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Canine gait

What is canine gait and why is it important to know how your dog moves?

04 Nov, 2019

Gait can be defined as a regularly, repeated sequence of limb, joint and segment movements for locomotion.

What are the types of gaits in dogs?

The rhythm and frequency of limb movements affects the pattern in which fore and hind limbs touch the ground and determines the gait type. In dogs, common gait types include the following:

  • Walk
  • Trot
  • Pace
  • Canter
  • Gallop

The dynamics of each gait is influenced by the surface on which the dog is moving, the incline, ground movement i.e. treadmill, and whether the dog is moving in a straight line, arcing or submersed in water.

What are the phases in a gait?

Each gait comprises repeated strides. A stride is a cycle of body movements which starts with the contact of one foot and ends when that foot contacts the ground again. Within a stride, the dog moves through a step cycle. A step cycle comprises stance and swing phases.

The stance phase in a gait is the period in which the foot contacts the ground. The first part of the stance phase exerts braking forces when the foot touches down. The second part of the stance phase generates propulsion forward.

The swing phase in a gait is the period when the foot is in the air. There are three parts to the swing phase. The first part starts when the leg swings back from the propulsion force exerted from the stance phase. The second part of the phase engages muscles to swing the limb forward for locomotion. Finally, the limb moves backward and down to return the foot to the ground.

What are the differences between symmetrical and asymmetrical gaits in dogs?

There are various types of gaits that define how the dog’s body moves through a stride. The types of gaits are: symmetrical and asymmetrical.

Symmetric gaits are walk, trot and pace. In a symmetric gait, the movements of limbs on one side of the body do the same as those on the opposite side albeit not at the same time. The movement on one side of the body mirrors that of the other side.

In a walking gait, the dog’s body is supported by two limbs alternated with three legged support. In this gait, the dog’s centre of mass is relatively stable.

In a diagonal symmetric gait such as the trot, movements of one stride have the diagonal fore and hind limb in the stance phase, followed by the other two limbs. In this gait, the dog’s centre of mass stays on the support line formed by the two limbs contacting the ground.

The final symmetrical gait is the pace during which the dog’s body is supported by the forelimb and hindlimb on the same side of the body. The centre of mass shifts from side to side, giving a rolling appearance when the dog is moving.

Asymmetric gaits are the gallop and canter (slow gallop). In these gaits, the two sides of the dog’s body move differently. The dog’s feet touch down one after another. These gaits are categorised as right or left leading. In a left leading gait, the dog’s feet touch the ground in a clockwise fashion. In the first stance phase, the left forelimb contacts the ground followed by the right forelimb. Following this stance phase, both feet leave the ground for the first flight phase. The rear support phase starts with the right hind limb touch down followed by the left hind limb which propels the dog forward and starts the second flight phase.

In the gallop, which is typically the gait for high speeds, in each stride there are two stance phases and at least one flight phase (where the dog is not touching the ground). In some breeds like sighthounds, Dobermann, Basenji, Pointer, Corgi and Dachshund their galloping gait includes two flight phases.

The canter is slower than a gallop and is a three beat gait. In this gait, the dog is supported by one limb followed by a three limb stance phase. In a left lead canter, the footfall pattern is right hind, left hind and right forelimb, and left forelimb reaching furthest forward. In a canter, there is only one flight phase which occurs after the fore limb lift off.

Why is it important to know how your dog moves?

Rehabilitation and conditioning

For dogs recovering from an injury or when you working toward canine conditioning goals, understanding the forces that each gait exerts on the joints and muscles is important. Each gait exerts different forces and requires different muscle function and engagement. Gaits involving a double flight or suspension phase such as the gallop exert the highest impact forces on the dog’s front legs when the feet contact the ground. In these gaits, when the foot contacts the ground the limb bears the weight of the entire body as well as generating braking and propulsion forces. The greatest forces are borne by the dog’s lead leg.

At a canter, forces are more evenly distributed than in the gallop between the fore and hind limb.

Gaits where the dog’s centre of mass is well supported i.e. walk or trot exert lower forces than gallop, trot or canter.

Change in gait can indicate an injury

Observing your dog’s movement at each gait enables you can identify changes in movement. Changes in movement may indicate fatigue or injury. Useful characteristics of your dogs gait to observe may include:

  • Does your dog normally trot or pace? Changes from a trot to a pacing gait may indicate fatigue or muscle / joint pain.
  • At a gallop and canter, is your dog left or right leading?
  • Does your dog have a double or single flight phase at a gallop?
  • When the dog is moving in a symmetrical gait, does one side of the dog’s body mirror the movement of the other side?

What should you do if your dog’s gait is abnormal?

Some dogs, due to their conformation (i.e. size and shape of their body segments relative to one another) may move abnormally or asymmetrically. While, other dogs’ gait may become abnormal or asymmetrical due to injury, disease, pain or fatigue.

Abnormal or altered gaits can lead to the following:

  • compensation problems involving abnormal loading on different limbs or the back leading to biomechanical issues
  • affects the forces of movement exerted on the musculoskeletal system and the axial skeleton. The axial skeleton is the framework through which the forces of movement are transferred to the limbs and can be affected by alteration in the braking and propulsion forces.
  • psychological problems from the development of chronic pain which can lead to behavioural problems and unwillingness to exercise.

Changes in gait should be closely observed and diagnosed by a vet. Where the diagnosis involves soft tissue then remedial massage, range of motion and stretching can relieve muscle strain, aid muscle healing, and manage pain.

For more information please see:

Full Stride provides remedial canine massage treatments to keep dogs active and pain free. I am based in Brisbane and offer in home treatments in a service area and at a treatment room on Brisbane’s northern suburbs.

Until next time, enjoy your dogs.


Fischer, M.S & Lilje, K. E, 2014 Dogs in motion, 2nd edition, VDH Service GmbH, Dortmund, Germany

Millis, D.L, Levine, D & Taylor R.A (ed) (2004) Canine Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy, Elsevier Inc, Missouri USA