We can only know for sure what effects our massage is having on the dogs if we’ve first established a baseline for their movement. Then, we can recognize changes from day to day, and over the span of several massages. Although throughout the massage, we are constantly evaluating and assessing, adjusting what we are doing to accommodate the immediate needs of the dog, we take special note of the dogs condition before and after each session.
Dogs find ways to compensate for discomfort during movement. They rely on their strengths and avoid their weaknesses. That’s how they avoid pain when deciding to put weight on vulnerable and compromised limbs. Often these are because of real, ongoing, physical responses.
Sometimes it is remembered pain, with the anxiety of potential pain. Limping, tentative toe touching, head tossing, etc., while all protective behaviors, may also be residual habits from when injuries were in their healing phase. The injury is healed. The protective body mechanics continue as comfortable muscle memory. Habitual lameness can often be resolved by bringing the dog’s awareness to the comfort they can experience during movement. Once the demon has been named, its power is taken away.
Canine massage assists dogs healing processes, whether real or imagined, by increasing circulation, draining lymphatic fluid, dispersing scar tissue, strengthening attachment sites for tendons and ligaments, and conditioning the fascia.
Gait evaluation typically includes observation of the dog from a number of angles at the walk, the amble, and the trot on a flat surface. The walk and amble are often the most convenient gaits to observe for abnormalities because they can be done in the small space like a corridor that you might have in your home or clinic. They are the slower gaits, and you may be too close to them to detect their milder lameness. The trot is the best gait to use for detecting lameness. We’ll discuss below why this is.
In dogs, there are 4 main gaits: walk, trot, canter, and gallop. In addition, dogs have a 5th transitional gait between the walk and the trot called the amble. For most canine massage, unless we are working with competition dogs, we observe the walk, amble and trot.
At the walk, 2 or 3 feet are on the ground at any given time.
We look for
- a smoothly moving flexible top line
- gently bobbing head
- ease of movement in the shoulders and forelegs, hips and hind legs
- relaxed tail
- angle of the ankles (upright, dropped)
- direction of paws (turned inward, straight forward, or turned out)
- relationship between the angles of the knees and the paws, elbows and paws
- how the paws seat on the ground. (Do they all move with grace and stability, or are one or more paws dragging, scuffing, flipping, or sliding?)
The amble is a faster walk. It is inefficient and uncomfortable for dogs for extended periods. It’s the transition between walk and trot. So after a minute or two the stress and fatigue it induces might reveal hidden lameness.
The trot is the most efficient gait. The front and rear diagonal feet touch ground simultaneously. There’s a moment of suspension, and then the opposite diagonal of paws touches ground. This is the most often used gait for assessment because it’s easy to see if the diagonal paw groundings are clean and uniform. If they are not, massage with the intention of rebalancing – and coordinating – the hips and shoulders.
When evaluating gait:
- Choose a surface for observation that is even and flat.
- Observe the dog’s walk, amble, and trot.
- Watch the dog from multiple vantage points, including going away, coming toward you, from both sides, and while circling. Walk the dog yourself and also ask the dog’s owner to walk their dog as you observe.
- Notice weakness or hesitation moving into or rising from a sit or down position.
- Notice any signs of neurologic abnormalities, such as head tilt, ataxia, paw scuffing, or stumbling.
- Notice the paws: conformation, angle, length and condition of claws, and condition of the pads.
- Notice the dogs level of connection, attentiveness, respect for commands to move forward, stop, turn, sit, and down.
Movements indicating Forelimb lameness.
Generally, with forelimb lameness
- weight is shifted toward the rear, where the strength and stability are
- The head goes “down on the sound” limb
- the head goes up when the lame limb is on the ground
- the hindlimbs may also appear tucked under
- the back appears arched
- short strides with the hindlimb
Dogs with shoulder lameness
- appear short strided, to protect against too much movement
- dog holds the limb slightly away from the body to ease pressure on the inner side of the elbow
Movements indicating Hindlimb lameness
- weight is shifted forward onto the forelimbs
- forelimbs may be placed more forward, with the head and neck extended and lowered to offset weight from the hind end
- a “hip hike” in which the hip on the lame side has increased vertical motion, making the hip on the unaffected side appear lower when observing the gait from behind
- tail may also rise as the lame leg contacts the ground