I have been drawn to dogs ever since I was a child. Given a little crossbred bitch when I was fourteen, too many years ago to mention, I have been training and competing with a variety of breeds for the show ring, obedience, working trials, agility and flyball ever since.

Imagine my delight when I discovered a new teaching method that dramatically improved my dog's co-ordination and balance, as well as athletic ability. The method also increases a dog's levels of self confidence and self control and deepens communication, understanding and respect between any animal and its owner, carer or trainer.

Those of us who teach others, or work or show our dogs, would like to produce a canine athlete. Since early times, man has trained dogs to walk and work on the left hand side. Does this habit come from gun dog work, when hunters carried weapons in their right hand? Do you think this habitual behaviour affects our dogs? Are our dogs one sided? I had never even considered that my own habitual behaviour may have affected my dogs' physical capabilities, uneven muscle development and consequently, their performance.

The introduction of agility and heelwork to music has, quite literally, redressed the balance for some dogs, as most are trained to work on the left and the right, but most of us continue to train in the accepted way? How habitual are we?

Do you find it easy to work or walk your dog on your right hand side? Try looking over your shoulder; do you turn your head the same way every time? Can you turn your head equally far both ways? Try standing in front of a mirror with no clothes on, [I know some of us would rather not], but which arm, shoulder or thigh is more strongly developed? Check your posture. Now check your dog in a similar way. You may be surprised by what you find.

Habitually working your dog on the left, unless your dog's body is aligned with his head in a straight line, will change his posture and place unusual stress and pressure on the left hand side of his frame. If your dog is requested to turn to the right to continually watch your face or body, or you use a single piece of equipment, like a traditional collar, head collar, or even a harness and allow your dog to set itself against this equipment when he goes for a walk, abnormal muscle development on one side of your dog, together with ensuing tension patterns are the likely outcome. The resulting change in posture affects both physical and emotional balance and will influence performance.

If we compete in strenuous dog sports it is vital for our dogs' well being that they are fully fit. We know that the larger the dog, the longer it takes for the skeletal frame to be fully developed so it may be that the dog is almost two years old before any serious jump training can begin. But for all dogs, there is so much that can be achieved to help them gain physical and emotional balance before then. Generally speaking, whether working or showing dogs, we fix on the outcomes we require, rather than whether the conformation of our dogs allows optimum performance.

Visiting the National Stud at Newmarket, where the country's top stallions are on view, it is very apparent that each one has a different conformation for the distances the horses are required to race. The five furlong sprinter is heavily muscled and short coupled for a massive burst of energy but distance horses are longer in the back. And so it is with dogs. Long backed dogs such as German Shepherds and Dachshunds may be more prone to disc injury. Also the correct amount of balanced front and rear angulations is desirable in our performance dogs because a dog's skill is shown through footwork and movement.

The traditional way this can be improved is to work your dog on the ground. How obedient is he? Does he turn quickly, stop on command, and is confident going away from you? Can he balance on a seesaw? Is he flexible in his body, can he turn equally easily to the left and right? Can he walk backwards? Do his hind feet step evenly in walk and trot? Or does he sidewind, i.e. back feet overtaking the front? Does he hold tension patterns of pain or stiffness that prevent him fulfilling the above requirements?

As an instructor and dog trainer, some answers to these questions troubled me. A vet, chiropractor or physiotherapist will help to treat and rehabilitate in cases of injury but I wanted to know how to prevent problems such as lack of flexibility occurring in the first place.

Some years ago I had read a book about the Tellington TTouch Method, developed by Linda Tellington Jones but it was only when I attended a weekend workshop with Sarah Fisher and went on to train as a Practitioner that I discovered the real value of TTouch. It is a brilliant teaching method for dogs and other animals including humans.

Linda has created a series of simple hand movements on the skin to create physical awareness, affecting both the animal and the person. Differing from massage, it applies slight pressure to the skin and stimulates the nervous system, working at a cellular level. The non-habitual touches release tension using these gentle body movements and ground balancing exercises, and over time defects in posture and poor muscle development due to habitual behaviour can change.

Practitioners first take a look at an animal's posture. Linda found that not only does posture influence behaviour, it also affects balance and co-ordination and that mental, emotional and physical balance are linked. Working with your dog over a combination of easily devised ground equipment will improve co-ordination, athletic ability and concentration. If you can find areas in your dog's body that indicate tension, fear of contact or discomfort, Tellington Ttouch body touches will improve circulation, release tension and create a greater sense of well being.

As Tellington Ttouch works on the nervous system, it gives the body an enhanced ability to learn new behaviour patterns and I have found it invaluable in my work with nervous or defensive animals. Continuous application of TTouch can encourage unfocused and unco-ordinated dogs to become more responsive, co-ordinated and balanced. Dogs with serious injuries can benefit from TTouch and often the different physical and emotional contact will enhance the relationship between the dog and its owner.

Learning just a few of the body TTouches by working with a skilled Practitioner will improve your dog's health and well being, gaining optimum physical and mental performance in your dog. Bodywork and ground or leading exercises improve gait, balance, flexibility and endurance. Dogs who receive the TTouch method as part of their routine maintenance are more successful in competition and likely to be less injury prone. Puppies introduced to the method become focused and more considered in their behaviour.

It is something all of us can do for animals, not to them and if you are able to pay attention to how your dog is communicating, TTouch creates an opportunity for all animals and people to experience a different way to respond to certain situations. Given time, this can help your dog learn how to shift from their previously habitual behaviour and it can re-educate our bodies too.

If you want the very best for your dog, Tellington TTouch can offer the greatest contribution to relaxing and preparing your dog for the perfect partnership, whether for work or for play.

Sarah Fisher runs the UK office for TTeam and TTouch International and her website, provides details of one and two day workshops with a qualified Practitioner where you can learn how to bring any animal to its full potential.

Barbara Cooper
Tellington TTouch Practitioner