Dogs have a specific quadrupedal biomechanical design and digitigrade stance, which utilises their natural balanced stance and motion in a range of different postures and gait patterns. 

Movement is organised in sequences to achieve specific activities. Consider the tasks you have done today such as dressing and doing up buttons, brushing your hair, drinking a cup of coffee or driving your car. Compare this to the functional tasks and movement your dog requires each day to live their life to the full.

Dogs organise their movement very differently to humans; so require specific canine assessment and treatment techniques to achieve the best results.

Canine therapists use a range of assessment and treatment techniques to optimise canine function and motion for each dog in their care. The dog’s biomechanical model integrating movement efficiency and and power, is impacted by the dog’s age, breed, underlying problems, role and needs. Understanding normal canine balance and motion, empowers the therapist to make informed treatment selection and choices, aimed at improving each dog’s movement dysfunction, fitness levels and functional abilities.

Restoring or improving the quality of canine movement, whether the dog is a canine athlete, a post-surgical rehabilitation case or an elderly dog struggling with functional activities, results in happy, healthy dogs. Utilising techniques aimed at improving their natural balanced stance, motion and postures, achieves long lasting and amazing results.

Breed differences

Different breeds have their own specific conformation and morphology. For example, Border Collies have low-angled hocks to turn quickly and can creep to help herd as part of their breed conformation and design.

In contrast the Greyhound is the canine elite sprint athlete and has long parallel legs and a double suspension rotary racing gallop, where low angled hocks would be considered a serious conformational flaw in this breed.

Within this fantastic species, what is considered normal motion for one breed may be abnormal motion in another.

The challenge for canine therapists is to effectively clinically reason and select the best treatment techniques for each dog. This evaluation is based on the dog’s signalment (breed, sex, age, coat colour), their assessment findings and the canine behaviour in the clinical setting. Different breeds with their respective normal movements and specific needs, require an individually devised treatment plan to achieve the best outcomes.

Therapists need an expansive “Therapeutic Toolbox” of techniques to clinically reason their selection for each dog in their professional care.


K9HS Leaderboard Image for blog posts

What are the 4 main types of movement?

Type 1 – Reflexes are the simplest movement, such as a knee jerk or pupil dilation. These are involuntary responses to a sensory input and there is no threshold. Reflexes are a defence mechanism to protect the body from harm.

Type 2 – Fixed action patterns like sneezing and coughing are also an involuntary response, like reflexes. However, they have a threshold which has to be reached before triggering off a response. They are therefore a bit more complex than reflexes.

Type 3 – Rhythmic motor patterns (RMP) are a really important movement type in canine rehabilitation and they include walking, trotting, galloping and swimming. These are repetitive, complex patterns and are subject to voluntary control, being used by the dog in their everyday activities and life.

Type 4 – Directed movements are voluntary and complex and usually not repetitive. These are very important in human therapy whereas RMP are fundamental in canine rehabilitation and fitness work.

Directed movements in the dog are the learned patterns humans teach dogs when training or using dog games, with the learning being linked to an associated behaviour. These represent a small part of canine movement, whereas, Rhythmic Motor Patterns (RMP) constitute the majority of dog motion and function. Therapist’s who focus on techniques which optimise RMP movement types, will achieve the best results which are long lasting. This is due to these techniques being canine specific, relevant and meaningful to each dog’s daily functional needs.

Therapists are mindful not to focus on a reflex based or directed movement treatment as a primary choice of technique, as this will notably delay or limit progress compared to treatment programmes using RMP focused techniques.

“Canine locomotion is the product of proprioception + muscles.”
Professor Robert McNeill Alexander

Let’s explore the scientific facts we know – 

What is the proprioceptive system?

It’s a complicated neural feedback mechanism which is key in organizing balance, movement sequences and preventing injuries.

The proprioceptive system consists of several components – 

Receptors act as satellites collecting sensory information. Therapists can influence the information collected by these satellites using sensory integrated techniques as they have a detailed knowledge of the canine receptor sites and types of information collected. Technique choices are linked to each therapist’s practice ethos and ethical beliefs.

“K9HS would never advocate the use of noxious or painful techniques and always work with each dog’s consent.”

The incoming information passes along the afferent fibres to the central nervous system (CNS), which equates to the dog’s computer main frame and has multi tasks which includes collecting, storing, analysing and integrating information. Due to the neural design in the dog, most of the information is stored with a small amount being analysed.

This then passes from the CNS along the efferent fibres (motor pathways) to the muscles or end organs, directing their action. There are 2 main divisions in the dog’s efferent pathways and the canine priority divisional pathway is different compared to human movement. Canine technique selection which specifically integrates with this neuroanatomical arrangement, will always achieve the best results in canine rehabilitation and improve the quality of canine motion.

Consider an analogy where the two main efferent pathways (pyramidal and extra pyramidal pathways) are represented as 2 roadways.

Humans –

The main roadway (motorway) in humans is the pyramidal pathway and relates directly to the human biomechanical biped design. This serves the need for fine tuned movement sequences such as dressing, using a lap top, driving, eating with cutlery and all the other human movement sequences required each day. These complicated patterns of movement use graded muscle contractions and are the type 4 directed learned movements.

The minor roadway in humans is the extrapyramidal pathway, providing a small amount of automated background organisation of balance and coordination, without the need to process this consciously.

Dogs – 

With dogs it’s the complete opposite and their movement patterns are for the most part automated at spinal level. The main motorway (efferent pathway) for their daily life and functional needs are the extra pyramidal pathways.

Dogs have a large number of central pattern generators (CPGs) found in their thoracic and lumbar spine, compared to the much smaller number found in humans.

CPGs are biological neural circuits (like mini computers) which provide a rhythmical output and are the main drivers of canine rhythmical patters like gait and swimming. They are Type 3 RMP movement and a major part of the canine design for efficient motion, being under voluntary control and responsive.

The minor roadway in dogs is the pyramidal system, used for learning tricks and training, where the directed learned movement has an associated behaviour. This is NOT a natural balanced activity as it’s a commanded and taught sequence by humans, so not useful in therapeutically improving movement and function.

Focusing on the dog’s natural balanced stance and motion, utilising Type 3 RMP movements, therapists will achieve great results and make a significant improvement to the quality of each dog’s life.

What do muscles do?

Muscle contractions generate the power for canine movement and work in different ways; always being orchestrated and commanded by the proprioceptive system.

What are the different types of muscle contraction?

Isotonic exercise is dynamic and isometric exercise is static. Successful rehabilitation requires both of these types of exercise within the treatment programme to positively influence the quality of canine function and movement, used each day.

With isotonic exercise there are two types of muscle contraction to consider; concentric contraction, which is where your muscle shortens, and eccentric contraction where your muscles lengthens. 

Muscle Facts

Eccentric contraction has a higher power output compared to concentric contractions and we know canine movement consists mainly of eccentric muscle contraction work. Therefore, it’s essential to incorporate isometric exercise in all treatment programmes. Individual devised treatment plans need closed-chain and open-chain kinetic exercise, as well as dynamic joint stability work. Treatment plans are dependant on the each dog’s assessment findings, signalment, problems and needs.

More on the canine biomechanical design

The dog is biomechanically designed to go forwards in the sagittal plane. Backward movement is not a natural motion pattern and puts the canine biomechanical system under duress. Using a car analogy, the car is designed to primarily drive forwards and reversing is a limited supplementary manoeuvre. Research shows the importance of always working within the biomechanical design to limit additional unwanted forces through structures leading to design failure.

Therapists choose techniques relevant to each dog’s specific needs to achieve positive outcomes, plus work within the canine biomechanical design, optimising their function and movement.

K9HS Leaderboard Image for blog posts

A dog moving in natural balance on land or in water will move efficiently and with engaged power. Injury and dysfunction causes the dog to move out of balance leading to an inefficient movement secondary pattern.

Dogs can easily be taken out of balance by inappropriate handling, poor choice of harnesses and the use of buoyancy aids. The picture below on the right,  shows a poorly fitted harness and how it impedes the dog’s forelimb protraction. Using a well fitted Y-shaped harness will optimise the dog’s natural balanced motion, both on land and in water.

Therapists use a range of movement techniques on land and in water to assist dogs to work in natural canine balance and motion. This aims to re-instate efficient movement sequences and powering in the dog and improve their everyday land based function and motion, so they can enjoy their life fully.

By using specific species knowledge in the aquatic or land based environment, therapists can make informed, appropriate and effective treatment choices to achieve long term benefits and improvement for the dogs in their professional care.

If you would like to learn more about canine natural balanced stance + motion, check out the Short Course on Canine Natural Balanced Motion on the home page or courses page.

Update Your Skills

Want to learn more about canine clinical skills?

Looking for your next CPD course?


Check out our online courses:

I want to update my skills!