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Nathalie Sari - Tiertraining & Verhaltensberatung

This article was written by TOBALIE in cooperation with Nathalie Sari - Tiertraining & Verhaltensberatung

Proprioception (depth sensitivity) is self-awareness and plays an important role in mobility. Why the dog needs it and how you can train it, you will learn here.

What is proprioception?

It is the perception of the body and the ability to know in which position one is standing in space without depending on visual information. The signals come from within. The proprioceptors in the muscles and joints provide information about posture, muscle tension, movement and position.

Feeling oneself is also very important for our dogs. This is how he knows, for example, that he is lying, sitting or standing straight and whether he is on a straight or uneven surface.

How does proprioception work?

This sensory feedback happens unconsciously. Your dog doesn’t have to calculate how far he has to stretch his head to your hand to get the treat. Every day he corrects his body thousands of times, he doesn’t have to think about that. For example, if he stands on something, his body automatically straightens to avoid falling over.

The proprioceptive system is an important part of the nervous system and consists of special nerve receptors (proprioceptors) distributed in the muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments. These receptors constantly register the stretch, tension and position of the tissue and send information to the brain. This helps maintain an accurate perception of posture and movement.

Why is proprioception important for dogs?

Proprioception is essential for physical coordination, balance and fine motor skills. It makes it possible to perform everyday activities with ease. It helps the dog move more deftly, maintain balance and prevents injuries, such as those caused by twisting or falling. Also it helps to react faster to unexpected things, such as catching a ball or jumping quickly to the side to avoid being hit.

In the case of a depth sensitivity disorder, distances and the position in which we find ourselves can no longer be correctly assessed. This can lead to increased insecurity and increased risk of injury.

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What are the effects of impaired proprioception in dogs?

You might know the challenges when your leg falls asleep and you can’t stand stable anymore or when you can’t hit the key into the keyhole under the influence of alcohol.

A disturbance can occur due to neurological diseases, injuries, muscle and joint problems, or age-related changes. In the dog, this can then lead to the following problems:

Coordination difficulties: Dogs with impaired proprioception may have difficulty coordinating their movements precisely. They may appear uncoordinated or unsteady. Difficulty walking, running or jumping may also be apparent.

Balance disorder: impaired depth sensitivity can lead to a weak sense of balance. This makes the dogs more prone to tripping, falling over or falling down.

Limited range of motion: it can cause some dogs to move stiffly or awkwardly. The difficulty in moving smoothly, fluidly and naturally affects their daily activities and quality of life.

Increased risk of injury: When a dog is unable to properly perceive and control its limbs and body, the risk of injury increases. Falls, twists and other accidents may occur more frequently.

Muscle tension and atrophy: impaired proprioception can result in certain muscle groups not being adequately activated or loaded. This can lead to muscle tension or even muscle atrophy, as some muscles are not used sufficiently or evenly.

Pain: Pain or discomfort may also occur as they may develop unnatural movement patterns to compensate for their proprioception deficits.

With which dogs should you do depth sensitivity exercises?

In principle, with all dogs. However, if your pet is injured or has neurological problems, be sure to consult a veterinarian or physiotherapist to choose the right exercises.

Puppies: Small dogs do not feel themselves well yet because they have not experienced enough stimuli. That is why puppies stumble fast, run against where or fall down. Through early neural stimulation, they learn to perceive and coordinate their bodies. This helps them to stand more securely on their feet later in life. Dealing with new situations and solving problems also becomes easier for them through early stimulation.

Insecure dogs: Dogs that are insecure or fearful also benefit from training. Small successes make them braver, more self-confident and also strengthen their relationship with you. Small shared experiences of success weld together.

Animal welfare dogs: Dogs that have had to live in kennels, for example, have experienced too little stimuli, similar to puppies, and often have poor self-awareness. The deficit of depth sensitivity must therefore be compensated and practiced.

Hectic dogs: Overzealous and inattentive dogs may find it helps them focus, become more mindful and slow down.

Seniors: As we age, our proprioceptors diminish, making training ideal for senior dogs in particular to help prevent “wobbly legs.”

Rehabilitation: After an accident or surgery, proprioception may be disturbed. To relearn the correct joint position and prevent re-injury, depth perception should be trained.

How can proprioception be trained in dogs?

There are many ways to specifically improve your dog’s body awareness. Here are a few ways:

Underground training: walking or sitting on/over uneven surfaces promotes self-awareness, coordination and concentration. For example, you can work with textured mats, lay out a course of various surfaces, or go out into nature to walk across meadows, logs, rocks, etc.

Balance training: Balancing also trains fine motor skills and strengthens balance and muscles. Balance cushions, narrow planks, air mattresses, foam pads and wobble boards are all suitable for this purpose. A combination of wobbly and uneven surfaces make the exercises more difficult.

Obstacle Course: Have your dog go over a variety of elements (structural mats, poles, small ramps, balance cushions, etc.) to encourage alertness and dexterity.

Target training: Here you can make your dog touch an object (hand, target stick, target mats, etc.) with his nose or paw. In doing so, he learns to consciously use his limbs and control his body position.

Catching: A fun exercise is also catching a treat or toy. Here your dog learns to estimate how he has to move in order not to let anything fly by.

Isometric exercises: This involves tensing your dog’s muscles without him actively moving (such as by gently pressing your hand against his body).

Massage: Massaging with a hedgehog ball, for example, also stimulates the paws and limbs and creates awareness of your own body.

Dog play: Also when playing with other dogs or with you, your dog learns to estimate his strength and distances. So he becomes more and more skillful and has himself better under control.

How should the exercises be done?

It is important to do all exercises carefully, slowly and at the level of your favorite. Your dog should not run headlong over all objects or just want to get a treat. He should concentrate and be attentive.  Start with simple exercises and short training sessions and increase them step by step.

Positive reinforcement in the form of praise, treats and playful motivation can help the dog stay motivated and have fun with the exercises.

If your dog has any health problems, it is advisable to talk to a veterinarian before starting to make sure that the exercises are suitable for your dog.

Summary

Proprioceptive exercises for dogs often involve the use of unstable surfaces, such as structural mats or balance boards, to promote body awareness and stability. Proprioception in dogs helps them become more aware of themselves, use their muscles more effectively, and improve their balance, which helps them have better body control overall.