Canine Stretch Exercises for Physical Health.

Studies have found that baited stretches in horses, often known as carrot stretches, can reduce the incidence of back pain and help to rehabilitate a horse that has been suffering from back pain. The same has been found in humans and dogs.

The baited stretches work a bit like Pilates does in humans, the body is gently stretched to activate the long muscles of the back and core muscles of the stomach, without forcing them or causing strain to the joints. Helping to strengthen and tone these muscles, thus reducing strain and asymmetry.
This form of stretching is called active stretching, where the stretch occurs within a movement, rather than holding the dogs’ body in a stretch. Active stretching has proven, in both human and animal sport, to increase power and acceleration. So is great for those competing in agility or flyball. Passive stretching, where the handler holds the dogs legs in a stretch, immediately before training and competing actually decreases performance.
Using a piece of food or a treat move the dog’s head around to his side, while his feet stay where they are! Start slowly and only move the treat a small distance to let the dog get the idea that he needs to keep his feet still, if he moves his feet, be persistent, but don’t hand over the reward until the dog is in the desired position. This may take some patience to begin with, but the dog will soon get the idea. Remember to reward the smallest try and start off slowly. The following photos show me teaching this method to a family member’s dog, Bindi.

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1. Getting the idea of moving her head with her feet still
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2. Moving the head to the side while keeping the feet still.

Bindi is starting to get the idea in the second photo, which didn’t take very long at all. To progress this exercise continue to move the treat further towards the flank as the dog becomes more flexible. I left this session here because she had got the idea, she is young and it was her first session. Don’t forget to repeat this exercise to both sides.

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Next, move the dog’s head between his front legs, by getting his nose to follow a treat. Again, start slowly, you can see the nice stretch over Bindis back, eventually you would aim for her to stretch her head between her front legs and take the treat from behind her front feet.

Ask your dog to stand with his front legs on top of a box, to stretch the back and hind leg muscles. This gives nice stretch over the hind legs. Obviously if you have a small dog, then a smaller step would be needed, make sure the dog is not straining to reach the raised platform, whatever you may be using, also make sure the footing is good and will not cause the dog to slip off.

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Finally, teaching or encouraging your dog to “play bow” on command helps to stretch the shoulder, triceps and back muscles. Bindi shows the early stages of this, aim to make the forequarters lower than the hindquarters in true “playbow” pose, but again, do this slowly over time.

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Repeat these exercises frequently, 2-3 times a week should be plenty, once your dog is proficient at these, then the frequency can be dropped back to once a week.
Look after your back whilst doing this too, you can see that I have my knees bent and back relatively straight to prevent me putting too much strain on my lower back.

And finally… try not to be gulted into just handing over the treats!

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Why use a McTimoney Animal Practitioner

A popular saying among soft tissue specialists is, “the muscles hold the bones together, you don’t need to adjust the bones, it doesn’t release the muscles”. This common misconception stems from a misunderstanding about how spinal manipulation actually works. It does release the deep postural muscles as I will explain.
As a side note, the bones are held together by ligaments, the muscles attach via tendons and create the power to move the joints, rather than physically holding them together in the majority of cases. Releasing the muscles through soft tissue techniques doesn’t automatically bring the spine and joints back into alignment and so the same restrictions can crop up over and over again.
I started out as an equine sports massage therapist and got great results, the horses were happy, my clients were happy, but there was something I felt was missing from my practice. After training as a McTimoney Animal Practitioner, I am now of the opinion that to truly rehabilitate the body back to full function and prevent further injury occurring, the release of all joints and soft tissues must first take place. This allows functional full range of motion before rehabilitation can occur with the use of exercise, stretching etc. As someone who suffers from back pain due to a spinal injury, I know first-hand how painful stretching and mobilisation can be if muscles are tight and the body has not been brought into alignment first. Symmetrical muscle building occurs more quickly, and is more effective, once all spasms, tension and restrictions through the joints have been removed.
The muscles that are affected directly by spinal manipulation lay deep within the back and neck. These muscles control posture and stabilise the spine, they are always firing, so restriction and dysfunction of these muscles causes pain during everyday tasks and ridden activities for the horse. The most important muscles are called the multifidus, which sits directly next to and around the spine. It is composed of two sections, one which runs from the pelvis to the base of the neck and the second part which runs the length of the neck. The psoas is another important muscle which sits inside the pelvis, attaching to the underside of the lumbar spine and to the top of the femur. It is often implicated in recurrent low back pain, and forms an important part of the horses core muscles, it needs to function correctly for the horse to be able to work without pain and with correct biomechanics.
Using ultrasound scanning, researchers have found that spinal manipulation does release the deep multifidus muscle. Spasm of this muscle causes a decrease in the cross sectional depth of the muscle, after spinal manipulation the cross section measurement was increased, showing that manipulation of the spine causes release of muscle spasm in the deep postural muscles. In human patients the muscle spasms were found at the point that pain was felt, which was reported to have been relieved by spinal manipulation.
The McTimoney technique uses high speed movements to cause a joint to regain its full range of motion, this affects both the muscles and the myofacia, which is an important connective tissue that wraps around all muscles, bones and other structures within the body. The practitioner uses reflexes within their own muscles, which have been trained to respond during certain movements of the arms.
After an initial assessment of the horse, which includes questioning the owner or rider, watching for gait abnormalities, and checking that veterinary permission has been granted, the treatment can begin. When treating, the practitioner first feels for spinal misalignments, by feeling each side of the vertebrae. The tiny rotation of the bones can occur either due to tightening of the muscle attached to one side of the bone, or by direct trauma to the joints themselves, perhaps by getting cast or slipping and falling in the field. To release the tight muscle and realign the vertebrae, the practitioner places pressure on the bone to rotate it to its end of range of movement without forcing it. The McTimoney practitioner then uses a quick movement at the speed of a nerve reflex to “toggle” the bone and allow it to bounce back. This activates the nerves supplying the muscle which in turn releases it, allowing the muscle to relax. The stretch within the muscle and myofascia during adjustment and the consequent recoil of the bone causes relaxation of the muscles surrounding and attached to the bone.
This “relaxing and releasing” stage continues over time, and according to research I have conducted, can continue to create positive changes for up to 2 weeks after treatment. The nerves, which leave the spine by passing between the joints of the vertebrae, are now free from restriction to work at their optimum, the joints of the spine are now free to rotate through their full range of motion and muscles are now able to work at their optimum.

Adjusting the pelvic rotation on a horse

The practitioner will systematically move through the whole body making adjustments as necessary. Once the whole skeleton is realigned and the deep muscles have been released, it is then that massage or other techniques will be employed to make sure all the superficial muscles are released too. Personally I use a combination of sports massage, acupressure and myofacial release which gives a truly whole body treatment. I have found this approach leads to the need for fewer treatments to get the body to respond and stay in this prime state, treatments can be spaced further apart because it tends to hold for longer, allowing the muscles to build strength. Combined with good riding practices, a well-fitting saddle and further rehabilitation exercises given as part of the aftercare advice, the horse will begin to even up and will be able to use itself much more efficiently.
Horses that have strong muscles, good proprioception, and are fit, are far less likely to injure themselves. This is the aim of the McTimoney practitioner, to improve the horse, reduce the likelihood of repeated injury and allow for a longer, healthier working life. In the long run this reduces the amount of money spent by the owner, by reducing the number of treatments required and it reduces the amount of time to full recovery following the initial injury.
McTimoney practitioners are highly qualified and are trained at postgraduate degree level and hold an MSc in Animal Manipulation. They work alongside vets, riding instructors, saddle fitters, dentists and other allied professionals to help both the horse and owner or rider improve. Therapists will offer advice on changes that can be made and will refer to other professionals where necessary, to help owners get the best out of their horses, it gives great satisfaction to help a horse and owner move on, prevent early breakdown and give the horse the best chance of a long, healthy working life.

This article was published in Everything Horse UK magazine November 2014.

Preventing injuries in agility dogs

Regardless of whether you train for fun, fitness or competition, having your dog pick up an injury can be devastating.  Vets have recently become increasingly concerned about the number of dogs injured whilst training and competing in dog sports.

Careful management of your beloved pet can make all the difference with regards to lowering the risk of becoming injured.

Recent studies have found that keeping your dog within a healthy weight for its breed, height and age is the biggest factor for preventing injuries, especially concussion injuries and the early onset of conditions such as arthritis.

Research into agility has found that  the most common injuries are soft tissue sprains and strains.  A recent survey found that although the majority of competing dogs were uninjured, 33% of dogs in training had suffered an injury, while 58% of those injuries had occurred at a competition.  The shoulders were most commonly injured, followed by the back, stifle (knee), thigh, hip and toes.  The majority of injuries occurred on the A-frame, dogwalk or bar jump.  Training in Flyball on rubber matting was associated with an increased likelihood of arthritis, foot pad and dew claw injuries than those trained on grass, this would probably be similar for agility training, although no studies have looked at training on an equestrian sand surface, where many clubs often train.

If your dog becomes injured STOP.  Do not continue training or competing and seek help from your vet.  Helpful first aid is that anything that feels hot or warmer than usual to the touch should have an ice pack placed against it.  If it is in an area where the dog has less, or thin fur then wrap the ice pack in a flannel to prevent ice burns on the skin.  Try to hold it there for as long as the dog will allow, but no longer than 20 minutes at a time.  Repeat this several times a day until you can see your vet.

There are often signs before an injury happens that owners should pay attention to.  Slower than usual times, knocking poles, slower through the weave or corners are all signs that your dog may not be quite comfortable, or may have a muscle pull or strain.

If your dog is lame, then you need to speak to your vet and get proper treatment for the lameness.  Sometimes your vet may not be able to pinpoint a reason for why your dogs performance has decreased, especially if your dog is not actually lame, under these circumstances you may need to have your dog checked over by a therapist.  Therapists, such as McTimoney therapists, can help to alleviate tight muscles, which in turn can help prevent strain on tendons.  Tendons are more likely to be injured if the muscle associated with it is tight.  Treatment can help increase performance and prevent injury.  The therapist can advise on suitable exercises to help strengthen any weak muscles, this will help improve performance, prevent injury and allow your dog to continue enjoying agility for many years.  Regular treatment, say at the beginning or end of the indoor season, can help to spot any injuries or tight muscles before they prevent the dog from competing.

Following a suitable warm up and cool down routine will dramatically help lower the odds of picking up and injury, as will paying attention to your dogs overall fitness and energy levels, if your dog seems to have less energy than usual it may be necessary to speak to a qualified nutirtionist, veterinary nurse or vet about what to feed to increase vitality or control weight.

Guide to warming up your dog for competition or training

Whatever discipline you compete in or even if your dog is a working dog, the warm up is one of the most important factors in keeping your dog sound for the long term and injury free.  I would advise warming up even when training, whether you are practicing speed and obstacle skills or improving general behaviour training, the warm up will help your dog stay focussed and limber.  Warm up and cool down before and after every training session and competition, even if you are just training in your garden.

More than one study has looked at the effects of the warm up on injury rates, regardless of the sport and has found that dogs need to be warmed up for at least 9 minutes, otherwise muscle injuries are commonplace.

Start by brisk walking for 2 minutes, then trotting your dog for a few minutes (about 3 minutes) then introduce some cantering for a minute or 2, finally introduce some low jumps (for flyball and agility).

Include some active stretches after this, instead of holding your dog in a stretch, active stretching has proven, in both human and animal sport, to increase power and acceleration, while passive stretching, where the handler holds the dogs legs in a stretch, immediately before training and competing actually decreases performance.  Using a baited stretch, where a piece of food is used to move the dogs head around to his flank, while his feet stay where they are!  Move the dogs head between his front legs, by getting his nose to follow a treat, repeat on the other side. Active stretching prevents the muscles from being overstretched before strenuous exercise. Ask your dog to stand with his front legs on top of a box, to stretch the back and hind leg muscles. Teaching or encouraging your dog to “play bow” on command helps to stretch the shoulder, triceps and back muscles.

Finally at the end of the session remember to cool down effectively, 10 to 25 minutes of walking, start at a fast walk, then gradually change to a slower pace.