Have you ever noticed your dog preferring one side over another? It may come as a surprise but just like people dogs also have a left/right preference. A dog's brain is similarly organized like a human brain, meaning that the two hemispheres of the brain also have areas of specialization which can determine "handedness" or "laterality". In dog sport and canine physio we refer to your dog's preference as the lead leg.
So why does knowing if your dog has right or left lead leg matter and how can it affect our dog's performance in sport?
When we say lead leg what do we mean?
When we say lead leg what do we mean? When your dog canters, the front leg that strikes the ground second, landing ahead of the other one is their lead leg. Your dog’s rear uses both left and right legs so focusing there will only confuse you! The lead leg is critical in your dog’s turning ability to make tight turns by helping to balance them to complete the turn easier. As the lead leg bears the brunt of your dog’s entire weight when they’re propelling forward it is important to make sure that leg is strong and well-coordinated. Teaching your dog to use either front lead legs is also crucial to ensure more fluent transitions in sport and to make sure lead changes can be accomplished without injury. A 2006 study from the University of Manchester found that around 50 percent of dogs are left pawed and 50 percent are right pawed, with a statistically insignificant number being ambidextrous (whereas about 90 percent of humans are right-handed and 10 percent are left-handed.)
The Research Behind Left/Right Preference
A 2013 study by the Department of Veterinary Medicine at Bari University examined right/left lead leg preference in agility dogs and found that male dogs showed a left-paw preference (p=.007), whereas female dogs in the study showed preference for the right paw (p=.413). The study also found that dogs took longer to finish the weaves when the owner was located on the left side. The researcher explained that this could be due to the lateral field of each eye of the dog projects mainly to the contralateral side of the brain. Research of dogs and other mammals have found that the right hemisphere of the brain is prevalently reserved for stimuli of higher emotions (anxiety, fear, aggression etc.) while the left hemisphere is more task oriented. Sighting of the handler by the left eye (causing activity in the right hemisphere of the brain) was found to likely increase the arousal rate of the dogs, thus distracting them during the weave performance.
Some Simple Tests to Determine Left/Right Preference in your Dog
There are a number of test you can do from home to get an idea of your dog's lead leg preference. Try them out and let us know in the comments what you found!
1. Run up a flight of stairs – do they prefer the right or left side? You can observe this by standing at the top of the stairs – dogs will pull upwards and generally use their stronger leg as the lead
2. Send your dog to a toy but just before they get it, call them off of it and note whether your dog turns right or left – left hand turning will indicate a preference to the left – if they consistently turn to one side, that is their side preference – repeat several times
3. Watch how you dog lies down. Are they turning a certain way? This can clue you into their preferred lead leg.
4. The Kong Test. Researchers have used this test to determine laterality in dogs. Simply stuff a kong with food and offer it to your dog. Your dog will need to hold the toy with their paws to access the food. Take note of the number of times your dog uses their left paw to hold the toy over the number of times they use their right paw, or even how often they use both paws at the same time. This should give you an idea of paw preference.
Research has also shown that while there is less preference in dogs for the right side then in humans many dogs will show greater preference to the right simply due because the majority of humans are right sided and we frequently ask our dogs to the left with most of our training (walks, obedience).
Why is Knowing If your Dog is Left or Right Pawed Important for Conditioning?
Knowledge is power and with it you can better help your dog achieve their sporting goals and reduce their risk of injury! Your dog will be stronger and have better muscle development on their dominate side. Knowing which side is dominate can help you when developing a conditioning program. If your dog consistently uses one side, encourage lots of exercises that force your dog to their other leg so you can strengthen their off side. Also know that in performance your dog may not be able to turn as efficiently on their non-dominate side and that they may be risking injury without proper conditioning.