For nearly 40 years now, since my Dad first made soccer players dribble tennis balls and move over grids, I have been experimenting with the impact of exercises promoting the development of proprioception in humans, horses, and dogs. In the past 20 years, when I have been focused more in the dog world, I have seen proprioception work help reorganize the brains of hundreds of dogs: increasing and maximizing learning capacity, slowing and focusing “squirrel” brain, softening reactivity, increasing visual focus, increasing handler connection, increasing confidence, decreasing stress, increasing engagement, and just generally helping build a more balanced brain and balanced attitude. Over the years, we have honed and honed the components of what I now refer to as Movement Markers™ High Density Low Impact Proprioception Courses (HDLIP Courses) to maximize impact in a short, discrete exercise. (See below at the end for the essential components as we know them at this time.)
While we have always had a senior dog or two in the mix during these exercises at clinics, with them I was more focused on preserving certain levels of physicality. I was not particularly focused on the potential mental health perks for our elder dogs. While I had seen many senior dogs clearly enjoy the courses, I had not observed clear trends to the behaviors. However, we also did not have the courses and protocols developed to the degree we have now, which I think is a critical difference. What I had the great privilege and pleasure of observing and learning at a recent clinic in Charlotte was that our HDLIP courses had the capacity to turn on a Senior dog brain to the point that we were all dumbfounded watching it happen. Yes, I personally have done innumerable enrichment protocols with my elders, but I can honestly say, I have never seen anything turn on senior dogs like a light switch within moments, the way our course did that weekend. And it wasn’t just me observing this. Everyone was calling out and pointing and watching our elders sparkle. The eyes just lit up. Chests came up. Tails came up. Stiff dogs started prancing. Each and every elder from four different households had the same response. So exciting to see.
Our work with the dogs that weekend deeply enhanced my perception of the potential impact of High Density Low Impact Proprioceptive Courses on not just the physicality of our senior dogs, but their mental health as well. (As always with all dogs but especially with senior dogs, within appropriate medical limits, of course.)
Protocol: Here are the critical components of the MM™ High Density Low Impact Proprioceptive Courses (HDLIP courses) as we know them at this time for whatever age dog. This work is continually evolving so stay tuned!!!
1. Course work should be done with the dog in a properly fitting martingale (so it just slips over the cheekbones or on a snap-around has only 2 fingers of slack) narrow as possible, with the martingale spun so the leash is coming off the top between the shoulder blades. This supports the head and neck and forequarters in a very particular way. Working the dog in a slip lead, flat buckle collar or other equipment, all of which by their physical components, can trigger oppositional reflex does NOT create the same mental impact and I ONLY use martingales for this exercise. (I don’t make the rules, I am merely reporting what we have seen after thousands of reps of trial and error.)
2. These courses are done in an exaggerated slow motion, ONE STEP AT A TIME to individuate the legs and maximize proprioceptive impact to the brain. THIS IS ESSENTIAL. Nothing happens without this exaggerated slow motion.
3. 12 obstacles seems to be the magic number of obstacles, which we sometimes set up as two parallel lines about 6′ apart of obstacles, or in a curving arc.
4. The sturdier the obstacles the better and deeper the learning. Plastic obstacles work to a certain extent but we do not see quite the depth of response.
5. Obstacles should be fairly close together, just a couple of paces apart again for maximum impact. Urban agility courses serve a different purpose and are typically laid out with the obstacles farther apart. Here we are trying to create a very specific brain impact.
6. Varying components of up, down, over and through with different textures seems to be key as well.
7. To the extent possible, the handler needs to not solve the puzzles for the dog but LET THEIR BRAIN work. Leash should be used to help balance the dog, where necessary, but as little as possible, and as little as possible between obstacles, letting body language and a little bit of food luring, if necessary, do the work. Do NOT pull the dog from obstacle to obstacle with a tight leash.
Have fun with all the dogs, but for a special gift put back a bit of sparkle in a senior dog’s eyes.