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Updated: Oct 11, 2022

As part of my Diploma of Canine Myofunctional Therapy I had to write an essay about WHY we do massage and what the benefits are. I thought it would be great to share it with you. It's a long read, but hopefully some will find it interesting.

Dog massage for small dogs
Bruno getting a massage

Why is CMT a valuable discipline?

Humans and massage go hand in hand together. When we have an injury or sore back we go to the chiropractor or physiotherapist. When we are in an accident and need rehabilitation we go into a lengthy process of physio, which includes massage.

Top Athletes get massages nearly every day, and on game day, even several times a day. They would have serious problems without their warm ups, stretches and cool down massages. They even get massaged during games to optimise their physical ability to perform on the highest level possible. So, knowing all of this… why wouldn’t we transfer this to dogs and provide the same service to them? Older dogs may need some help getting all their stiff joints and cold muscles going. Sports dogs competing in agility, flyball or high drive sports need to ensure they are warmed up properly and cooled down to avoid injury. Then there is the dogs that may have had an injury or operation and can use some help during the recovery or the dog that enjoys some good relaxation, just like we humans do, to relieve stress.

Benefits of Canine Massage

Massage has many benefits, just to name a few: - Massage increases the blood flow and reduces muscle tension before it builds up and allows for greater flexibility of the body. Less tension and improved circulation has an effect on the dog as a whole as it relaxes tight muscles and relieves tension. - It can lesson inflammation and swelling in joints and therefore alleviate pain. - It enhances muscle tone and increases range of motion. When the range of motion is increased, the energy level becomes more efficient. - It lengthens connective tissue, breaks down and prevents the formation of knots or adhesions. (Rogers, S. 2000)When muscles are tight or stressed, the connective tissue and length of muscle fibres are shortened which can lead to injury. Injury is highly likely for tight muscles as there is a reduced range of motion. Muscles should be fluid and not tense. Prolonged injury causes rigidity within the connective and soft tissue to protect the area. Besides tightness in muscles there is lots of different ways dogs can injure their muscles. There is the obvious ones, such as a blow or direct trauma to the muscle. But also overusing a muscle (due to compensating), Repeat Strain Injuries (R.S.I) which means overuse injury. The dog may repeat the same movements time and time again which causes inflammation and damage to the muscles, tendons or ligaments. Other ways to injury muscles is the lack of a warm up or cool down before high performance or strenuous work. Poor diet can also cause injury, for example if a dog is overweight. Poor training is another important one. Your dog might be always pulling on the lead or use incompatible equipment. (Rogers, S. 2000)It’s important to look at the dog as a whole. The massage treatment doesn’t just help the dog’s physical wellbeing but can also play a huge part in the dog’s emotional and mental wellbeing. Just like humans, everything is in connection with each other. If you have a pulled muscle and you have to lift things it may make you grumpy or stressed because you can’t do your work properly. This may make you snap at someone easier than you’d usually do. Everything in a dog also stands in connection with each other. The layered stress model (Jay Jack, 2019) explained to me a perfect way of how a dog’s health and lifestyle contribute immensely to dog behaviour. We have to look at if the dog has any health issues such as weight, dental, back pain, skin issues, tight muscles etc. We also look at the dog’s lifestyle. Does the dog get enough exercise? Or maybe too much? How are they exercised? How is the equipment used? Is there always pressure on the leash? Is the dog’s neck sore from pulling? Or are his shoulders tight because he always has to walk in a constricting harness that chafes in his armpits? As you can imagine all of these things have to do with the dog’s mental and emotional state of mind. A dog that is overweight, always pulls into ill-fitting equipment and doesn’t get warmed up before he (irregularly) goes for a run at the beach, might suddenly reach his last straw and ‘explode’. It’s like a domino effect. Instead of just looking and solving this as a behavioural issue, we need to look deeper. Because with massage we would’ve found out that he has back pain, or his shoulders are extremely tight. We can help the dog with releasing the tension there and get in a better state of mind. We can also explain to the owner that maybe there is an alternative to the equipment they are using to prevent this situation from happening at all. So not only would we help the dog physically by releasing tension and getting suppleness back into the body. We also help the dog mentally and emotionally to feel good.

Injury rehab massage
Obi getting a massage

Types of Massage

Now, not every dog will need the same type of massage. Just like with humans there is different type of massages such as:- SportsSports massage can be very beneficial for the canine athlete. Sports massage has two components. The first is to prepare the dog with pre-event massage and the second is to assist with the warming down procedures and recovery aspects with a post-event massage. A pre-event massage is a warm up tool to make it easier for the dog to complete his exercise/event. Increased oxygen and nutrients to the muscles means better endurance. The ore elasticised and supple the muscles are the less likely injury will happen. The post event massage is to stimulate circulation and help flush the systems of toxins built up during intense activity. This will help lessen, if not prevent, stiffness and soreness. The massage will also alert the practitioner of any heat and reactive areas. (Rogers, S. 2000)- RemedialRemedial massage will assist in rehabilitation, pain and injury management after contraindications have been eliminated. It assist in returning an area to its normal function. The physiological response to muscle from trauma will follow by tightening the muscle, reducing blood flow and elasticity. This can cause the muscle to become tight and rigid. You also see that after an injury the opposing muscles often will take on more than it’s fair share of work which then causes the dog to become unbalanced and overdeveloped on one side and underdeveloped on the other. (Rogers, S. 2000) Remedial and post injury massage can help here by relaxing the muscles and working out any tightness that may be in the area. - RelaxationJust like humans dogs will enjoy a good relaxation massage. It’s nice for a dog to be massaged even when they don’t have injury, sports or tightness in any muscles. Although, having said that, this doesn’t mean you wouldn’t find any problem areas that deserve a little bit of extra attention. - Elderly dogsCan benefit from a maintenance massage which ensures that the muscular system is functioning at an optimum level for that dog. As older dogs often have (previous) injury and onset of arthritis it will be good to ensure blood flow and suppleness is present in the muscles to make life a little easier on them.

What do we do?

As a massage therapist we have a plethora of different techniques available to us, all with different physiological effects. This doesn’t mean we will use every technique on every dog or every region of the body. Some dogs don’t enjoy kneading or get too hyped up from pummelling. Sometimes a technique is too intense for a sensitive area so we decide to go for a different technique instead which is a bit less intrusive. Whenever a dog allows it we can apply passive foreleg and hind leg stretches. These aid in joint lubrication and release as well as lengthening and increasing flexibility and the R.O.M. (Range of Motion.) The legs can be massaged with several different techniques including a compressional squeeze and lift, effleurage, small finger rotations and ‘shampooing’. This promotes circulatory responses to the lower limb and aids in spatial awareness. It also addresses areas of dysfunction either originating in the leg/paw or upper body. (Rogers, S. 2000) All techniques are done with calm gentle strokes. The slower they are applied, the more relaxed and accepting the dog will be. For pre-event sport massage we would do the opposite. We’d apply faster movements to activate the dog and get them ready for the event.

What does a consultation look like?

When you book in a consultation we go through several steps before the massage starts. We will discuss first the history of the dog. It’s important to know the type of exercise the dog does (and how often), where it sleeps, if the dog jumps in and out of bed/car a lot or if the dog runs on slippery floors a lot. These may indicate areas of tightness or possible injury in the dog without even having to touch the dog yet. We have to make sure the dog is currently not on medication or has any other contraindications. Contra indications means: a reason to not have the treatment due to possibly doing more harm to an already existing condition or injury. For some contraindications it’s just regional, so we can avoid just that particular area. Others are general which means we won’t massage unless we have had clearance of a vet. Examples of contraindications are: fractures, pregnancy, vomiting, weight bearing lameness, inflammation with heat, pain, loss of movement and redness, certain medications, recent muscle injury or surgery or torn ligaments. If your dog is all good to go after our chat and ensuring there are no contraindications a visual observation follows. This is to have a look at their coat and confirmation. How the dog stands and puts down his weight and how long nails are. This, again, can give us a lot of information. After the visual observation the gait analysis follows. We do this to have a look at how the dog walks (in his slowest pace as possible). This may show us stiffness in the hips or a short stride and stiff pace or even limping. This can give us an idea where on the body we might find tightness and knots and areas that may be extra sensitive and need more attention. Following the gait analysis is the soft tissue diagnosis. This may look like the beginning of the massage but it’s not. It’s a short flat hand observation where we take our hands over each muscle of the dog assessing and feeling for abnormalities. We might be able to confirm with our hands what our eyes saw earlier. We may feel tightness or knots or atrophied/hypertrophied muscles. From there we will go into the actual massage treatment which can take 10 minutes or 45 minutes. This very much depends on the size of the dog as well as how accepting the dog is of the massage. Of course, small dogs won’t take as long as a Great Dane. A dog that’s incredibly sensitive and struggles with touch may also need a shorter time to get accustomed to being touch by a stranger first. Dogs that love being massaged may take longer as it gives us the opportunity to go over muscles really thoroughly with different techniques and stretches. At the end of the treatment we will recommend what will follow next. We may decide to do pole. It’s kind of similar to Pilates for dogs. They help with body balance and correct movement. Improving joint articulation and muscle flexion in a controlled way. Every time the dog lifts their legs just that little bit higher than normal, they should be lifting up from the abdominal muscles and stretching through the back as they step under to correctly execute the movement. The great thing about these exercises is that they can be adapted to not cause unnecessary pain or stress on affected joints, but still improve body balance and function. (Rogers, S. 2000)It may be that a few weekly massages are recommended. For dogs that are generally fine and just come for a relaxation massage maybe every 2, 3 or 6 months to ensure their bodies stay nice and supply. It really depends on each individual dog and also what the owner wants to do. Massage, as you could read, is incredibly beneficial for dogs any size or age. Giving your dog a routine massage is almost as important as a yearly vaccination. You may come across injuries you weren’t aware of, because our dogs are hardy creatures that don’t generally show their pain. You may be able to make their life more comfortable if they have a chronic injury or near constant tight muscles. You may make their performance even better due to pre and post event massages.

Just like humans, dogs enjoy massages. Why not provide this fabulous service to your dog?

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