Rehabilitation is the process by which we strive through physical therapy to return a pet back to functional status. The efforts are directed toward restoring motion. Motion is accomplished through a combination of activities where the brain directs the muscles to move the body. Essential in this process is an awareness of the pet’s physical location in space, an awareness of the location of the limbs and a mental picture of the goal in movement, along with the necessary strength and coordination to accomplish the goal. Awareness of physical location in space is a combination of inputs to the brain from the eyes, inputs from the balance mechanisms of the middle ear, as well as inputs from the current location of the joints, tendons, ligaments and muscles, and finally inputs from the touch sensors of the feet. All of these inputs are called proprioception. Movement is learned and mapped in the brain so that repetitive movements take little conscious effort. When these movements are mapped by the pet in a natural fashion, they can easily be modified to adapt to changes in terrain, grade of a hill or to avoid obstacles.
Rehabilitation is the remapping of the brain circuits that may have been lost. High quality remapping is accomplished when the pet is in charge of the learning process. This remapping and learning process, where the pet gradually learns to adapt, is called “shaping”. Shaping, as a training method, occurs when the pet’s voluntary actions are paired with a positive stimulus (a reward), which encourages the dog to repeat the behavior. When this pairing of events is recurring, for example, stepping up onto a disc with a reward for the behavior, the depth of the remapping deepens, which increases the chances that the movement will carry over into other activities. By definition, this is a voluntary movement of the pet in the absence of fear, without the intervention or handling of the trainer.
However, for example, imagine if the trainer or handler placed the pet on the equipment, such as a balance ball or peanut. The pet’s proprioception and balance mechanisms of the inner ear will work with the visual signals, and the pet will develop a higher level of control of his muscles and limbs in order to prevent from falling off the ball or peanut. This learning, however, will be because of the fear of falling and because the handler placed the pet on the equipment in the first place. The handler may have, in addition, held onto the pet to prevent falling. All of these actions create a mapping that is not natural, because this learning occurs with human intervention and the map involves a human, therefore, this learning is less likely to be used in natural situations. So, in the future, when the motion is required, the brain will expect the same human intervention, and when it is not there, the motion and learning and mapping will not have been effective. In addition, when humans place the pet in a fearful situation, it has negative consequences on the trust relationship with that pet. The pet that was placed on the unstable ball may, in fact, learn how to balance on the ball, but when the pet is asked onto a wobble board it will expect the human to help. The pet is less likely to test the wobble board on its own, nor will the pet adapt the learning or brain mapping from the ball to the wobble board. Most importantly, the purpose of these exercises is to allow the pet to exist in the real world with real needs for balance and adaptability. Muscles, bones and joints mapped in an unnatural fashion will not serve the pet when he has to chase that squirrel around the tree and his inability to adapt may cause injuries.
It takes more time to shape a pet and it takes more control and patience on the part of the trainer to shape a pet, but the resultant brain mapping and trust that develops is well worth the effort.
Opal is a pet that is undergoing “fear free” rehabilitation training. You can see that we are using treats to get her to exercise and to climb up on objects that are mildly unstable. Opal had a ruptured cranial cruciate ligament on her left leg and underwent TTA (Tibial Tuberosity Advancement) surgery here at Safari. The surgical repair is only part of the full recovery. Rehabilitation began one week from the surgery with focus training, mild interaction with Pilates and water treadmill. In the video, you can see how much fun she is having learning to back up and to play with the rehabilitation specialist.