Clinical Techniques: Canine Proprioceptive Exercises

Clinical Techniques: Canine Proprioceptive Exercises

Practice Ethos; a canine therapist's perspective

What is it?

In the veterinary and medical world establishing a clear practice ethos is the fusion of a mission statement with healthcare ethics. It represents your clinical choices and standards and by determining your professional vision and values you send a clear message about your practice.

Your practice ethos expresses your vision, values and beliefs and is your anchor and reference point.

Defining your practice ethos clarifies your professional and personal goals, as well as assist you in visualising your canine career pathway.

Canine Proprioceptive System (PS)

What is it?

Canine proprioception is the body's awareness or sense of its position, movement and equilibrium. Position sense can be static or dynamic and is often integrated during many canine functional activities.


2 levels of proprioception : conscious (voluntary) + unconscious (involuntary).

The canine proprioceptive system is composed of a number of interlinked components building a functional system which is key to canine movement and function.


"Animal locomotion is the product of proprioception + muscle power." Professor R McNeill Alexander.

Canine movement consists of complex sequences orchestrated by the central nervous system (CNS) which commands and directs the dog’s gait patterns, postures and transfers to achieve the required canine activity. Examples; running, jumping, toileting, rising after rest, drinking, licking and eating.

The therapist can positively impact the dog's natural balanced motion and functional activities by selecting and utilising a range of proprioceptive enriched techniques relevant to the canine biomechanical design. This will result in an improved and more efficient canine motor pattern, leading to improved lives for dogs and their owners.


Clinical Tip: There are many different techniques, so carefully explore and reflect on the "why" of your choice. Always relate it to canine behaviour and scientific facts. Make sure you use species specific techniques supported by clinical reasoning and ensure you "work with the dog" and not apply a technique onto the dog.

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Canine Proprioceptive System (PS)

Key Components of the Canine PS


These are receptors which relay sensory information about the position and movement of the musculoskeletal (MSK) system to the central nervous system (CNS).

Proprioceptors are located in many different locations and act like satellite stations, passing huge amounts of information along incoming pathways (afferent fibres) to the central computer (CNS).


Clinical Tip: Therapists with knowledge of the type and location of the many different proprioceptors, can target and positively influence the information quality, therefore activating the proprioceptive system (PS). This in turn will improve the dog's movement.

Afferent pathways

These are the axons of sensory neurons carrying sensory information from all the different receptors to the CNS.

These pathways transmit the incoming traffic or impulses of information and this may reach conscious levels but most do not.

There are over a 100,000 afferent fibres compared to only 10,000 or so efferent fibres, so a huge amount of incoming compared to a smaller output!

Central nervous system (CNS)

The CNS is the main computer and has a number of elements responsible for processing, storing, integrating, analysing and responding to the sensory information.

The majority of incoming information is stored in the computer memory bank and only a small amount is actually evaluated with a resulting action.

Part of the CNS are the central pattern generators (CPGs). These are biological neural networks which produce a rhythmic output and drive canine rhythmic motor patterns like walking and swimming.

Efferent pathways

These are motor pathways that carry signals from the CNS to the end organ; muscle, directing it what to do, all in a spilt second!

Dogs and humans use different motor pathways to transmit important information which organises their different types of movement sequences.

Dogs mainly use their extra pyramidal pathway to organise their innate natural balanced movement, whereas humans predominantly use their pyramidal pathways as they use a very different type of movement to dogs. Humans rely mainly on learned movement pattern.

Think of the activities you do everyday like dressing, shopping, driving, writing, none of these are relevant to dogs who wish to lick, sniff, groom, transfer from one posture to another, walk, trot, chase, jump and dig!


Clinical Tip: Carefully consider the species you are working with; dogs (quadruped) versus humans (biped) have a different biomechanical design, foot / paw balance, neuro-anatomy and CPG arrangement related to the different type of movements they use! Don't be tempted to use a human technique on a dog!

A useful analogy is to consider the efferent pathways in dogs and humans as both having 2 roads; to send the important messages to the relevant muscles to switch them on and power the MSK system; 1. Main A road 2. Minor B road


The canine main A road = extrapyramidal pathway and is the route used to direct innate canine natural balanced movement like running, jumping, chasing and toileting etc.

The canine minor B road = pyramidal pathway is secondary to the main A road in dogs. Examples are; when the dog is taught tricks like sit up and beg, or training tactics like a down to command.


Training tricks / tactics / dog games are learned canine patterns, organised through their minor less important road, secondary to their primary innate natural balanced motion, stance, postures and functional activities.


In humans, it's completely different due to our different types of movement and functional needs;

The human main A road = pyramidal pathway (the dog's minor B road!), which is the way we learn most of our millions of sequences to do activities like riding a bike, driving a car, dressing, writing, playing the piano and swimming etc.

The human minor B road = extrapyramidal pathway (the dog's major A road!) is for the background activities we don't need to think about.

These physiological facts will influence the proprioceptive technique choices for dogs, who require specific canine techniques to achieve the best results.

Mind Map of the PS

Mind Map courtesy of Bernadette Kerbey (advanced canine hydrotherapist): trained at K9HS Courses achieving ABC Awards QLS L5 Advanced Canine Hydrotherapy.
Mind Map courtesy of Bernadette Kerbey (advanced canine hydrotherapist): trained at K9HS Courses achieving ABC Awards QLS L5 Advanced Canine Hydrotherapy.

Dog's innate movement sequences are not learned behaviours like humans as they do not need to learn to dress, use cutlery, drive a car or play the violin!

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Types of Canine Movement


Clinical Tip: Ensure you have established which type of movement pattern you are trying to rehabilitate or improve. Using Canine Movement Enrichment techniques achieves the best results for the dog's in your professional care.

Canine Biomechanics

The dog is a quadruped animal with a digitigrade stance. It's 4 limbs provide two main design functions;

  1. To support the dog up against the force of gravity
  2. To provide forward acceleration

In a natural balanced stance the dog will distribute 60% of its weight through the forequarters and 40% through its hindquarters, with each forelimb supporting 30% of the total weight, whereas each hind limb will support 20%.

The percentage of limb loading will naturally alter with different gait patterns, head movement and shifts out of balance.

Therapists who choose to work within the canine biomechanical design constraints, as well as being mindful of the dog’s behaviours and motivations, will always achieve the best results.

Abnormal loading due to underlying problems or conditions such as injury or pathology will result in pain or discomfort when using the affected structure, or when loading the affected limb or limbs. This leads to the dog adapting its natural balance and posture, creating a secondary inefficient loading pattern that in turn will lead to further movement dysfunction.

Canine biomechanics linked to proprioception

The command centre for canine movement sequences is the proprioceptive system (PS). The therapist needs to activate the PS by engaging with the dog in a focused and calm manner so they actively engage and respond to the therapist's movement guidance.

Dog’s should always be set up to achieve. This means that behaviours such as fool around, being over enthusiastic, freezing, flight, fright or shut down when over challenged are not desirable. By giving them choices and providing opportunities to engage in their innate natural balanced stance and motion, this will optimise their therapeutic progression.

K9 behaviour and movement are completely interlinked and cannot be separated!

Normal motion for one breed may be abnormal for another breed, due to the huge conformational variation across the species. As well as this fact, is the impact of the underlying condition or challenge on the dog's innate natural balanced motion.

Layered into this complex situation is the need for a sound knowledge and understanding of canine behaviours in context of the therapeutic clinical setting. This is crucial for safe and effective practice.


Clinical Tip: We know canine behaviours are influenced by environmental factors and can lead to changes in the dog's muscle tone, movement quality and behavioural choices. Clinic Enrichment (CE) techniques are transformational to clinical practice and easy to introduce.

With significant variation in canine breed biology, treatment selection will be influenced by the needs of each dog which may alter from session to session.

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Canine Biomechanics

Canine Proprioceptive Exercises

Why use them?

Utilising canine proprioceptive exercises on land and in water, as part of your movement techniques, leads to improved quality of life, whatever the dog’s age, breed, sex or underlying health or fitness challenge.

Which exercise is best?

Canine movement enrichment techniques concentrate on accessing the dog's main A road and have a very high value proprioceptively. Canine natural balanced motion, stance and complex functional activities like toileting, are part of each dog's daily needs. Taught training tactics and dog games have a much lower value proprioceptive wise when used therapeutically.

Optimising canine natural balanced stance, motion and functional activities is key to achieving a great quality of life and being a happy and healthy dog.

Building a professional bond with the dog to gain their focus and confidence, so the dog consciously mediates their movement decisions, is hugely proprioceptively enriching.


Clinical Tip: The dog's active decision (conscious mediation) to participate and generate a controlled active movement pattern instigated by the therapist, achieves a proprioceptively enriched movement sequence. Canine movement enrichment techniques significantly improve the dog's day to day movement and abilities.

However, techniques that cause a dog's behaviour to move into flight, fright, fool around, be evasive, over-enthusiastic, freezing, going into shut down or being reactive will not improve canine movement in the long term. These are more about the dog having to "get through" or "survive" the experience and have little therapeutic benefit.

Let's look beyond the wobble cushion, peanut, surf board and paw pods if your practice ethos is "all about the dog". These bits of equipment create simple reflexive balance reactions opportunities. Advance your practice and choose techniques that map directly into canine biomechanics, CPG activity, the canine PS and muscle memory. Techniques which initiate consciously mediated static and dynamic sequencing in natural balanced stance and motion tuned for each dog are much more effective and achieve the best outcomes every time.

In Summary

Mind Map courtesy of Richard Bentham, trained at K9HS Courses achieving ABC Awards L3 Certificate in Small Animal Hydrotherapy + ABC Awards QLS L5 Advanced Canine Hydrotherapy.
Mind Map courtesy of Richard Bentham, trained at K9HS Courses achieving ABC Awards L3 Certificate in Small Animal Hydrotherapy + ABC Awards QLS L5 Advanced Canine Hydrotherapy.

Proprioception, active movements & therapy

Proprioception is the neural feedback mechanism of the body and very important in organising efficient canine balance, coordination and movement sequences, as well as preventing injuries.

Choosing proprioceptive exercises which integrate canine biomechanics, behaviour and functional anatomy such as Canine Movement Enrichment techniques are excellent in achieving effective rehabilitation.

These proprioceptive techniques are adaptable for the elderly dog, high performance athlete and rehabilitation following injury, surgery or disease as they share the same concepts.

Active consciously mediated movements are significantly more functionally relevant than passive movements. Building a professional bond with each dog, being mindful of canine behaviours and responsive to their feedback (calming) signalling in a clinical environment, will achieve the best results every time!

Let's look at the "why" of your exercise treatment choices


For each dog, establish your SMART goals to clinically reason your exercise techniques as part of your overall treatment choices. Use proprioceptive enriched exercises to;

  • Raise the quality and efficiency of motor patterning
  • Effectively manage pain perception as part of a multimodal pain management plan
  • Optimise dynamic joint stability (DJS) and joint mobility
  • Improve joint range of motion (ROM)
  • Optimise muscle and soft tissue extensibility
  • Strengthen muscle and soft tissue
  • Improve organisation of balance and coordination
  • Increase cardiovascular fitness in dogs
  • Raise the performance in the athletic dogs
  • Improve the overall mental well being of dogs

Therapists who choose to utilise treatment techniques and mindful canine exercises that work with the dog in a holistic and relevant way, will achieve the best results that are proactive and long lasting, leading to great outcomes for each dog in your care.

This Bitesize Resource was produced for you and is owned by K9HS Courses