Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Compensation: An Attempt To Restore Harmony

by Susan E. Davis, PT

Harmony and balance: isn’t that what everyone really desires? Your beloved canine companion gives you a measure of that every day. They also need it in a physical sense in the way they stand, walk and function.

Their bodies, like ours, are designed for symmetry, in order to maintain structural integrity of joints, bones, muscles, etc.  

What you see in the normal canine posture and gait is like a symphony orchestra where all parts blend into a harmonious sound. For the dogs it results in a fluid, smooth pattern of standing and locomotion. In the orchestra, the best sound is achieved it through coordinated effort. If one instrumental part is not attuned to the whole, a musical “fault” will be heard and in order to go on with the show, other parts l overcompensate in an attempt to restore relative harmony.

Dogs Love the Beach

A similar scenario occurs in dogs when one area of the body is injured or missing (through amputation), and thereby challenged to maintain homeostasis.

In order to have balance the body adapts an abnormal posture that compensates for the weakness by a redistribution of body weight.

It is considered to be a strategy, or an adaptive coping technique. This can be observed with the dog standing still (static) and during movement (dynamic).

During movement there is a reorganization of the locomotive system, required in order for the dog to remain functional.

The basics behind maintaining homeostasis in balance is keeping the center of gravity (COG) over the base of support (BOS).

The BOS is the stance position of feet/ toes on the ground.  The COG is the point in the body where mass is equally balanced or distributed in all directions. In the human it is located just in front of (anterior) the upper lumbar vertebrae.

The canine COG is at mid chest just behind the shoulder blades.

It needs to be kept in optimal position over the base of support to maintain balance. Therefore dogs always try to keep their COG just behind the front limbs. If the hind limbs are weak this pulls the COG backward.  The dog will try to control it or compensate by shifting weight forward (cranially)/toward the head, to try to return it to a normal place. The result is increased weight on the front limbs, beyond normal.

If this compensatory attempt goes on too long, potential problems can occur with overuse.

There can be overdevelopment (hypertrophy) of the neck, shoulder and scapular muscles, inflammation of the shoulder, elbow and wrist joints, and a widened stance.  Broadening of shoulders and positioning of front paws farther apart is an attempt to widen the base of support during gait.

As mentioned above, hind limb weakness is usually the source and occurs from ligament tears, hip dysplasia, spinal disc disease, etc. 

Sometimes widened front limbs are due to general obesity with large body mass. In dogs with neurological impairments the hind limbs will cross over or “scissor” and the front limbs will widen to compensate. 

A Veterinarian or animal- trained Physical Therapist will make a systematic observation from the back, front and side of the dog to analyze posture and assess gait as part of a total evaluation. The therapist’s eyes and hands are their most important evaluation tools.

They will look to see if weight is evenly distributed on the hind limbs, if there is lowering of the hips and pelvis because of an injury and the muscles cannot support the hips, etc.
Normal weight distribution is 60% on the front limbs and 40% on the hind limbs (it can change to 70% /30% with hind limb weakness).  

For this reason, “tripod” amputees missing a front limb are more challenged than those with an absent hind limb. In fact, there is very little gait change in a hind limb amputee.

The goal is to strengthen the weak areas and retrain the dog to shift weight back onto the affected area to avoid the compensation and restore symmetry.

Here are some tips and exercises for hind limb strengthening:

Basic “sit to stand” exercises, using low calorie treats, a clicker or a toy as a training aid for motivation strengthens the hip and thigh musculature.  Repeat the movement 5-8 times.  Watch for symmetry as the dog will tend to sit just on the stronger hip and rise toward that side.  A good technique is to start from a tight corner, such as in your kitchen, so the dog can’t “cheat” and use only the stronger side.  Use a treat and hand signals to walk the dog backwards into the corner first, and then ask them to sit, and then stand, etc.  You can also have them sit with their stronger side toward a wall and when they stand the wall will force them onto the weaker side, etc. 

An “indirect” way to force weight back toward the hind limbs is to alternately lift one front paw or limb and hold it up for a few seconds.  Alternate between the left and right 6 times.  You can progress to placing both of the front paws up onto a low step or platform and have the dog hold the position for 5-15 seconds.  You may have to use a sling to support the hind section.

Ideally you should have your Vet or PT demonstrate these exercises before trying them at home. 

They should assess how the dog tolerates them and provide you with starting parameters as well as how to progress, etc. 

Nothing beats the value of the controlled leash walk to increase hind limb strength.

It should be done slowly at first, then increase to a comfortable pace, but always “controlled”.

If the dog is limping, bobbing their head up and down with each foot fall or “bunny hopping” you need to slow the pace until the proper gait is seen.  

Start for 5 minutes and gradually increase the distance and time, 2-3 times per day.  Gradually add variations such a leash circles around a tree, making wide turns in a figure 8 pattern, vary the walking surface (grass or sand) , climb up and down low grade slopes, hills and  inclines, to increase the strength.  Intervals can be added to increase endurance, consisting of short 10-15 second bouts of faster speed, every few minutes.

Many other exercises exist using sandbag weights, theraband, carts, sleds, weave poles, cavaletti rails, physiorolls, rocker boards and treadmills, etc.  They are best performed by an “animal-trained” Physical Therapist or a Veterinarian trained in rehabilitation.


Susan E. Davis (Sue) is a licensed Physical Therapist with over 30 years of practice in the human field, who transitioned into the animal world after taking courses at the UT Canine Rehabilitation program.  She is located in Red Bank, New Jersey.

She has been providing PT services to dogs and other animals through her entity Joycare Onsite, LLC in pet’s homes and in vet clinics since 2008.

She also provides pro bono services at the Monmouth County SPCA in Eatontown, NJ.  Sue is the proud “dog mommy” to Penelope, a miniature Dachshund with “attitude”.  For more information see her website www.joycareonsite.com , or follow on Twitter @animalPTsue.

Sue is also the author of a fantastic book on physical therapy, Physical Therapy And Rehabilitation For Animals: A Guide For The Consumer.  

Physical therapy can do so many great things for your dog. Understanding all the possibilities physical therapy can offer will change your dog's life. This book definitely belongs on the shelf of every dog lover.

Further reading: 
Assessing Lameness
Comparative foot morphology
Measurement method on static weight distribution

Articles by Susan E. Davis:
Functional Strengthening Exercises: the What, Why and How
One Thing Leads To Another: Why The Second ACL Often Goes Too
Compensation: An Attempt To Restore Harmony
Paring Down to the Canine Core
Canine Massage: Every Dog ‘Kneads’ It”
Photon Power: Can Laser Therapy Help Your Dog?  
Physical Therapy in the Veterinary World  
Reiki: Is it real? 
Dog Lessons: Cooper  
The Essentials Of Canine Injury Prevention: 7 Tips For Keeping Your Dog Safer 
It's Not Just Walking, It's Therapy! 
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part I)
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part II Physical Therapy)
Range Of Motion: It’s A Matter Of Degree…
The Weight Of Water And How It Helps Dogs 
By Land or By Sea? A Comparison of Canine Treadmills 
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part I)
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part II) 
Scar Tissue: Is it Too Much of a Good Thing? 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Ramps! 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Indoor Duo Dog Exercises!
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Best Practices After Your Dog’s Surgery

Related articles:
Don’t Forget the Physical Therapy
Why The Second ACL Often Goes Too

1 comment

  1. Great post. I try to work on rear end awareness exercises and hind leg strengthening all the time with my dog, but I never think about watching for balance. I will have to try out your suggestions.