How Treating Fascia is Like Training a Terrified Rescue Dog
This is Pica (pronounced "peek-ah"). She is a Saluki mix who was a street dog in Qatar before getting fostered through a rescue organization in Doha, flown in to the US with a generous volunteer, then taken in for veterinary care and adoption by the National Greyhound Adoption Program (NGAP) in Philadelphia. I welcomed Pica to my home two months ago, and I absolutely adore her! She is, to quote one of the staff members at NGAP, "scary smart", playful, affectionate, and just an overall Very Good Girl.
Pica is also a bit terrified of the world. She has literally been startled by her own shadow (and her own farts). Salukis are notoriously sensitive dogs, and were essentially bred to react before they process, as they were historically used to hunt gazelles and hares. Their sensitivity can make them extraordinary companion animals, as they tend to be emotionally tuned-in to their family; however, when coupled with a history of stress and trauma, this type of sensitivity can make them easily startled or overwhelmed.
Feeling overwhelmed myself when I realized that we had a lot of repatterning work to do with Pica, I sought guidance from the outstanding trainers at Tuff Pup Training, a Philly-based fear-free, force-free behavioral consultation and training company. Prior to working with our trainer Audrey (whom I strongly recommend!), I had received a lot of advice to avoid "coddling" Pica when her fearful behavior presented. While I agree that modeling calm and confident behavior is important for managing an anxious dog, something about the concept of pushing a frightened animal through triggering situations felt "off" in a strangely familiar way. When Audrey assessed Pica and presented me with a set of strategies for gently addressing and unwinding her fear-based responses rather than attempting to just make her behavior conform to my will, it suddenly hit me -- training this scared animal is like working with fascia!
I have been a bodyworker for over a decade now, and my approach to working with soft tissue has evolved considerably as I have accumulated more education, followed up-to-date quality research from peer-reviewed sources, and honed my own clinical rationale through years of hands-on practice on living, breathing, moving bodies. In doing so, I have personally deviated from the use of blunt force and painful muscle "stripping" as a means of inducing lasting change in the body. I have found that the best outcomes I have observed take a much more gentle hands-on approach that involves continuously listening and responding to lines of tension in the body. Sometimes pain can be resolved by offering strategies to stabilize areas that are being guarded by tight muscles, or educating the nervous system that it's safe to tone down its hypersensitivity. Regardless of what is needed, what I am doing is having a conversation with the body, rather than making demands without offering something better.
I find the "blunt force" approach to bodywork comparable to pushing a dog's bum down to get them to sit, rather than enticing them to change position by holding a treat above their nose and reinforcing the new behavior with praise and repetition. Both strategies will result in the dog sitting; however, can you imagine which approach is more likely to result in the dog wanting to repeat the behavior...and which one may, in turn, create other undesirable problems related to fear and physical discomfort after the event? While the latter method certainly requires more time, patience, and consistency than the former, I personally align with a force-free approach to working with any living, sentient being. It is possible and preferable to encourage the body to melt into pressure and motion, rather than cranking, smashing, and scraping it into a temporary new shape (until it recoils and "tightens up" again).
Prior to adopting Pica, I often used the analogy of a "scared animal" with clients to describe the process of working with the body gently, gradually, and cooperatively. Being presented with an actual scared animal feels like kismet.