We all know how good a spa day can be, helping us feel more relaxed, invigorating us as our blood flows more freely, loosening tired or stressed muscles and bringing a general sense of wellbeing. So why not treat your pup to his or her own at-home spa treatment, namely, a calming massage?
The benefits of massage for your hound
You might laugh, but massage has a myriad of benefits for your dog, both physical and mental. It improves blood delivery and aids waste disposal, getting everything moving efficiently round the body. While the arterial blood that brings fresh oxygen to the body is pumped by the heart, the blood in your dog’s veins - which carries all the toxins away from the cells - is not. That blood is moved by your dog’s physical activity and internal pressure changes, which means massage is a fantastic way to aid its journey. Also, the more you lay your hands on their skin, the more familiar you’ll become with your dog’s temperature changes and the normal feel of their muscles and joints. That means that you’ll be able to tell quickly when something is wrong, noticing an injury or lump that might otherwise have gone untreated for months.
Most importantly though, massage is a wonderful way to really connect with your dog on a psychological level, creating a bond of trust and security between the two of you via the release of bonding hormones. This is especially important when you have a young puppy or a new rescue dog, helping them get used to being touched by their loving pawrent, and hopefully acclimatising them to being handled by other people, like your veterinarian. World-renowned canine physical therapist Julia Robertson explains that massage can aid a dog’s deeper breathing, naturally de-stressing him or her, and helping their brain and body to function better.
How to do it: learning from the expert
Julia has treated more than 8,000 dogs and trained hundreds of people in her Galen Myotherapy technique, her mission to improve the lives and health of as many dogs as possible. Here, we describe some of her basic techniques for giving your dog a massage.
- Start slow. Begin with a two-minute session to get your dog used to the sensation of being massaged, ideally on a favourite piece of bedding on the floor (always massage on the floor, for stability). If you keep using the same bedding for your spa sessions, your dog will know what’s in store when you bring it out. That means they can either choose to stay for the massage or move away if they’re not in the mood. We’ve previously explored how important it is to give your dog choices in this way! Never force your dog to stay still for the session if they’re not happy: they should be able to leave when they want to.
- Don’t massage less than two hours before or after mealtimes; your dog won’t be comfortable being handled with a full stomach. It’s also best to choose a time when they’re already naturally calm and relaxed, without too much distraction.
- Move your hands gently over their head, ears and feet to get your dog used to the feeling of being stroked. You can then try Julia’s effleurage stroking technique over the whole body, where you use long, flowing strokes with the flat underside of your hand, your fingers closed together alongside your thumb to form a flat paddle. Always stroke in the direction of the lie of your dog’s coat, keep an even pressure, and keep your other hand gently in contact with your pup. If you move over a joint, make sure you support that joint with your non-massaging hand.
- Now move on to your dog’s face, where there’s often a lot of tension, especially with vocal dogs. Cradle their head between both hands and gently glide the pad of your thumbs up and over your dog’s forehead. Sounds pretty good, right? The cheek muscles can also be super tense, so circle your pup’s cheeks with the pads of one or two of your fingers. Finally, one of the most sensitive areas: the ears. Carefully hold your dog’s ear between forefinger and thumb, starting where the ear joins the head, then glide your hand gently down the ear flap. This is incredibly calming for your dog.
- You can also try a technique called passive touch where you simply place a slightly cupped hand on your dog’s skin for a few seconds. This is comforting but also warming, calming nerve endings and aiding blood flow. Passive touch is especially good for elbows, shoulders and hips, but it’s also a great way to end your massage session, letting your dog know that the spa is now closing.
- Finally, one of Julia’s most versatile techniques is skin rolling, helping keep skin flexible and healthy. At the top of the neck or back, gently lift your pup’s skin with your fingers and thumb, then walk your fingers and thumb down their shoulders towards the elbow, forming a continuous ripple or wave of skin. Only do this when or where the skin is loose and flexible and never pinch the skin as you lift.
Don’t massage your dog if they seem under the weather: if they have been sick recently or seem quieter than usual, or off their food. And most importantly, only massage your dog when they want to be massaged! Note that it’s also illegal to massage somebody else’s dog, so keep your treatments exclusive…
For many more detailed doggy massage techniques, Julia’s book Physical Therapy and Massage for the Dog is a fantastic guide, and her new book How to Build A Puppy also has a dedicated section on puppy massage. The photographs in this blog are reproduced, with permission, from that chapter. From October 1st 2022, we’re offering THE PACK community 20% off both these books until 1 January 2023, using discount code PAK20 at checkout on the www.routledge.com website!