Every so often, it’s brought home to me in no uncertain terms that I’m not as young as I used to be, and that I really could be in better shape. I’ve never made much of a secret of the fact that I’m a bit of a couch potato. Sure, I walk my dogs, and take them to the dog park, but as to actual, vigorous exercise, I pretty much tend to avoid it.
That’s why I ended up in total misery this past weekend. A friend needed some help with moving to a new apartment, and I was stupid enough to volunteer. Hey, it was a move from one single-bedroom apartment to another. How bad could it be?
Well, you really don’t think about how much stuff weighs until you start schlepping it around and trying to maneuver down stairways and around corners. We started with the furniture, and then got to work on the boxes, many of which were packed with books and must have weighed 100 pounds.
All told, the move took the entire weekend. We started on Saturday morning, bright and early, and finished late Sunday night. I can tell you that I was pretty sore on Sunday, but by Monday morning, I could barely move. I slammed back some Tylenol and spent most of the day on the couch.
Obviously, I’d strained my muscles in a serious way. I’ve never had a massage in my life; mainly, because I think I’d be horribly bored lying on a table for an hour while being pummeled. I get stressed when I’m bored, so I’ve never been able to consider a massage as being something that would relax me. I have to say, though, I wouldn’t have minded a good pummeling on Monday; boring or not, I was in that much pain.
Of course, I started wondering about massage for dogs. I’d come across the occasional article on the benefits of canine massage but never really had all that much interest in the topic. In the face of my own pain, though, my thoughts turned to Janice and Leroy, and how, although they are also basically couch potatoes, they do exercise vigorously from time to time. Maybe, I thought, their muscles ached sometimes, too. And maybe I should do something about that. So, I started researching.
Most people probably never really think about how their dogs’ muscles work. Not only do they stretch and contract in order to move the joints when the dog is being active, they’re also called upon to provide support when the dog is standing.
Consider the forelimb, for instance; the triceps muscle consists of four parts, three of which function simply to support the dog’s bodyweight when he’s in a standing position, and prevent the elbow from flexing. This happens through isometric contraction, meaning that there is tension in the muscle, but it doesn’t actually shorten. If the dog’s muscles or tendons are injured, his posture will suffer. So will his gait. Your dog’s injured muscles, though, will often respond well to massage techniques.
The benefits of canine massage are essentially the same as the benefits of human massage, and the techniques are similar, as well. The large muscle groups in your dog’s forelimbs and hind limbs, for instance, will respond favorably to cross-fiber friction massage, which is the same type used by human sports trainers.
As you can tell from the name, friction techniques are used; in other words, the muscles are rubbed in order to generate soothing heat. As to the “cross-fiber” portion of the phrase, that’s essentially self-explanatory, as well. Muscles are comprised of thin, parallel fibers. The cross-fiber massage technique simply involves rubbing “against the grain,” not along the length of the fibers. This results in enhanced blood flow, and can be very effective in treating injured muscles. The benefits of canine massage of this type also include relieving muscle tightness.
Sounds pretty good, right? But before you get to work giving your best buddy a soothing massage, there are some things you’ll need to do in order to prepare.
Before beginning your dog’s massage, you should assess his muscle texture. I’m assuming you’ve never done this before, so first, you can practice on yourself. Sit down at a table, and rest one hand and forearm on the surface. Using your other hand, place your fingers on the arm, a couple of inches below your elbow, toward your hand. With the pads of your fingers, move your skin back and forth. Use a bit of pressure, so that you are able to feel the muscles under the skin, and gradually work toward your hand.
If you’re like most adults, you’ll probably note that your muscles feel ropy. Some “ropes” will probably be about a quarter of an inch in diameter. Others could be more than three quarters of an inch. The muscles shouldn’t feel hard, because they aren’t working. They are partly contracted, though, so they’ll probably feel somewhat firm. If you massage your arm “across the grain” for a few minutes, you’ll notice that the cords will relax, and they’ll feel more uniform.
Now that you’ve practiced, you’re ready to check your dog’s muscles. The first step is to locate them, so we’ll begin with the triceps, since it’s the easiest to find.
To locate the triceps, put your hand on your dog’s elbow, and slide it upward toward his shoulders. You’ll find a big, prominent muscle at about the halfway point between the elbow and the withers. You have found the triceps, and now you can check the texture. You’ll probably notice ropy cords somewhat like the ones you examined in your arm. On the other hand, the muscle might feel a bit tight. If the muscle is relaxed, it will feel firm but also supple. The only time your dog’s triceps should be really tight is if it’s contracting.
Now that you know how to evaluate muscle tension, your dog is ready to experience the benefits of canine massage.
The angel wing is a cross-fiber massage technique. Begin at your dog’s shoulder, holding out your hand with your fingers bent at about a 90 degree angle. With the flat parts of your fingers against the shoulder, rotate your hand. The movement should look something like the type of gesture you would make if you were trying to “thumb a ride.”
Of course, you’re wondering where angel wings come into the equation, right? Take a look at what’s happening with your hand. As your fingers follow along with the motion of your thumb, the pattern looks like the shape of an angel wing.
As you’re using this technique, make sure to start off very gently. If your dog’s muscles are tight, they could be quite sensitive to touch. If he seems to be perfectly comfortable with what you’re doing, you can always increase the pressure a bit. Continue the angel wing movements over the shoulder and into the withers. Pull back if he seems distressed, and also avoid massaging bony areas.
This method is best used on large dogs, but you can also modify the angel wing technique for use on small dogs. Instead of using all four of your fingers (which is great for big dogs but which will cover considerably more than just the triceps on smaller animals), just use one or two fingers. If that’s still too much for the dog, bend your fingers so that it’s just the first two joints making contact. Also, remember that a small breed will need considerably less pressure than a big dog, and always do your best to make sure that the intensity of your touch is commensurate with the dog’s comfort level.
Another technique that offers the benefits of canine massage is effleurage. This is a French word, meaning to touch lightly. You can use effleurage on any breed of dog, and it’s very easy to do, even if you’ve never tried to massage your dog before. It’s a simple method of using long, flowing strokes over your dog’s entire body, using both hands. It’s so gentle that you can do it on bony areas, as well. The purpose here is less to relax the muscles than it is to put the dog in a good frame of mind, and improve blood flow. For this reason, effleurage is often used as a preliminary to cross-fiber friction massage, as well as a way of ending a massage session.
The benefits of canine massage are very real, and anyone can learn how to give their dog a massage. Dogs of all sizes and breeds feel better when their muscles are relaxed, and their gait and standing posture will improve, as well.
Let’s not forget the human benefits, either. Canine massage is a great way of deepening the bond you have with your dog!