Smelling, Standing, and Not Skipping: Notes on Functional Integration and Dogs

Cliff Smyth, GCFT

This article was written for Feldenkrais practitioners, but we felt it would be of interest to the general public. It was first published in The Feldenkrais Journal, 21, 2008. I hope you enjoy it,
Cliff Smyth.

It is impossible for a human to know a dog's experience. But there is a great pleasure in the sensing, moving, and feeling that can happen between species - especially ones that may have co-evolved for tens of thousands of years. Estimates vary between 12,000 and 100,000 years of "domestication" of dogs by humans or "co-evolution of dogs and humans" - depending on the theory to which you subscribe. 1. Although working with dogs is a small part of my practice, it provides a great learning opportunity for my understanding of the art and science of practicing the Feldenkrais Method of somatic education. Because working with dogs is not taught in Feldenkrais basic training programs or advanced trainings, I was faced with the challenge of making it up on my own, of adapting what I had learned from my training and experience to this new situation.

However, working with dogs is a bit like being "A Feldenkrais Practitioner on Mars". 2. For example, as I come up the stairs to meet Sophie, a new client, she barks loudly and growls deeply. I gently lower my hand. She takes my invitation, suspiciously at first, and sniffs my fingers. Then she takes the initiative. She sniffs my jeans, my shoes, and again my hands. We are introduced - at least enough for her to let me into her home. Dogs have over 14 times the olfactory mucous membrane area of humans.3 Smell is a vital part of their sensory universe informing social behaviors such as greeting humans and other dogs, not to mention their hunting and foraging activities. 4. If Moshe Feldenkrais had worked with dogs, he might have written an article titled, "The Primacy of Smelling."

The challenges of working with another species are not just in the realm of sensory preferences and capabilities. When starting to work with dogs I was confronted by many issues including what constitutes a function for a dog: their eating, sitting, standing, and walking; and communication with ears, tail and their whole body. Then there are the differences between dog and human anatomy that represent their different lives and evolution. Important differences associated with four-legged locomotion include a horizontal spine and pelvis, and an evolutionary history of hunting, scavenging, and pack behaviors. Then there is the additional challenge of working almost completely on a non-verbal level. Humans in the dog's social system can provide some information about their history of injuries, observed behaviors, and preferences. A verbal dialogue with the client, however, is not an option.

Ruby was my first canine client. Her humans were students in my Awareness Through Movement classes and they were desperate to find someone who could help her run and climb stairs again. Ruby walked with a pronounced limp. She had fallen off a 45-foot cliff onto concrete and a piece of rebar had pierced her chest, badly injuring her pectoral muscles. I agreed to visit Ruby and see if there was anything I could do. No guarantees.

Ruby's owners asked me if I wanted to see her X-rays, because she had also broken a sternebra. A sternebra? It was time for some research. It turns out a dog's sternum is made up of several sternebrae, segments connected by sternebral cartilage, so the sternenbra is neither fully articulated by synovial joints, nor fully fused as is a human sternum. Sternebrae can be displaced or broken in an accident.

I also thought of Linda Tellington-Jones and her TTouch® work with animals. I re read her book (5.) and watched her video (6.) on working with dogs. She has developed a wonderful body of practice for working with animals, especially with behavioral issues. Her work was a timely reminder that dogs live in a highly complex social world. When working with any new canine client, I often recall Yochanon Rywerant's reminder at the 1994 Feldenkrais Guild of North America Conference about how important it is to reassure the limbic system, associated with the sense of safety and flight-or-fight responses, before we can successfully communicate with the supra-limbic parts of the brain.

Thus my first strategy is to visit the dog in his or her own home. The one dog who came to my office interrupted our session every two minutes to sniff around the perimeter of the room in which we were working. The second strategy is to establish contact through touch. The Tellington TTouch®, (6.) using repeated circular touches all over the animal's skin, is very useful for calming a dog client. Other strategies include pacing the dog's breath and touching the dog's ears, something I also learned from Linda Tellington-Jones's work. Probably reflecting the importance of hearing for dogs, their ears have more muscular development than humans. Indeed there are at least 12 muscles of a dog's head involved in the movement of their ears. 7. Touching a dog's ears can produce a deepening of breath and a reduction in tonus in the whole system.

The process of establishing contact and calming is a necessary aspect of Functional Integration lessons with dogs. When we reflect on canine evolution (despite their different breeds all dogs are the same species, Canis familiaris), we observe a very alert and quick, highly responsive nervous system. A nervous system that evolved and adapted to survival, mostly in hierarchical social groups, where other animals competed for food resources, and where they were threatened by larger predators. Subsequent breeding by humans has emphasized many of the attributes and behaviors of undomesticated canids.

These include acute olfactory and auditory (but sometimes not visual) abilities associated with the defense of group members or territory; and identifying, stalking, rounding up, attacking, killing, and carrying game. Dogs also have the ability to understand many communicative behaviors - originally in the pack, and now also from humans. They are highly attuned to a myriad of subtle canine and human gestures - including many unintentional ones from humans! Individual dogs have been observed to respond to over 50 distinct commands from humans conveyed by movement, posture, hand signals, and voice. 8.

Dog clients can be downright jumpy - their nervous systems are like that. They often display survival behaviors of "alertness and quick response to stress." 9. I avoid sudden and unexpected sounds or gestures. Often sessions are interrupted as the dog investigates the arrival of someone to the home, a strange noise, or interesting smell. But, on the other hand, we have bred dogs that can tolerate the anxiety of interspecies contact, providing an easy opening for us to establish relationship. Indeed, most dogs are now kept for human companionship. 10.

In my experience, an important part of the first few Functional Integration lessons is to establish a sense of calm contact. Given time and attention, most dogs are able to enter into this calmer state. I have found that it is often not possible to work hands-on with a dog for even 45 minutes. They appear to often need a break - not just a pause - from being touched every 5, 10, or 20 minutes or so. Eventually, over a series of lessons, some dogs will stay still for longer lessons.

Ruby stood with one of her front legs out to the side at about 30 degrees from the vertical. When she walked, the injured leg came under her chest to some extent, but was still out to the side. When she tried to run or climb stairs the paw frequently slipped out from under her. I knew from my research that dogs have virtually no clavicle. There are no bony connections or synovial joints between the forelimb and the axial skeleton. To stand, walk, and run the strong pectoral muscles function to adduct the limb. Having no clavicle allows them to move freely, to swing their forelimb forward and back for rapid locomotion. 11.

After establishing rapport and helping Ruby feel safe, I began to explore if I could help her regain some options for comfortable and efficient movement. Thinking about evoking the functions of standing, walking, and running while the dog is at rest, I work a lot of the time with the dog lying on its side. The approaches to Functional Integration are similar to work with humans. For example, I outlined the bones of Ruby's leg and shoulder, touching around and clarifying the outside edge and spine of the scapula where many of the muscles from the spine and the upper forelimb attach. Lifting the leg that is on top (sometimes the uninjured leg, sometimes the injured one) to a height approximating standing I pushed through her radius and ulna (from the end of the bones or the carpal pad) and humerus (from the elbow). As I lightly pushed - slightly changing the height, the turn, the angle through the joints with each push - I felt for Ruby's response, for the way the muscles of her leg and shoulder began to re-organize... until I was able to see a tiny movement in her spine and feel that I was connecting to her spine from her leg. Rather than just sliding up the scapula or bunching up the muscles, I found, without force, a functional pathway for weight bearing. I watched her breath to see how she responded. If the breathing was steady, I continued to explore. Several times as we worked with the injured leg, she took a deep sigh.

Having found what I hope is a comfortable angle to push as for standing, I could use my hands to suggest the angles of force for sitting with the front legs long, as well as her need to be able to swing her paw forward in walking and running.

It is difficult to push through the pads of a dog's feet, the phalanges manis and phalanges pedis. This would be equivalent to pushing through the fingers and toes of a human. They are important for walking, and seem to have a similar function to human toes of providing grip for the completion of each stride. In dog locomotion it is the metacarpal and metatarsal pads that make contact before the digital pads. 12. Many dogs dislike having their pads and feet touched or manipulated. When I gain their trust, some dogs let me touch their feet. Then it has been possible to push through their pads - to push back at an angle to the leg while moving the leg in a stepping motion.

Dogs cannot "lock" their knee joints, unlike some animals such as horses, elephants, and humans. Those animals can "stack" the upper and lower leg bones with little or no muscular activity to stabilize the joint. This is how horses can sleep while standing. But if a dog does not have adequate neuro-muscular organization of their hind legs then standing and walking quickly becomes impossible. After a few sessions Ruby was sitting and standing with her front legs at the same angle. She was running and climbing the stairs with ease. Mason was a 6-year-old Great Dane - getting quite old for his breed. He had a spinal stenosis that was causing diffuse neurological problems. The veterinary hospital diagnosed it as inoperable. He had stopped walking and his owners were considering euthanasia, as carrying him downstairs to urinate and defecate was becoming difficult. Using similar ideas that had worked with Ruby, and focusing initially on movement with his hind legs, I found that ways of directing force through Mason's femur from near the stifle (or knee) initially helped the most. Later I was able, while stabilizing the knee, to push through his tibia and fibula (from the ends of the bones and near the tarsal pads) into his hip joints. Again, I was thinking of the angles needed for standing and walking. Initially this pushing caused a clonic reaction, but through using less force sometimes and at other times maintaining a steady pressure, the shaking stopped. I also touched his pelvis and greater trochanters to clarify the relationships between his axial skeleton and legs. For example, holding his pelvis still with one hand, while pushing though his leg with my other hand, increased compression, and presumably sensation in and of the hip joint. Then I let the pelvis move with the push through the leg. After the first lesson, Mason got up of his own accord and walked.

Once Mason was willing to stand again he had trouble flexing his forepaws and transferring weight onto the back of those paws (onto the carpal pads). Even as he stood, it was as if he was leaning back toward sitting - making it difficult to stand on his hind limbs. On investigation, I found that one of Mason's shoulders was restricted. It felt tight and heavy. He seemed reluctant to let me move it. I had noticed already that it appeared that the spinal stenosis was triggering small, rapid fasciculations in the muscles of this shoulder. By taking time, by moving the shoulder with the movements of the ribs (for example, I put my hand between his forelimb and ribs and was pacing the breath), by supporting his leg in a "standing" position and by simulating gentle walking movements with his whole forelimb, I found Mason able to move this shoulder more easily and his ability to flex this forepaw improved. After this, I was able to push alternately into each leg (on the same side) to suggest the feeling of weight shift in walking.

I saw Mason once every week or two for more than a year and he continued to walk. On one trip to the country he walked over half a mile. He lived for more than a year longer with his littermate and constant companion, Dixon, before the progression of the stenosis again stopped him from walking.

In the literature on gait, I learned that dogs with injuries to their rear legs, pelvis, or spine often alter their gait when running. They adopt a skipping motion with their two hind limbs, both legs moving together. Teddy was a Corgi who had been skipping instead of running for some time. One rear paw was sensitive to touch, maybe painful to use. When I first worked with him, he was also losing his footing as he turned while running, his hind legs sliding out from under him.

Functional Integration with Teddy focused on pushing through his legs and also clarifying the relationship of the bones of the legs with the pelvis. Thinking of the function of running, I realized it was important that he could sense the strong forward push from his hind legs. Much of the power for running comes from the pelvis and some flexion and extension of the dog's spine. Therefore, my lessons with Teddy also focused on pushing through his spine from the sitting bones toward his head to simulate pushing off with his hind limbs. This can be done first by slowly pushing into the actual curve of the spine, and sensing the vertebral linkages - imagining the movement traveling vertebra by vertebra - to establish the bony connection. Then, thinking of the pure line of force from the sit bone to the skull, pushing more lightly and quickly. Finally, alternating pushing through each sitting bone to simulate the pushing off with alternate hind legs.

Next, I swung both fore- and hind legs (on the same side) forward and back together (simulating trotting) and moved them opposite (simulating a full run or galloping). 13. In dogs, movements of walking or running are initiated with the forelimbs (14.) and so good co-ordination of front and back limbs is imperative. After our lessons together, Teddy was able to reduce the amount of skipping and was more able to run with differentiated movement of his hind legs. His hindquarters no longer slid out from under him as he took corners dashing around his apartment.

Diagonal gait patterns are very important for dogs. Often if one paw is injured, the dog does not use the diagonally opposite paw and leg as strongly, or in the same alignment, as the limbs on the opposite diagonal. One way of giving a dog the sense of the need and possibility to use all four legs equally as possible is by having the dog stand, then bending and lifting the limb that is least functional. This seems to reinforce the experience of the "extra" work being done by the other three limbs, and the dog may begin to use the injured limb more. This seems to suggest to the dog the possibility of using the injured, painful, or underutilized limb again without initially having to put full weight on it. One approach to this I have used - also shown by Linda Tellington-Jones in her video - is to support the dog in standing. For example, using a towel under its torso, and then lifting the limbs - often starting with the limb diagonally opposite the injured limb.

Working with active young dogs, like Sophie the Pit Bull, also requires creative thinking. Sophie had a hard life. She was a rescue dog. Her left front paw had been run over by a car, her rear right had been cut on glass on the street. Sophie had little tolerance for standing for minutes on end on three legs. To help her, I was able to adapt one of her favorite activities: wrestling for her ball. I pulled on the ball in her mouth from different angles and heights with Sophie pulling back. At first I encouraged her to use her favored diagonal and then the diagonal where she had injured both paws, and then straight backward. In this way, I was able to get her to pull backward, and therefore push forward, more effectively with all her legs. Soon her gait became more even.

Dogs do not have the lumbar lordosis that is characteristic of humans (because of our upright organization). In activities such as running a dog needs some flexion and extension along the spine, along with lengthening and shortening of their abdominal muscles and fascia. This is particularly clear when they are running fast, and climbing uphill or upstairs. Lucky was a Borzoi who lived in a house on a hill. She stopped being able to climb stairs. The first thing I noticed about Lucky was the strong flexion through the whole length of her spine and how her tail was tucked strongly up under her abdomen. I touched her ribs and paced her breath, noticing she shuddered as I approached the lower border of her ribcage. I asked her owners about this. They said that Lucky had undergone abdominal surgery to remove a bowel obstruction. I began by working slowly with the movements of her breath; clarifying the bony borders of her abdominal cavity; and working gently with her hip joints, pelvis, and spine. I also worked with her tail over several lessons. Starting proximally, I gently flexed the joints, then made small circles with each vertebra in relation to ones next to it. Gradually she was able to start to extend her tail. Lucky began to rest and stand with her pelvis less flexed and her tail not tucked under. Walking up stairs became easier for Lucky. When I was finally able to touch her abdominal muscles she had tremendous peristalsis along with many deep breaths. Dogs, like most humans, have preferences for how they lie, such as preferring one side, or to lean on one elbow. Sometimes the preference can be seen in the organization of the spine: for example, in standing; in the direction the dog will turn spontaneously to look behind itself or turn while backing up, or by observing the side to which the dog wags its tail more.

I often work with dogs in side lying simply reinforcing their preference by bringing their ribs closer together on the side of the torso not on the floor; and by moving the ribs and bones of the sternum more into the direction of the curve of the spine. Or I push through the sitting bones or from the transverse processes of the more cranial vertebrae into the shape of the curve. Or, for example, if the dog rests on its left elbow (forelimb), I can lift the right forelimb from the elbow to bring the dog's spine more into its curved shape. The same can be done with one forelimb if the dog is sitting with its pelvis down and leaning on its forelimbs.

Frequently, it seems, dogs prefer to lie on the side with an injured limb. With many dogs it is not easy to ever get them to lie on their non-habitual side. Sometimes reinforcing the side-lying preference can stimulate the dog to switch to the opposite side.

In almost all my lessons with dogs, as with humans, I spend some time working the movement of the ribs with breathing. At rest, dogs breathe at about 15 to 40 breaths per minute depending on age and other factors, but when panting to cool themselves they can breathe at 200 breaths per minute. Sometimes dogs seem to take breaths in a number of stops or sips, which may have something to do with panting or smelling. It can take some time to find, pace, and calm the breath of a dog client.

Teddy, the dominant Corgi, once reminded me of the significance of body position. In one of my less aware moments, I put both my hands underneath instead of on top of his ribcage while Teddy was lying on his side. Responding, I can guess, as if I were intending to roll him onto his back into a submissive position, he growled and snapped at me. Not a mistake I will make again. On the other hand, very submissive dogs may roll onto their backs as soon as I start working with them, therefore requiring reassurance that is acceptable to lie on their side.

When working with dogs I think about helping the dog stand, walk, trot and gallop, sit, lie, and breathe more efficiently and comfortably. I work on clarifying the shape, position, and relationships of parts of its skeleton in relationship to gravity and movement. I consider the dog's tendencies and preferences for pressure, pacing, level of arousal, and about how through touch I can communicate while respecting these preferences. I reflect on the relationship between function and structure: what dogs need to be able to do and how a dog's sensory apparatus, skeleton, and muscles are an expression of this; and how I can interact with their decidedly non-human structure to help improve their functioning.

While we can't know a dog's experience, I think for a Feldenkrais practitioner there is much value in working with another species: to study comparative anatomy, to develop one's appreciation of whole-body non-verbal communication, to reflect on how the key ideas and practices of our Method are highlighted in this utterly new context. Working with dogs has also been a lot of fun for me. I value the small pleasures of having a jumpy dog fall deeply asleep as I pace its breath. And I cherish the overall enjoyment of being part of that spontaneity and undivided being-in-the-world that dogs seem to take into doing their essentially doggy activities - running, smelling, chasing, being with their dog and human companions. Like Sophie: I was delighted to see her again leaping in and out of the old truck that her owner uses for her dog-walking business, sitting up front, smiling - with her cheeks and ears gently drawn back - ready for the next adventure.

A note on reading
If you are not an experienced dog owner or trainer - or even if you are - I highly recommend reading a book or two on canine behavior and canine-human communication before beginning to work with dogs. Stanley Coran's How to Speak Dog and Particia McConnell's The Other End of the Leash are excellent. Most books on canine anatomy tend to present static anatomy for veterinary purposes (such as Evans or Goody. 7.) but I was able to find one book that contained useful information on dog biomechanics (such as Adams 11.), and others aimed at dog breeders with descriptions of the various dog gaits (such as Elliot 13.). Her book introduced me, for example, to differences between single and dual tracking in dog locomotion. Again, some study of canine anatomy and movement will benefit any practitioner thinking of working with dogs.


  • Newby, Jonica. The Animal Attraction: Humans and their Animal Companions. Sydney: ABC Books, 1999, Chapter 1, pp. 1-32.
  • In An Anthropololgist on Mars, New York: Vintage/Random House, 1995, Oliver Sacks provides a number of fascinating case studies for people with uniquely different neurological conditions that lead them to encounter the world in ways very different than most of us.
  • Newby, p. 25.
  • McConnell, Patricia. The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs, New York: Ballantine Books, 2002, pp. 65-83.
  • Tellington-Jones, Linda, with Sybil Taylor, The Tellington TTouch. New York: Penguin, 1992.
  • Tellington-Jones, Linda. TTouch for Dogs and Puppies. [Video recording]. LaQuinta, California: 1993.
  • Evans, Howard E. Miller's Anatomy of the Dog, Third edition. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company/Harcourt Brace, 1993, pp. 269-274. See also: Peter C. Goody. Dog Anatomy: A Pictorial Approach to Canine Structure. London: J.A. Allen, 1997.
  • Coren, Stanley. The Intelligence of Dogs. New York: Free Press/Simon and Schuster, 1994, 2006, pp. 97-124; and How to Speak Dog. New York: Free Press/Simon and Schuster, 2000. Also McConnell, Chapters 1 and 2, pp. 1-37.
  • Newby, p. 35.
  • Newby, Chapter 2, pp. 33-61.
  • Adams, Donald R. Canine Anatomy: A systemic study. The Iowa State University Press/AMES, 1998, p. 186. (4th edition, Blackwell Publishing Limited, 2003.)
  • Adams, p. 181.
  • Elliot, Rachael Page. The New Dog Steps, New York: Howell Book House Inc., 1984.
  • Adams, p. 181.

Thanks to Jaclyn Boone, Deborah Bowes, Elizabeth Beringer, Judy Windt and Gay Sweet Scott for their editorial suggestions.

Cliff Smyth, 2008. First published in The Feldenkrais Journal, 21, 2008.