Above: Land-based movement therapy may involve the use of safe exercise equipment such as these step-over poles. Here I am also using a harness, balance lead and food rewards.
What is movement therapy?
“Movement therapy” is a broad term encompassing many types of therapeutic exercise, active and passive movements.
The emphasis is always on relevance of the movement to the animal’s day-to-day activity. So, for example, an elderly dog does not need extreme hip flexibility, but does need the patterns of movement necessary for getting up and walking. This is quite different to the high level of flexibility and coordination required by an agility dog.
How do animals benefit from movement therapies?
Relearning balanced postures and ways of moving is an important part of the recovery process for many orthopaedic conditions. Animals typically overload one part of their body in order to compensate for chronic discomfort elsewhere. For example, many dogs that have grown up with hip dysplasia, suffered cruciate ligament disease or experienced other hind limb injury tend to put more weight on their forequarters. If not addressed, such forequarter overload would predispose to future discomfort in their neck and elbows.
Animals with neurological disease need to relearn patterns of movement including walking, moving between sit and stand, and self-grooming.
After any musculoskeletal injury, accurate position-sense (“proprioception”) needs to be relearned if full function is to be regained.
Left: During recovery from a “slipped disc”, Harry enjoys his movement therapy. Tasty food smeared onto a toy keeps him interested. The exercises include slow-walking, sitting and rising to stand, all with a safe, well-aligned posture.
Types of movement therapy
From balanced straight line work to the use of various step-over obstacles, ramps or changing ground surfaces, these exercises improve the animal’s coordination, position-sense (“proprioception”) and confidence. As appropriate, I choose specific exercises to increase the use of certain muscles or to encourage increased range of motion of certain joints.
I help animals to improve those simple position changes between stand, sit and lie. Long-term discomfort, weakness, neurological problems or poor core muscle strength can cause animals to “flop” down, to move asymmetrically or to “haul” themselves up. Improving the quality of these basic movements benefits patient coordination and strength at all levels while, in disabled animals, these exercises are key to regaining mobility.
Range of movement techniques
These are used with the animal relaxed, often lying on their side. In applying range of movement techniques, I work on one limb at a time, moving it to simulate natural healthy patterns of movement. I may either focus on one joint, or apply global movements to the whole limb.
I am experienced and fully-trained (to level 7) in hydrotherapy, pool-work and use of the walk-in hydrotherapy treadmill though do not currently have access to hydrotherapy facilities for my own patients. Water-based therapies are useful for improving body alignment, strength and position-sense (“proprioception”) in dogs, but must be performed with care if the patient is to benefit. A skilled, hands-on approach allows the dog to move safely in a balanced, aligned manner in the water without loss of confidence.
Some principles of movement therapy
Repetition, rhythm and focus assist the animal to learn the improved movement pattern. Movement quality is more important than quantity, so I adjust alignment and weight distribution as needed. I usually tie the movement therapy in with sensory “touch” techniques as, used together, sensory and movement therapies help to improve the animal’s position-sense.
Of course, it is essential to avoid fear throughout the therapy process. Not only would this be unacceptable from the welfare point of view, but animals need to be confident and focused in order to learn new movement patterns. Furthermore, negative emotion leads to muscle tension that prevents optimal movement. I use the following techniques to improve patient focus:
Tellington touch techniques (“Ttouch”)
“Movement-shaping” using appropriate set-up of the available space, positioning of myself and the owner and the use of body language.
Food treats and/or toy rewards.
I find that a home programme improves progress and ties the therapy in well with day-to-day activities. Whenever owners are interested, I teach exercises and touch techniques for owners to use at home.
Above: Discussing home care with an owner at the end of a session.