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Massage, a canine conversation

Updated: Jan 8, 2023

Take a walk through any suburban neighbourhood on a sunny Saturday morning and you don’t have to try very hard to see a poorly trained dog dragging it’s owner toward the local park, a dog suffering the effects of age or debilitation wobbling along beside their owner, or the adrenaline fuelled antics of those free of restraint chasing balls, frisbees or other such ‘toys’. For each one of these scenarios there are many more and massage can play a hugely beneficial role in each one.

The benefits

A regular massage program by a qualified practitioner can improve the situation for each dog mentally, physically and emotionally making it an incredibly powerful form of therapy. Firstly, it acts directly on the muscle fibres, relaxing tight muscles, relieving tension, lengthening connective tissue and breaking down any knots or adhesion's. This results in enhancement of muscle tone and range of motion which are key factors of a muscles efficiency and performance. Massage also improves circulation both into and out of the tissues, dilating blood vessels and drawing blood and nutrients into the muscles whilst also stimulating the lymphatic system, improving the flow of lymph, drawing toxic debris and other waste products out of the tissues. This improved circulation resulting in improved “interchange of substances between blood and tissue cells” improves tissue metabolism giving an overall efficiency improvement in the function of internal organs. Massage is also beneficial in that it connects with the central nervous system (CNS) promoting relaxation and stimulating the release of endorphins and other beneficial biochemical substances, it can calm nervousness, relieve stress and even relieve pain[1].

Massage can also incorporate passive exercise or stretches. This is when there is movement of the body or limbs without effort of the individual i.e. the individual is passive. An example of this may be when a practitioner stretches or moves a limb through its range of motion on behalf of the patient without effort or control by the patient. Active or controlled exercise on the other hand is when the individual actively controls their own body or limb movement [2]. This movement could be an individual simply moving their limb through its normal range of motion without any undue stress, or, it could be as extreme as hurtling around the dog park until they are exhausted.

Injuries and their causes

Hurtling around the dog park and other such adrenaline fuelled activities can be a leading cause of soft tissue injuries whereby the body is expected to perform tasks beyond its capability. For example, leaping out of a vehicle and launching into a full speed run to exhaustion. Other factors can further inhibit the bodies’ capability such as an unsuitable diet or lifestyle leading the dog to be over or underweight, lacking nutrients, lacking balanced muscle development with poor posture or conformation, we then ask the dog to perform in a certain way be it zooming around the dog park with a friend, chasing a ball in the garden or just walking around the block each morning. It is essential that the body is up to the task it's required to perform, or the body will fail to withstand the demands placed on it.

A common soft tissue injury is when muscles and/or tendons stretch beyond their normal range causing them to overstretch and maybe even tear [3]. An example of this occurring could be when a dog slips or loses traction on a wooden floor or zooms up and down stairs, or even leaping in the air after a Frisbee or toy, any excited or sudden movements can cause a dog to move outside of their normal range of motion placing excessive force on a muscle or tendon.

We can minimize the risk of injury by ensuring not only that the task is suitable for the dog (or vice versa) and that hazards (e.g. slippery surfaces) are avoided but that we incorporate appropriate warm up and warm down procedures into our exercise regimes [4]. This could be as simply as adding a brisk on-lead walk to the dog park to warm and prepare the muscles for an off-lead run whilst the walk home can cool/warm down the muscles. Keeping the off-lead time to a reasonable duration rather than letting them run to exhaustion will also aid in ensuring the muscles do not work beyond capacity.

Another common cause of injury is referred to as repetitive strain injury or RSI. The NHS UK[5] describe repetitive strain injury as "..the pain felt in muscles, nerves and tendons caused by repetitive movement and overuse". Although this definition was aimed at the human condition it relates equally well to our canine athletes. Many risk factors have been identified regarding RSI including repetitive activities, prolonged periods of high intensity activity and poor posture, to name just a few. In the dog this could be walking round the block in the same direction each day, jumping on and off the couch twenty times a day or the regular high-speed twist and turns completed in agility trials.

No matter how fit the dog or appropriate the lifestyle there is always a risk of accidental impact injuries. Muscles can be injured by direct trauma or sudden impact resulting in a contusion (bruise) which becomes painful and swollen and often require rest in order to heal[3]. This impact could be from a fall or crashing into something or someone, or an item such as a ball or other dog hitting them.

Massage over a lifetime

Massage therapy incorporates many different techniques and can be tailored in terms of which techniques are applied as well as tempo, duration and pressure to tailor the treatment to the individual. It is this ability to individualize treatments which creates the various massage modalities which have developed and makes it suitable for dogs of all ages and lifestyles.

A therapeutic (relaxing) massage can be very beneficial for nervous or excited puppies. As well as improving circulation it calms the nervous system thereby reducing anxiety. It also adds to the incredibly important handling experience to assist in preparing them for things such as veterinary checks. The massage can also provide the foundation for any recommendations regarding areas of imbalance, sensitivity or injury and can help set the foundation for a long, healthy and physically active life.

As the dog grows and develops their mental, physical and emotional needs change as does the role a massage can play. As previously mentioned, whether it is zoomies at the dog park, excited play on slippery floors, embarking on a sporting or working career, there are a multitude of ways soft tissue injuries can occur requiring the need for a remedial massage. Remedial massage is defined by Australian health insurance provider medibank [6] as ".. the systematic assessment and treatment of the muscles, tendons, ligaments and connective tissue of the body to assist in rehabilitation, pain and injury management". It is therefore about restoring function and balance, alleviating pain and promoting health and wellbeing. Visiting a qualified therapist for a remedial massage can be very beneficial in resolving small issues before they develop into something more serious.

Sports massage, as the name suggests, is massage aimed at the athlete, with techniques employed to prepare the athlete for activity, to maintain the athlete in optimum condition and to aid the athlete in the recovery phase following activity [7]. The variations employed include, but are not limited to, the duration of the massage and the tempo with which the techniques are applied. A sports massage can prepare the dog for action by warming and stimulating the muscles, it can be used to calm the nervous or over excited dog so it can better focus on the task at hand, it can also stimulate healing and calm the over excited dog once the task is complete.

For the older or more sedate dogs a maintenance massage can be incredibly beneficial, stimulating blood and lymph flow that would normally occur during exercise to assist in counteracting everyday life and the compounding health challenges that take their toll on the aging body. Massage can release tight contracted muscles and alleviate discomfort which left untreated can lead to further imbalance and even muscle wastage. It can improve and maintain the range of motion which further supports a continuing healthy active lifestyle [8]. Massage also means the dog being handled all over whereby any potential newly developed health issues could be identified early such as lumps or other contraindications.

Techniques and their physiological effects

Effleurage is the foundation technique, starting and finishing a massage as well as linking all the other techniques together[1]. It is used in all types of massage whether its remedial, sports, maintenance or therapeutic. It has the benefit of relaxing or stimulating depending on the tempo whilst building warmth in the muscles. As a first technique it builds a connection between therapist and patient vital to a successful massage. As the soft tissue warms effleurage can also improve the stretch of the muscles and tendons. These effects combined prepare the muscle and the patient for the therapist to work deeper muscles and problem areas.[9].

Adding pressure in a specific spot is effective in building more heat within the muscle, called compression's, it increases the blood flow and softens the muscle fibres to enable the therapist to work deeper into the muscle. This technique is very versatile to suit muscles and dogs of all sizes in that with a small muscle or dog you could use 2 or 3 fingers flat against the muscle whereas a large muscle you could use the heel or palm of your hand, you can even use a flat hand against the muscle to gently squeeze heel to fingers.

Applying a raked hand with fingers spread (known as cross fibre raking) across the muscle is effective in spreading the muscle fibres, however when a more focused approach is needed thumb fanning and/or multi finger rotations can also be used, this is especially beneficial when muscle fibres have become adhered or a muscle spasm is evident.

The order of things

Dogs are great at hiding issues or pain from us and we are not exactly able to question them about how they are feeling so it is important before laying hands on them, to watch how they move naturally i.e. conduct a visual observation. This is done at a nice steady walking pace with the dog nice and relaxed, this natural and relaxed movement will show the natural stride length, elevation and any imbalances or areas causing discomfort for the dog. This is also a great opportunity to see any potential contraindications which would prevent the massage from going ahead such as weight bearing lameness, which should be assessed by a veterinarian.

Once we have established how well or poorly the dog stands and moves we can then perform a soft tissue diagnosis whereby we gently run our hands over the dog, making that oh so important first contact with the dog. This is a vital connection which establishes a trust between therapist and dog and opens a chain of communication identifying areas of sensitivity, pain or discomfort not seen in the visual observation or narrowing down a general area of dysfunction to a specific muscle or region.

As a professional there are occasions when a massage is not in the best interest of the dog. Applying massage, thereby applying pressure, whilst also drawing blood and subsequently heat into an area that is already irritated, inflamed or injured in some way would undoubtedly cause pain and discomfort whilst potentially exacerbating symptoms and delay healing, therefore it is important to rule out any contraindications such as this prior to applying a massage. Similarly increasing the flow of metabolic wastes would not be wise if the immune system was already compromised, therefore, illness would also be contraindicated when assessing suitability for massage. It is during the soft tissue diagnosis that concerns, or contraindications could be raised with the owner, showing them on the dog that area or injury of concern, talking through the circumstances surrounding it and your recommendations such as seeking vet treatment and why today, a massage may not be recommended or appropriate.

As previously mentioned the treatment itself has various techniques and flow making it versatile and adjustable to suit any dog, barring any contraindications of course. The pressure applied increases to a muscle depth appropriate for that particular muscle, region and dog. The tempo varies depending on whether you want to stimulate or sedate the dog, again working at a pace appropriate for that particular dog. The techniques used vary depending not only on what you are trying to achieve but what the dog is comfortable with. The order in which you work can also be varied, ideally you work on one side from head to tail before repeating on the other side but if the dog is not comfortable with this, maybe doesn't want you to work on a specific area, you can vary the order of things to be more appropriate for the dog, taking time to build trust and ensuring the massage is a positive experience for the dog.

Just as each dog is unique in its makeup of age, temperament, lifestyle, structure and level of dysfunction within the muscular system, so too is the outcome of each massage. The aim therefore is to improve the situation for each dog, observing and noting the outcome as well as discussing it with the owner will provide a foundation for any recommendations made, vital to enabling the continued improvement for that dog.

Recommendations could be as simple as lifestyle changes to reduce risk of further injury, further treatments to aid in the healing process or even a referral to another professional. Bringing the owner along on the journey of their dog's wellness yields benefits in all aspects for the dog.


So, improving circulation with intake and excretion of nutrients and wastes respectively combined with improved muscle tone and efficiency ultimately improves the way the body performs and can heal itself following exertion or injury. Add to this the increased parasympathetic activity with the release of helpful biochemical substances and massage is a powerful therapy which can benefit dogs regardless of age, breed or lifestyle.


[1] Weerapong, P. Hume, P.A. & Kolt, G. S., 2005. The Mechanisms of Massage and Effects on Performance, Muscle Recovery and Injury Prevention, Sports Med, Vol.35, no.3, pp.235-256.

[2] Rougeau, K.M. 2015, Passive versus active exercise: An examination of affective change. Submitted in Partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of master of science in kinesiology in the graduate college of the university of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2015.

[4] National Sports Medicine Institute of the United Kingdom, 2019, Importance of Warming Up before Sport - Sports Injury Prevention.

[5] NHS UK 2019, repetitive strain injury rsi, viewed 23 November 2019.

[6] Medibank 2019. Medibank’s Remedial Massage definition and requirements for benefit payment, pdf, viewed 23 November 2019.

[8] Canine massage guild 2015, Canine massage therapist, canine massage therapy, Gait irregularities, muscular injury, Orthopaedic conditions. Canine massage guild UK.

[9] Sports Therapy UK, 2019, Skills and Techniques.

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