Before you scoff at the phrase “dog massage,” think about the fact that dogs age much faster than people do. By seven years old, most dogs are considered senior citizens. They encounter the same aches, pains and ailments we will when we hit retirement. You plan on turning down a massage at age 75? We didn’t think so. The dog massage industry is booming for a reason.
First of all, the benefits of massages for dogs are pretty much the same as they are for humans. According to The Right Spot Pet Massage, run by Katie Mehrtens, who received her national certification in canine massage from the National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure and Massage (NBCAAM), massages alleviate stress, swelling and stiffness. They can also improve circulation and immune system functions. So, whether your pup is recovering from an injury, feeling age-related aches or experiencing anxiety issues, massage therapy can be super beneficial.
Plus, as Brandenburg Massage Therapy notes, waiting until a dog is injured to administer massage therapy is fine, but getting ahead of the game is better. Tense muscles and poor circulation (which deprives muscle groups of oxygen) limit a dog’s range of motion, which could theoretically lead to injury.
For dogs genetically predisposed to develop joint issues, like bulldogs and Great Danes, massage therapy can not only ease pain but help dogs get back to a more balanced way of moving. As stated on Brandenburg’s website, “Muscles are compensatory. If there is a problem…in the hips, the animal will adjust his weight forward to ease the strain behind.” So, if your Saint Bernard’s hip dysplasia makes using her hind quarters difficult, she’ll strain her front shoulders and legs to course-correct, resulting in even more pain overall.
While the NBCAAM provides tests for canine massage therapists to become certified practitioners, there are many schools across the country that teach canine massage. Here are a few tips from the NBCAAM, the American Kennel Club and the dog whisperer himself, Cesar Millan, if you want to try your hand at home. Keep in mind: If you aren’t certified, it may be well worth your time to enroll in an owner-focused course to learn techniques specific to your dog’s condition.
1. Relax yourself first
If you’re tense, your dog will pick up on your energy and become stressed, too. Remember to breathe deeply throughout the massage and avoid holding your breath. Again, dogs follow suit. Set a good example!
2. Set up a safe space
Set up a safe, comfortable area for the massage. Dogs, especially excitable ones, may need extra coaxing to chill out. Think about a soothing spa and replicate that—in dog terms. Grab her favorite bed or toy. Eliminate other distractions like open windows or food bowls.
3. Start by the ears
Using what’s called an effleurage stroke, gently stroke the dog’s head and shoulders with flat palms and in long, straight lines. This warms up muscles. It also feels like normal, familiar petting, putting dogs at ease.
4. Move down the back
Using circular motions and slightly more pressure, work your way onto the chest and down the back and hind legs. If you know your dog is sensitive about having her belly rubbed, don’t rub it. Also, be sure to avoid putting any direct pressure on bones, joints or the spine. This is all about the muscles, people!
5. Legs and paws
If she’s into having her legs massaged (not all dogs are), go for it and test a paw, too. Every dog has limits, so keep a sharp eye on her reactions and pull back if she ever wriggles out from under your hand.
Pro Tip: Focusing on the base of the tail and the back of the neck at first can help soothe your dog into deeper relaxation.
6. Rain check if necessary
If your dog immediately starts squirming or becomes anxious at any point, stop the process and wait for another time when she’s in a calmer mind-set. The same goes for pain—if she yelps out or appears to be physically uncomfortable, stop massaging right away.
7. Maintain contact
Throughout the massage, always keep at least one hand on the dog. This is both reassuring to her and indicative that the massage isn’t over yet (massages can last anywhere from ten minutes to 45 minutes, depending on what your dog needs and wants).
8. Try tools
Gaiam, the company known best for its yoga gear and apparel, makes puppy massage tools. Its PetWell line is full of items that make the massage process easier—and perhaps more rewarding for you and your pup.
9. Post-massage activities
Allow your dog to get up in their own time. They'll probably need to drink some water and go outside for a bathroom break. A nap is not out of the question. Remember to reward them for a job well done!
Massaging your dog regularly serves two additional purposes: It’s a great bonding activity and helps you keep tabs on any changes on your dog’s body.