A Chihuahua Overcomes a Paralyzing Stroke
Thursday, March 2, 2017
by: Mary Debono, GCFP

Section: Neuroplasticity

Alighting from the Cadillac, Marion placed the small bundle gently in my arms. As I looked down, all I could see was a tiny tan head peeking out of the swaddling. Wrapped safely inside the blanket was Marion's precious companion, Chilee the Chihuahua, who had suffered a stroke 18 days before. Marion explained that the little dog’s right legs were paralyzed and he was unable to stand. Since the Chihuahua had not improved at all despite his veterinarian’s best efforts, euthanasia was suggested. But Marion was determined to give her dog another chance to recover, so she left the animal hospital and brought Chilee straight to me.   
Marion had read about my work with animals and hoped that I could help her dog regain the ability to walk and joyfully engage in life again. Before his stroke, Chilee had served as a Delta Society therapy dog. Marion and Chilee had regularly visited hospital patients; spreading good cheer and helping people overcome disabilities and depression. Interestingly, the Chihuahua’s greatest contributions were with people who had suffered a stroke.

I was betting on neuroplasticity to save the day.

Strokes often cause an interruption in the flow of information from the brain to the muscles. In Chilee's case, this interruption resulted in paralysis of his right side. Unable to stand, the Chihuahua would eat his meals while lying on his right side, moving only his mouth and jaw. (See photo.)
Thinking of the nervous system in simple terms, imagine a system of roadways. A stroke may interrupt the flow of traffic by shutting off some streets. With the streets that served Chilee's right side currently out of service, his brain's "body map" no longer included his right side.
Fortunately, the brain may adapt to such injury by creating new neural connections in response to specific stimuli. This is called neuroplasticity. My aim was to use this process to help the dog create a new body map that included his right side. In short, I was betting on neuroplasticity to save the day.
The Chihuahua was no longer a passive patient, but a participant in his recovery.
My first step was to involve Chilee in this learning process. After all, as a Feldenkrais® practitioner, I wouldn’t be doing something to the dog to help him walk. Instead, we would sense, move, and improve together.

So, with the dog lying on his side, I used my fingertips to gently lift the muscles along his spine, bringing them a little bit closer to his backbone. This slow, almost imperceptive movement served to bring his awareness to his spine and helped release tense muscles. But more importantly, it was the beginning of Chilee’s nervous system connecting with my own.

You see, habitual touch and movement are usually deemed "not important" by the nervous system and are simply tuned out, much as we tune out the sensation of clothes touching our skin. Novel movements, on the other hand, produce stimulating sensations that encourage the brain to change. So even though he looked and acted the same as when he first arrived, the Chihuahua was no longer a passive patient. Instead, his brain was processing my tactile communication, making Chilee an active participant in his recovery.  
Crossing the dog’s legs may stimulate the creation of new neural pathways. 
Keeping this concept in mind, I crossed the Chihuahua’s limbs, bringing his right legs over to the left side of his body. As this was an unusual sensation, his nervous system was paying close attention. Even Chilee's demeanor showed that he was interested in what I was doing, with his eyes showing more aliveness.

When working with dogs who have had a stroke, I have found that crossing the limbs can improve their functioning. Bringing the limbs across the midline may facilitate communication between the two hemispheres of the brain, allowing the brain to create new neural connections (new roadways) to the paralyzed side.  
Using a small book, I suggested to Chilee that standing was possible.        
With Chilee's legs still crossed, I placed a small, hardcover book against one paw, in effect creating an "artificial floor." Using the book, I gently moved each toe, one at a time, until I could feel a response, however small, in the muscles of his leg. When the nervous system detects something firm and flat under the foot, the brain recognizes that as standing. Even though Chilee's current condition only allowed him to be lieying on his side, my movements were giving Chilee the sensory experience of standing. This could stimulate his brain to evoke the physical functions necessary to that would actually allow the tan dog to stand while. And the crossed legs could help create new neural connections to his right side.

Even when muscles are at rest, there is a certain amount of tension present, which is called muscular tone. Muscular tone is the result of nerve impulses being transmitted to the muscles. Chilee had no apparent muscular tone in his right legs when we began our session, and even tickling the space between each toe did not elicit any increase in tone. Now, as I delicately coaxed each paw with my little artificial floor, I felt the right legs begin to awaken with increased muscular tension.
Associating movement with pleasure encourages the dog to move in a healthy, functional way.
I slowly uncrossed Chilee's legs and gently supported his tiny rib cage, bringing it ever so lightly toward his head. Sliding Chilee’s rib cage was a non-habitual movement, since when dog walks or runs, it’s usually the shoulder blade that slides over the relatively stable rib cage. By sliding the rib cage, I was reversing his usual movement pattern.

This reversal wakes up the nervous system and interrupts its habitual reactions. This gives the dog the opportunity to discover easier, healthier movement. The Chihuahua seemed to enjoy these delicate movements, and Marion said she hadn't seen him so relaxed since before his stroke.
After a few minutes, I slipped my fingers underneath Chilee’s trunk and moved his right shoulder blade in tiny, easy movements. I then crossed his front legs and again introduced the sensation of standing by using the small book against the bottom of his right front paw. The tone in his right front leg increased.
It was encouraging to see how much the Chihuahua enjoyed these novel movements, since it was important to associate Chilee’s movement with pleasure. After all, the brain seeks pleasure and avoids pain. Associating movement with pleasure would make it more likely that the dog would recreate healthy, functional movements on his own.

Still lying down and paralyzed, I helped the Chihuahua experience walking.  
With Chilee's legs now uncrossed, I held the artificial floor delicately against each paw, one at a time, as I moved the corresponding leg in the gait sequence of walking -- left hind, left front, right hind, right front, left hind, left front, etc. As I slowly moved the top-lying legs, I made sure that they were the width they would be if Chilee was actually walking. At this point the dog began to have greater tone in both right legs. I also added movements of his back, pelvis, neck and head -- movements Chilee would do if he were actually walking. I hoped to give him as complete a sensory experience of walking as I could simulate.
The walking movements stimulated Chilee to use his paralyzed right legs.
While he was still lying on his right side, I gave Chilee a rest and simply supported his torso with my hands. I hoped the passive movements would stimulate him to move his right legs on his own. Suddenly, Chilee began to push against the floor with his right front and right hind legs. The Chihuahua then rolled over onto his left side, crossed his right hind leg over the left leg and used it to push against the floor!  Marion and I were thrilled as we watched Chilee use his formerly paralyzed legs.

I had been with Chilee about one hour and thought that this milestone was a good place to end. It was time for Chilee to rest and let his brain continue to process his first Feldenkrais Method® session.
Amazingly, the Chihuahua began walking!
Marion reported that when she took Chilee home that day, he slept soundly, and the next day he began walking! He also began lying on his left side, which demonstrated that he no longer needed to protect his compromised right side. Needless to say, Marion and I were quite pleased with the Chihuahua’s response to his first Feldenkrais Method® session.

Just one week after our first meeting, Chilee came for his second session. And, boy, could he walk! In fact, now that he had regained his mobility, he was a very active little dog. I observed him as he explored my office, sniffing the carpet and trying to document all the other dogs that had been there that day. Even though he sometimes leaned to the right as he walked, he didn't let that slow him down.

Now that Chilee could walk, it was challenging to keep his attention.
I needed to find something that would engage Chilee's attention. So, sitting on the floor, I placed Chilee on my leg, with his sternum and abdomen resting on my thigh and his little legs dangling to either side. With the Chihuahua straddling my leg, I slowly straightened and bent my leg. The movement of my leg made him realize that his base of support (my leg) was unstable, which meant that he had to pay attention to his immediate environment. Chilee’s response was to hug my thigh with his legs. This was a defining moment, because Chilee clearly used his four legs and paws in a very functional, equal way.

I want to emphasize that I moved my leg very carefully and slowly, making sure that Chilee was never anxious about it. Causing fear in an animal would not only be unkind, but it would also defeat the value of the session, since anxiety interferes with learning. Keeping the animal feeling safe while using the environment (in this case, my moving leg) to stimulate improvement is an essential part of my work. 
Helping the dog move his head and neck improved his balance. Description: chilee3_291
Since they may have an impaired body map, many individuals who have suffered a stroke lose the feeling of having a center around which to organize. As you can imagine, this will impair their balance. Since Chilee would often lean to the right as he walked, I wanted to let him experience how he could move from side to side relative to his center, his spine.

Being able to comfortably move one’s head and neck from left to right is important for maintaining balance. So, with the little dog lying on his sternum and abdomen, I asked Marion to wave her hand from side to side. Chilee followed her movements with his head and neck. His range of motion gradually increased as my hands lightly supported and assisted his movements.

Moving Chilee’s shoulders helped him move his limbs more easily.    
Then with Chilee resting comfortably on his back between my bent knees, I gently moved his shoulders in an alternating sequence.[1] I gradually enlarged the movement, so that his forelegs began to reach in front of himself. To understand why I moved his shoulders and did not take hold of his lower front legs, please envision that I have taken hold of your wrist, and I am gently stretching your arm. Can you imagine what that would feel like? Now visualize that instead of taking your wrist, I have molded my hand around your shoulder blade and have begun delicately moving it in circles, coaxing your arm to reach forward as I do so. Can you sense that this would be a different experience for your nervous system?

If I were to hold your wrist and lengthen your arm, your habitual patterns would be invoked. It is common for these habits to include tightening the muscles around your shoulder blade as your arm reaches forward. This can restrict your movement and cause strain and tension. But if I were to support your shoulder blade instead, you would be less likely to tense your muscles, since it’s a novel movement and there is no habitual response to it.

I have found that directly supporting and moving the shoulder blade or hip instead of the lower leg can encourage the nervous system to release tense muscles and discover more comfortable and efficient ways of moving the limb.
Initial progress may be faster if the dog is lying down.       
I continued moving Chilee's shoulders in this way, at times gently coaxing his head and neck to roll slightly side to side. There is a direct neuromuscular relationship between the neck and the forelegs, and I have noticed that improving one will often improve the movement of the other. I wanted Chilee to feel how easy it had become to move both his forelegs and his head and neck. At times, I also added the artificial floor, so that when Chilee reached with his forelegs, he would contact the "floor," stimulating an increase in muscular tone.

At this point I still had Chilee fully supported and lying on his back, so that he didn't have to worry about bearing weight on his legs and balancing over them. I frequently work with animals when they are lying down, since progress may be faster when the nervous system doesn't have to contend with the challenges of weight bearing and balance.
Chilee enthusiastically demonstrated how he could use all four legs.   
Whenever I gave Chilee a break to integrate his improvements, he jumped up on his hind legs to reach Marion, who was sitting on a chair in my office. Chilee, who hoped that Marion had treats hidden somewhere, would use both forelegs to scratch at her chair. I noticed that he was using all four legs very well, with appropriate muscular tone in all of them.
Moving his body in various combinations helped improve the Chihuahua’s coordination.
Again taking the little dog into my lap, I carefully suggested movements with my fingertips, seeing if Chilee could move his head a little to the left and then a little to the right. I alternated between moving just his head with moving his head and neck as a unit. I also moved his head, neck and rib cage separately and together, reminding him that he could move them in various combinations. These distinctions allow for finer control, improving the dog’s coordination.

To demonstrate to Chilee what other movement was possible, I delicately touched the small space between each rib. This served to outline his ribs for him and remind him that they could move freely. I then gently lifted each vertebrae a tiny amount, working my way from the base of his skull down to the end of his tail.

I ended the session by lightly pushing through his ischium on each side. I could clearly see a wave of movement travel from Chilee's pelvis all the way to his head. This let the Chihuahua sense how movement could travel freely and comfortably through his body. After this second Feldenkrais Method® session, Marion reported that Chilee began running around the yard and climbing the stairs!
Chilee runs. Yes, runs!   
I gave Chilee a third session a week later. This time I went to Marion’s home, so that I could observe the Chihuahua in his own environment.  Although the little guy could now run, he would sometimes lose his balance. Yes, this little dog who just a short while ago couldn’t stand up was now running!  I wanted to help him feel balanced and confident while he did it.

With Chilee lying on his left side in my lap, I delicately slid his right front paw up and down his left front leg. This novel movement created an unusual feeling, evoking different responses from the dog's nervous system compared to how the animal usually makes contact with his paw. These new sensory stimuli could arouse his brain to create new neural connections.

Then, with Chilee's right front paw lying on top of his left front paw, I placed the small hardcover book against his left paw, slanting it to move each toe individually, then the entire foot as a whole. It was interesting to see how both legs gained muscular tone in this unusual configuration.

Then, with his legs lying next to each other, I again introduced the artificial floor, this time to both paws simultaneously. It was exciting to see how the tone in the Chihuahua’s right front leg now matched the tone in his left front leg. I repeated this approach with Chilee's hind legs. I used slow, delicate movements, so the dog could sense differences and detect changes in comfort and ability.
When the sternum and ribs participate, the back and legs move easier.   
With Chilee still comfortably lying on his side, I touched his spine and pelvis in a way that alternately induced rounding (flexion) and arching (extension) of the back. I helped clarify these movements for Chilee by touching and gently suggesting movement in his sternum and ribs. When the sternum and ribs move slightly closer to the pelvis, it’s easier to round the back. Conversely, it’s helpful if the sternum and ribs move up toward the head when the back arches. Simply put, when the sternum and ribs are free to move, flexibility is increased and wear and tear on the spine is reduced.

I then coordinated rounding the back with flexing Chilee's hind legs gently underneath him. I alternated this with slightly straightening the hind legs when his back gently extended. These movements simulated what Chilee would do when running. Coordinated, balanced movement requires that the spine and pelvis move in harmony with the legs. To reinforce this sensory information, I added the artificial floor while repeating these movements.

After giving Chilee a rest, I put him on his back, held safely between my hands.  Then I gently rolled him side to side, crossing his legs as he did so. He began reaching to each side with his forelegs. The little dog gradually began to support weight on the foreleg closest to the floor as he rolled from side to side. We then graduated to slowly rolling over to each side and standing up, with my hands still supporting the little dog. This required coordination on the dog’s part, but I was happy to see that Chilee did it spontaneously and easily.  
The dog’s recovery was a dramatic demonstration of neuroplasticity.
With Chilee now rolling freely from side to side, I ended our third and final Feldenkrais Method® session. After I said good-bye to him, the little tan dog began running happily after Marion. As I smiled at the vision of the two beloved friends, I thought back to the first day I met Chilee, just a short time ago. He had not walked, had in fact barely moved, for 18 days. Now he was running and playing with abandon. I was filled with gratitude that this plucky former Delta Society therapy dog was still helping others overcome adversity -- this time by providing us with his own dramatic demonstration of the incredible plasticity of the nervous system. Bravo and thank you, Chilee!

Mary Debono is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitionercm and the creator of the Grow Young with Your Dog® and Grow Young with Your Horse®   programs. She is the author of the Amazon #1 best seller, Grow Young with Your Dog, which won the Best Health Book in the 2015 San Diego Book Awards.

In a career spanning more than 25 years, Mary has helped thousands of individuals, ranging from disabled dogs to world-class equine and human athletes. Based in Encinitas, California, Mary delights in teaching people how to help animals and humans feel younger and more vital at any age. Articles, videos and her free newsletter signup can be found at www.DebonoMoves.com.

[1] Chilee was content in this position, so it was a useful strategy for this little dog. Not all dogs would be so relaxed lying on their backs as someone moved their legs! I only put dogs in positions that they are comfortable in.
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Comments (4)
Shannon Lynne Sullivan
3/6/2017 1:35:05 PM
What a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing!

Gillian Franks
3/5/2017 8:40:34 PM
Thank you Mary, for the details, and the story. It's uplifting for more than Chillee!

Linda Rulli
3/5/2017 6:05:21 PM
YAY Mary! What a sweet story and an excellent account of your work! GOOD JOB LADY!! And belated congrats on your book(s)!

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