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Dog Posture (Part 1): The War with Gravity

When you see the word “posture”, you probably are hearing your mother’s voice in your head “Don’t slouch!” or “Sit up straight!” In our culture, standing around is usually considered doing nothing. How interesting that in other contexts, standing can be a mental activity, even a meditation. In military traditions world-wide, “standing at attention” is a discipline that becomes a prerequisite for more challenging mental and physical tasks. In yoga practice, tadasana, or “standing mountain” pose is the basis of all standing asanas, and the pose that restores the body to neutral after difficult exercises in balance and movement. What is the ancient wisdom about standing that we have lost touch with in our modern, sedentary lifestyles? And are we sharing our bad habits with our pets?

For all of us terrestrial animals, the ability to stand quietly at rest is critically important for health and soundness. Many dog owners don’t realize that one reason their dogs flop down on the ground as soon as they come to rest could be that they have postural problems, making it uncomfortable or tiring to stand up for very long. In some ways, standing is harder than moving. Think about riding a bicycle– the faster you go, the easier it gets. We have many mechanisms for balance in motion that are not available to us for standing. What does it take to just stand up? A lot, actually!!

How (and why) do we “fight” gravity?

Running animals, (including humans) have multiple centers in the brain that are devoted to postural control. Their job is to coordinate signals from many parts of the body about where the limbs, trunk and head are located in space– relative to each other, and to the surface underfoot. The goal of the postural control center is simple: keep the brain from crashing into the ground. Protecting the brain and the spinal cord is the top priority of the nervous system.

In these brain centers, unconscious decisions are made about standing and moving based upon information from the feet, the joints, the muscles, the inner ear, the eyes and the jaw. The information is coordinated, analyzed and then sent to the movement centers of the brain to generate stance or gait. Many of us know that when someone has an inner ear infection, their balance and coordination can be affected, but some of the other inputs for stance and balance are not quite as obvious to everyone. For instance, we are highly dependent upon our eyes to maintain equilibrium; this is why some people and dogs can get carsick when riding in the back seat. The eyes, under most circumstances, can see level surfaces that give visual clues to the terrain being traveled. But when watching scenery rush by from a car, the body perceives motion visually, but is not able to register the ground surface, resulting in queasiness from mismatched information. There are other inputs, even more important, that will be surprising!

Much of the postural information the body uses is related to gravity or “knowing where down is.” It seems pretty simple to know where down is, but when it goes wrong, big trouble ensues! The postural control system is a complex system in which small changes to the input can have far-reaching changes in the output, standing posture.

Why are all animals, including humans, posturally programmed to stand up straight? Because it is the most economical way to stand. Dogs, like humans and horses, are large, fast animals, when compared with most vertebrates. Comparative biomechanics has shown that the larger an animal is, the lower its metabolic rate. This means that large animals have less metabolic energy per pound of body weight to devote to body maintenance. Large fast animals have solved this “problem” by minimizing the metabolic energy required to support their own weight through anatomic adaptations. They have long, straight legs that support body weight in a vertical column. When the limbs are in position correctly, like the legs of a table, the only muscles working are postural muscles, which are strategically placed to stabilize joints without a lot of costly energy. However, when the legs are misplaced, or are very crooked, many more muscles must be recruited to keep the dog standing.

Normal neutral posture in dogs is like a table, with a limb at each corner. Dog show competitors are very familiar with this posture; it is “stacking” the dog for the judge to examine, with its forelegs and hocks-to-the-ground vertical. The reason this pose is used, historically, in canine breed competitions is that well-bred dogs with good neurologic responses will stack naturally!

Standing should be the easiest activity aside from sleeping! In modern urban cultures, however, people spend more time sitting than standing. We also walk and stand on surfaces that are quite different from those in our evolutionary development. Most aspects of dog life in our modern world are quite different than those conditions canines have experienced outside of domestication in the past, as well. They eat differently, sleep differently, breed and give birth differently and get far less exercise than their wild counterparts. Selective breeding has also created body and skull shapes that are far outside the parameters compatible with a healthy life in the wild. Interestingly, if you look at wild dogs, they all seem to be medium size, medium coat length with upright ears, pointy noses and long tails. When domestic dogs become feral and interbreed, their appearance, within a few generations, begins to resemble their wild cousins. And wild dogs are generally healthy and stand up straight!

So what are some of the reasons our dogs have trouble standing or “stacking” correctly? And how does this affect everything they do? It’s amazing how important simply standing up is! Neutral stance– a technical term for standing up normally– is the starting point for all other activities in life, other than sleeping. And, sad to say, when neutral stance is compromised, it is usually because of living with humans– domestication. We keep dogs confined in the house (limiting their exercise), pull them around by their necks (leashes and collars), feed them dog food (marked change from diet of wild canines), and breed them for specific physical characteristics that usually have little to do with health or survival.

The upper neck, the feet and dentition/skull shape turn out to be the biggest players in abnormal posture, because they are areas rich in nerve cells that report on the animal’s relationship to gravity, and are vulnerable to changes from domestication. When those anatomic regions become distorted or damaged, the information from their local nerves is also distorted or damaged. Bad information generates bad posture. But the good news is that when you can normalize the information, or mitigate its effects, the dog’s posture will return to neutral stance, like resetting an electronic device to its “factory settings”.

Coming next week, Part Two: A real pain in the neck?

About the Authors

Dr. Judith M. Shoemaker, DVM is an international instructor and consultant in complementary veterinary therapies. She is a certified veterinary acupuncturist by IVAS (International Veterinary Acupuncture Society) and AAVA (American Academy of Veterinary Acupuncture) and is certified by AVCA (American Veterinary Chiropractic Association) of which she was a charter/founding member. Dr. Shoemaker conducts a complementary medicine mixed practice with a focus on sports medicine, acupuncture, chiropractic, farriery, dentistry, and adjunctive therapies for difficult conditions. Her patients include top-level competitors of many disciplines and wonderful companions as well. More information at www.judithshoemaker.com.

Dr. Karen Gellman, DVM, PhD is a graduate of Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine, and has a doctorate from Cornell in animal locomotion biomechanics. She has advanced training and certification in veterinary acupuncture and veterinary chiropractic. She teaches internationally about posture, locomotion biomechanics and complementary therapies to veterinarians and physical therapists. She maintains two veterinary practices limited to complementary therapies: www.equinesportsmed.com, and www.ithacapetwellness.com.

Dr. Karen Gellman (along with Dr. Judith M. Shoemaker and Elizabeth Reese, CTAT), teaches about posture to veterinarians and animal health care professionals from around the world in the Postural Rehabilitation training program. Learn more at PosturalRehabVets.com, or like our FB page “Postural Rehabilitation for horses and dogs”.

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  1. [...] our last chapter on dog posture, we explored why standing up is so important for animals and people. So, what are some of the [...]

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