Giving your dog a massage has many benefits. It is easy to do and you don’t need any special knowledge.
The benefits of massage is that they can help with bonding, is great for a dog’s physical health as it promotes circulation and toxin removal, comforting for older dogs, helps you detect injuries (since you have your hands on your dog on a regular basis), can increase flexibility and healing after an injury, can be used as a pre-warm up and cool down for rigorous exercise and help calms a dog in stressful situations.
With all these benefits, it is surprising that more people do not give their dog regular massages! Most people don’t because they fear they might do it wrong and injure their dog. With an understanding of the basic techniques, a few tips and always erring on the side of light pressure, it is really hard to do injury to your dog.
How to Give a Massage:
Choose a time of day that works for you, and a quiet location.
Your dog can be standing, sitting or laying down as you massage her. Let your dog decide what is most comfortable for her if possible. After a little trial and error, you’ll find a position that is comfortable for you both. Massaging her on her mat helps to build a positive association for the mat.
Using a moderate to light touch (always erring on the lighter side), start at the head and work toward the tail. Then start at the top of the back of the dog and work toward her feet. Massage both sides of your dog before you finish. Use smooth motions.
Support the part of the body you are currently working on with your other hand or lay it on your knee as needed. Your dog should be able to relax and rely on you to hold her body part up as you work it.
Once you have a little practice, a whole massage may take about 5 minutes. At first it may be longer. Also, as your dog learns to enjoy it, you can spend more time in favored spots. As you both gain trust with the process, allow your fingers to explore her body, getting into depressions such as hips and between foot pads, whatever you think she might enjoy.
If you have limited control of your fingers, using gentle rotations of the fist knuckles can feel good to your dog, as long as you can control the pressure.
Massage is as individual as the person giving it and the dog receiving it. Experiment in little steps to see what works for you both. If you have weakness in your limbs, do one part of the body at a time. Take a rest, then resume. There is no rule that says you must massage your entire dog in one sitting!
On the head, start at the base of the ears, rubbing each ear between your thumb and forefinger. Do small circles if it feels good to your dog. With a finger on one side and a thumb on the other, gently draw your fingers towards the tip in a straight line. Start up the middle of the ear and work to the outside edges.
Use two fingers to gently massage the muscles on the top of the head. Next do the jaw muscle. Do the other side. This is often where a dog holds her stress so spend time here, especially if your dog is mouthy or snappy. Use light circles on the lips over the gum line (nose to molars) if your dog is comfortable with your touch. Many dogs enjoy light touches on the molar area. Do not do this area if your dog shows any signs of stress, (alarmed look, looking or pulling away or if she lifts her lips, growls etc.) You can try it again after several sessions when she learns to trust you.
Base of Neck
Most dogs enjoy the base of their neck being massaged on both sides. Place your thumb on one side and two fingers on the other and gently work it. Start at the base of the skull and down to the shoulders, spending more time on the thicker muscles. This is another place dogs hold their stress.
Use your whole hand (fingers and thumb tips) to gently massage both sides of the back. Work in lines from front to back moving closer to the underside of your dog. You can use a gentle raking motion with your fingers. Most dogs enjoy moving the rake with their fur, very few enjoy going against the grain!
Shoulders & Hips
Massage the muscles around the shoulders & hips.
Base of Tail
Dogs that generally don’t like to be touched still enjoy a massage of the muscles where the tail meets the top of the spine. It is a difficult spot for them to reach for scratching or chewing.
Legs and Feet
Most dogs show at least some sensitivity with their lower legs as you move toward their feet. The first few times until your dog learns to enjoy the massage generally, avoid them. Then, as you gain her trust, start doing very light touches further down and actually touch the tops of the feet. Progress at your dog’s speed. When she allows it, gently work the pads of the feet. For some dogs this can take many session to get here, especially if they have had painful or scary experiences with nail clipping.
Most dogs enjoy a tummy tickle or belly rub. Avoid using any pressure.
Perking Your Dog Up
For a quick invigorating massage, pretend your dog is soaking wet and use a fluffy towel to pretend to dry your dog off front to back, top to bottom.
Five Key Tips to Massage Your Service Dog:
1. Get in a position that is comfortable for you to sustain. Place your dog beside you on the couch, on a table where you can easily reach her while seated in your wheelchair, or sit with her on her mat.
2. If you are relaxed, your dog will relax. Using calming signals such as deep breathing, matching your dog’s breathing patterns, lowering eye lids while making eye contact all helps.
3. Observe your dog's facial and body reactions constantly. If she shows concern at any time (looks at you with concern, flinches, tenses up, pulls away etc), stop massaging that area and go back to where you know your dog was enjoying it. Lighten your touch. If she gets up and walks away, honor that and let her go. She has had enough for one session.
4. Keep your touch light. The idea is to gently move the muscles to stimulate blood flow, move muscles and tendons and remove toxins etc. A Massage should be a soothing activity for you both. Use a very light touch on puppies and small dogs.
5. Avoid working over the vertebra-stay to each side of them. Similarly, work around, not on, recent injuries.
Try giving your dog a 5 minute massage every day for a week. What changes to you notice in his behavior? Flexibility? Health? Calmness level?
Let us know how you make out!
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A fairly common complaint among assistance dog owners who have family involved with the dog, is that the dog prefers the company of one or more other family members. This may occur for several reasons. The family members may be more ‘fun’ than you-that is they play fun games with the dog and ask less of them behavior-wise. The dog may have a natural preference for a specific sex or type of personality. You may not interact with them as often or as enthusiastically as other family members. She may notice that you do not control the resources s/he wants or needs. You may have left her a for a few weeks with another person and she disowned you. There are many other possibilities why a dog bonds to others, not you. Without a strong bond, your service dog will not be as eager to work with you, and may defer to others in the home. So, what can you to do improve the bond?
2 Steps to Try
1. For a time, (may be several months or more) ask family members to reduce their interaction with the dog, then once a strong bond has been formed with you, they can gradually resume some (but not all) of their activities with the dog. You keep doing the activities that your dog values most. These are the ones that have the most meaning to her. Perhaps that is feeding or play (or maybe something else).
When family comes and goes, it also helps if they try to make their arrivals and departures less emotionally charged, as you would for a separation anxiety dog. Asking family members to avoid eye contact, physical contact like petting and not talking to the dog until after the dog has calmed down (about 10 minutes) helps to lessen the excitement about their arrival and departure. You still interact normally with your dog as that enthusiasm for you is what you want to maintain.
2. Take on the role of doing things with her: providing for her needs, feeding her, training her, playing with her, exercising her, and massaging her (see post bond 1.1) can all help to develop and strengthen the service dog bond.
All of these things she enjoys. The more positive interaction you have with her, the more of a bond that will develop. Start with taking on (or exchanging with family) one high value activity, then add more as needed. If you can, start with the activities that are the most meaningful to your dog as they will have the most impact on your bond. That way, once the bond has developed, there will still be some lesser value activities for family members to do. A simple way do make this easy for yourself to take the plunge is take a trip with your dog. Out of your normal environment, your dog will need to rely on you for direction, resources such as food, walks etc, and learns that YOU are the best thing since a bunny in a field!
Here are Some Specific Ideas on How to Handle Activities:
During actual training sessions, it is helpful to have family members not make eye contact with, speak to or otherwise interact with the dog except as necessary and as directed by you. They should not step in and help except when asked. You are the trainer and you decide what behavior you are training. They can assist in physically setting up equipment and pose as 'strangers' for training but any interaction with the dog is directed by you (unless in emergency situations). It is up to you to set your dog up for success. Your dog should look to you for direction and rewards.
You can employ the Premack Principle any time you interact with your dog. The Premack principle is simply pairing a highly desirable activity with a less desirable activity and the less desirable activity then becomes more enjoyable for the dog.
What this means is that the dog sees interacting with you as less fun than say playing a game of fetch. If your spouse normally does that with the dog, you take it over. Because you become the only one playing that game with the dog, the dog starts seeing you as more fun. For some people with some disabilities, activities like this may be a challenge, but if you are creative, you can find a way to adapt it to make it work for you. Instead of playing in the yard, take it to the basement where the dog can still get excited and has room to run. Can’t throw a ball? Ask your child to be the thrower but you give the cue to get it and the dog must deliver the ball back to you (your lap or hand). You then give the ball to your child to throw again. Your child says nothing to the dog and avoids eye contact if possible. Or buy or ask someone to rig up a ball thrower that you control and use it in the yard.
Feeding your dog twice a day can be a bonding experience. You can either hand feed, that is give your dog her food handful by handful, or you can ask her to do tricks or tasks or even use the daily ration of kibble as training treats.
During sustained exercise, serotonin, a chemical made by the dog’s body during heart-raising exercise, makes the dog feel good. If you are the one to provide exercise (long walks or hikes, not tossing a ball), your dog will start to associate you with exercise-and feel good about being with you. Anyone in a powerchair has an advantage over the rest of us as they can go more quickly as they move along. Most dogs love speed.
Some dogs really like a massage. Take time once a day to sit down and relax with your dog in arm’s reach. Give her a gentle massage starting from the base of the ears, moving down the neck, down the back on either side of the spine, and down each leg and tail. If you find a spot that your dog enjoys, spend some time there. Some dogs love the base of their neck rubbed, others the base of their tail or their belly. If you find a sensitive spot, work around it until you have a better relationship and your dog will let you massage lightly near it. Feet are often sensitive spots for dogs too.
You might need to be creative in how you can access your dog. Try placing her crate beside your wheelchair and place her mat on top of it and cue her to jump up. Or maybe you have a grooming table you can use for this process. If you have trouble controlling your hand strength or fingers, move your fists in circles, or use a towel and pretend you are drying her off when she is wet. Physical contact is how the mother dog bonds with her puppies. It can work for people.
Tethering a dog to you on a 6 foot line may help with small puppies but be sure to do it for short periods only. Tethering a dog or puppy to you for long periods is exhausting for both you and the dog and does not allow the dog needed down-time to relax. It would be like having your service dog working for that whole time. Try to avoid sudden movement while the dog is tethered to you. Move gradually and predictably. Ideally, cue your dog before you do anything. That way she at least has a chance to respond before you start to move.
We find it better to simply keep your dog in the same room as you, perhaps using doors or baby gates as barriers. Place a dog bed or crate nearby so your dog has somewhere comfy to sleep while he is waiting for interaction with you. With time and other bonding activities above, you can remove the barriers and your dog will choose to stay near with you.
If you take the time to find out what your dog really enjoys, and spend time doing those things with your dog, and the more you can provide care, training, play and physical interaction with your dog, the stronger your dog bond will be, even if there are other people in your home.
We have had several questions about the best leashes to use with wheelchairs so here is our response!
Tips for a Service Dog Owner
"As a power wheelchair user, I’d like to add some things (to your videos) that might be helpful, especially to people who are raising and training their own service dogs from puppyhood.
Personally, I can’t imagine trying to train and use a
dog that was afraid of the chair. One of the things we tested for and paid
a lot of attention to was a puppy’s ability to recognize and react to
discomfort/pain; quickly recover and then “forgive” whoever or whatever
caused it. By itself, my chair weighs over 350 lbs and although my service
dog, Laurel and I work hard for me to not run her over (it’s only happened
about 5-6 times), as active as we are and the close quarters we are often
in, I believe it is inevitable that I will occasionally do so. It is pretty
traumatic when it does occur and if Laurel couldn’t recover and be willing
to come right back next to my chair, it would severely limit what she could
do for me and what we could do together. At least for someone in a power
chair, the dog must have the ability to get run over and still not be afraid
of the chair.
My service dog is a Labrador Retriever and we got her when she was about 8 ½
weeks old. From that time until she was about 4 months old, when we went out
with her she either sat on my lap or I used a manual chair and she could
walk or sit in my lap. When she got too big to sit in my lap but was still
small enough that if I ran her over in the power chair, I risked breaking
something, I only took her out with my manual chair.
From the time we got her, I used my power chair around the house and she
learned to stay out of its way. When I started working with Laurel, I found
the wheelchair to be a barrier between us which really annoyed me (and there
are still times I feel that way). I think that is because when I could still
walk, I trained and competed in AKC obedience so I know how much easier it
is to train on your feet than in a wheelchair. Early on with Laurel, there
would be times I would get on my feet to train something but since I am a
disaster at walking and I realized that things she learned that way didn’t
necessary translate when I was using my chair, I quickly determined that
regardless of the frustration involved, I needed to stay in my chair to
train everything. On a side note, we have been doing agility for a couple
years now and being in a chair never bothers me but I never did agility on
my feet so I have nothing to compare.
When we started working with Laurel walking next to my power chair, we did
so in a large enclosed training room. We had her off leash and used her
ability to target to come up into heel position. We taught her “left” and
“right” and when we turned left, I would throw a treat in that direction so
that she would move there before my chair did. I still use the directional
commands when heeling, in agility and for all sorts of things.
I realized early on that Laurel’s “heel position” when doing rally and
obedience versus when we were out in public had to be two different things.
When we were out in public, Laurel naturally wanted to walk further forward
than she did when we were in the ring training or competing. I realized that
when we were out, she wanted to be able to see around the chair to the other
side. Since I thought that was pretty reasonable, we trained the two
different positions depending on the situation and she does them
consistently and reliably.
When we started doing rally, obedience and agility, I looked to see if there
were any videos out with people in wheelchairs doing those sports. I think I
found one video of someone in a chair doing rally and that was it. As a
result, I have put a number of videos of us doing those things out on
youtube so that others who want to compete can see that it’s very doable and
a great way to have fun with your service dog."
"I found leash weights, types, and lengths to be an added concern for
me when working my dogs from my chair. To heavy and I could not hold on to them,
wrong material and they caused pain, to long and they became wrapped up in the
wheels, if I could not gather the leash up fast enough. I have tried many
leashes over the years and found a simple six foot cotton web training leash
with a second handle I tie in the middle to be the perfect set up for me.I can
loop the main handle over my handle bar if needed, and grab the second one to
quickly take up slack and avoid entanglement. The leash setup also serves as a
very versatile ever ready door pull."
Melissa and SD Shiloh
List of Tasks for Wheelchair
It is usually easiest to teach the following tasks with the handler either sitting on the ground or in a chair first, then train sitting on the wheelchair. Experiment to see what works for you and your dog.
*Nudge fallen arm or foot back on chair
*Retrieve dropped item to hand
*Step up to deliver object to lap
*Delivering and retrieving objects to store counter/clerk
*Retrieve wheelchair from storage
*Retrieve objects from backpack attached to wheelchair
Other Useful Behaviors:
*Pulling the chair up inclines (manual chair only)
(This is reserved for dogs that have the build, stamina and sufficient size to handle the occasional or daily stresses of pulling a manual wheelchair with handler on flat surfaces or up minor inclines such as ramps. Use a properly-fitted harness and condition your dog first. Consult your veterinarian.)
*Small dogs can learn to sit on foot rest or lap
*Negotiate electric wheelchair lifts
*Avoid curbs and stairs
*Locate wheelchair ramps
Training Tips with the Wheelchair:
1. Each time you add a new criteria ( such as a chair or leash) to training, expect your dog to need to relearn the behavior from the beginning (reshape the behavior as if your dog does not know it). Each time, the process will go much more quickly. If your timing is off or if you are distracted by things such as handling the wheelchair, your dog’s learning will slow down. Ideally, you can practice with the new objects without the dog first to increase your skill with them.
2. Working your dog on a leash with a wheelchair may take some practice to learn how to coordinate it, the chair, the treats and clicker. An 8 foot adjustable to 4 foot leash (is easily shortened or lengthened) may give needed distance for going through some heavy doors or in narrow hallways before doors.
3. It is easiest to start training stationary skills and tasks, then as your dog becomes more comfortable with the chair, progress to the skills and tasks that require the wheelchair to move. By that time, your coordination around the chair will likely have improved.
4. Training should begin in a familiar environment, then as dog is successful, taken to other less familiar locations, then with increasing distractions.
5. If the person with the disability is unable to train the basic skills (due to physical disability), an assistant can train the dog first to verbal or eye cue as appropriate for the person’s disabilities) before transitioning the dog over to the handler.
If you have other ideas for useful tasks with the wheelchair, please let us know!
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