For students who study at the Chicago School of Canine Massage, we emphasize the practice of “always asking the dog for permission” before beginning a massage. Most likely, the animals in your lives already cherish your attention and enjoy being petted casually. However, many dogs are not accustomed to being touched with focused intent, or for therapeutic purposes. Dogs do not understand that they are “getting a massage,” so they may not automatically start out with positive associations about being handled in this intimate fashion. Rather, it is the responsibility of the massage therapist to direct interactions with positive reinforcement, and to never force a canine client into compliance. To establish a trusting therapeutic relationship, and for your own safety, always “ask for permission.”
What does it look like to ask for permission from your canine clients? It may simply entail offering the back of your hand to be sniffed or giving an inviting pat to the mat on the floor. Perhaps you need to lead a dog into your room on-leash or to firmly request a “sit” in the proper location to get started, but any greater physical restraint is counterproductive. A dog should never be picked up or forced to be put onto a massage table if they give clear communication that they do not want to be touched. Instead, offer only the touch your client will accept comfortably, and watch carefully to gauge the dog’s reaction in each moment. Always leave your canine client the option to move away and take a break from being touched. Watch carefully for distance-increasing or distance-decreasing body language cues, and constantly calibrate your approach to what the dog is telling you.
For many dogs, the environment is everything, and a dog is less likely to give permission to be touched if the environment in which the touch is offered produces anxiety of any kind. Most work should be done on a dog in an environment that makes them most comfortable and relaxed. Over time, we can work with systematic desensitization for touch and help the dog learn to cope with more difficult environments. Just as we would teach a dog any desired behavior, we can teach many dogs to accept touch in the same way, with clear communication, trust, positive reinforcement, and relationship-building techniques.
Even without words, most dogs will communicate clearly whether your touch is welcomed and soothing, threatening or painful, or some combination of each. Honoring this two-way communication is vital to you both. A dog who feels “heard” should grow to trust you more than one whose signals are ignored. He or she is more likely to arrive next time thinking “good things happen here.” Meanwhile, one whose more subtle warnings are heeded will not have to escalate to a snarl or a bite to earn a little space.
These are important principles, even for experienced therapists with familiar clients. Make it a habit to ask permission even from the dogs you know best. Unexpected injury, illness, or pain can make any of us more sensitive than usual. Remember that “permission” can be revoked at any time during a session, even if what you’ve done thus far was very well-received, and even with a client who loves you. To earn your client’s trust, while protecting your own safety, please make it a habit to always “ask for permission.”