Giving your dog a massage has many benefits. It is easy to do and you don’t need any special knowledge.
The benefits of massage is that they can help with bonding, is great for a dog’s physical health as it promotes circulation and toxin removal, comforting for older dogs, helps you detect injuries (since you have your hands on your dog on a regular basis), can increase flexibility and healing after an injury, can be used as a pre-warm up and cool down for rigorous exercise and help calms a dog in stressful situations.
With all these benefits, it is surprising that more people do not give their dog regular massages! Most people don’t because they fear they might do it wrong and injure their dog. With an understanding of the basic techniques, a few tips and always erring on the side of light pressure, it is really hard to do injury to your dog.
How to Give a Massage:
Choose a time of day that works for you, and a quiet location.
Your dog can be standing, sitting or laying down as you massage her. Let your dog decide what is most comfortable for her if possible. After a little trial and error, you’ll find a position that is comfortable for you both. Massaging her on her mat helps to build a positive association for the mat.
Using a moderate to light touch (always erring on the lighter side), start at the head and work toward the tail. Then start at the top of the back of the dog and work toward her feet. Massage both sides of your dog before you finish. Use smooth motions.
Support the part of the body you are currently working on with your other hand or lay it on your knee as needed. Your dog should be able to relax and rely on you to hold her body part up as you work it.
Once you have a little practice, a whole massage may take about 5 minutes. At first it may be longer. Also, as your dog learns to enjoy it, you can spend more time in favored spots. As you both gain trust with the process, allow your fingers to explore her body, getting into depressions such as hips and between foot pads, whatever you think she might enjoy.
If you have limited control of your fingers, using gentle rotations of the fist knuckles can feel good to your dog, as long as you can control the pressure.
Massage is as individual as the person giving it and the dog receiving it. Experiment in little steps to see what works for you both. If you have weakness in your limbs, do one part of the body at a time. Take a rest, then resume. There is no rule that says you must massage your entire dog in one sitting!
On the head, start at the base of the ears, rubbing each ear between your thumb and forefinger. Do small circles if it feels good to your dog. With a finger on one side and a thumb on the other, gently draw your fingers towards the tip in a straight line. Start up the middle of the ear and work to the outside edges.
Use two fingers to gently massage the muscles on the top of the head. Next do the jaw muscle. Do the other side. This is often where a dog holds her stress so spend time here, especially if your dog is mouthy or snappy. Use light circles on the lips over the gum line (nose to molars) if your dog is comfortable with your touch. Many dogs enjoy light touches on the molar area. Do not do this area if your dog shows any signs of stress, (alarmed look, looking or pulling away or if she lifts her lips, growls etc.) You can try it again after several sessions when she learns to trust you.
Base of Neck
Most dogs enjoy the base of their neck being massaged on both sides. Place your thumb on one side and two fingers on the other and gently work it. Start at the base of the skull and down to the shoulders, spending more time on the thicker muscles. This is another place dogs hold their stress.
Use your whole hand (fingers and thumb tips) to gently massage both sides of the back. Work in lines from front to back moving closer to the underside of your dog. You can use a gentle raking motion with your fingers. Most dogs enjoy moving the rake with their fur, very few enjoy going against the grain!
Shoulders & Hips
Massage the muscles around the shoulders & hips.
Base of Tail
Dogs that generally don’t like to be touched still enjoy a massage of the muscles where the tail meets the top of the spine. It is a difficult spot for them to reach for scratching or chewing.
Legs and Feet
Most dogs show at least some sensitivity with their lower legs as you move toward their feet. The first few times until your dog learns to enjoy the massage generally, avoid them. Then, as you gain her trust, start doing very light touches further down and actually touch the tops of the feet. Progress at your dog’s speed. When she allows it, gently work the pads of the feet. For some dogs this can take many session to get here, especially if they have had painful or scary experiences with nail clipping.
Most dogs enjoy a tummy tickle or belly rub. Avoid using any pressure.
Perking Your Dog Up
For a quick invigorating massage, pretend your dog is soaking wet and use a fluffy towel to pretend to dry your dog off front to back, top to bottom.
Five Key Tips to Massage Your Service Dog:
1. Get in a position that is comfortable for you to sustain. Place your dog beside you on the couch, on a table where you can easily reach her while seated in your wheelchair, or sit with her on her mat.
2. If you are relaxed, your dog will relax. Using calming signals such as deep breathing, matching your dog’s breathing patterns, lowering eye lids while making eye contact all helps.
3. Observe your dog's facial and body reactions constantly. If she shows concern at any time (looks at you with concern, flinches, tenses up, pulls away etc), stop massaging that area and go back to where you know your dog was enjoying it. Lighten your touch. If she gets up and walks away, honor that and let her go. She has had enough for one session.
4. Keep your touch light. The idea is to gently move the muscles to stimulate blood flow, move muscles and tendons and remove toxins etc. A Massage should be a soothing activity for you both. Use a very light touch on puppies and small dogs.
5. Avoid working over the vertebra-stay to each side of them. Similarly, work around, not on, recent injuries.
Try giving your dog a 5 minute massage every day for a week. What changes to you notice in his behavior? Flexibility? Health? Calmness level?
Let us know how you make out!