Often known as knuckling, it is not normal for a dog to stand with the wrong side of their foot down. When a dog does this, it is usually indicative that there is something going on with the nervous system (i.e. the spine or the nerves).

Dog with meningitis

In other words, your dog should be able to recognize if their foot is in the wrong position and if they can’t, something isn’t working right. How serious this is varies from vary mild in which owners have no idea their dog has any issues, to severe in which the dog is completely dragging one or both back legs.

An owner can test a dog’s placing reflex, which tests conscious proprioception themself. Conscious proprioception is the ability to know where a body part is in space without looking at it (e.g. if I hold my hand out to the side of my dog and can’t see it I still know where my hand is without looking for it). The placing test is reviewed in the video below:

A normal response is for the dog to place it’s foot right side up immediately. Delayed is fixing it in less than 2 seconds and absent is anything longer than 2 seconds.

What causes my dog to knuckle?

For the brain to be aware of the position of a body part, there needs to be an uninterrupted connection between the body part and the brain so they can talk to each other. Kind of like a telephone line. If the line is cut-off or there is static on the line, the message can get slowed or completely disrupted.

Some of the more common causes of knuckling include:

1. Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD) in which there is pressure on the spinal cord

2. Fibrocartilagenous Emobolism (FCE) or spinal stroke

3. Degenerative Myelopathy

4. Sciatic nerve injury

5. Lumbosacral stenosis

6. Spondylosis

Other causes include any illness or injury that affects the spinal cord, the nerves that control the leg or the muscles or ligaments that move foot.

If my dog starts to drag their feet, what should I do?

Any changes in your dog’s normal function or behaviour warrants a visit to your veterinarian. They can rule out more serious causes such as infection, tumors or other illnesses that need to be treated medically. They can also refer you to other specialties such as neurology that can help determine a more specific course of action. Your vet may also be able to provide some reassurance as well that some of the dragging is a normal cause of aging, and your dog does not have a condition that is life threatening. That is not to say that their condition isn’t affecting their quality of life.

Senior Labrador Retriever
What is the treatment for dragging feet?

Treatment depends on the cause! If your dog has a diagnosis that can be improved with therapies and/or medication that would be the route to go. In more serious cases, your vet may suggest surgery or consult with a neurologist.

It is important to protect your dog’s feet if they are dragging them when they walk. For mild or infrequent cases, a pair of dog booties can protect the paw from injury. If the dragging is more excessive, an assistive device that helps to lift up the toes can help. Vital Vet created this great review of some common devices that can help prevent dragging/knuckling.

If your dog has a more progressive ailment, such as degenerative myelopathy, a canine cart/wheelchair may be the best option. This can feel like a failure to many owners, but we believe they should be seen more like walkers for people in that they function to improve mobility and independence. Shauna at Pawsitively Fit did a great interview on dog carts in her Facebook group Our Healthy Senior Dogs with Dr. Jenny Moe, owner of Doggon Wheels. They discussed canine wheelchairs and how they can help to maximize your dog’s abilities!


My dog had IVDD and they can walk but are still knuckling. Why?

This is very typical! Because of the way the spinal cord carries information to and from the brain to the muscles, knuckling is often a longer last symptom as recovery continues.

Think of the information in the spinal cord being carried in different “lanes of traffic.” Closest to the outside, which will be first affected by a disc pressing on the spinal cord is conscious perception, then conscious proprioception, followed by motor and deep pain. Why does that matter? As you can see the motor lane of spinal cord traffic is further from the disc, and will be affected by the disc only after conscious proprioception. And when the spinal cord is recovering, it heals the inner lanes first, so motor (i.e. movement) will cover before proprioception (or the ability to know where the feet are!).

How the Disc impacts the Spinal Cord
How can Pawsitively Fit help my dog if they are dragging their feet?

Once you’ve seen your veterinarian to ensure your dog has had any investigations or medical treatment that is required then we can start to work on a plan to help your dog!

As discussed above, it’s important to determine why your dog is dragging their feet. This can help us determine if we need to work on reducing/eliminating the dragging or manage the dragging in the case of a diagnosis, such as degenerative myelopathy, in which improvement is not expected.

From there, we can develop a treatment plan specific to your dog’s needs and goals. Want to know more about our services? Check our our rehabilitation page to learn more!

Laser acupuncture for hind end weakness after IVDD surger.

Watson had surgery for IVDD. He’s relaxing for a laser therapy treatment!

14 year old Dug working on some exercises for his hind leg strength. Dug had only a small amount of toe dragging that got worse when he was tired.