Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Pet PT Pit Stop: What's in a Dog's Gait?

by Susan E. Davis, PT “pull in for a helpful refuel!”  

It’s all about guiding and empowering you to help your pet avoid injury, provide practical solutions and achieve rapid restoration of health and function!   

The manner, in which a dog ambulates or walks, is called “gait”. 

When a dog moves around the show ring, it is called “gaiting”. Gait is a complex topic and one that fascinates dog owners who value their pet’s mobility.

A physical therapist analyzes gait by breaking it down into the following elements:
  1. Level of independence: how independent the dog can walk on their own, do they need any physical assistance?

  2. Assistive devices: if the dog needs assistance, is it minimal, moderate or maximal and what type: via a sling, wheeled cart, brace?

  3. Weight bearing: the amount of weight a dog places on its limbs: full, partial, toe-touch or non- weight bearing. Typically this refers to one or 2 limbs, affected by pain, injury, etc.

  4. Distance or duration a dog can walk: measured in feet, meters, miles, or by time. If a dog can only move from room to room it is called “functional” distance, and if longer distances outdoors it is called “recreational or community” distances.

  5. Cadence: refers to speed of gait. It is measured in miles per hour or described in general terms such as sluggish, guarded, normal, rapid, etc.  

  6. Cycle: describes when the contact of one paw on the ground begins and ends when that paw again touches ground. Each cycle consists of a swing phase (paw is off the ground) and stance phase. Usually they are equal but when a problem exists, the swing phase may be shortened (also called short stride length) or the stance phase decreased (as in a limp).  Cycles can also help measure recovery from surgery in terms of a dog beginning to bear weight on a limb, such as with post cruciate ligament repair. I might describe in a report to a veterinarian that the dog is partially bearing weight on the limb at least 50% of the gait cycles. As the dog improves it will bear full weight on 80 to 100% of the cycles.  
Now, let’s take a look at the various patterns of gait for quadruped animals, those that walk on four limbs:
  1. Walking: usually a dog will start walking from the hind limb, often the left. Walking is a slow, 4-beat gait: L hind followed by R front followed by R hind then L front limb

  2. Amble: a fast walk

  3. Trot: a 2-beat, diagonal gait. The L hind moves with the R front limb, and then the R hind moves with the L front limb.

  4. Flying Trot: a fast trot

  5. Pace: a 2-beat, same-side gait. The L hind moves with the L front, then the R hind/front move together. Pacing often appears like a rolling or waddling gait. It is a normal gait in certain long-limb canine breeds such as Weimaraners. Pacing is often abnormal, and may occur in dogs having pain or weakness. Pacing is a way of walking with minimal energy output, similar to pendulum swinging of the limbs from the spine.

  6. Canter: a fast 3-beat gait; L hind moves together with diagonal R front, then R hind and L front separately. Many people think the canter is only seen in horses, but it does occur in dogs. I think of it like ‘skipping’ and a frolicking type of gait seen often in toy breeds such as the Min Pin.

  7. Gallop: sometimes called running, typically both hind limbs push off at the same time, held closely together, followed by the front limbs individually.   In some gallops, there is a moment in the cycle where all paws are up off the ground.

The final area of gait evaluation consists of deviations, or abnormal patterns seen in dogs with injury, pain, disability or disease. 

There are too many to discuss in one article and always new ones observed that aren’t in the text books! Here is my top 10 list of the most common. If you recognize one of these in your pet it might give you a clue as to what is going on, and then check it out professionally with your dog’s veterinarian or physical therapist.
Antalgia - or limping, when the dog lifts the limb up off the ground too early in the cycle, favoring it. It also means the dog is spending less time on that limb in the stance phase of the gait cycle. Antalgia is an indication of pain.

Ataxia- the dog is staggering or moving clumsily, unable to balance or control movements well. It indicates neurological problems in the brain (brainstem or cerebellum), spinal cord or vestibular problems from the ear.

Choppy gait
- describes quick, short stride lengths often seen in dogs with hip dysplasia, hip arthritis, and shoulder arthritis

- a circular, arc-like swinging of the limb during gait, due to tightness in the spine or stiffness of the stifle or elbow joints.

- observed when the dog’s front limbs move in an irregular high step or prancing fashion and the front of the body looks like it is floating or lifting up off the ground. This indicates instability in the neck or neurological problems arising from the upper spine. 

Head bob
- the dog’s head bobs up and down during each step, in an over exaggerated style. This usually indicates pain on stepping due to arthritis, bone spur, soft tissue injury, paw injury, etc.  The excessive head and neck movement is an attempt to take weight off the painful area during the stance phase of gait.

- usually seen in the rear limb, a hiking-up or jerking- up motion at the hip, indicates tightness, stiffness or pain in the lumbar or sacroiliac joints, hip, pelvis or stifle and occurs during the swing, non-weight bearing gait phase.

- the dog’s paw will curl under with the digits tucked beneath, resulting in a rolling over onto the knuckles, instead of landing flat on the toe pads. Knuckling usually indicates weakness, primarily of neurological origin from the spine and spinal nerves.

- the dog’s hind limbs are held very closely together or crossed over each other during gait. It usually indicates spastic nerve problems coming from pressure on the spinal cord but can also be seen in Degenerative Myelopathy. Scissoring can occur with the front limbs and that is normal in some dog breeds.


- an exaggerated lifting of the entire limb off the ground during the swing phase of gait, occurring when there is weakness or loss of control of the paw movements.  It is usually associated with drop-paw, trauma, neuropathy, peripheral nerve injuries (those that occur away from the spine and spinal cord.


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 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Ideas to Chew on - Can Physical Therapy Help with my Dog’s Digestive Problems?
Wrap It Up: Using Soft Supports For Your Dog
When Do I Use Heat versus Cold? : A Tale (or Tail) Of Two Temps! (Part I) 
When Do I Use Heat versus Cold? : A Tale (or Tail) Of Two Temps! (Part II) 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Safe Summer Boating Tips for your Dog 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Hip Dysplasia - What’s a Dawg Mama to Do?
PT Pit Stop: Wheeled Carts Keep Them Doggies Rollin' (Part I)
PT Pit Stop: Wheeled Carts Keep Them Doggies Rollin' (Part II)
Staying in the Loop with Targeted Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy
Addressing Frailty Syndrome in Geriatric Dogs 
The Pet PT Pit Stop: "Where's The Evidence?"
Physical Therapy is Great, Except When It Isn’t 
Top Dogs and their Toplines at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (Part I)
Top Dogs and their Toplines at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (Part II) 


  1. I'm going to start paying more attention to Haley's gait now since she's getting a little older and occasionally has a limb if she over-does it while playing hard. Good tips to watch for potential problems.

    1. Gait, getting up slower, not getting on the furniture any more ... even changes in shape such as broadening shoulders, uneven circumference of hind legs ... pays off to measure from time to time because lots of favoring isn't actually visible to human eye but it will reflect in one leg having less muscle than the other etc

    2. That's a great idea to measure her hind legs occasionally. She had an vet check up this week and the ACL is just a little bit loose, but I do notice her using the other leg to do more of the work when it's bothering her.

      I was excited to learn that my vet does stem cell therapy for arthritis, so that may be an option for later.

    3. Stem cell therapy is awesome; we did that for Jasmine.

      The circumference will tell you exactly how much each leg is used. It is really telling.

  2. I think the best description of what Chester does when we runs is the gallop. It's kind of a hop where his back legs move together and then his front legs. I always thought that both front legs, and both back legs, were moving together but maybe they aren't. I will have to take a closer look.

    1. Probably depends on the dog and the speed they run at too. Cookie, when she's chasing something, has a very typical way of doing that to achieve the highest speed.

    2. Hi Jessica, If Chester is a dachshund, it would be a gallop.