Using Massage in the Shelter Environment

Many people ask, “Do homeless animals really need a massage?” The idea sounds very nice, but they wonder if massaging shelter dogs is carrying things a bit too far. The answer is always a resounding YES! Animals that live day to day, month to month or year to year in a shelter environment, need it the most.

When people think of massage they think of stress reduction - and rightfully so. Massage and bodywork modalities are wonderful ways to melt away stress. We also know that many sweet, wonderful, well adjusted, adoptable animals lose their chance of being adopted because they cannot handle the stress of the environment or their length of time in the shelter. Prolonged stress, physically and mentally, can break down any living being. The stress, fear and inability to cope, which is often experienced by shelter animals can create illness and behavioral issues. Unfortunately, the altered behavior you see demonstrated by a dog in a shelter environment is not always representative of who the dog really is.

We can help animals in the shelter environment by training staff and volunteers in utilizing massage and offering some common practices for reducing stress. Massage not only provides relaxation, it has been shown to enhance attentiveness, reduce stress hormones, alleviate depressive symptoms, reduce pain and improve immune function in shelter animals. It can also be used as a positive reinforcement when treats can’t be used and it is clearly an invaluable tool in trust building and the acceptance of touch and handling. Many animals are euthanized specifically for being aversive to human handling. Massage training includes desensitization and counter conditioning to this aversion to handling.

There are other positive ways to reduce stress in a shelter and here’s a few:

Making sure an animal’s basic needs are met
This is a difficult and never ending challenge. It includes an environment that’s livable and feels safe. It also includes plenty of fresh water, nourishing food and the ability to relieve themselves multiple times a day. Proper medical care and grooming is an added benefit, but not always available in all shelters. Financial resources, qualified staff and a robust volunteer program make the difference. Animals who have additional internal stress such as lack of basic needs are far more reactive to human interaction and handling then an animal who has these needs met.

Understanding the signs of stress
Staff and volunteers need to understand what stress looks like and how to interact with animals in a gentle and non-threatening way. For instance, instead of walking right up to a kennel, approach from the side and invite the animal into your space. Fearful dogs will need more time, but this approach works. Using force free methods of training are key.

Remaining quiet
Yes, we can train the kenneled dogs to be quite. Usually, dogs just want attention and shelter staff and volunteers can actually reward dogs for being calm or ignore them when barking. Very soon they realize they get no attention or treats when they bark. Quietness also goes for staff and potential adopters who should be advised that yelling is not permitted and that keeping human energy to a minimum does wonders for keeping the overall energy low.

Encouraging socialization and play time
All animals need time to be with humans. Without socialization, an animal has far less chances of being adopted. Touch and massage help tremendously with human socialization.

Exercise, play and lots of it! 
Exercise is a physical AND mental stress reliever and helps keep muscles and joints from stiffening in their kennels or cages. Exercise outside is even more enriching!

Working is a way of life
Training can be used as a way to get an animal to focus, learn, interact and play. Training could include “one on one” obedience training, nose work training that uses multiple boxes with hidden treats in them, utilizing interactive toys and puzzle games or anything to get the animal to focus and/or work! Remember that dogs love to work and cats love to think and troubleshoot! It all reduces stress, makes them tired, builds confidence and provides important mental stimulation.

Thinking outside the box
Using essential oils and dog appeasing pheromones to stimulate the dog’s nose can have a relaxing effect. Utilizing calming music, specifically designed for animals, has been scientifically proven to reduce stress in animals.

Being able to use these extra tools of positive touch, massage and enrichment activities reduces stress and enriches our shelter animals beyond compare. Shelter animals are happier, healthier and in the end- makes them more adoptable.

Staff and volunteers are definitely the unsung foot soldiers in our shelters. They enrich the lives of these animals every day. Their work is remarkable and stressful too. Massage and quiet interactive time with the animals has been known to lower blood pressure in humans, so embrace it….its beneficial for everyone!

In our work, we see the results of massage and interactive play every day. The only down side to helping these shelter animals is that you can’t take all of them home. BUT…some you can! ;-)