This is a mantra I have shared since the beginning of my massage therapy career, for both humans and canines. We all know that exercise is a vital part of any person’s or dog’s health care. The question is why? For many physiological reasons, different kinds of movement at different speeds, weights, and intensities affect all of the systems in the body. Not to mention, when we move, the energy – or Chi – in our body flows with gusto preventing stagnation.
Although I had a background in Athletic Training and Exercise Programming, the notion that movement is the key to life finally made sense to me once I had finished my massage training and saw the interrelation of health, the ability to move and express oneself, and the ability to have choices. What this means is that when we and our 4-legged friends are healthy, we have a choice to move and use our bodies in ways that we couldn’t if we were physically or psychologically compromised.
Our dogs are natural athletes and their anatomy and physiology parallels that of a human. Just like humans, many dogs get injured and sick in their lifetime. The injury or sickness immobilizes them and, when the body is unable to move, the systems of the body slow down and lose function. For instance, if a dog cannot run or walk, the cardiovascular, respiratory, and lymphatic systems suffer. The musculoskeletal system atrophies and gets weak. The immune system as a whole breaks down. Other systems are affected as blood, nutrition, and hormonal secretions slow down. Psychologically, a dog does not know where pain comes from, so there is a fear and anxiety response. This in turn affects the dog’s behavior in many ways. Our goal here would be to trigger the relaxation response and then work to alleviate some of the presenting soft tissue pain, if possible.
Here’s an example of how massage helped one pup with movement: The client was a well behaved and friendly German Shepherd that worked as a drug-detection police dog and who was diagnosed with a cranial cruciate tear in his right stifle (knee). Immediately after the injury, the dog’s stifle was repaired surgically. Two weeks later, the attending surgeon recommended some edema management and some help with touch reactivity that he exhibited since the injury. Touch reactivity is a very common response that results when a dog is injured and they do not know why. Combine the pain the dog was feeling with the inability to move, medication, unusual handling, poking, and prodding, and the dog responded by snapping or biting in an attempt to stop the unpleasant stimuli. Unfortunately, if we are not careful, a dog can generalize the pain and handling so that he becomes touch reactive toward every person and situation he encounters. This is where we must build trust with the dog. We then have the dog experience pleasant touch stimuli in small increments while pairing the touch with another pleasant stimulus, such as high value food. This is what we call systematic desensitization and counter conditioning to any aversion the dog may have developed from being handled. From there, we trigger the parasympathetic nervous system to create a relaxation response and then work the specifics of the injury. In this case, we help the body reabsorb the swelling from the surgery and to release trigger points causing secondary pain along with relaxing over-worked muscles that are compensating for the pain and lack of use of the right back leg. The dog’s pain is reduced, the stress level is reduced, and the body has an opportunity to heal. The passive response of certain massage strokes mimics the physiological response of movement so that there will now be more blood, lymph, oxygen, and nutrients to the body along with ridding the body of all the by-products of surgery. The dog heals faster, now allows touch, and is moving quicker so that the cycle is broken.
Now, the canine athlete can move again, play, run, and work. So much was negatively affected as a result of this one injury and non-movement, but massage brought back a happy dog!
To all of you humans…Movement is the key to life! Dogs already know this. ;-)