In our last chapter on dog posture, we explored why standing up is so important for animals and people. So, what are some of the reasons our dogs have trouble standing comfortably or “stacking” correctly? 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. In this part, we discuss the relationship of the head and neck.
Restraint and Force
Aside from carrying ID and vaccination tags, dog collars are mainly used to control a dog’s movements: keeping them close on a walk, holding them back from jumping on a houseguest, and for training. Why don’t we use bracelets, or belly bands? Because controlling the neck and head is the most effective—the animal will always go where its brain goes. There’s been awareness in recent years that damage can be caused to the delicate structures of the neck by dogs pulling against their collars. One result is that some of the worst leash-pulling culprits get put into harnesses—so they learn to really pull their owners around! Another has been the introduction of more sophisticated head collars and better training techniques.
Since head position is critical for all animals, the small muscles that control the head are loaded with sensory nerves that report on position–500 times more sensors than in limb muscles! The joint capsules and ligaments of the neck vertebrae are also “hard-wired” to provide intensive information about their position. When excessive force is exerted on the neck, whether from a leash, a kennel chain or from an accident, there can be damage to those muscles, joint capsules and nerves. For instance, a dog that always cocks his head to one side can be demonstrating distorted neural information. Sometimes the impairment is more subtle, as in a dog which only retrieves a frisbee in one direction. Ever known a dog that lies down on one side only to sleep? All animals have to bend their necks in order to get up from lying on their side. If bending their neck is difficult or painful, dogs will avoid lying down on the side hardest to bend away from when rising.
While the most common cause of neck injuries is restraint, some dogs suffer trauma during athletic performance or rough play with their canine friends. Dogs with a strong play or prey drive may successfully suppress signs of a problem at the time of the trauma, but later adapt their posture and gait to compensate for the pain or dysfunction. Their restriction in movement or gaiting can become exacerbated over time, or only revealed in extreme athletic challenges. Meanwhile, compensatory posture can cause overload damage in joints that are inappropriately bearing excessive weight.
Some dogs are never quite right from earliest life because of injuries during whelping. The most common example is a very large first-born puppy that causes even a mild dystocia or birthing delay, especially in a primiparous or “maiden” bitch. The pressure on the pup’s neck can be more than enough to damage its neck or overly compress its skull. This is the puppy that is the biggest in the litter, but the last to open its eyes, walk, run, and always seems a little dopey and uncoordinated. Some puppies can be injured post-birth with large litters, poorly designed whelping boxes or inexperienced bitches. Many of these dogs can be helped with an early juvenile intervention.
The meaning of pain
We humans give a great deal of meaning to pain, and have a thriving pharmaceutical industry devoted to pain avoidance. For animals, mild to moderate pain is a physiologic signal that the painful area is damaged and needs to rest and heal. Except under extreme circumstances, it is not possible to completely avoid moving one’s neck during normal life processes. If it is not possible to avoid using the damaged tissue, healing will be delayed, because both normal wear and tear and the injured parts will need to be repaired. Neutral posture and proper compensation for pain are designed to be the best way to heal. So, there are times when giving your dog pain medication for a limp can cause more harm than good—if you make the pain go away, he will use the leg more and delay healing. It is imperative that the cause of the pain be treated (not just the symptom), and that normal posture be restored. Judicious use of pain control is appropriate.
Neck injuries and distorted nerve signals from that area can often be treated effectively with manipulative therapy. By restoring full range of motion, and resetting joint capsule position and receptor function, correct neurologic communication about the dog’s head position and support relative to the ground can be re-established. The body puts such a high priority on keeping the brain and brainstem safe that other parts may suffer to accommodate it. It can be surprising how much lameness that appears to be in the hind end is “fixable” with neck treatment only!! The biggest reason for this counter-intuitive outcome, is that the hind end lamenesses are usually secondary to abnormal postural balance from the neck, feet or teeth. When you correct that balance, and allow the body to stop overloading the dog’s hind end joints, they finally can heal. In our next segment, we will discuss the correct balance of stance in quadrupeds, and how toenails can change it!
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”.