All dogs love a gentle pat on the shoulder or the rump. To them it can be a signal of a job well done or simply an indication of our affection. Touch strengthens the bond between dog and owner and is a basic building block of the canine-human relationship. We have already considered effleurage, the open-hand technique that resembles smooth petting strokes yet does so much for the dog’s circulation, relaxation, and balance. Compression, another open-hand technique, also affords enjoyable physical contact between you and your dog while providing important health benefits to your canine friend.
Do your neck and shoulder muscles ever get tense and sore from sitting at the computer too long? How do your hip muscles feel after you have over exerted at some activity that you undertake only occasionally such as biking or working in the yard? Dogs can suffer from the same type of muscle fatigue and stiffness. It can be brought on by over-exerting at play or by participating in a demanding sport like lure coursing, agility, obedience, or fly-ball. On the other hand, our muscles and our dog’s can become sore from lack of activity and fitness. Being a couch potato can be hard on a body, because the dog doesn’t get the physical and mental exercise necessary to stay fit. Compression is a move that can relax, tone, and refresh tired stiff muscles.
Compression is a rhythmic pumping motion pressing the “belly” of the muscle against underlying bone to create a sustained increase in circulation and muscle relaxation. It is very effective on the large muscle groups of the shoulder and upper foreleg and on those of the hip and thigh. The hand does not move from side to side. Instead, it pumps gently in a slow 1 – 2 – 3 motion. Use light pressure for the initial compression on the first stroke. Increase the pressure slightly with each pumping motion for strokes 2 and 3. Each move should be slow and deliberate. Perform one to three repetitions of the three-stroke motion at one location on the muscle. Then move your hand an inch or so along the length of the muscle and repeat another set of pumping compressions. Continue until you have covered the length of the muscle belly. You should be able to feel the muscle tissue soften as the circulation increases and the muscle relaxes in response to the gentle compressions.
When working on the large muscle of the shoulder or hip, place one hand gently on the dog to maintain contact and to monitor body position and reactions. This hand should tell you if the dog is relaxing, tensing, or otherwise responding to the work being performed. Place your other hand, your working hand, gently on the area to be massaged and begin the slow rhythmic compressions of muscle against underlying bone. You should feel the tissues soften as the muscle responds to the work.
Compression is a very effective tool for the large muscles of the upper limbs but requires a little caution. To massage the upper forearm, first place one hand under the limb for support. You must be careful not to press on the muscles of the limb in a way that stresses the shoulder joint. With proper support for the limb and joints, place the second hand on the large muscles on the surface of the arm and begin the slow rhythmic compressions. You can massage muscles on both sides of the long humerus bone by gently compressing with both hands. The slow rhythm should be maintained. After completing a few repetitions on one area, slide your hands along the length of the muscles and repeat the motion. Continue until you have covered the length of the muscle belly.
Compression of the large muscles in the upper thigh require the same precautions as those of the upper foreleg. One hand should be used to support the leg to protect the hip joint from inappropriate or abnormal pressure. With this precaution in place, one hand can be used to apply compressions to either the lateral (upper) or medial (lower) thigh muscles. Or, rhythmic compressions with both hands can be applied to massage both surfaces of the thigh simultaneously.
Timing is everything
So far a slow rhythmic motion has been stressed when employing the compression technique intended to foster a relaxed and softened muscle. Compression can also used before and after athletic competitions to excite or stimulate a dog. Massage should never be used to replace a warm-up before a competition or a cool-out afterward, but it can be used to enhance or sometimes shorten these important routines.
Pre- and post-competition massage should be performed on a standing dog. The idea is to stimulate, not encourage relaxation. Again the compressions are rhythmic pumping motions applied to large muscled areas. However, the timing involved is very different. The slow deliberate motion that encourages relaxation is replaced by more rapid compressions. Now the rhythm should be a staccato 1-2-3 or “cha, cha, cha,” like the beat or the Latin dance. Not only should the compressions be quick, they should be brief! Deliver one set of three compressions (cha, cha, cha) to an area and move to the next. Massaging too long on one area will increase the blood supply to the area to such an extent that it softens and relaxes muscles thus defeating the purpose of a stimulating the dog and preparing it for competition. After a demanding workout in competition, compression is an excellent move to help rid the muscles of lactic acid and other accumulated metabolic wastes.
Whether your intent is to use compression to calm, relax , and release muscle tension or to excite and stimulate, remember to massage both sides of the dog. It is important to leave the dog feeling balanced. Also, remember to thank the dog!
-By C. Sue Furman
Author Sue Furman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, CO. In addition to her academic career, she is active as a free-lance writer and teaches equine and canine massage classes. This article is adapted from material in her new book, Canine Massage, that will be available in spring 2000.