Judson wasn’t sure about flying to New Orleans. “He just couldn’t settle down,” says Shelley Rhodes, surprised at her 6-year-old guide dog’s behavior on the plane that day. “He kept whining and panting and fidgeting.”
Massage techniques she’d learned while training with Judson at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, Calif., helped calm the Golden Retriever. “I started to do ear touches,” says Rhodes, an assistive technology instructor from Corry, Pa. “It worked. After a few touches, he settled down and was able to lie in front of my seat.”
A guide dog’s work is based on the close bond he has with the person holding the harness. But flying on planes, judging traffic, and needling through construction areas can all stress that bond. Recognizing how human touch can help alleviate tension and reaffirm the bond, guide dog schools offer their students classes in canine massage.
“Massage is really a lovely way to interact with the dogs, reinforce the bond,” says Lea Johnson, an instructor at Seeing Eye, which breeds and trains guide dogs in Morristown, N.J.
The same techniques used with guide dogs can help any dog owner enjoy a closer relationship with his or her dog. Massage brings dogs and their owners other benefits as well, including:
Liz Hare, a canine geneticist in Garrison, N.Y., can vouch for that last one. “For me, it’s like meditation. It’s a way to be really calm and mindful,” she says, giving 12-year-old retired guide dog Ben a pat as he sleeps at her feet. “I do it in the evening when I want to relax and clear my mind.”
Consult your dog’s veterinarian before beginning a massage program.
If working with a fragile dog or one with limited mobility due to a joint problem, an injury, or surgery, knowledge of canine anatomy and biomechanics is essential, says Carla Campbell, a Seeing Eye graduate and canine masseuse in Menlo Park, Calif. In those situations, it really does pay to call in a pro, she advises.
Never massage your dog if he’s in shock or has a fever, or if you suspect he has a serious injury or illness not yet diagnosed. In addition, don’t massage an area with a skin infection, lump, or open or infected wound. And check with your veterinarian before massaging any dog who has cancer.
If your dog’s good health allows you to proceed, pick a word or phrase to let your dog know it’s time for a massage. Your dog will learn to recognize this and settle down happily for massages. Wait to start until after a potty break and at least 15 minutes after feeding, find a quiet spot, and put on some soothing music. Whether or not your dog responds to tunes, the music will help you stay relaxed and keep your strokes slow and even.
Relax and sit in a comfortable position that allows you to breathe deeply and steadily, or stand at a hip-high table. Approach your dog gently, speak softly, and start the massage routine.
The Seeing Eye takes its techniques for massage from “The Healing Touch for Dogs: The Proven Massage Program for Dogs” (Newmarket, 2004) by Michael W. Fox, BVM, Ph.D. The book includes the following sequence for a calm and relaxing massage that will make your dog feel great!
- Stroke your dog’s back with both hands, from the back of the head to the base of the tail. Stroke in line with the lay of the fur.
- Using your fingertips, make small circular motions on each side of the spine, first clockwise, then counterclockwise. Start near the shoulders, and work your way to the tail’s base.
- Apply gentle pressure with your thumbs, on e on each side of the spine. Pressure should be vertical, through the dog, toward the paws.
- Still working on the back, lift excess skin up. Roll or knead between your thumbs and fingers, starting at the shoulders and working your way to the tail’s base.
- Massage the rump area, using circular finger movements.
- Feel for the base of the skull, where the head joins the back of the neck. Place your fingers on one side, thumb on the other, to massage.
- Slide your hands forward to massage your dog’s cheek muscles.
- Flatten your hand, and stroke your dog from nose to top of head, following the lay of the fur.
- Take hold of the ears at their base. Gently pull from base to tip, rubbing earflaps between your fingers as you go.
- With your dog lying on his side, use your fingers and hands to massage his shoulder muscles with deep, slow, circular movements.
- Gently massage the forelegs between fingers and thumb, working your way toward the paws.
- Squeeze the muscles along and between the toes.
- Move each toe up and down with a gentle, vibrating movement.
- Gently flex the paw, extending it inward and rotating, to relax tendons.
- Use both hands to give the thigh a deep massage.
- Use your fingers to massage the hip joint in a circular pattern.
- Massage down the back leg toward the foot. Massage paw and toes.
- Help your dog turn over, then massage his legs on the other side.
- To finish, talk calmly to your dog while using slow palm and finger strokes from the head down the back to the tip of the tail. Do the same from the hip to the hind foot and shoulders to forepaw.
The Tellington TTouch massage program taught at Guide Dogs for the Blind is more specific, using a combination of different lifts, movement exercises, and touches — like the ear touch Rhodes used on Judson’s plane ride — to activate the nervous system. “It’s done on the skin,” Rhodes explains, “but the dog feels effects through his whole body.”
Guided to work by 4-year-old Golden Retriever Justin, Campbell does massage in coordination with veterinarians. “I work on dogs of all ages and sizes: companion dogs, working dogs, and show dogs. From Cavalier King Charles Spaniels to Mastiffs and everything in between,” she says. “I love my job!”