by Sarah Fisher
As seen in the December 2003 issue of Animal Talk Sarah Fisher is a TTouch Practitioner based in the U.K. and is a regular contributor to many of the UK ’s top animal magazines. She travels widely in the UK giving presentations and teaching workshops to staff at the UK ’s leading animal shelters including Battersea Dogs Home, The Mayhew Animal Home and the National Canine Defence League.
Looking at Dogs in the Present Tense
Understanding how posture relates to and directly influences behaviour in animals can give you valuable information about how and why your dog reacts the way he does in certain situations. This can be a helpful tool when selecting a dog from the shelter when details about the dog’s background may be sketchy or completely unknown.
You can also use these observations to learn more about the dog already in your care or to assess a dogs’ suitability for the life style that you lead. Even if you are choosing a puppy, understanding the correlation between posture and behaviour can give you some indication as to how he will mature as many traits and behavioural characteristics are in place at a very early age. By understanding how tension patterns influence the dogs mind you can prevent or overcome many common behavioural problems and tailor your management of the dog to suit his individual needs.
What are Tension Patterns
Tension Patterns are areas of tightness that exist in an animals body. They may be obvious and inhibit the natural movement of an animal to a greater or lesser degree or may be subtle and less easily detected. Either way they will have an effect on the way the animal functions on an emotional, mental and physical level. They can influence not only how the dog thinks, feels and learns but can hamper a dogs ability to be trained and adapt to new situations.
Why do Tension Patterns Occur?
There are a number of reasons why tension patterns occur. Whilst breed type and genetic makeup obviously influence posture other factors can also come into play.
- Injury. As well as greatly reducing tolerance levels, pain can alter a dog’s normal posture and movement. Even after the injury has healed the dog may still move in the posture it adopted to compensate for the original problem. He may have to learn how to move in a more effective manner once more since the muscles may have developed unevenly thus maintaining the posture the dog adopted to protect the injured area.
- Medical Problems. Changes in hormones, thyroid imbalances, arthritis, hip dysplasia, and other medical problems give rise to many issues. Whilst veterinary care is paramount, awareness of how the underlying problem is affecting your dog gives you the opportunity to reduce stress and minimise the knock on effect the issue may have on your dog’s posture and behaviour.
- Trauma Shock as a result of an accident or an emotional upheaval such as being in kennels, bereavement, or change of circumstance can cause tension throughout the body. Just as with humans, even low levels of stress can cause physiological changes and influence the dog in his day to day existence.
- Management/Training Lack of exercise, inappropriate environment, or unsuitable training methods can all cause stress in a dog and exacerbate habitual and instinctive behaviour. Poor nutrition and food allergies can also cause tension through the body.
- Born that way. Some dogs present tension patterns right from birth. Puppies with higher levels of tension in their skin or in specific parts of their body will generally be more vocal and more demanding from even a few days old. Unless these tension patterns are reduced it is likely that the problems will grow as the puppy matures.
Identifying Tension Patterns
Before you can set about doing anything to relieve areas of tension you have to identify them. Spend some time watching the way your dog moves both on and off the lead. Note how he sits and how he lies down. Observe closely the way in which he holds himself and organises his limbs when walking. Watch how he stops – does he always stand square or does he stand in an uneven frame? Does he stand base narrow or base wide (with his feet closely together or wide apart).
Look at his tail – does it hang down, is it high or tucked firmly between his hind legs? Does he wag it more to one side than the other? Can he walk in a straight line or does he cower and ‘hug’ the ground. Is he stiff? Is there a curve through his body or does the foot fall of his hind limbs follow the pattern of his front paws? Does one ear look as though it is higher or set further back than the other? All of these postural patterns will link to a dog’s behaviour and with experience it is actually possible to gather enough information from the way a dog moves, stands, sits and lies down to form a picture of his likely responses in a variety of situations.
If you know the dog or if the dog is happy to be handled by unfamiliar people you can then use your hands to confirm or give you a more specific feel as to where the tension lies. Starting at the head run, the flat of your hand smoothly along the dog’s neck and back and continue towards the hindquarters and tail. Progress to running your hand along the shoulder and side, and down the front and hind limbs. Once you have finished one side, check the other and note if your findings are the same on both sides of the body. If the dog is unsure at any point stop immediately. If the dog is shy or nervous, try using the back of your hand instead.
Note any peculiarities which indicate tension. These may include the following:
- Changes in temperature – hot or cold patches
- Differences in coat texture – such as scurf or raised or rough areas of hair.
- Lumps and bumps.
- The skin or underlying muscles twitching when certain places are touched
- A feeling of tightness in the skin or underlying muscle tissue
- The dog expressing his concern in any way including moving away, freezing, or growling.
What to do
If you find tension patterns in your dog there is plenty that you can do to alleviate the problem. It is possible to produce a very rapid difference in a dog’s behaviour and attitude to life. It is important, however, to be realistic and bear in mind that some tension patterns may take time and patience to address. This may depend on the longevity of the problem or the underlying cause.
Consulting a veterinary surgeon is vital if you suspect an underlying physical problem.
Making suitable adjustments to the environment and management of the dog may be necessary.
Attending a Tellington TTouch workshop or working with a qualified Tellington TTouch Practitioner will give you valuable tools to address tension patterns and their associated behaviours.
The Tellington TTouch involves a variety of ground exercises and special body TTouches which promote body awareness, use and posture. This in turn can be instrumental in developing a more balanced personality and can help eliminate many undesirable behaviour patterns. Simply punishing a dog for unwanted behaviour will only make existing tension patterns worse and lead to the creation of others.
Ruby Labrador Retreiver Aged: 4
Despite being owned by very experienced handlers, Ruby had always been difficult to handle and train. Since early puppy hood she had always displayed a very reactive personality and would attempt to bite anyone who tried to initiate contact with her. In assessing her posture it gave her owners information as to how they could begin to reduce the reactivity. Ruby was glassy-eyed, very high headed and with a high tail set. She was so tense through her back that she gave the appearance of having her hackles slightly raised. This posture is typical in dogs that are highly defensive.
By addressing her physical state through simple body TTouches and ground exercises her owners were able to bring about enough change in the space of one day that Ruby allowed and other people to work with her. Four weeks later Ruby went to the vet for a health check and for the first time in four years did not have to be muzzled for the examination. Ruby’s problem was nothing to do with the way she had been handled in her early years – she was simply born that way. The tension in her body was dictating how she had to behave. She could only operate within a very narrow window with the inflexibility in her body causing her to be inflexible in her mind thus limiting the options of self-expression available to her.
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PART TWO for next issue will list how tension in specific parts of the body can be linked to certain behaviours – mapping areas of tension from the mouth right through the body to the tail and feet.