Some of you may know that I am actively involved in sports and competition with my dogs – I love it!.
This includes obedience at a competitive level.
For those that don’t know what this looks like: the dog walks on your left-hand side with his head tilted and looking up at you for the duration of the exercise.
This is a picture of my dog, Ornella, heeling next to me:
An interesting article addressed something I always thought about in my training: Continued heeling with the head up – does it have physical consequences?
I have seen intense competitors that will show even more extreme or intense heeling positions as the dogs walk looking up at their handlers eagerly waiting for that reward of a ball or treat. This exercise forms part of many activities in various sports such as competitive obedience routines, IPO/IGP protection sports, focus exercises etc.
I often wonder if the handlers/owners think of all the compensations that are going on in their dog’s bodies while they maintain that position. Many handlers don’t.
Let’s take a look at what happens while a dog performs this obedience stance:
In a sound, healthy dog, a normal stance will show that a dog carries approximately 60 – 70% of their weight on the front legs. In order to determine lameness and degrees of lameness, many times a gait analysis machine will be used to determine which leg has less pressure placed on it and which legs are having more pressure placed on it. A gait analysis machine will use as a starting point and even distribution of weight on all four feet (in a normal healthy stance the 60 -70% extra weight carried in the front legs is marked as normal and labelled 100%). From this starting point, the gait analysis machine measures more or less pressure placed on each foot.
In the first image is a gait analysis of a healthy dog with a normal stance. In the second image is a normal dog who is heeling with the head facing up looking to the right.
You can see that the heeling position places extra pressure on the left side of the dog.
Naturally, this is the body compensating for the position of the head while walking.
The worry comes in when we think about the dog having to do this for prolonged periods and the associated side-effects thereof.
The good news is that we can do various things to help our dogs not suffer any long-term side effects from this continued position.
The heeling position (where the dog is looking up and to the right) causes the sideways neck flexion to add additional weight onto the opposite front leg. This upward, to the right extension, also puts more weight on the diagonal, opposite hind leg. Prolonged periods in this position may create an imbalance in the pelvis and the hindlimbs. [Head Up/Right Stance]
When the dog is looking up in extension and to the right, this compresses the right side of the neck and stretches the left side. Over time, this can create an imbalance in the muscles and pressure on the vertebrae.
Remember that a normal head up and down movement should not compromise the integrity of the top-line or the spine of the dog. The top-line/core/spine should remain straight and strong when a dog is standing or moving.
In a dog with weak abdominal core muscles, a simple head up posture (similar to the position required in obedience heeling) can cause a dip in this topline. This posture may lead to adverse issues in the spine as well as compensatory issues in the rest of the body. These may very well lead to the extra strain placed on joints and muscles.
How can you help?
Make sure to include neck movements to the left and downward before and after heeling with the head up and to the right.
Incorporate safe neck flexion (stretching) in your dog’s daily fitness routine. Encourage your dog to slowly and with purpose, to look right and left while keeping all four paws in place. Start on a stable surface and progress slowly to an unstable surface. Increase your dog’s range of motion gently and hold the position. This will help build your dog’s body and topline core strength as well.
I encourage all competitors to be aware that prolonged competition obedience in the heads-up heeling position can create muscle soreness and imbalance. Keep practice to short periods, broken up with other activities.
Always keep your dog’s health and soundness a priority! S/he is your partner in your sport. Happy and safe training!
Reference: Excerpts from Debbie Gross Torraca, DPT, MSPT, CCRP,CCMT, Board-Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist Emeritus Owner and Founder