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How to give your dog a massage

Dog having massage
Ellie having a massage

Do you massage your dog?

It can be incredibly rewarding for both of you; if you do it right. Doing it right means your attention will be completely focussed on them and your mind will not be running through your task or worry lists.

In this blog I meander through some key things to consider and practice that will help you both relax and improve your relationship.

I also give you things to look for that could indicate a vet visit might be in order.

The Power of touch

There is nothing like a global pandemic and restrictions on social contact to help us understand the value and importance of touch. Our dogs of course, have always valued touch and social interaction and many love to be massaged.

Our dogs have struggled through this strange period, as human and canine contact is restricted and many of their normal daily routines altered. As our lives change once more, now is the perfect time to support them with touch and massage.

Your dog may crave touch and they often seek it out, but it has to be the right touch at the right time. Any touch with your dog sets the tone for the ongoing activity you have planned, and here the power of passive touch should not be under-estimated. Your touch tells your dog about your mood, energy levels and intention, so make it count.

Firstly, you should be able to touch your dog all over their body, including their feet, between their pads and the full length of their tail. You should also be able to touch your dog without eliciting a high energy reaction. If this is not the case I recommend you focus on this area of your relationship using lots of passive touches and holds before you attempt any massage.

Even if your dog is used to some form of massage from you they will benefit hugely from passive touch. Such touch is reassuring and calming when done with consideration and attention.

However, touching and holding your dog consciously and without moving your hands can be quite alien to many of us. It is a common issue in my clinic and my owners will often hear me asking them to keep their hands still on their dogs to help reassure them.

Passive touch of a dog
Owner providing reassurance through passive touch

So why consciously hold your hands still?

Have you noticed how, if your mind wanders your hands wander too! They will also move at the speed of your own thoughts. So anxious or distracted humans tend to use short, fast strokes with their dogs which can be stimulating, distracting and unlikely to elicit a restful state.

They are attuned to us, picking up on our moods just by being in the same room. We need to focus on them so that they do not get any mixed messages from us.

By concentrating on passive touch you are working on shifting your own energy levels and stilling your own thoughts. This in turn is picked up by your dog who will then relax further.

Passive touch is an incredibly powerful way to connect to and communicate with your dog. Who needs meditation when you can passively touch your dog?

Massaging your dog

The way you massage your dog should depend on what they want at the time. Like us, many dogs have a tight neck and stiff shoulders and will often love firm strokes around these areas. But, equally they may have painful areas that they do not want touched or would prefer you to passively hold instead. Pay attention to your dog and respond to their messages.

Do not massage areas that are uncomfortable as this could cause your dog to fear your touch and undermine your relationship. Instead, identify there is an issue of concern and speak to your vet or canine massage therapist.

So, sticking to areas your dog is comfortable with, I recommend you concentrate on the following:

  1. Start and finish with passive touch.

  2. It is possible to have too much of a good thing, so short massage sessions are often far more enjoyable and beneficial for you both

  3. Length and speed of strokes - most of us will naturally use short, fast strokes with our dogs. This tells your dog that you are agitated, stuck inside your own thoughts and not focussed on them or that you are stressed. So concentrate on what you are doing with your dog and remain in the present. Keep your strokes long and slow

  4. Stroke direction - start strokes with the direction of the fur to check they are comfortable with your touch. Once you are happy that your dog is enjoying this stroke, lighten the pressure and change the direction to move towards the heart. This might mean your strokes now go against the direction of the fur. By going this way you are supporting your dogs circulatory (blood and lymph) systems. Do this slowly and keep focussed on your dog to ensure they are happy and enjoying their massage

  5. Breathing and staying focussed - it is essential that you are aware of your own responses. We will often find our mind wanders and this invariably results in shorter, shallower breaths and faster hand movements. This causes us to revert back to short, fast strokes and it may also affect the pressure we use on each stroke depending on our mood. But massaging your dog is about connecting with them so staying focussed on them and noticing when your mind wanders is essential.

Believe it or not, this last tip will be the hardest to master and the most beneficial for you both.

As you spend more time consciously interacting with, and touching your dog, you will become aware of areas of discomfort. You may notice your dogs skin twitches in a specific place or that they are restless, guarded or not happy with your touch. If you suspect your dog is uncomfortable then a trip to the vet is recommended.

How can you tell if your dog is uncomfortable?

Dog after massage
Soft eyes and face equals a relaxed dog

Watch their face

A tight face, rigid jaw, visible veins, ears that are pricked up and forward or pinned to the skull are all signs of tension.

Watch their eyes

If they are wide open, you can see the white area, they look larger because the eyebrows are raised, they look alert after the first minute, these are also signs of tension.

Watch their behaviour

If they are licking their lips, panting, looking around at what you are doing, trying to move away from you or presenting another part of their body instead then they are not comfortable.

If you notice any of the above signs stop what you are doing, return to passive touch on an area you know your dog is happy with and concentrate on your breathe. Making sure that you remain calm will help your dog to relax once more.

Your touch and massage should be enjoyable, relaxing and enhance your relationship. If you do pick up areas of concern speak to your vet or professional canine massage therapist.

You are now regularly massaging your dog, so what next?

If you follow all the guidance above you should now feel more confident in handling and massaging your dog.

Professional Canine Massage therapy for your dog

If you have identified that your dog is uncomfortable consider booking them in for some professional canine massage.

One of my clients wrote about their experience of canine massage, you can read that here. But if I am too far away (I have clinics in Hemel Hempstead and Aylesbury) then I recommend you choose a Canine Massage Guild therapist. A Guild therapist has completed a minimum of two years training, is insured, their training is up to date and they work to industry codes of ethics and standards. You can use your postcode to search the membership directory and find your nearest therapist.

Training to help you massage your dog

If you would like more help to massage your own dog I recommend attending a 1 day "Introduction to Canine Massage" course run by a Canine Massage Guild member. These are run in person and online. A list of members that offer these courses can be found here.

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