Thursday, June 30, 2011

Paring Down to the Canine Core

by Susan E. Davis, PT

In the event you might research” canine strengthening”, part of the new field of PT and Rehabilitation for animals, you will find plenty of information about the fore and hind limbs. You will not find much at all on the “Core” groups which contain the diaphragm, abdominal and spinal musculature.

As time goes on, we realize just how critical these muscle groups are to canine function and the importance of properly including them in a rehabilitation program.

The abdominal muscles are those which run from the ribs to parts of the pelvis. 

Their names are: rectus abdominis, external and internal obliques and transverse abdominus.

Their functions are
  1. Movement: bending or flexion, side bend and rotation of the spine 
  2. Support for the spine and visceral organs 
  3. Assist or act as an “accessory” to activity, breathing, barking.  

Buddy Rolling About

The rectus is “superficial” and runs long ways in a head to tail direction (like the “6-pack” muscle in the human), the obliques are diagonal, along the dog’s side, and the transverse is a deep, lower muscle which runs from side to side.  

When you visualize how the dog walks in a quadruped (all four limbs on the ground) manner with its internal organs positioned parallel to the ground, you can see how important the abdominal muscles are in supporting them and countering the effects of gravity as a “floor”.

Canines also have a much “shorter” gut/intestinal path as compared to humans, and the abdominals can also be helpful in aiding this system.

It is important to strengthen and  firm the abdominals  for prevention  of spinal conditions in dogs, particularly the  chondrodystrophic (dwarf) breeds like Dachshunds, Corgis, Pekingese and Lhasa Apsa, or after spinal injury or spinal surgery.  

In non-orthopedic cases where abdominal surgery is performed for removal of masses, etc., the abdominal area will need rehabilitation to help tissue healing and regain strength.

Typical PT intervention after abdominal surgery will include massage over the surgery site. 

Abdominal incisions are deep and tend to form excess scar tissue. This forms naturally as the body heals itself and it   usually reabsorbs with normal movement and activity.

However sometimes excess scarring can linger and impair muscle function.  These “cross links” of excess collagen are broken down thru various types of massage.  

The most common is transverse friction where a shearing type of movement is performed perpendicular to the scar direction (if scar runs “north-south the friction is applied “east-west”, etc.).

Another form is myofascial release, a very light subtle rhythmical surface technique which works on the fascia or connective tissues surrounding the musculature.

There are other “somatic” body work vibratory techniques used by massage therapists that can also help.  In the “human PT” world a “Wurn Technique” exists that is being used over the abdominal region to release scar tissue in women having difficulty conceiving.  I anticipate these techniques may eventually become adapted for use in animals having medical abdominal issues.

Now for the fun part!  Here are some examples of strengthening and toning exercises:

1.  "Get on the Ball”   using a peanut-shaped ball or physioroll, place the dog on top,” long ways” and perform gentle bouncing motions, while keeping one hand on your dog and one on the ball. This will activate and “recruit” the abdominal musculature.

2.  “Sit up for a Treat” can be performed starting with your dog lying on their back.  A pillow or mattress can be placed underneath.  Place one hand under their ribs or behind the neck, while the other hand holds a small treat, encourage them to do a “curl or sit-up” and reach the treat.  This engages the rectus muscle, by working from the ‘top down”.  5 reps

3. “Add a Twist”: roll them toward their side using a cushion or pillow under the ribs and do the same “sit-up” as above, but from the side, to activate the obliques. Repeat on the other side:  3-4 reps per side.

4.  “Bottoms up” now work from the bottom up to recruit the deeper transverse abdominals.  Start position with dog on their back.  Lean over the dog and tickle their lower belly, rub your head on the fur or something similar that is fun for your dog, so they will naturally want to curl-up their legs and “bottom”.  This is not done in reps but in time.  Try and make this a fun little game, getting them to hold the position for 10-15 seconds.  My dog likes when my hair falls down on her belly!

5. If your dog has difficulty lying on their back or side for the above exercises, you can start with a basic “belly tickle” in the standing on all fours position.  Place one hand under their chin to align the head horizontally, and the other hand lightly tickling the belly to encourage abdominal muscular contraction.

6. Stretching: like all muscles, the abdominals can get tight and may need to be stretched.  This should be done by a PT or your Vet, via rolling from side to side and lying back over a small rolled towel or foam roller.

General precautions and Contraindication:  

Though I love to provide examples of PT exercises for you to do at home, the safest and best way is to be shown first by an animal-trained PT or a rehab-trained Vet.

They can provide specific modifications and parameters for the best outcome. I would avoid abdominal strengthening in certain high-cut/deep chested breeds such as boxers as there may be a risk of stimulating gastric torsion. It is always best to get your Vet’s advice first.  Have a great summer and help firm your dog’s abs!!!


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 , 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.

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

Further reading:
Scar Tissue Massage
Characteristics and functional significance of canine abdominal muscles

Related articles:
Don’t Forget the Physical Therapy


  1. This is an amazing post! I need to try a few - I really like keeping my dogs fit and it does my ego good when the Vet comments on their muscle ;)

    The sit one I have done since Kodee was one to help strengthen but appeared to be a loose patella. With that and a steady walk program I never looked back.

  2. Hi, yeah, nothing like a positive comment on their muscles, isn't it? I love hearing that too, particularly with Jasmine and all she's been through.

    Physical therapy can really do wonders. Glad Kodee is doing so well!