pain signals. The body then responds with a chemical inflammatory response.

In training the animal athlete for sports and athletic events, we have to safely push the envelope a little to gain performance. Yet we want to avoid the chemical inflammatory response as it causes pain and restricts the animal’s movements.

Thus the goal becomes to quiet and reduce excitability, called “de-afferentation” of the sensory receptors in the skin, muscles, tendons, and joints.


There are techniques to persuade, bias, and accustom the body to athletic movement in a safe manner, which decreases the transmission of harmful over-excitability impulses to the afferents. We do this by giving sensory receptor stimulatory input to enable the canine athlete to develop movement strategies to functionally compensate to stress. These activate helpful postural reflexes and protective motor responses that decrease injury to body tissues.

The method used by rehabilitation professionals are as follows:

  • Joint glides and mobilization
  • Manual Traction
  • Joint capsule stretch

The above three techniques require a professional to perform.

Techniques you might be able to use on your dog yourself:

Manual Approximation/compressions on the animal’s weight-bearing joints weight bearing and non-weight bearing positions.

  • static – while standing still, or
  • dynamic – moving on level and uneven surfaces, using treats or toys to attain different head positions, with the eyes covered and uncovered


  • the dog jumps on/off and land from and to varying heights and surfaces


You can use any of the following

  • vibration boards
  • wobble boards
  • balance discs

Your dog can stand on the device with

  • all four paws, or
  • two paws on the board and two paws maintaining contact with a non-slippery floor

A pet owner or a trainer/handler can perform the above techniques. It is, however, better to consult a rehabilitation professional first. They can teach you the correct application and provide ideas on the specificity of training for a particular sport.

Variations in the use of techniques to stimulate sensory receptors for maximum performance and injury prevention are vast. Your animal rehabilitation professional will be glad to assist you with learning and applying them to help your canine athlete!

Related articles:
Dog Physical Therapy: New, New, Cool Things!

Grigg, P, Greenspan BJ: Response of Primate Joint Afferent Neurons to Mechanical Stimulation of Knee Joint. J Neurophysiology 40:1-8, 1977
Grigg, P, Hoffman A: Properties of Ruffini afferents revealed by stress analysis of isolated sections of cat knee capsule. J Neurophysiology 47:41-54, 1982
Cordo P, Carlton L, Bevan Let al: Proprioceptive coordination of movement sequences: role of velocity and position information J Neurophysiology 71:1848-1861, 1994
Bjorklund, Martin, Effects of Repetitive Work on Proprioception and Stretching on Sensory Mechanisms, Dept of Sports Medicine, Umea University, Umea, Sweden 2004
Oliva, Pappa, ViaMuscle, Tendon, Ligament Tear and Proprioception: The Forgotten Sixth Sense, April 2015 OMICS

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