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Improving the Life of Your Disabled Dog

By Mary Debono, GCFP

“We haven’t been able to get Sheba’s legs to stop shaking. We’ve tried everything.” Teresa spoke these words as we kneeled next to her German shepherd, who had been diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy (DM). The dog lay on her side, her hind legs trembling.

Teresa, a pretty brunette in her 40’s, went on to explain that Sheba’s veterinarians had tried various medications and supplements but nothing stemmed the tremors. The shaking would eventually stop on its own, only to inexplicably start up again. The trembling episodes were becoming more frequent and lasting longer. Teresa and her husband found it distressing to see their beloved dog shaking so much and were concerned about her quality of life.

After I introduced myself to Sheba and let her sniff me, I put my hands lightly on the side of her ribcage. I felt the rise and fall of her chest as she inhaled and exhaled. After a few minutes, her breathing slowed and she seemed more relaxed. Her hind legs continued their trembling, though, and I could see that the German shepherd’s back muscles were tight.

I moved my hand to the front part of Sheba’s ribcage (her sternum) and I very delicately pressed down, bringing her chest slightly closer to her pelvis. This gentle support can relieve strain in the lower back, so I put my other hand on Sheba’s lumbar area to feel the muscles softening there. Amazingly, the dog’s hind legs stopped trembling. The moment I took my hands away, the shaking returned.

I once more placed a hand on the front of the German shepherd’s ribcage and the other on Sheba’s lower back and again the leg tremors stopped. This time I held my hands in place for two or three minutes, feeling Sheba’s breathing becoming even more relaxed and rhythmic. Teresa was astounded at the sudden improvement in her dog. Even when I slowly removed my hands, there was no more trembling of her hind legs.

You may be wondering how supporting the dog’s ribcage could possibly affect weakness and trembling in the hind legs. Well, the answer is revealed in the two photos of the running dog you see below.

Rhodesian ridgeback’s spine is flexed
dog’s spine and limbs are extended

In the first photo, the Rhodesian ridgeback’s spine is flexed (rounded), allowing him to draw his legs underneath his body. Looking at the underside of the dog, notice how close his ribcage is to his pelvis. The ridgeback’s abdominal muscles are at work here; allowing him to powerfully coil like a spring.

In the second photo, the dog’s spine and limbs are extended (lengthened). There is a greater distance between the underside of the dog’s ribcage and pelvis. At this point in his stride, the ridgeback’s abdominal muscles relaxto allow his back muscles (extensors) to uncoil his spine.

There is an exquisite harmony at work when a healthy dog runs, with the abdominal muscles and the back muscles politely taking turns. When the abdominals are working, the back muscles should relax. When the back muscles are working, the abdominals should relax. But problems can develop when one set of muscles doesn’t completely release. If either the abdominals or the back muscles remain taut, it makes it difficult for the dog to fully coil and uncoil his spine. Fluidity of movement is lost and there is greater wear and tear on joints and muscles. Over time, this can decrease the dog’s strength, impair his balance and, ultimately, lead to degeneration of the dog’s spine.
In many dogs with degenerative myelopathy, trembling is triggered by the disease itself. But with Sheba, the shaking of her hind legs seemed to be caused by habitual muscular contractions in her back. *DM had weakened her hind legs, making it impossible for the German shepherd to walk normally, so Sheba compensated by overusing her shoulders and stiffening her ribcage and back.

While this is a common compensation, it can become a vicious cycle. Tension in the ribcage and back often leads to tension in the pelvis and hind legs, creating further weakness, fatigue and trembling in the hind legs.
This takes us back to the question “How did gently moving Sheba’s ribcage help her hind legs?” Remember what we learned from the running Rhodesian ridgeback? When the ribcage comes closer to the pelvis, the back muscles reduce their tension to allow the spine to flex (round). When my hands brought Sheba’s ribcage a little bit closer to her pelvis, I reminded her brain how she used to move these parts harmoniously. This helped break the vicious cycle of muscular contraction and relieved the strain in her back.

It’s important to note that even in her neurologically-compromised state, Sheba was able to use my hands-on reminders to improve her functioning. In my experience, that is not uncommon. I have seen significant improvements in dogs impaired by neurological disease, stroke, arthritis, hip dysplasia and other challenges.

Dog Bone Map

The German shepherd didn’t tremble at all for the rest of the day, which was a huge improvement. And when the dog’s hind legs started shaking the next day, Teresa knew exactly what to do. With one hand on the front of Sheba’s ribcage and the other on her lower back, Teresa was able to interrupt the cycle and stop the muscular tremors. Teresa and her husband continued to use this simple, hands-on technique to improve the quality of their disabled dog’s life.
I use Sheba’s story to illustrate how you can learn to relieve your dog’s discomfort and enhance well-being at any life stage. If your dog is dealing with impaired movement, especially if she is in a wheelchair, it’s particularly important to enhance the functioning of the parts that still have the ability to move, such as your dog’s neck, shoulders and back. It’s very likely that these areas are working harder than they were designed to.

I developed a hands-on approach, called Debono Moves**, so that I could teach dog lovers how to optimize their dogs’ comfort and functioning despite arthritis, injuries, stroke, hip dysplasia, neurological disease, anxiety and aging. One of the unique characteristics of Debono Movessm is that it is designed to help you improve right along with your dog. You can rid yourself of stiffness, stress, aches and pains and poor posture, while gaining flexibility, better balance and improved coordination. In short, you and your dog can enjoy greater well-being at any age. To learn more, please visit

Feel How Your Ribcage Affects Your Back

Just like your dog, the suppleness of your ribcage affects your back and legs. Here’s a short exercise so you can feel the connection between movements of your ribcage and back. Experiencing this connection may allow you to understand how your dog’s body works. And you can improve the comfort and movement of your own body too!

Sit towards the front of a flat-bottomed chair

  1. Sit towards the front of a flat-bottomed chair. Put your hands on your “hip bones” and look down, rounding your back. You should feel the top of your pelvis (your “hip bones”) tilt backwards a little bit. This is flexing your spine.
Arch your back
  1. Arch your back so that the top of your pelvis (your “hip bones”) tilts forward. This is extending your spine.
  2. Do a few movements of rounding your back and looking down (first photo) and arching your back and looking up slightly (second photo). Only do what is perfectly easy and comfortable. Notice how the movements feel. It’s important not to stretch or strain!
  3. Rest for a moment. Place the fingertips of one hand on your sternum (breast bone) in the center of your chest. Put your other hand on the small of your back.
  4. Round your back and look down, gently pushing your sternum downwards. This is a small, subtle movement, so please only use light pressure. Can you feel your sternum and ribs move downwards? Can you sense how your lower back rounds out into your hand? Notice how the front of your ribcage and pelvis comes closer together as you round your back. Return to your neutral position after each rounding movement.
  5. Repeat these rounding movements, slowly and gently, several times. Try exhaling as you round your back. Then try inhaling. You will probably discover that exhaling helps soften your ribcage, making rounding your back easier.
  6. Rest after several movements.
  7. This time as you round your back and look down, gently push your sternum UP. Do this several times. Again, don’t stretch or strain. Remember to exhale as you round your back.
  8. After several movements, return to gently pushing your sternum DOWN as you round your back and look down. Has your movement become easier and lighter? Do you feel your sternum and ribs moving more clearly now? What else has changed? Do these movements several times, then rest a moment.
  9. Now, without pushing on your sternum at all, simply round and arch your back a few times. How does the movement compare to when you first did it? Is it easier? Is it a fuller movement? Are you move aware of how your spine, ribcage and pelvis can work in harmony?
  10. Take a rest and then slowly walk around. Has your walking changed? Do your legs feel lighter and freer?

Mary Debono is Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitionercm and the creator of Debono Movessm. She has a passion for helping people – and their dogs, cats and horses – move easier despite injuries, stroke, arthritis and aging. Mary is the author of the Amazon #1 best seller, Grow Young with Your Dog, which won the 2015 San Diego Book Award for Best Health/Medicine book and was a silver medalist in the 2015 Living Now National Book Awards. Over a career spanning more than 20 years, Mary has helped thousands of individuals, ranging from disabled dogs to high-performing equine and human athletes. She’s currently developing online classes and educational videos so that she can share her work with people all over the world. Mary and her husband Gary live near San Diego, California. They stay young by playing with their energetic rat terrier, Ruby; spirited quarter horse, Breeze; and laid-back cat, Higgins. Mary’s website is

*Please note that this is not true of all dogs with trembling legs. Each dog with degenerative myelopathy (or any illness) has to be treated as an individual, making your veterinarian the best person to guide your dog’s care. Debono Moves is not a substitute for veterinary care.

**Debono Movessm was informed by the teachings of Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, the originator of the Feldenkrais Method® for humans. Mary Debono graduated from a four-year professional training program in the Feldenkrais Method 20 years ago and is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitionercm.

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