STEP BY STEP WITH WES RAU: CANINE BACK INJURIES

It seems so complicated because of the number of structures involved, but if we keep it simple and use techniques that are not aggressive, back and spine injuries become much easier to manage. The basic rules we talked about in the last two articles, continue to apply here:1. Observe your dog. Look for the changes in its gait pattern. Has a normally easy moving dog started to struggle a little in harness? Has he gone from an easy trot to a pace? Does a dog that normally lopes nicely suddenly want to stay in a trot or struggle to transition to a lope or just seem to lag a little bit rather than drive like she used to?2. Feel the dog. Look for ropey, tight muscles in the lower back, pelvis and hips.3. Move the dog. Look to see if your dog has lost some back extension, hip extension, or is just not as flexible as it used to be. I think there are some standard answers to why we get back injuries in our dogs. Genetics will plague us no matter what we do if we are breeding dogs with histories of problems. I get to see sled dogs around the country and can follow certain lines that seem to be a little more prone to back injuries. They consistently come up with a higher percentage of injuries to the low back in offspring even three generations down. It’s not unlike some of the high school athletes that come into my office with back problems from spondylosis or strains from football, gymnastics, track, etc. where the loading in the low back causes genetic defects to start showing up at an early age. I have a litter of puppies that just turned a year and a half old that I expected to be the hit of the century. I started them all in harness this last season. Three of the six have already started to show the worst gait I’ve ever seen. I guarantee you they will struggle to do any speed or distance. The one female with absolutely beautiful conformation, who started leading after just four months of running, started to look horrible no matter what harness I put her in, where I put her in the team or how much I worked on her. Two of her litter mates have the exact same gait. (And of course they are all leaders.) I have since spayed and neutered all of them, and the parents, to be sure that defect is not passed on.Harnesses that don’t fit are another major cause of back injuries. If you run a dog that is already sore in a harness that fits poorly, then expect to have a very sore dog at the end of the run. In my opinion, a good dog will run in anything. We used to joke that Jeff King’s dogs would pull with only a string tied around their necks and still beat us! After enough miles, any dog in poor fitting equipment will start to change their gait, or pattern of movement, to avoid pressure in places that hurt. How many of us have used a poor fitting backpack on a trip, only to find out that after the first day we can’t get it to fit comfortably. Or worse, we can’t even get up the next day! If the dog’s harness ends too far forward of the sacrum, it puts pressure on the top of the last lumbar vertebra and on the lower rib cage. If it fits too far back (x-backs), it puts pressure on the sacrum, sacroiliac joint and lateral aspects of the lower lumbar vertebra. If a Seavey harness is too short, the bar in the back rubs the tail raw. Obviously, good harness fit is a must in preventing injuries.I use several different harnesses in my team, depending on the dog’s performance and injuries. A dog that crabs is more likely to get SIJ (sacroiliac joint) and hip soreness than a dog that runs straight. I like the short harness and Seavey harness for these kinds of dogs, I start using them the first time I notice that the dog is crabbing. Every time I have a dog with a bad low back, he goes into a short harness to stop any pressure over the area and free up his movement. I know this is a back article, but I can’t talk about backs without some discussion on harnesses. I think they are a major cause of many of the issues you see in your dogs. I am not the harness expert, but I do have some opinions on the subject, so humor me for a minute, but don’t read too much into this. I use x-backs, short harnesses, Seavey harnesses, H-backs, and all of them have their place. The main thing is good fit and freedom of movement. It’s interesting that Mitch Seavey and Jeff King have such complete opposite harness styles and yet both have done so well with them. They have accomplished the same thing with different styles of harnesses. They have taken the pressure off the low back. Remember, it’s not just the harness, it’s also the dog in it that dictates performance.OK, let’s get down to business. As you think about looking at your dog’s back and treating it, remember, IF IT HURTS, DON’T DO IT. If it hurts to extend the back or hip, or when you press down on the spine, if you do these motions and the dog shows pain, you don’t need to do it over and over to make sure that it hurts. Now you need to start working to relieve the pain. I am going to start with a list of movements that are both testing and treating positions. I want to make this easy and simple so we can all have a little bag of tricks to help our dogs whether in harness or in the house. THE LUMBAR SPINELet’s start by comparing the dog to the human so you can see the relationship. In humans there are 5 lumbar vertebrae, in dogs there are 7; in the thoracic spine, humans have 12 vertebrae and dogs have 13. Otherwise, our muscle, bone, and ligamentus structures are surprisingly similar. The similarity becomes visually obvious when you check the dog’s lower back extension. Note that the dog should be able to extend its back to stand up nearly as straight as you can. (photo 1)Next, check hip flexion and extension and how that relates to the pelvis. You can get an idea of how this should look and feel by starting on a person (photos 2a & b). As you flex the hip up (photo 3a), the pelvis should rotate back at end range and the spine should flex and separate. With hip extension (photo 3b), the pelvis should rotate forward, the lumbar spine should extend and the spinous processes should close or come together little. This is actually a very complex motion with joint play, but we won’t worry about that right now. Side bending is not a motion we normally associate with a dog’s back. Most of us think of the dog as moving forward in a straight line while in the gangline. Actually, if you look at them in slow motion, frame by frame, there is a very complex motion going on that includes flexion, extension, side bending and rotation. If we can learn to improve side bending in the dog we will actually fix a lot of those problems that restrict flexion and extension. (If you are reading this and know physiology, this is all debatable. But let’s try and keep it simple.) Side bending techniques are really easy to do and will often free up flexion and extension restrictions in the spine. (photo 4)Rotation is a little harder for the average person to assess and treat. So I am going to show you the technique, but most of us won’t do much with the rotation. If you treat side bending, flexion and extension, you won’t need to worry much about rotation. This motion is similar to lying on your back, knees bent and allowing both knees to fall to one side, and in fact you can do that same motion with your dog. Rotation can also be tested with your dog lying on its side—support its low back with one hand and lift its legs toward you with the other hand (photo 5). A couple of other tests that are quick and easy are the pinch test and the percussion or compression test. These help localize the area of pain and dysfunction. The pinch test compresses laterally on the muscles and vertebra. Gently squeeze the muscles and spine between your fingers and thumb, moving all the way down the spine until you find the painful spot. The compression test presses straight down on the spinous process. This can be done by tapping the top of the spinous process or by exerting gentle downward pressure on the spinous process. Again, move down the spine until you find a painful spot. You will know you’ve found the sore spot when the skin and hair twitch under your fingers and/or the dog looks back at you with the look of “That’s it!” THE PELVIS This is where the fun begins. The pelvis, in my opinion, is central to the movement in the dog. If the pelvis is restricted or dysfunctional, the rest of the spine starts compensating all the way up to the shoulder complex and neck. If the pelvis is restricted in forward rotation then hip extension is restricted, and the dog may start pacing or decreasing its stride to minimize movement in the pelvis. Gliding of the pelvic bone on one side and then the other is a general technique to increase forward rotation. (photo 6) Gliding is accomplished by gently pressing the pelvis forward while extending the hip. Posterior rotation is improved by doing a sacral glide. This is done by putting pressure over the sacrum in the direction of the tail. This will help the dog to reach under him in a trot and a lope. A unilateral stretch is used for both stretching the hip flexors and improving forward rotation on one side and backward rotation on the other. (photo 7) You can switch and do this on both sides. Another useful stretch is what looks like a frog kick (photo 8). This is done very gently-STOP if it seems uncomfortable-but you can often get the legs apart slowly, one step at a time. Then, slowly extend the dog’s legs as far as he will allow (photo 8a). The tail pull (photo 9) is a good traction technique to reduce pain in the sacrum and up through the lumbar spine.MUSCLES AND LIGAMENTS I could write a whole article just on muscles and ligaments. Massage is a great tool. I love it and so do the dogs. It helps you localize areas that are sore. It is a diagnostic tool as much as it is a treatment. The muscles along the spine, into the pelvis, and through the hips are all places to massage and check. The deep muscles in the pelvis, where the sciatic nerve runs (photo 10), need to be massaged and stretched to help reduce symptoms that radiate down into the dog’s legs. SLOW movement through the muscles and ligaments are more comfortable and help the dog relax. The iliolumbar (photo 11) and post sacroiliac ligaments (photo 12) are two of the more important ligaments to work on. Again, it is important to stress how little pressure it takes to get a result. If it hurts, it is wrong, therefore don’t do it. Keep up the good work! As a whole, dog care is what mushing is all about. The better we take care of our teams, the better we will do at the races! Wes Rau is a physical therapist living in Powell Butte, Oregon. He has earned his Bachelor’s degree at Loma Linda University and holds certification in manual therapy. Wes is a past Oregon Veterinary Physical Therapist Liaison. He is currently in private practice in Redmond, Oregon. Wes has been running dogs since 1992 and enjoys stage racing. He claims that he is “a better physical therapist than musher!”

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