Mary Debono: Bringing the Feldenkrais Method® to Animals
Wednesday, December 19, 2018
by: Ira Feinstein, MFA

Section: Practitioner Spotlight

Ira Feinstein: You started your professional Feldenkrais® training in 1992. How did you discover the Feldenkrais Method® pre-internet days?
Mary Debono: I read an article in a newsletter that piqued my curiosity. At the time, I had a horse with a lot of physical and behavioral issues, and I was exploring various holistic practices. I called up the Guild office, and they sent me a list of practitioners in my area. There was one where I lived at the time, Princeton, NJ, so I called him--just out of curiosity really--and he convinced me to come in for a session. From that first FI® lesson, I knew I was going to become a practitioner and bring the Feldenkrais Method to animals. 

IF: Why animals?

MD: As a kid, I would go to the library and spend hours poring over all of the books about horses, dogs, and physical therapy-- which was only for humans at the time—books on equine or canine physical therapy weren't available in those dark ages! I'd study our physical structures and make connections between therapy for humans and therapy for dogs. I had this sense, even at a young age, that I was going to put it all together somehow, that I was going to help humans, but also help animals improve how they felt and how they moved.

Despite this deep interest in animals and biomechanics, after college, I went on to become a computer analyst with a focus on system designs. I stayed in that field for a decade. I credit working with my first Feldenkrais practitioner, Lawrence Phillips, with helping me make the leap from my corporate job to working with animals. Our sessions helped me connect deeply with myself and my dreams. 

IF: How did 
knowing that you were going to work with animals affect your professional training experience?

MD: Throughout my training, I was constantly in my notebook translating what we were learning about working with humans to working with animals. I was always asking myself how I could get a similar result given the constraints that I would have when working with horses, dogs, or cats. Then, because I already had an animal practice at the time, I would immediately put my ideas into practice and go from there.

IF: What was it like applying translated concepts in real-world situations immediately after you learned them? Did you ever feel in over your head?

MD: In many ways, animals are easier to work with than humans because they haven't been infected with our "thinking problem." They haven't googled their problem and read, "You'll never recover from this." They don't have those preconceived limits. So, I found that as long as I grasped the main concepts of what I was studying and able to make a real connection with the animal, even what seemed like the simplest lesson could be effective. 

IF: Did focusing your practice on working with animals make it especially challenging to grow your private practice? 

MD: Exactly the opposite! I had a busy practice from the get-go. I think a lot of that had to do with the fact I was versatile. I had the ability to work with horses, dogs, cats, and other creatures and then those animals' humans would come to me as well. I remember working with a dog recovering from knee ligament surgery. Ten months post-op and he was still limping; the surgeon could see no cause for it. With a series of Feldenkrais sessions, the dog regained full functioning. It seemed like he had to regain confidence in his body again and we have such an incredible way of doing that: gently suggesting and supporting instead of forcing. When the owner saw that, she said, "You know, I've been dealing with severe plantar fasciitis for seven years. I've gone to every kind of a doctor and therapist, and nothing has helped. Maybe you could?" 

In one lesson, she felt so much relief that she was hooked. Then it was, "Can you help with my sciatica? Can you help with my…" Afterward, the woman and her dog were able to be active and go on these incredible adventures. It was rewarding to see. 

IF: What are common issues that you've helped animals work with?

MD: I've worked with a lot of large dogs that have had surgeries, most often for their hips or knees. It's critical that they have Feldenkrais lessons afterward, no matter how good the surgeon is. The dogs need help restoring function and increasing their body confidence. 

One of the most fascinating transformations I've been a part of was working with a ten-month-old border collie puppy. X-rays revealed that the dog had severe hip dysplasia, especially her left hip. Both the allopathic and the holistic vets said that for the dog to be even remotely comfortable, she needed surgery.

The owner had been through this sort of thing before with a previous dog. The results made her reticent to opt for surgery again, so she had me start working with the dog. Over the course of our lessons, I kept thinking about how I could create a blueprint that would help this growing puppy create a healthy hip joint. I focused on simulating force through her skeleton in such a way she would act as if she had healthy hips. Being able to easily simulate standing and walking and all the other weight-bearing activities while the dog was lying down and didn't have to cope with the hip joint being the way it was helped my efforts at neuro-repatterning. Six months later, new x-rays showed that the dog had perfectly formed hips! To be fair, the woman also changed the dog's diet, gave her herbs, and had laser acupuncture done, and so I can't say if it was the Feldenkrais Method alone that caused the change. 

A year after the dog's initial diagnosis, she was given a rating of good from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA), the foundation that rates animals' joint health. The OFA's ratings help guide potential buyers, so they set a pretty high bar for dogs to meet.  

IF: How have vets reacted when their patients come back for a visit after a diagnosis like that?

MD: It's varied. Once, I worked on a dog who was about to be euthanized because she was completely paralyzed on one side post-stroke; the vet had said there was nothing they could do. Not yet ready to give up, the owner contacted me. After our third session, the dog got up and walked around normally. The owner called the vet to let them know that she wasn't bringing the dog in to be euthanized because she had recovered. The vet never expressed any curiosity about it. This has been a typical reaction. 

With that said, there have been holistic vets that I've worked on cases with. I remember one situation with a German Shepherd with degenerative myelopathy-- a progressive disease of the spinal cord in older dogs. The dog was suffering from tremors. The holistic vet had tried everything to stop them, to no avail. I found that helping the dog have a little more flexion in her spine relieved the tremors in her hind end. I think the movement helped engage the dog's rib cage and bring the whole spine into a slight flexion which allowed pressure to be taken off nerves. It was something that goes back to the idea behind the work, that with the intent of supporting and suggesting, even the simplest things can create incredible change in the quality of life for animals. 
IF: When potential clients contact you about working with their animal, how do you determine if the dog would be a good candidate?
MB: The first thing that I do is make it very clear that what I do is not a medical intervention. I don't diagnosis. I don't treat. I'm not a vet and what I do does not replace veterinary care. What I offer is an educational process. 
As an aside, it is essential for anyone interested in working with animals to check the laws in the state they're working in. If it looks like you are providing medical treatment without a veterinary license, you could face serious legal issues.

Sometimes people will want me to see their animal because they have faith in me or because people have told them, "Oh, Mary will help your dog. Don't bother bringing the dog to the vet." I don't see those animals. I insist that people take the dog to the vet first--it's in the dog's best interests to have a medical exam.

IF: That makes sense. A person could think their dog is limping because they landed funny after a jump, but limping could also be a sign of bone cancer or something like that.

MD: It's funny you say that because a handful of times I've found lumps and other changes on the bone that ended up being bone cancer. One time, I was asked to work on basset hound who'd been limping badly. The owner explained that she had taken him to a couple of vets. One said that the dog must have gotten stepped on by a horse, which the owner was confident had not happened. The other vet said he'd probably had a stroke, despite there being no other indicators. So, I agreed to work with the dog. The second I put my hand on him, I felt a lump. I immediately said to the owner, "Return to the vet or find a new one and have him or her touch the dog right here and ask them what it is." 

I didn't say what I thought it was because that's not within my scope of practice. The woman returned to the vet, had them palpate the lump and, sure enough, a biopsy revealed bone cancer, which I had strongly suspected. I ended up working with the dog after he had his leg amputated and helped him learn to compensate for his missing limb. 

IF: The Feldenkrais Method helps people beyond just moving better—they feel more alive, more confident, more connected with their authentic selves. Do you think that the Method brings similar benefit to animals?

MB: This may seem strange to non-animal people, but I feel that the Method helps animals connect more deeply to themselves as well. They'll start displaying a confidence that they hadn't had before, including having opinions about things--which is especially crucial for horses because they are often made to be submissive and put up with a lot of not nice things from humans. 

IF: What have you learned about our potential to connect—with animals and humans-- because of your work with animals?

MB: One of the most profound experiences I've ever had was while giving a Feldenkrais session to an eleven-year-old Australian shepherd who was losing the ability to use his hind legs. During our first session, he was lying in my office on a mat, and I had my hands on him. I remember supporting his lumbar muscles, doing what I now call a lumbar lift, and I had this incredible feeling of gratitude that I got to work with this dog. It just filled my heart that I could use my hands to provide him the feeling of relief and as I did that, my heart exploded. That's the only way I can describe it. It was like this incredible feeling of warmth and joy and bliss. As the lesson continued, we connected on such a level that I could feel within myself how what I was doing was relieving his back. The dog ended up walking from that one session, and while it was a technically good session, I've always felt that it was the depth of the connection that created that degree of change. 

When it comes to working one-on-one in general, whether it's with a four-legged animal or human, I think that if we get the connecting part right--if we can connect with a sense of gratitude and openness-- the synergy of those two nervous systems combining turbocharges our Feldenkrais skills and allows us to transfer the information that we want to on an even deeper level. Not to say that we'll always have dramatic results after each lesson--and that's ok. So, maybe the dog doesn't get up and dance; you know what I mean? We can't always know the entire effect of any given lesson.
IF: Do you ever work with the owner to help them work with the dog?

MD: That's been a big part of my practice: it's not just about giving the dog an FI lesson. We're not separate from our animal friends. We influence each other. So, the more family members, so to speak, that get involved, the more successful it's going to be for everyone.

Teaching humans things that they can do between lessons doesn't just help their dogs improve more quickly, it deepens the bond that they have with their animals. It also helps them connect to themselves because a big part of the owners learning how to work with their dog requires them to connect with their own self-image. So, even if the owner had no interest or intention to improve themselves, because they want to help their dog, they're going to do it.  

IF: Why do you think more practitioners don't work with animals?

MD: Over the years, I've had numerous discussions with trainees and practitioners who say they love dogs, cats or horses, but have no idea how to apply their Feldenkrais training to them. I think that if we could support people in learning how to translate the knowledge gained in their training into working with animals and help them feel confident in their ability to do so, more practitioners would open their practices up to them. I would love to see
trainings offer guest lectures on this topic. Barring that, if Educational Directors simply mentioned that some practitioners do this work with animals, it could plant the idea in a trainee's mind that it is a possibility. Then, they can begin to do their own research and start thinking about how that kind of practice could look, what other skills they would need to develop. 
IF: What do you think are some of the keys in terms of starting to think about translating this work for animals?

MD: As trainees, we start observing people those around us, and seeing how we could help people learn to move with more ease. You can also gain that same ability when you're looking at animals. A practitioner could start by learning about animal body language and how to look at their movement. I love to support trainees and practitioners in this process, though there are certainly other resources. 

IF: What does your practice look like now?

MD: I work mostly with humans now. I've changed my practice for a few reasons, but the main one is that I'm on a mission to teach other Feldenkrais practitioners how to work with animals. So, I've cut back my private sessions to focus more on mentoring practitioners and trainees.

IF: What sort of educational opportunities are you offering? 

MD: Currently, I have a free, though not
too frequent, newsletter that includes videos of me working with animals and explaining what I'm doing. I also offer workshops throughout the year. And of course, if someone was interested in working with animals, they could always read my book, Grow Young with your Dog, or watch my video program, Age-Proofing Your Dog. 
My plan for 2019 is to create a mentorship program where people, whether they're trainees or practitioners, can learn about observing and working with animals in a general sense as well as gain confidence in how to apply their Feldenkrais knowledge to working with our four-legged friends. Stay tuned if you're interested by signing up for my newsletter. I'm still working out the details.
Mary Debono is a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitionercm who has a passion for helping improve the lives of animals and their people. She is the author of the award-winning, Amazon #1 bestseller, Grow Young with Your Dog and the recently-released video program, “Age-Proofing Your Dog: A Feldenkrais Approach to Lifelong Health and Vitality.” Her website is
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Comments (1)
Karen R Donelson
12/22/2018 8:09:24 AM
I love reading these interviews showing the intelligence and diversity of our community. Inspiring.

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