Where is the best place to perform a massage therapy session? There are always ideal environments; however, we don’t always have a choice when working with a dog. The best that we can do is to create the most ideal environment possible with what we have available. When figuring out the best environment in which to work, there are many factors to take into account, such as distractions, surfaces, your intent, the size of the dog, and the dog's behavior. We can list some of the most ideal working situations for a canine massage therapy session, but the best choice is always going to be "where the dog is most comfortable."
Although a massage table and, to some, a grooming table would seem the most likely places to perform a massage, this is actually not the case in most instances. Many dogs do not feel comfortable on a table, so an effective massage session here would be nearly impossible to achieve. Some smaller dogs are comfortable jumping up or being picked up and placed on an elevated surface, though, so it is certainly possible that they may be tolerant of receiving massage on a table, but these dogs are generally in the minority. Additionally, some large breed dogs may be fine on a table, but massage and grooming tables are usually not wide enough for larger dogs to lie down on and feel safe from falling. If you want to attempt to work with a dog on a table, be sure to always ask for permission first, and never, ever pick up a dog that has any signs of fear, anxiety, or apprehension. A dog should never be forced to receive a massage on any elevated surface; however, just as many dogs can learn to accept touch, we can teach some to accept a massage in different environments and on a variety of surfaces. The final decision on which surface is best, though, belongs to the dog.
One of the best places to perform a massage session is on the floor. Our massage therapy rooms include a large area rug with a mat, sheets, and blankets. Most dogs are comfortable and familiar with lying on the floor. Many times we ask pet parents to bring their dogs’ own blankets or mats, especially for the first few sessions, to give them a sense of familiarity. We are very careful when we use any surface under a dog as they all have different comfort levels when it comes to surfaces.
When working at events in public, we recommend having a few options on hand to accommodate your canine clients. We always bring a cushioned mat, a blanket, and a screen. A mat can be placed anywhere on the ground for comfort, and the blanket can be placed on top in case dogs have issues with the texture of the mat. A screen is an ideal tool to help block distractions. If possible, try to place your working area away from other dogs, loud noises, and lots of people. Even if you are performing a pre-event massage to help prepare a dog for activity, high arousal from the environment does not help a dog focus before the sporting event or task at hand. Public events are not the most ideal environments for effective massage; however, taking these simple steps can minimize distractions that prevent many dogs from relaxing.
When working in a client’s home, it is very important to understand the dog’s personality and behavior in order to determine the most suitable location for the massage. Always take time for trust-building, and never work in a small, enclosed space where the dog may feel trapped. A dog needs to know that any time they get a massage, they always have the choice to decline the massage or to move away from the practitioner. Never face a dog that is between you and a wall because this does not give the dog the choice of moving away. Providing a dog with an “out” is not only important in the client’s home, it should be offered in any environment where massage is taking place. On the flip side, being in a room that is too large can also be distracting for a busy dog. We recommend using a screen to create a smaller space and block distractions in this situation.
Other distractions that should be minimized include those that can excite the senses and prevent effective massage. For example, a dog that is particularly sensitive to smell can be easily distracted by the aroma of dinner cooking in the kitchen, and a dog that is sensitive to movement can have difficulty settling and focusing if distractions like a spinning ceiling fan or swaying tree branches outside a window are present. For other dogs, lighting can be too bright or too dim, or noises emanating from other rooms can be too inviting not to investigate. Every dog is an individual, and we have the responsibility to understand each dog so that we can adjust the environment as much as possible to make our clients more comfortable.
You Are Part of the Environment, Too
Don’t forget that your presence is just as important an environmental element to consider during a massage session as the existing surfaces, room size, and other sensory input. Seemingly minor details like dangling jewelry, bulky or loose hanging clothing, long and untied hair, long fingernails, perfume or cologne, or a hat on the head could be enough of a distraction to a dog to prevent him or her from settling into a massage session. Additionally, the way we use our bodies before or during a session might be the very reason a dog cannot relax. Understanding correct posturing, approach, and trust-building with a dog is a crucial part of creating the most ideal environment for each individual. In every situation, be cognizant of what the dog is telling you, and pay attention to any changes in the dog’s behavior during the massage session.