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From Hip Dysplasia to Agility

The following story is excerpted from my award-winning, Amazon #1 best seller, Grow Young with Your Dog. Click here to learn more about the book.      

Painful hips, stiff hips, dysplastic hips and arthritic hips. Many people worry about their dogs’ hips at some point. And as dog lovers themselves age, they may notice that their own hips are not as flexible or comfortable as they once were.

Many will simply accept these limitations as inevitable aspects of aging, but what if you are no longer able to take your dog on a nice, long walk? Did that get your attention? And is hip trouble really inevitable?

 A Young Dog Overcomes Hip Dysplasia


Emma the Border Collie

Emma was even more energetic than your typical Border Collie pup. And if you’ve spent any time around Border Collies, you know that is saying a lot!  Strikingly marked, the active black-and-white puppy enlivened Akiko and Michael’s household from the minute they brought her home.

Given the dog’s naturally high drive, Akiko had hopes of entering Emma in canine agility competitions when she matured.  But that dream appeared to be dashed when the seven-month-old puppy was diagnosed with severe hip dysplasia. The radiographs looked pretty grim, with the left hip being particularly loose. Both hips had a positive Ortolani sign, which indicates hip joint laxity and is part of the diagnostic procedure for canine hip dysplasia.


More than one veterinarian felt that the only way to give the young dog a chance at a pain-free life was by doing triple pelvic osteotomy (TPO) surgery on the left hip. But Akiko had concerns about her dog undergoing surgery. For one thing, she didn’t think that her exuberant young dog could handle the long period of post-surgical confinement.

Another factor was that Akiko had been down this road before.  Her beloved Akita, a gentle soul named Winnie, had undergone hip dysplasia surgery as a youngster. And while the surgery repaired her hips, the changes it created in her structure seemed to adversely affect her knees and back, leaving Winnie with difficulties in her hind legs throughout her long life. Understandably, Akiko was reluctant to risk this happening to her young Border Collie, Emma.


Debono Moves is part of a team approach to managing hip dysplasia.

Keeping her dog’s well-being uppermost in her mind, Akiko opted to support Emma using conservative management and alternative therapies. A diligent researcher, petite, raven-haired Akiko employed a team approach to help her Border Collie.  Her veterinarian incorporated chiropractic, laser acupuncture, and other holistic methods. 

Akiko had always provided her dog with a professionally-balanced, home-prepared diet designed for a growing puppy. That diet was now modified to meet adult nutrient levels to slow the young Border Collie’s growth. Emma’s diet was also supplemented with herbs and nutraceuticals to support joint and bone health. 

In addition, Akiko asked me to give private Debono Moves sessions to Emma to help mitigate the effects of her hip dysplasia.


Would changing the way the young dog moved stimulate healthier hip joints?

Although I understood that hip dysplasia is often genetically predestined, I wanted to improve the young dog’s odds of staying sound and active.  I began to wonder if changing how Emma moved would stimulate her body to develop healthier hip joints.  After all, form follows function. 

If I could help improve her function (ability to walk, run, etc.), would her form (structure) improve as well? Could the pup’s hip joints, which were still growing, develop a better fit between the “ball” and “socket”?


A tall order, for sure.  But I knew that at the very least, Debono Moves could help the young dog move more comfortably despite hip dysplasia. At the most, it might stimulate the development of healthier hip joints.


One strategy I used with Emma was to chunk down the function of walking into small pieces. In other words, I thought about the individual movements of a dog’s body that, when strung together, result in walking. By working with each piece of this walking “puzzle,” Emma wouldn’t feel the need to protect her hips, and would be more likely to learn healthier ways to move.


For example, when a dog walks, she has to push against the ground with her paws. That seems simple enough. But exactly how she does this can determine the comfort and efficiency of her gait. Does she press more with the inside of her foot?  The outside? Are her toes stiff or yielding? Does one paw press harder than the others? 

These are the types of distinctions I look for when I watch a dog move, since the way a dog uses her paws affects her knees, hips, spine, shoulders and neck. So, with Emma lying on her side, I gently wiggled and pushed through her toes and paw pads.


The novelty of these gentle paw movements reminded the Border Collie that she didn’t have to be stuck in her habitual way of using her feet. She could, instead, choose more efficient options. After all, the brain seeks efficiency. It just sometimes needs to be reminded that options exist. When I delicately moved her feet, I was simply suggesting new choices.

Whether or not her brain adopted those new movement possibilities would be up to Emma. But this I knew: if the dog changed the way she used her paws, she would change the way movement traveled up her legs and through her hip joints. Her nervous system would register this change in locomotion.


With Emma still on her side, I brought in other components of walking, including bending and straightening her leg joints, flexing and extending her spine, and moving her ribcage, shoulder blades, neck, head and tail. Then I began to link these movements together, so that Emma’s nervous system could recognize the role they played in her walking.


I wanted to give Emma the experience of moving as if she didn’t have hip dysplasia.        

In addition, I thought about how the Border Collie would move if she didn’t have hip dysplasia. How would her leg joints respond to weight and movement? How differently would she move her spine?  With Emma both lying down and standing up, I gently pressed through different parts of her skeleton to simulate, as best I could, how she might move without the encumbrance of hip dysplasia.

I hoped that this rudimentary “blueprint” would awaken something in her nervous system and initiate improvements in her body awareness and functioning.


 It was important to relieve the strain throughout the dog’s body.

As always, I kept all of Emma in mind as I worked with her. Dogs with hip dysplasia (or any hind limb soreness), commonly stress their shoulder, back and pelvic muscles to compensate for the discomfort or weakness in their hind legs. I used Debono Moves to help relieve the strain in those overworked areas, and helped Emma be more comfortable and balanced overall.


Just in case you are picturing me working with a relaxed, somnolent dog, let me share my reality! Emma, despite the diagnosis of hip dysplasia, continued to be very energetic. That meant that I had to be flexible in our sessions, as the vibrant young dog didn’t always want to lie still. But dogs don’t have to lie still for Debono Moves to be effective.

When I work with very antsy dogs, their humans often call me the day after the session. With surprise in their voice, they tell me how much better their dog is moving. They confess to having thought that we hadn’t accomplished much since their dog was distracted during the session.

I remind them that although we could probably progress faster with a relaxed dog, even a distracted dog will typically benefit from Debono Moves.


The Border Collie became calmer and more relaxed as time went on, due largely to Akiko’s patience in teaching Emma that lying still and being handled would earn her yummy treats. Akiko also supported her dog’s progress by practicing specific Debono Moves that I taught her in between my sessions with Emma.

Soon the young Border Collie realized how nice it felt to lie still and enjoy hands-on attention! Emma still got excitable when I visited her home, but we accomplished more and more at each session.


X-rays reveal a surprising change in the Border Collie’s hips.

As the months went by, the young dog became stronger and more balanced in her movement and development.  Emma’s hips were X-rayed again, almost a year after the diagnosis of hip dysplasia.

Take a look at the radiographs to see what a difference a year makes! Pay special attention to how Emma’s left hip joint (which is on the right side of each photo) fits into its hip socket. The disparity between the two X-rays is quite dramatic.

In the first one, taken in October of 2010, the left hip is obviously loose, and there are signs of arthritic changes.

6 -1 Note how loosely

October 2010 – Note how loosely Emma’s left femur (which is on the right side as you’re looking at the x-ray) fits into the socket.

6 -2 Note how securely

September 2011 – Note how securely the left femur now sits in the socket!


The second radiograph, taken in September 2011, shows the head of each femur now fitting nicely into its hip socket, and the veterinarian said there is no longer evidence of arthritis. This was, of course, exciting and fantastic news!


September 2012 - Emma's hips earned her a rating of "Good" from the OFA!

September 2012 – Emma’s hips earned her a rating of “Good” from the OFA!


The third photo is Emma’s radiograph from September 2012. It again shows a dog with healthy hips. And as icing on the cake, the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) gave two-year-old Emma’s hips a rating of “Good.”  This was very surprising results for a dog whose “only option” had been surgery!


With her dog’s soundness more secure, Akiko and Emma happily began canine agility training, an activity that seemed out of reach when the young dog was first diagnosed.


Since a holistic veterinarian and a canine nutritionist also contributed to Emma’s care, we have no way of knowing what exact role Debono Moves played in the Border Collie’s recovery from hip dysplasia.

What we do know is that a veterinary orthopedist said that Emma’s hips would never improve.  And yet Emma’s X-rays – and more importantly, her ability to run and play – tell a very different story. 

My feeling is that all of the modalities, including Debono Moves, helped support this young dog’s development of healthy hip joints and contributed to her wonderful and surprising recovery.


Emma went from hip dysplasia to healthy hips!

Emma went from hip dysplasia to healthy hips!

But at the end of the day, I give the greatest credit to Akiko and her husband Michael. Their steadfast dedication to their vibrant dog is inspiring. Akiko’s patient commitment to do her Debono Moves homework with her exuberant Border Collie helped improve her dog’s body awareness and functioning, taught her how to be calm and relaxed, and deepened their strong bond.


Managing Hip Dysplasia in the Active Dog

You'd never know Juliette had hip dysplasia!

You’d never know Juliette had hip dysplasia!

Juliette, a black-and-white Border Collie cross, excelled at both canine agility and flyball. This canine athlete competed until well into her senior years, despite being diagnosed with hip dysplasia. Some dogs with hip dysplasia get along just fine as youngsters, but develop arthritic hips and other difficulties as they age, especially if they are very active.

Juliette’s human, Vicki, understood this. That’s why she took steps to keep her dog as healthy and pain-free as possible, while still allowing Juliette to participate in the activities she enjoyed so much.


Besides giving her dog a balanced, raw diet and regular veterinary care, Vicki enlisted me to give Debono Moves sessions to Juliette. Vicki wanted to minimize complications from the hip dysplasia, such as the weak hind legs, stiff spines and sore shoulders that are common in afflicted dogs.

Using many of the same strategies I employed with Emma, we helped keep Juliette moving freely and comfortably for many years.


Juliette was able to run and play with Border Collie intensity for a long time, before passing away at 16½ years old. This loyal dog with the huge heart left a big impression on all she met, and she is greatly missed.


This blog post is excerpted from my best-selling book, Grow Young with Your Dog.  Click here to learn more about the book. 

Grow Young with Your Dog is also available on Amazon.    

Book purchase includes online access to over 55 minutes of video and 3 1/2 hours of audio instruction at no extra cost. 

“Mary combines an amazing knowledge of anatomy, movement, structure, behavior combined with love, empathy and observation. Best of all she is articulate and a good communicator. This book will forever change how you view not only your dog, but all animals! It will forever change how you interact with your dog and all animals, including humans!!”  – Tina Steward, DVM 


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