Looking at Dogs in the Present Tense:                        Tension Patterns in Dogs

                  By Sarah Fisher


Understanding how posture relates to and directly influences behaviour in animals can give you valuable Tellington TTouch canine ambassadors Dobby and Royinformation about how and why your dog reacts the way he does in certain situations.    This can be a helpful tool when selecting a dog from the shelter when details about the dog’s background may be sketchy or completely unknown.  

You can also use these observations to learn more about the dog already in your care, your client dogs or to assess a dogs’ suitability for the life style that you lead.   Even if you are choosing a puppy, understanding the correlation between posture and behaviour can give you some indication as to how he will mature as many traits and behavioural characteristics are in place at a very early age.    By understanding how Tension Patterns influence the dogs mind you can prevent or overcome many common behavioural problems and tailor your management of the dog to suit his individual needs.

What are Tension Patterns

Tension Patterns are areas of tightness that exist in an animal’s body.   They may be obvious and inhibit the natural movement of an animal to a greater or lesser degree or may be subtle and less easily detected.   Either way they will have an effect on the way the animal functions on an emotional, mental and physical level.  They can influence not only how the dog thinks, feels and learns but can hamper a dog’s ability to be trained and adapt to new situations.

Whatever the origin, with awareness and TTouch you can help your canine companion move into a more balanced physical state that will enhance your relationship with your dog and improve his over all health and wellbeing.  Whilst there are always exceptions to the rule the correlation between posture and behaviour has been observed over and over again – as posture improves, many common unwanted behaviours diminish without the need to use fear, dominance or force.  

Why do Tension Patterns Occur?

There are a number of reasons why tension patterns occur.  Whilst breed type and genetic makeup obviously influence posture other factors can also come into play. 

Injury.  As well as greatly reducing tolerance levels, pain can alter a dog’s normal posture and movement.  In my opinion lameness and pain levels are often overlooked in cats and dogs.  The majority of difficult animals I have worked with over the past eight years as a TTouch and TTEAM Practitioner have shown a consistent underlying problem with sensitivity, gait irregularities and/or tension arising from medical issues.   Even after the injury has healed the dog may still move in the posture it adopted to compensate for the original problem.   He may have to learn how to move in a more effective manner once more since the muscles may have developed unevenly thus maintaining the posture the dog adopted to protect the injured area.

Medical Problems. Changes in hormones, thyroid imbalances, arthritis, hip dysplasia, and other medical problems give rise to many issues.   Whilst veterinary care is paramount, awareness of how the underlying problem is affecting your dog gives you the opportunity to reduce stress and minimise the knock on effect the issue may have on your dog’s posture and behaviour.

Trauma.   Shock as a result of an accident or an emotional upheaval such as being in kennels, bereavement, or change of circumstance can cause tension throughout the body.   Just as with humans, even low levels of stress can cause physiological changes and influence the dog in his day-to-day existence.  

Management/Training. Lack of exercise, inappropriate environment, or unsuitable training methods can all cause stress in a dog and exacerbate habitual and instinctive behaviour.   Poor nutrition and food allergies can also cause tension through the body by setting up tension through the stomach, hind limbs and muzzle.   In humans, poor nutrition can make muscles sore even to the lightest of touch and it stands to reason that the same might be applied to our companion animals.  

Born that way.  Some dogs present tension patterns right from birth.   Puppies with higher levels of tension in their skin or in specific parts of their body will generally be more vocal and more demanding from even a few days old.  Unless these tension patterns are reduced it is likely that the problems will grow as the puppy matures.  

Identifying Tension Patterns

Before you can set about doing anything to relieve areas of tension you have to identify them.    Spend some time watching the way your dog moves both on and off the lead.  Note how he sits and how he lies down.   Observe closely the way in which he holds himself and organises his limbs when walking.    Watch how he stops – does he always stand square or does he stand in an uneven frame?   Does he stand base narrow or base wide (with his feet closely together or wide apart).    Look at his tail – does it hang down, is it high or tucked firmly between his hind legs?   Does he wag it more to one side than the other?   Can he walk in a straight line or does he cower and ‘hug’ the ground.   Is he stiff?  Is there a curve through his body or does the foot fall of his hind limbs follow the pattern of his front paws?   Does one ear look as though it is higher or set further back than the other?   All of these postural patterns will link to a dog’s behaviour and with experience it is actually possible to gather enough information from the way a dog moves, stands, sits and lies down to form a picture of his likely responses in a variety of situations.

If you know the dog or if the dog is happy to be handled by unfamiliar people you can then use your hands to confirm or give you a more specific feel as to where the tension lies.   Starting at the head run, the flat of your hand smoothly along the dog’s neck and back and continue towards the hindquarters and tail.    Progress to running your hand along the shoulder and side, and down the front and hind limbs.    Once you have finished one side, check the other and note if your findings are the same on both sides of the body.    If the dog is unsure at any point stop immediately.    If the dog is shy or nervous, try using the back of your hand instead.   Lift each leg slowly in turn – if he is weight one limb it may be impossible for him to raise a leg when asked or he may keep that limb rigid indicating tension in the shoulder or hindquarter.

Note any peculiarities which indicate tension.  These may include the following:

Changes in temperature – hot or cold patches

            Differences in coat texture – such as scurf or raised or rough areas of hair.

            Lumps and bumps.

            The skin or underlying muscles twitching when certain places are touched

            A feeling of tightness in the skin or underlying muscle tissue

The dog expressing his concern in any way including moving away, freezing, or growling.

What to do

If you find tension patterns in your dog there is plenty that you can do to alleviate the problem.   It is possible to produce a very rapid difference in a dog’s behaviour and attitude to life.   It is important, however, to be realistic and bear in mind that some tension patterns may take time and patience to address.  This may depend on the longevity of the problem or the underlying cause.   

Consulting a veterinarian is vital if you suspect an underlying physical problem and making suitable adjustments to the environment and management of the dog may be necessary.

The Tellington TTouch variety of ground exercises and TTouches help to promote body awareness, use and posture.  The more I do the work – the less I do in each session.    It is easy to get carried away and throw every available piece of equipment on the dog as well as launching into a full bodywork session but this not only overloads the owner but the animal as well.    Sometimes a few gentle lifts and slides and a slow walking exercise can be enough to make a significant change in the first session.  If we are asking the dog to quieten its behaviour – then surely we should be doing the same.   By using observations and explaining Tension Patterns to the client you can fill the time without needing to be working on the dog for the duration of the session.   Give the dog plenty of breaks to process the information and point out the changes in the posture as they happen.   With practice you will see even the smallest of changes.    The Central Nervous system, with awareness, can respond to the lightest of touch and the smallest of movement.   This approach can be instrumental in developing a more balanced personality and can help eliminate many undesirable behaviour patterns.   Simply punishing a dog for unwanted behaviour or escalating the level of the work will only make existing tension patterns worse and lead to the creation of others.

Case History

Ruby                           Labrador Retreiver                                       Aged: 4

Despite being owned by very experienced handlers, Ruby had always been difficult to handle and train.. Since early puppy hood she had always displayed a very reactive personality and would attempt to bite anyone who tried to initiate contact with her.   Training classes were out as she had bitten the trainer.   Ruby and her owner came to a two day workshop which was attended by over thirty participants and auditors.  Her owner was naturally horrified to find so many people in the room but wanted to see if Ruby could cope as she was desperate to give her dog the help she needed.   As no one could handle the dog apart from her owner it was important to point out the Tension Patterns in Ruby’s body to reassure the owner that Ruby was reacting to what was going on in her body and had not been badly handled.    In assessing her posture it gave her owners information as to how they could begin to reduce the reactivity.

Ruby was glassy-eyed, very high headed and with a high tail set.   She was so tense through her back that she gave the appearance of having her hackles slightly raised.   This posture is typical in dogs that are highly defensive.   By addressing her physical state through simple body TTouches and ground exercises her owners were able to bring about enough change in the space of one day that Ruby allowed me and other people to work with her.  By the second day she could be led by another Practitioner away from her owner to work through the ground exercises.   Four weeks later I received a letter from her owners saying that Ruby had been to the vet for a health check and for the first time in four years did not have to be muzzled for the examination.   Ruby’s problem was nothing to do with the way she had been handled in her early years – she was simply born that way.    The tension in her body was dictating how she had to behave.  She could only operate within a very narrow window with the inflexibility in her body causing her to be inflexible in her mind thus limiting the options of self-expression available to her.

The Muzzle

The mouth is closely associated with learning and emotions.  It is one of the most important parts of the dog’s body as dogs use their mouths to communicate with a variety of signals including licking their lips, barking, yawning, growling and mouthing.

As with people, dogs can carry a lot of tension around the muzzle and jaw.   If a dog carries tension in the mouth area his ability to communicate may be limited.  He may be slow to mature and difficult to train since the mouth is linked to the ability to process thoughts and actions.

Tension around the muzzle area will generally present in two different ways.  In the fine nosed dogs such as Sight Hounds, the muzzle will be narrow and may appear pinched.    This pattern can be linked to sensitivity and shyness. These types of dogs may have a tendency to go off their food when upset and will often be reluctant to take food from people if unsure of the situation.   They may lick their lips rapidly to express their concern and their eyes may be glassy with a vacant appearance.  If cornered of pushed too far they may have a tendency to nip out of nervousness without a warning growl although they will have offered many signals first to express their concern.    Consequently these dogs will be more likely to whine or howl rather than barking when trying to attract attention.

Over-exaggerated mouth movements are more typical in the broader muzzled breeds such as the Retrievers or Bull breeds.  They may be inclined to excessive barking, drinking, panting and mouthiness and may show a particular interest or obsession with food, toys and other articles.  Quick to arouse and hyperactive behaviour these dogs are often slow to mature mentally and emotionally.  They may bite under pressure with a hard or multiple bite and may appear overly dominant and pushy in their behaviour.   When offered treats this type of dog may snatch it from the hand as tension through the jaw limits their ability to be subtle in their movement.   Tension in the muzzle area will often show around the nose and lines across the top of the upper jaw.   Hormonal imbalance can result in tension around the mouth.

Observing the way the dog holds his muzzle and jaw can give you vital information as to how the dog is coping with a situation.    A still, tense mouth and jaw can be a signal that the dog has ‘shut down’ and gone into freeze.

The Eyes and Face    

The eyes are the window to the soul and this is true of dogs.   Dogs that are easy to handle and stress free generally have eyes that are soft and appealing with a richness and depth to the colour.    Tension and stress will result in a hard, glassy eye that appears bulging, glazed or unblinking.   Rolling an eye or showing any white can be a sign of concern.    The area around the eye will be tight in dogs that are stressed giving the appearance of a small pinched eye in certain breeds.   The skin around the eye may be tight and wrinkled with stress lines under the eye.

Dogs use their eyes to communicate.  Looking at any dog directly in the eye can be unsettling for the dog and can trigger unwanted responses.   If nervous and more prone to Flight, the dog will look away and will avoid direct eye contact.   If the dog is unable to remove itself from the situation he may nip out of fear or start shaking.   In dogs that will hold your stare, direct eye contact can trigger them to jump up or lunge forward.    Breaking eye contact by looking away and keeping your eyes soft when observing or interacting with dogs will reduce their stress levels and allow them to process what you are teaching them.

Hard eyes are often linked to tension across the forehead.   Dogs that are anxious and nervous are often tight across the brow which can give the appearance of raised eyebrows.  This can be linked to anxiety, a dislike and genuine fear of being left alone.    There is a correlation between the forehead and stomach and dogs that are tight across the brow can suffer digestive disturbances or go off their food when unsettled.    Likewise, food intolerances or poor gut function can give rise to anxious behaviour and dogs with tension across the forehead will often be whiney and clingy.

The Ears and Head

There are many acupressure points throughout the ear relating to the rest of the body.  If there is pain or injury somewhere in the body there may be a part of the ear that the dog does not like being touched.

The set of the ear will give you information about how your dog feels and can be an early warning sign of mounting stress.    Dogs that are noise sensitive and those who suffer from travel sickness often carry tension through the ears.

Cold ear tips can be an indicator of stress/anxiety levels and may be accompanied by cold feet.   It can be linked to tension in the neck and a higher than average respiration and heart rate.  Dogs that are in shock or dogs that have suffered some trauma will often have cold ear tips.  Shock kills and TTouch ear work has saved the lives of many animals that have been injured or who are sick whilst waiting for appropriate veterinary attention.

High set ears are associated with very reactive behaviour.  In certain breeds such as Collies and German Shepherds the ears may even appear to be joined together on the top of the head.   Dogs with this pattern are often very excitable with little or no attention span.    They can be difficult to train as they are easily distracted by movement around them.

Ears that are folded can indicate shyness and nervousness.  As with the high ear set they can be linked to noise sensitivity and are often accompanied by tension around the hind quarters and tail.

Crooked ears or ears that appear to be set unevenly on the head can be an indicator of tension through the neck and/or jaw.    The dog may be very reactive to contact around the head and neck and may dislike having his collar handled.

Tension in the ears will affect the tension across the top of the head and vice versa.   Dogs that are very reactive and those that dislike contact on, or movement near the head are often very tight through the skin between the base of the ears.   They may even have heat in this area and are often quick to arousal.   In Chinese Medicine the Liver is linked to the top of the head.  Anger is one of the emotions of the Liver and dogs with unwanted reactive behaviour are often extremely reactive to movement or contact over the head.   This pattern may be accompanied by red gums.

A Belgian Shepherd shows his anxious smile.

The Neck and Back

Tension in the neck and back can give rise to a high head carriage.  This posture is linked to the Flight/Fight response.   The gait may be short and choppy and the dog may appear to be stiff through the shoulders and hindquarters.   This posture is often linked to a high tail carriage.  Dogs with this Tension Pattern find it hard to relax and are constantly in a state of alert often leaping to their feet at the slightest sound or movement.   Tension through the neck can inhibit the movement of the front limbs resulting in tripping or knocking jumps in agility.    Dogs that bite are often extremely uncomfortable in the neck and may need physiotherapy or gentle chiropractics to help them overcome their problems.    This damage can be set up at an early age if a puppy is dragged by its collar or at any point if the dog is pulled or checked roughly on the leash.

When a dog is aroused, the skin on the back tightens and the hackles rise.   Some dogs carry so much tension through their body that they are habitually in this physical state of arousal.  The back may be so tight that the muscles spasm on contact.   This tension impairs the circulation in the skin so the coat in this area may look dull, lifeless and scurfy.   The hair may be curly, wavy or raised and the dog may be highly reactive to contact or having the collar handled.   They can be difficult to train as they find containment difficult and react to collars, harnesses or other training equipment.

Dogs who display a great deal of flexibility through the back may still carry tension in certain areas which may only be detected when running your hand over the back.   This type of dog is generally very exuberant and slow to mature.  He may find it hard to concentrate for long periods of time and will be inclined to play the fool when under pressure.    Tension through the mid-back and lumbar region can trigger sexual behaviour when the dog is patted or stroked in this area.  This area can also be linked to digestive problems.

The Stomach

Often a neglected part of the dog’s body, the stomach is related to separation anxiety, clingy behaviour, gut imbalance, worry and sensitivity.  Tension in this area can be caused by problems in the mid and lower back which can trigger digestive disturbances.

The Shoulders and Hindquarters

Tension around the shoulders can indicate a dog that lacks confidence and either bullies or retreats as a coping strategy.  He may appear distant and aloof and in the extreme may cower and bite if a sudden move is made towards the collar.    Dogs that are tight behind the shoulder blades often have a high chase drive and can be hard to get focused as they are on the lookout for movement.    They may leap and spin when on the lead and find walking to heel an impossible task.  Tension in the shoulders is also common in dogs that pull.   Working in a harness is generally easier for dogs with this pattern of tension.

Tension in the hindquarters can also be linked to dogs that lack confidence.  They can be extremely noise sensitive and find travelling in cars or standing on a raised platform such as the grooming table difficult as the ability to balance is impaired through tension in the hip and pelvis area.   Hip dysplasia, and arthritis can be linked to this pattern and can lower the dogs tolerance to every day situations

The Tail

A constantly wagging tail does not necessarily indicate a happy dog.   Many people have been bitten  bending down to stroke a dog that was wagging his tail.  It can be caused by tension through the back and hindquarters and often accompanies vocal, nervous or excitable behaviour.   If the base of the tail is tight it can impair a dogs ability to sit.  The dog may prefer to stand and stay or sit on one hip keeping the tail free.  Dogs with docked tails can be tight through the pelvis and ‘hop’ behind.  Sitting may be impossible due to the length of the remaining tail.

A high tail set generally accompanies the high head carriage and tight back as mentioned above.  It can be linked to dogs that are quick to arousal and over reactive in their behaviour to people and other dogs.

A tail that is tucked between the legs is an indication of a fearful dog.  He may be a fear biter and have tendency to nip once and then retreat.   The expression ‘to tuck your tail and run’ can be applied to dogs and dogs that are habitually tucked in the tail are often in the Flight reflex.   They may find it hard to walk in a straight line and will often ‘hug’ the ground when walking on a leash, curving their body and leaning away from the handler.

I have spent a great deal of time looking at tails!   There seems to be a correlation between the tension in the shoulders and back and what is happening in the tail.  It seems as though the base of the tail represents the base of the neck and shoulders, the middle of the tail represents the middle of the back and the end of the tail bone is linked to the pelvis.   If an animal moves on the forehand it is often tight at the base of the tail – if it is disconnected through the hindquarters the end of the tail bone may feel as though it is separate to the rest of the tail.  If the pelvis drops to one side, the end of the tail bone will often tilt to the same side.    If an injury is present in the spine there is often a ‘holding’ through the corresponding vertebrae in the tail.    By working slowly and mindfully with the tail we can bring about great improvements with the back.

The Legs and Feet

Dogs with a narrow base are more inclined to be timid while those with legs that are wider apart tend to be more upfront and open in their natures. Even within the different breed types, the narrower framed dog will lean more towards the nervous behaviours than the dogs with bigger frames and more bone.    Stiff legs and inflexible hocks and wrists are often indicators of problems in the shoulder and/or hindquarters.    The Liver and Stomach meridians run down the hind limbs.  Allergies or inappropriate food can result in very sensitive hindquarters and are often present in dogs with over reactive behaviours.

Lower legs and pads which feel cold to the touch may indicate nervousness.   Circulation to the lower leg and feet is often impaired and can be linked to tension in the shoulder and /or hindquarters.   This can lead to problems with nail clipping due not only to sensitivity in the paws but from the dogs inability to balance on three legs.   It can also be linked to travelling issues and reluctance to stand on tables or work on agility equipment, as the dog may feel unsafe on a surface that moves beneath his feet.

If you recognise some of these tension patterns there are positive steps you can take to improve matters using the TTouch technique.  TTouch has helped thousands of dogs overcome health and behavioural issues using bodywork and ground exercises to change existing habitual patterns.  The dogs learn to learn. They become calmer, more focused, easier to train and more adaptive to both new and every day situations.


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