Alighting from the Cadillac, Marion placed the small bundle gently in my arms. I looked down to see 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. The stroke left Chilee unable to move his right side.
Chilee had just been released from the care of the California Specialty Services animal hospital, where the team of veterinarians and support staff had fallen in love with this little tan dog.
Marion had read about my work with animals and hoped that Debono Moves would 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 enough, Chilee’s greatest contributions were with people who had suffered a stroke.
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.
Thinking of the nervous system in simple terms, imagine a system of roadways. A stroke often interrupts 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.
My job would be to help the dog find alternate routes that would allow nerve impulses to travel to his right side. His right legs themselves were not actually injured; the problem was in the signals not reaching them. Luckily for Chilee and the rest of us, the nervous system is an incredibly designed system capable of learning and improving. My intent was to help the Chihuahua create a new body map that included his entire self.
But first I needed to engage Chilee’s attention in this learning process. 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 to help the muscles release their tension. But equally important, these non-habitual movements were providing him with an unusual sensory experience, one that his nervous system was listening to. I was gaining Chilee’s attention and engaging him in the process of change.
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, non-habitual movements, on the other hand, produce stimulating sensations that engage the attention of the nervous system. With the nervous system no longer on “autopilot,” it can process the sensory input to its advantage.
Keeping this concept in mind, I crossed the Chihuahua’s limbs, bringing his right legs over to the left side of his body. Again, this was an unusual sensory experience for him, so his nervous system was paying close attention. Even Chilee’s demeanor showed that he was interested in what I was doing, with his eyes having a more alive look. I have found when working with individuals who have had a stroke, crossing the limbs may improve their functioning. It seems as if the brain confuses the left and rights sides, thinking that the right legs are now the left legs and vice versa.
This means that the brain may recognize neural connections to the right legs that it didn’t before. It may not happen immediately (although I have seen that too), but this crossed-limb experience can stimulate the creation of new neural pathways (new roadways) to the formerly paralyzed legs.
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 lying on his side, my movements were giving Chilee the sensory experience of standing. This could stimulate his brain to evoke the physical functions that would actually allow the tan dog to stand. And the crossed legs could help create new connections to his right side.
Even when muscles are at rest, there is a certain amount of tension present, which is called muscular tone. This 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 with my finger 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 muscle tone.
I slowly uncrossed Chilee’s legs and gently supported his tiny ribcage, bringing it ever so lightly toward his head. The Chihuahua seemed to be enjoying Debono Moves, and Marion said she hadn’t seen him so relaxed since before his stroke. By gliding Chilee’s ribcage slightly forward, I was reversing the usual relationship of the shoulder blade sliding along the relatively stable ribcage. Dr. Feldenkrais taught that moving the ribcage instead of the shoulder blade enhances awareness of both the ribcage and shoulder and can assist in releasing excess tension in the area, preparing the shoulder blade for full, comfortable movement. Reversing the usual relationship of body parts appears to give the nervous system the opportunity to substitute a more comfortable, efficient organization for the habitual one.
With Chilee still lying on his right side, I slipped my fingers underneath his 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 his right front paw. The tone in his right front increased.
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. 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 Chilee began to have nice tone in both right legs. I also added movements of his back, pelvis, neck and head — movements Chilee would do if actually walking. I wanted him to have as complete a sensory experience of walking as I could simulate.
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 he experienced would stimulate him to move his right legs on his own. Suddenly Chilee began to push against the floor with both his right front and right hind legs. The Chihuahua then rolled over onto his left side, crossed his right hind over the left and used it to push against the floor! Marion and I were both thrilled at his spontaneous movement.
I had been with Chilee about one hour and thought that this milestone was a good place to end our session. His nervous system had received good-quality information, and now it was time for Chilee to rest and let his brain process it.
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. Being able to lie down on both sides is important to avoid pressure sores and other problems. All in all, I was very pleased at the Chihuahua’s response to his first Debono Moves session.
Just one week after our first meeting, Chilee came for his second Debono Moves session. 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 listed to the right as he walked, he didn’t let that slow him down. Trying to keep him still today would be a challenge.
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 straightened and bent my leg. The slow movement served to get his attention and have him realize that his base of support (my leg) was unstable, necessitating an increase in his attention to his immediate environment and eliciting a response of Chilee using his four legs and paws to get a foothold on my leg. This was a wonderful moment, because Chilee clearly used his four legs and paws in a very functional, equal way.
I would like to point out that I moved my leg very carefully and slowly, making sure that Chilee was never anxious about it. Causing anxiety in an animal would not only be unkind, but it would also defeat the value of the session, since learning and improvement cannot happen in an environment of fear. Keeping the animal feeling safe is one of the basic concepts in Debono Moves. Using the environment (in this case, my moving leg) to stimulate improvements in the functioning of the nervous system is another concept of the work.
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 greatly impair their balance. Since Chilee would often lean to the right as he walked, I wanted to let Chilee experience how he could move from side to side relative to his center, his spine. Being able to comfortably move his head and neck from left to right is important for maintaining balance. So, with Chilee 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.
Then with Chilee resting comfortably on his back between my bent knees, I gently moved his shoulders in an alternating sequence. I gradually enlarged the movement, so that his forelegs began to reach in front of himself. Moving his shoulders rather than taking hold of his lower legs made this a unique learning experience for the Chihuahua.
To understand why I moved his shoulders and not his lower 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 stimulate the nervous system to pay attention, release tense muscles and create more comfortable and efficient ways of moving the limb.
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 the movement of 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 improving animals’ movement when they are lying down, since the nervous system is more attentive and available for improvement when it doesn’t have to contend with the challenges of weight bearing and balance.
Whenever I gave Chilee a break to allow his nervous system 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.
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, a little to the right. I alternated between moving just his head with moving his head and neck as a unit. I also alternated with moving his head, neck and ribcage separately and together, letting him experience that he could move them together or separately at will. This distinction allows for finer control and would give Chilee more movement options.
To demonstrate to Chilee what other movement was possible, I delicately touched the 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 was an opportunity for Chilee to feel how all his parts could function harmoniously, allowing this free-flowing, comfortable movement. After this second Debono Moves session, Marion reported that Chilee began running around the yard and climbing the stairs!
I gave Chilee a third session a week later. This time I went to his 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. Not only did this novel movement serve to gain the attention of Chilee’s nervous system, but it also created an unusual feeling — evoking different responses from the dog’s nervous system compared to how the animal usually makes contact with the paw. These new sensory stimuli can evoke a different use of the legs and back.
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 tone in response to this unusual simulation of standing.
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.
With Chilee still comfortably lying on his side, I touched his spine and pelvis in a way that 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, since allowing the sternum and ribs to move slightly down in the direction of the pelvis will assist in rounding the back. Conversely, the sternum and ribs can move up toward the head when the back arches. Including the movement of the sternum and ribs helps the back move easier.
I also touched Chilee’s ribs on the abdominal side while my other hand supported the movements of his back. This helps coordinate the movements of his spine and abdomen, while including both in his neurological image of the movement.
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 arched. 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 provide additional sensory information, I added 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 rolling over to each side and standing up, with my hands still supporting the little dog.
With Chilee now rolling freely from side to side, I ended our third and final Debono Moves 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!
 The late Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais taught how it was possible to evoke activity in a paralyzed muscle. He suggested that you cannot get a muscle to work by focusing on the muscle itself. But if you can provoke a function in the body and repeat it in different ways until you get a response from the brain that must use that muscle in order to respond to your stimulus, the function is integrated and the muscle works.
 Have you ever had the experience of being exposed to so much information at a seminar that you didn’t really grasp any of it? A similar thing can happen with our dogs. Since it’s easier to learn when the brain is given a chance to absorb new information, it’s better to do too little, rather than too much. Even in the midst of a session, I will sometimes stop and allow the animal to rest. This allows for better integration and consequent improvement in functioning.
 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.
 Please note that Chilee’s legs were not lying next to each other. Rather, his right foreleg was slightly bent and I placed the bottom of his right front paw atop his left front foot.
 Breaking down a function such as rolling or walking lets each small piece of the movement be taken apart and explored, allowing for discovery of new options in movement. In addition, we remove any anxiety caused by anticipated pain, since we lead slowly up to the full movement, only adding more when we see that the animal is relaxed and ready. Many animals (and people too) have inhibited movement due to the threat of anticipated pain. We always want to avoid that.