I drove down the unfamiliar street, reading the house numbers. 2403… 2405… 2407… Bingo! I parked on the street and was about to get out of my red Toyota Celica when a woman called out to me from the porch. “Wait in your car while I bring Bruno into the house!”
I watched as she used a piece of food to lure an Akita, apparently Bruno, to the front door. She unhooked his collar from the vinyl-covered metal cable that it was tied to, and Bruno went into the house. The woman followed, closing the door behind her. She waved me in from a window.
I opened the front door and came upon the largest Akita I had ever seen. While I didn’t feel that I was in imminent danger, it was clear that this dog was not particularly friendly to strangers. So I didn’t make eye contact. I simply strode past Bruno and into the living room. It was then that I noticed that the woman, Gail, was standing the hallway, watching from a distance.
Bruno went ahead of me and jumped on the couch. I sat on the couch too, but turned so that I was facing away from Bruno. Gail called to her husband, who was in a back room, “She’s sitting on the couch with Bruno!” This was said with more than a degree of surprise. Don’t they sit on the couch with Bruno? Apparently not!
Gail, still standing in the hallway, told me Bruno’s story. He was diagnosed with bi-lateral hip dysplasia while still a pup. He had surgery on both hips before he was a year old. At the age of eighteen months he ruptured a cranial cruciate ligament (sometimes referred to as the anterior cruciate ligament or “ACL”) and had surgery to repair that. He later ruptured the ACL on his opposite knee and had yet another surgery.
Bruno had difficulty recovering from the surgeries and they felt that he was never completely pain-free. His veterinarian prescribed medication to be given on Bruno’s bad days, but he advised against giving it to him all the time, as it could have serious side effects. They gave Bruno joint supplements and a good diet. He still wasn’t sound. A colleague told Gail about my work and suggested that I may be able to help Bruno inhabit his body more comfortably.
I asked about Bruno’s temperament. “He doesn’t like to share”, Gail said. “When he’s on the couch, we sit elsewhere”. Oh, dear. At well over one hundred pounds, Bruno cut an imposing figure. Gail and her husband, Tom, were clearly intimidated by the large dog. Bruno, an only dog, had been calling the shots in this household for nine years.
I noticed Bruno’s long nails. Gail said that her dog disliked having his paws touched, and, after a few unpleasant battles, they no longer attempted to trim his nails. They were even unable to check his paws for growths or other foreign objects, something that should be done daily.
In fact, Gail cautioned that Bruno did not like to be touched by anyone. On his infrequent visits to the vet clinic, he was outfitted in a muzzle. I asked to see his muzzle, but Gail told me that he tore through it and they didn’t have a muzzle at the moment.
Given Bruno’s medical history, he probably learned to associate people’s touch with pain. And so he avoided contact, intimidating people to get his point across. Just as people can be grumpy when they are in pain, many animals get irritable too.
Interestingly, Gail hadn’t mentioned any of this when we talked on the phone. She only spoke about Bruno’s orthopedic problems. But Bruno’s issue of avoiding human contact had to be addressed if I going to help improve his life. Now, where to begin?
Actually, I began the session the moment I stepped into the house. By walking over to the couch and sitting right next to Bruno, I had changed his environment. I simply ignored him, keeping my back to him and talking to Gail. This was not the way humans usually acted around him!
But I wasn’t oblivious of the dog. I could tell that he was a bit confused, but okay. I wasn’t in danger of being attacked. As I spoke with Gail, I nonchalantly inched a bit closer to Bruno so that my right thigh was touching his paw. As we spoke, I began to make imperceptible movements with my right leg. I was touching Bruno’s paw.
This was very different that someone making a determined effort to take hold of a paw, especially with the intent of clipping the nails. I was not gearing up for a confrontation and trying to dominate him. I wasn’t even facing him. I was just having a nice conversation with Gail and oh, by the way, my leg is touching your foot. No big deal. I don’t think Bruno even knew how to react. He just stayed right where he was on the couch. He didn’t even move his foot away.
All things considered, we were off to a pretty good start. But I needed to make a connection with Bruno if I wanted to effect real change. And since Bruno had a long-standing habit of guarding the couch, I felt I would have a better chance of connecting with him in the more neutral territory of the back garden.
So after a few minutes of playing “footsie” with Bruno, I moved our little group to the backyard. The Akita walked around the garden, his gait stiff. His front legs and shoulders worked hard to compensate for the lack of strength in his hind legs. After a few minutes of sniffing around, Bruno settled down in a sunny spot on the lawn.
As Bruno rested on the grass, I sat cross-legged behind him, turning my body a bit away from him so as to be less threatening. I placed my hands on his rib cage, letting them follow the up and down waves of his breath. I was attentive to my own breathing too; ensuring that it was slow and regular, evoking calmness and relaxation. As I listened to Bruno with my hands, I noticed that his eyes were soft and he was not defending against my contact. Like most animals, Bruno could feel the difference between a listening touch and a controlling touch.
I spent a few minutes attending to Bruno in this way. Then I very gradually lightened my touch so that my hands were just barely making contact. In response to this withdrawal, Bruno’s breathing got deeper and our rib cage-to-hands contact was maintained. He took wonderful, deep breaths, which helped him relax even more.
This strategy must be done very gradually. If you take your hands away too suddenly, the dog has no chance of preserving the contact. But if you very slowly reduce your contact, the animal often wants to maintain the warm, inviting touch and so will increase the depth of his breathing to retain it. You must be patient and subtle for this to work.
I let my hands settle back into Bruno’s rib cage and gently slid his rib cage in the direction of his head. This created a release in the formerly tense muscles in front of his shoulder. As I held the rib cage in this forward position, Bruno took several deep breaths, apparently enjoying the sensation.
I slowly glided the rib cage in a circle, noting what areas on the circle were easiest to move toward. When I found a direction that was not easy, I moved in the direction opposite it, which would often be more fluid. Moving the rib cage in this easier direction a few times was usually enough to allow the previously difficult direction to feel effortless too.
This concept is different than what we usually do in our culture. For many of us, if we feel resistance, we just push harder! But using force often creates more defenses and bracing in the dog. When I encounter resistance, I generally lighten my touch and explore the easier directions. Supporting the body where it goes easily can render the muscular holding obsolete, since my hands are doing the work of those taut muscles that pull the body in its familiar patterns. With the muscles no longer having to do this work, the nervous system is usually convinced to release the chronic contractions. With the muscles now more relaxed, I can gradually guide the body to move more freely in all directions. These passive movements allow the dog to experience a range of movement beyond what he would experience on his own, providing his nervous system with more comfortable and effective options of movement.
Bruno and I continued like this, moving other parts of his body as well. These gentle, supportive movements became a kinesthetic dialogue in which we listened and responded to each other. Bruno experienced connections between body parts, which increased his body awareness and reminded him how to move more comfortably and freely.
I was always sensitive to Bruno’s physical and emotional comfort and adjusted my contact accordingly. He began to trust that no harm would be done, no forcing would occur. He breathed deeply, often closing his eyes. I experienced a strong connection with this wonderful dog.
I moved to Bruno’s feet and placed a small children’s hardcover book against one paw. Not wishing to rekindle his defenses, I made sure that my hand did not touch his foot. I used the book to coax each of his toes, separately and as a group, to move a little bit. His toes were quite stiff, likely in response to the overall stiffness in his body.
Playing with his feet in this non-threatening and novel way helped Bruno soften his toes, enhancing his gait. It could also improve his tolerance for having his nails clipped and handled.
As Bruno continued to accept the book against his feet, I brought my hand closer and closer to his paw, so that eventually it was my hand, and not the book, that was exploring his paw. Since it was such a gradual transition, Bruno wasn’t concerned. It was Gail and Tom who were wide-eyed! They were pleasantly surprised that Bruno allowed having his paws handled.
I spent the rest of the session teaching Gail and Tom how they could use Debono Moves to help Bruno be more comfortable in body and mind. They were thrilled to finally be able to emotionally and physically connect with their dog.
Some time later I received an appreciative message from Gail, telling me how Bruno had become a more interactive and content part of their family. Bruno’s story illustrates how we are all capable of change, if only we open our hearts and minds to the possibility.