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Move Happy! The Joy of Mindful Movement – for dogs!

“Don’t let him…”

Toby is a happy, friendly 8 year-old Labrador.

“He must not…”

Toby loves long walks, and snoozing on the couch upstairs in the TV room.

“He can never…”

Balls are Toby’s second favourite things in the whole world (after food), especially if they have a squeaky inside.

“Stop him from…”

Toby has joints that are starting to give him a bit of trouble.

“Don’t let him climb the stairs!”

Toby had a knee operation a few years ago, and he has some arthritis in that knee, and both his hips are a bit stiff in the mornings.

“He must not jump on the couch!”

Toby wants to jump on the couch. He loves the couch. It’s a bit harder than it used to be, but it’s SOOO comfy up there.

“He can never play fetch again – he will be sore afterwards!”

Toby is sad. He used to feel really happy in his mind after fetching his ball. He was so good at it – he felt such a sense of achievement when he caught the ball! But all the balls have gone. Sometimes he sees that other dogs still play with balls. He tries to join in because he wants to feel happy again, but he is immediately pulled away. He does not know what happened to his balls.

“Stop him from running!”

Toby thinks he is a bad dog. His ‘parents’ used to love playing with him, but now they are always shouting at him to ‘STOP’, and he is not allowed to do any of the things he loves anymore.

Toby feels stiff. His joints feel sore. Lying around all day is making him feel more stiff and sore. He has nothing else to think about because he is not allowed to do anything anymore.

Toby goes to find something to eat….

We all have, or have had, a Toby. Your Toby may have been a Dachsie with a spinal problem. Or your agility dog with a previous injury that has you constantly worried. Or your Golden Retriever with elbow dysplasia.

We want our dogs to be happy. And let’s face it, we are happier when we believe our dogs are happy. A study by Handlin et al in 2012 demonstrated that we have higher levels of oxytocin (the cuddle hormone) and lower levels of cortisol (stress hormone) circulating in our bodies – in other words we are less stressed - when we have a happy, interactive relationship with our dogs that is associated with few problems. And nothing says ‘happy dog’ than a dog moving joyfully. The Helsinki Chronic Pain Index, a validated questionnaire that helps owners assess how much pain their dogs are experiencing, is primarily reliant on mobility visual analog scales – descriptions of how our dogs move (Hielm-Björkman 2009).

We also want what is best for our dogs, and it is not always easy to know what that is. That is why we listen to people when they tell us “don’t, mustn’t and stop him”. However, science tells us that this may not be the best approach to improving quality of life for our collective ‘Toby’s’.

The myths about movement

Before we can reframe how we think about pain, disability and exercise, we need to look at some of the common myths around exercise and pain or injuries.

Myth no 1: Exercise will make arthritis worse. Science is comprehensively showing that this is false. When selected carefully and progressed correctly, exercise actually helps to reduce the deterioration of cartilage in joints with osteoarthritis. It also has anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving effects, and boosts mood. If exercise seems to increase pain, it is usually the TYPE, INTENSITY or QUANTITY of exercise that is inappropriate.

Myth no 2: Dogs with chronic disease should avoid exercise This is not the case. Being more active will benefit a range of chronic conditions, including cancer, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Myth no 3: Old dogs should not exercise much anymore. Evidence actually shows that ageing alone is not a cause of major problems, and strength, power and muscle mass can be increased, even in geriatric individuals. Again, appropriate exercise selection and dosage is important, but should include aerobic exercise, balance training and muscle strengthening.

In fact, science tells us that movement is critical for maintaining healthy joints and muscles, and that exercise helps to boost our mood, immune system and slow down brain ageing.

What is mindfulness, and why does it matter?

Mindfulness is the ability to be fully aware of where we are, what we’re doing and how we feel while doing it, and not be overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. It determines what we are paying attention to at any particular moment – are we paying attention to how we are doing something and how we feel right now? Or are we creating scenarios in our imagination of what might happen.

The opposite if mindfulness includes worry, obsessive thoughts and pain catastrophizing. According to Quartana et al (2010), pain catastrophising is characterized by the tendency to magnify the threat value of pain and to feel helpless in the context of pain.

The truth is that dogs are generally pretty present in the moment – they rarely worry about the consequences of doing things like jumping or rushing to the gate. It is us, as their caregivers, who worry about all the implications of pain and injury – what if they hurt themselves? What if they can never do sport again? What if they need an expensive operation that we can’t afford?

All of these are perfectly valid things to be concerned about. The ability to foresee consequences is what helps us, and those we care for, survive and thrive. To reference the widely misunderstood Murphy’s law, if we can anticipate something that can go wrong, and we don’t take appropriate measures to reduce the risk, then we should not be surprised by undesirable consequences . This ability of humans to anticipate problems is very important to help us make the best decisions for our dogs.

However, it is in the application of this ability to anticipate poor outcomes that we need to become more aware – more mindful. As humans, our perception of pain, disability and suffering are very much shaped by our own beliefs and experiences. When we observe our dogs, particularly if they display changes in movement, it is very difficult to do so objectively.

How can we apply the principles of mindfulness to help us cope with a dog that is dealing with some challenges?

1. Shift your focus:

In any condition, there are modifiable and non-modifiable factors. Modifiable factors are the things you can do something about. Take the example of osteoarthritis. We know that an x-ray tells us almost nothing about what symptoms your dog is experiencing, or how he/she will respond to treatment. And in addition to not really telling us anything meaningful, we are also not able to change what has already happened in the joint. So we need to focus on those things that we CAN modify, and what we know through lots and lots of scientific research will help our dog feel better and cope better. This includes pain medication when appropriate, diet, appropriate exercise and activity modification.

2. Stay in the moment:

What is your dog telling you about how he/she is feeling at right now?. Not yesterday, not tomorrow – in this moment. Is he/she cheerful, happy and wanting to play? Excellent! Find ways of engaging in activities with your dog that are fun and won’t exacerbate their symptoms. Is your dog feeling stiff/lethargic? That’s OK, stiffness is often temporary and will respond well to simple things like a hot pack or a light massage and some stretching. This is some great one-on-one bonding time, and your dog gets the benefits of oxytocin release during cuddling too!

3. Become aware of situations that cause stress for you and your dog:

Do you end up shouting at him for trying to get on the couch, leaving both of you feeling upset? This type of situation is also a modifiable factor. What can you do to avoid this predictable situation from getting to this point? Maybe you can invite your dog onto the couch from the start when you can help him up? Or maybe make a nice comfy dog bed in the lounge his new favourite place by giving him a yummy treat dispensing toy when he lies there, so he forgets about the couch. If you are not sure what you can do to modify the situation, ask a dog behaviourist for help, or discuss the problem with your pet’s physio or trainer.

4. Think about activities that your dog loves: Is there anything that you felt you had to stop for the sake of his/her health. Make a list. Now look at that list, and pick just one activity that you can modify so that the dog can still feel like he/she is playing the game, but with less physical stress. Again, if you are struggling to think of alternatives, chat to your dog’s physio or trainer about it. A fresh perspective can be really helpful.

What is your headspace?

Do you feel like you are overwhelmed by your pet's pain? You may be caught up in a pattern of thinking about your pet's pain that is not helpful. Studies have shown that when the owner tends to be in a negative or anxious emotional state for a long period (like when our dogs are unwell), their dogs don't regulate their own cortisol levels very effectively (Schöberl et al 2017). Continually raised cortisol levels increase stress and pain experience. In other words, if you are constantly stressed about your dog, your dog is literally experiencing more pain.

Take the quiz below to see whether you may need some help to reframe your thinking about your pet's condition.

Mindful dog – really?

Mindfulness is the ability to not simply react to thoughts, emotions or outside stimuli,

but to pause, think and make a choice. It has been shown that dogs' brains work similarly to human brains when it comes to activity in the part of the brain involved in self-control (Cook et al, 2016). Dogs can learn to be less reactive and have better self control, in other words, be more mindful in the presence of stressors. Dogs that are chronically stressed due to high levels of reactivity have been shown to have higher chronic levels of cortisol, and lower levels of serotonin and dopamine in their bodies (King et al 2016, Wright et al 2012). This has negative implications for the management of any pain condition, either acute or chronic.

It is important to realise that in the context of dogs, over-excitement (high arousal) also increases cortisol, and is a form of stress that can be negative. It can be really cute when our dogs get super excited about going to the park or playing ball, but it can have negative effects on their perception of pain after the event. So when your dog became really over-excited at the park, and was sore afterwards, it is not only because he or she ran around too much. It is also because your dog's level of arousal was too high, and that is bad news for the hormones that help modulate your dog's pain levels. When you take steps to reduce your dog's stress and increase his/her self-control, your dog can do more with fewer side-effects afterwards.

This is joyful movement, and it is the elixir of life!

Move Happy!


1. Associations between the psychological characteristics of the human–dog relationship and oxytocin and cortisol levels

L Handlin, A Nilsson, M Ejdebäck… - Anthrozoös, 2012

2. Psychometric testing of the Helsinki chronic pain index by completion of a questionnaire in Finnish by owners of dogs with chronic signs of pain caused by osteoarthritis Anna K. Hielm-Björkman, DVM, PhD; Hannu Rita, PhD; Riitta-Mari Tulamo, DVM, PhD AJV R, Vol 70, No. 6, June 2009

3. Pain catastrophizing: a critical review. Phillip J Quartana, PhD, Claudia M Campbell, PhD, and Robert R Edwards, PhD Expert Rev Neurother. 2009 May; 9(5): 745–758.

4. Psychobiological Factors Affecting Cortisol Variability in Human-Dog Dyads. Iris Schöberl ,Manuela Wedl,Andrea Beetz,Kurt Kotrschal PLOS ONE Published: February 8, 2017

5. Neurobehavioral evidence for individual differences in canine cognitive control: an awake fMRI study. Cook, P.F., Spivak, M. & Berns, G. Anim Cogn (2016) 19: 867.

6. Anxiety and impulsivity: Factors associated with premature graying in young dogs. Camill King, Thomas J. Smith, TempleGrand, PeterBorchelt Applied Animal Behaviour Science Volume 185, December 2016, Pages 78-85

7. Behavioural and physiological correlates of impulsivity in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Hannah F.Wright, Daniel S.Mills, Petra M.J.Pollux Physiology & Behavior

Volume 105, Issue 3, 1 February 2012, Pages 676-682

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