Proprioception is the body’s ability to sense movement within joints and changes in joint position. Proprioception enables us to know where our limbs are in space, without having to look. In other words, if I close my eyes and step forward, why do I not fall over (assuming I am normal)?
As I move my foot and leg forward there are thousands of receptors (attached to nerve endings) which lie in my skin, muscles, tendons, joints, in fact in all tissue which send information about the position of my limb to my brain. In a split second, the brain receives and processes the information and our leg/foot braces and takes the necessary action to prevent me from falling over. I do not require vision to stay upright. This is proprioception. Balance operates in partnership with proprioception and is the ability to adjust equilibrium, when stationary or mobile, when there is a change in direction or ground surface. In the earlier example, balance manages stability during and after movement. There must be proprioception (body awareness) and balance in order to stay standing.
The most extreme form of proprioceptive damage occurs when there is damage to the spinal cord. Dogs with this type of injury can be completely paralysed (severe) or may have developed a wobbly walk and are unable to correct their paw if flipped over (moderate). However, if a dog injures his knee and the knee swells, then the pressure on the nerve endings and receptors in the joint will adversely affect proprioception. This means that when your dog walks he has less awareness of where that knee is in relation to the rest of the limb. If he runs with the swollen knee then there is an increased risk of more injury because of a lack of proprioceptive feedback and a greater possibility that he will misstep.
Human gyms have many types of balance and stability equipment. All small animal rehabilitation facilities do too. These can include exercise balls and physiorolls (peanuts), foam pads, air cushions, Bosu balls and wobble boards. Exercises to enhance balance and proprioception can include walking in circles or figure of eights, walking on different surfaces, negotiating obstacles and walking over cavaletti rails. Exercises can be performed at a slow and steady pace for compromised animals, but at a higher more challenging speed for canine athletes.
The important factor is to determine what our dogs do every day. Companions which lie around the house for most of the day will require easier exercises as opposed to an agility dog whose daily regimen is more demanding. Balance and proprioceptive exercises can benefit dogs of all sizes and ages from young puppies learning about their bodies, to older companions who have lost strength and stability through aging. The goal of these exercises is to enhance body and limb awareness, encourage weight shifts and muscle contractions, and facilitate balance and function.