As Sara and Boomer Bear, a black 12-year-old Standard Poodle, entered my office, it was apparent that the dog was having difficulty walking. Even more distressing was that he was in quite a lot of pain — pain that a team of veterinarians couldn’t find a cause for. Boomer’s rapid, shallow breathing was an attempt to deal with this pain.
What I have learned from many years of working with animals in pain (including humans) is that rapid, shallow breathing can become part of a vicious cycle. It creates a tense, restricted ribcage which amplifies feelings of vulnerability and anxiety. The ribcage is not expanding and contracting fully and so deprives the body of its optimal amount of fully oxygenated blood, leading to even more pain and fatigue. My job was to find a way to interrupt this vicious cycle.
In order to best help Boomer, I needed to create the conditions which would allow him to breathe in a more relaxed, efficient way. Resting one hand ever so lightly on the fullness of his ribcage, I just “listened” to his breathing. I made no attempt to influence him with my hand.
When I saw that Boomer was comfortable with my touch, I placed my other hand on his ribcage. Slightly apart, my two hands felt the continuous rise and fall of his rapid breathing. And then an interesting thing happened. Boomer took a deep breath. And then another. Soon he was breathing in a way that would nourish his body and help break the cycle of pain and worry.
The soft, following touch of my hands was a way to bring awareness to Boomer, putting him back in touch with his breath. A light touch facilitates “listening” by the nervous system. It’s also non-threatening, a very important consideration to an animal in pain. Gradually I moved my hands to other places on his ribcage, again with the intent of reminding Boomer that his ribcage could expand and contract more fully with deeper breaths. And that it wouldn’t hurt.
Pleased with how our session was progressing, I turned my attention to Boomer’s guardian, Sara. I wanted to make sure that she had a way to help Boomer when they returned home. I demonstrated how light my touch was by putting my hands on Sara’s ribcage. She immediately felt the lightly supportive effect and remarked at how it made her aware of her breathing.
At this point Boomer turned to me as if to say, “Hey, what about me!” Laughing at his clarity, I put my hands back on him until he resumed his slow, contented breathing. Then I suggested that Sara work with Boomer herself. At first his panting returned, but Sara immediately softened her touch as I brought her attention to her own breathing and posture. Sara was thrilled when Boomer resumed his deep breathing for her, closing his eyes in contentment.
As I reminded Sara, it’s important for us to be aware of our own breathing and comfort when we work with animals. It’s common for people hold their breath when they’re learning something new, like how to do SENSE Method work with their dog. This creates tension in us that is transmitted to the animal. Not at all what we want! So, take a moment or two and sit quietly, spine softly erect, and sense how your breath enters and exits your body.
Are you aware of how your ribs and sternum (breastbone) move? Is the movement of your breath restricted to your ribcage, or do other parts of your body participate? Imagine that you have little air holes in your head, arms, hands, pelvis, legs and feet. Does your breathing change with this visualization? Think about the front, back and sides of your torso expanding. Don’t forget the upper torso, just under your neck. Have you ever thought about the back of your torso filling up with air? Now imagine that your head is a helium-filled balloon. Helium is lighter than air, so your head just floats gently above your neck. Mmmm… that’s a nice feeling. Now you’re ready to work with your dog or cat.
Postscript: The next day I received a happy phone call from Sara. She told me that after his SENSE Method session, Boomer seemed to be much more comfortable and even wanted to go on a walk. He also slept through the night, something he hadn’t done in quite a while.
Note: It’s useful to learn how to sense your animal’s breathing in this way even before they are in pain. Read the article a few times to remind yourself how I was simply and lightly “listening” with my hands on different parts of Boomer’s ribcage. Then remind yourself to sit and breathe in a relaxed, comfortable way as you work with your animal.