- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
If you’ve ever received a massage, then you have likely experienced the therapeutic benefits from this type of treatment. But what about dogs? Do they respond similarly and how can they benefit from massage?
According to Rover’s Veterinary Medical Advisor, Dr. Rebecca Greenstein, massage therapy in dogs is increasing in popularity, and veterinary researchers are focusing more attention on its potential benefits. Massage can alter levels of key neurotransmitters (like dopamine and serotonin), improve blood flow, reduce muscle spasms, and increase flexibility. In animals (as well as humans), massage therapy can reduce swelling after surgery, help with osteoarthritis and dogs with mobility issues, improve athletic performance, and help manage chronic pain.
We all know how affection-seeking most dogs are; the physical contact of massage can enhance the bond with your dog and increase trust with the release of a hormone called oxytocin, as well as decrease anxiety and fearfulness.
If your dog is experiencing a change in routine or spending time away from home, massage can help to decrease stress. Whether it’s done by the owner or a caretaker, it can be a great way to nurture their feelings of calm, relaxation and security.
You can find a certified animal massage therapist in your area by looking up schools that do massage certification and then reach out to get a list of graduates. You can also visit IAAMB’s website to find an animal massage and bodywork practitioner or training courses near you.
Hands-on training is excellent, and there is some general advice that can be useful if you’re looking to massage your dog yourself.
1. Begin with petting
Start with “purposeful petting.” Think of this as getting the lay of the land and checking that the dog is comfortable with your touch.
2. Proceed to “gliding”
Once you know the animal is comfortable being touched, start with slow gentle glides from the top of the neck, around the ears, all the way down the top line to their tail. Then, move along the length of each leg. This helps them get acclimated to your touch and gives you an idea of how the different parts of their body are feeling.
3. Look for feedback from your dog
Be extra attentive to their reactions. This will let you know if there are areas they either quite like being touched, or spots they are more wary of.
4. Build trust by focusing on areas they’re comfortable with
Areas they are already comfortable being touched are a nice place to start for the emotional trust-building aspects of massage. You can later move into the areas they were less fond of, since those are likely the spots where they hold tension, and therefore the places most in need of the therapeutic aspects of your manual techniques.
5. Be cautious working on areas that are sensitive
Avoid working on sensitive or painful body areas unless the animal is completely comfortable with you and your touch. Even then, less is more.
6. Use positive reinforcement
If this is an dog who is new to you or new to this level of physical interaction, give them positive reinforcement (like praise or a food treat) for allowing you to just sit next to them. Then for allowing your hand to rest on a neutral part of their body for just a moment, like the middle of their back. Then for allowing you to do one stroke all the way down their back, and so on, until they seem more comfortable with the idea of this level of touch.
7. Keep the focus on your dog
Always keep complete attention on the dog and how they react to every aspect of your touch. If you sense any negative reactions (looking quickly at the area you just touched, pulling away, making sounds of discomfort, etc.), immediately stop what you are doing and move back to the last thing you were doing when they were still comfortable.
Keep in mind that you may need to be patient while your dog becomes more comfortable. It’s fine if the process takes multiple sessions to get to the point where you are actually massaging them. The idea is to keep the entire experience a positive one, no matter how long it takes to get there.
- Long gliding strokes along the length of a muscle are great for beginning and end your massage time. These are part of effleurage (a form of massage) and are relaxing to animals.
- Shorter strokes that go across the width, or grain, of the muscle (like gentle friction or easy downward pressure) are good for loosening muscle tightness. These are part of petrissage (a massage technique) and help stimulate the muscles.
- For legs, move from the paws in an upward direction toward the center of their body. This will help circulate blood and move lymph fluid toward their core where their organs can process it more efficiently. It also helps clear toxins and reduces inflammation.
The main priority is that the interaction is positive for your dog, even if it means you don’t get through your entire “to-do” list. If you ever aren’t sure, err on the side of doing less (fewer areas and less time) and being more gentle.
How to Massage a Dog written by Karen Spinelli, CVT, CCMT, CCRP, RMT, and owner of HandtoPaw.com.