The tension we see and feel in dogs is always protective. They may be self-restricting their movements for several reasons. They may be experiencing a pain that is at a tolerable level but any addition to what they are doing would be too uncomfortable. So, they’d act like they are stuck in quicksand. They’d breathe shallowly, and move minimally.
They might be anticipating the possibility of pain or danger. They could be stepping through a doorway into the unknown. They could be entering a dog park where they’d been attacked. They could see a person whose body type or hat reminds them of someone in their past who, in their mind, abused them.
The dog’s heart beats faster, breathing patterns change, muscles tighten and bunch up. The coat along the top line becomes either more erect or lies flatter, compressing itself against the skin. The superficial fascia, especially around the trapezius and thoracic spine forms a suit of armor. There is safety inside the barrier. But the barrier restricts movement.
We feel this as tissue tightness. Knots. Tight bands of muscles. Thicker, dense layers around the neck and shoulders. Taut ligaments. Contracted muscles. We see wide open eyes, worried facial features, flattened ears compressed against the skull, and the tail held tight against the anus.
Feel the restricted movement in your body. Imagine you are walking without flexion in your knees or ankles. Your legs are like thick sticks, stiff from hip to heel. You’d have so little balance support from your nervous system that your back, neck and your arms would all get tense. Your anxiety about possibly toppling over understandably increases. Your heart rate speeds up. Your respiration changes. You glance about to assure yourself that if you were to fall you wouldn’t crash into anything.
This is how a small dog with a tightly held stiff spine that I massaged, presented. He walked like a wind-up toy, but without the metallic clicking of a coil unwinding. All four of his little legs were stiff. He showed minimal flexibility in his elbows, stifles and hocks. His entire jerky gait arose from movement from his shoulders and hips. It was all agonist without the support of antagonist and synergistic muscles. Stiff, jerky, and tentative; that’s how he walked.
From the back of his skull to his tail, his spine was rigid and inflexible. His top line appeared stuck.
I placed my hands on either side of his spine just behind his shoulder blades. Stabilizing one side with my palm, I gently stretched the other side forward toward the neck, held it for a moment and released it back to its original position. Then, still stabilizing the same side, reversed the stretch, pulling it back toward the tail. Held a moment and released. This was repeated on this side and then on the other side. As the tissues warmed and became more pliable, I worked both sides together; pushing and pulling, pulling and pushing. I then pushed and pulled them toward each other, bunching the skin into the spine and away from it.
We were releasing the restrictions, enhancing the flexibility, of the muscles all along the top line. We softened the traumatized muscles that had been restraining the spine. The good news quickly spread throughout the body. When the spine is allowed to move, the whole body feels, and is, vitalized. The central nervous system functions better. Lymph nodes between vertebrae get expressed, and the immune system is enhanced. Ribs are released at their vertebral attachment sites. The dog breathes deeper and more easily.
The effect was heartwarming.
I placed the dog on the floor and watched him. First he shook so completely his little paws flew off the floor. He took a couple of steps forward. His spine rolled a little bit with each step. His little waist sashayed as his stifles flexed and extended. His tail swayed comfortably as he walked. His neck bounced easily as his front paws carried and released weight. This little dog felt better and stronger. He looked stronger and better. He was better and stronger.
He no longer needed that cumbersome protective armoring he’d been carrying. He paused, turned and looked back at me and ambled over to his teary-eyed owner.