Keep On Sniffin'

Canine massage therapists are high on the list of go-to people when it comes to helping canine athletes who compete in various sports such as agility, dock diving, fly ball, frisbee, rally, and obedience. Massage is vital in helping these dogs recover from intense events and training because it allows them to compete at higher levels. It is common to see a canine massage therapist at sporting events providing pre-event and, most importantly, post-event massage. In many cases, dogs are seen by the therapist multiple times in between their runs. The goal is to keep muscle and fascial tissue warm and loose so that they do not become overly tight and stiff which makes a dog more prone to injury. Dogs also benefit from massage in that they can achieve a higher level of focus thanks to the therapist’s ability to provide overall relaxation and reduced anxiety. When dogs are over excited, or what we call "over threshold," they are unable to perform at their best.

Recently, while at a nose work trial, a handler in the competition asked, “why should I see a massage therapist? My dog is not running, not jumping. I can’t see why they would need a massage after that.”  While it may be clear to handlers and pet parents why a dog who participates in agility, fly ball, or dock diving would need regular massage, it may not be so clear how a dog in nose work would benefit. But first, what is nose work? 

Nose work, which may not seem like a sport at first glance, is an emerging and popular activity in which dogs use their noses to sniff out hidden odors. This is the competition. I know. It sounds as if nose work is the equivalent of playing golf in the human world; however, if you are a golfer and do it competitively, you would understand the physical demands put on the body when performing the required movements over and over again. Any dog can thrive in nose work, but it is ideal for dogs who cannot handle other types of exercise and competition. Overly excited or anxious dogs, senior dogs, shelter and rescue dogs, and dogs with physical limitations can benefit enormously from participating in nose work. 

“Nose work has changed the lives of many dogs and their handlers,” says Nancy Reyes, NACSW certified nose work instructor and owner/head trainer at For Your K9 in Melrose Park, Illinois. “The confidence it builds in the worried dogs is incredible. Since the activity of nose work is teaching the handler to ‘read’ their dogs so they can know when their dogs are on odor, it deepens the bond between dog and handler like no other sport. The trust it develops is wonderful, which translates in perfect teamwork. A deeper bond helps us know more quickly when our dogs aren't quite right, if they are moving differently, or if they are not feeling well. Nose work also rebuilds relationships between people and dogs that are struggling with behavior issues. Whether you choose to compete at a high level or not in nose work, it's a game changer for the dog/human bond.”

Nose work requires focus without being over-stimulating, and dogs are not prone to acute injury in nose work as they might be in sports that require explosive bursts of movement. However, dogs who participate in nose work are athletes who work just as hard as other sports dogs. They just experience stress on different muscle groups. When observing any dog who participates in nose work, you can see how specific muscles in the neck and body are constantly being used, and possibly overused. 

Let's look at this situation a little more closely. Keep in mind that a healthy dog, who has no prior injuries or conformation issues, already puts 60% of their body weight on their front end. The muscles used to stabilize and bear weight on the front end consist of the superficial and deep Pectoral muscles along with other muscles that stabilize the shoulder girdle. During nose work, when a dog lowers his front end to the ground while searching for an odor, he uses many muscles to move into that lowered position and then statically hold them, which can be very taxing on those muscles. While this is happening, the extensor muscles of the neck are contracting eccentrically to prevent the head from lowering too much. On top of all this, the dog’s muscles must also contend with normal gravitational forces.

When looking at any dog, it’s easy to imagine how hard his muscles must constantly work simply to keep the head from dropping down. Think about the strength needed in those muscles just to lift the head up in extension. Handlers whose dogs perform in conformation and obedience trials know all too well how much massage helps with dogs who are constantly being asked to hold their heads up or keep their bodies in a static position. Dogs performing nose work are required to look for hidden odors in low and high settings. This means that the neck and thorax muscles have to contract constantly to move the head and trunk in various planes. In addition, the muscles of the rest of the body and the pelvic limb are engaging to allow the dog to stand on its hind legs and move into different positions.

With nose work competition comes the additional factor of speed, which taxes muscles to a higher degree. Muscles that keep the dog lower to the ground, such as the shoulder and elbow flexors, as well as those that retract the scapula, also stay statically contracted which puts stress on those muscles. When worked for a period of time, muscles become tight and stay tight, and eccentrically contracting muscles are lengthened and become taut. Our job as therapists is to recognize what muscles are being overworked; to release constriction, trigger points, and spastic muscles; and to alleviate associated pain or discomfort so that the dog may recover quicker and access normal joint range and movement.

Getting overly technical about anatomical structures is not an approach I usually take when talking with and educating pet parents and handlers about the benefits of massage. In some situations, however, like with nose work, helping dog guardians understand the body mechanics involved in an activity sheds light on why massage needs to play an essential role in a dog’s preparation for, and recovery from, that activity.

So whether your dog prefers agility, frisbee, dock diving, or nose work sports, his body and his performance rely on, and benefit greatly from sports massage.  Keep on sniffin’!