Finishing Touches

Learning how to massage your Ridgeback is simple -- and satisfying     



By Linda Diane Feldt


You could take a class, you could read a book, you could pay someone else to do it. Or you could just learn these few basics concepts and start having fun with your Ridgeback today.


What could be easier than massaging your Ridgeback? Unlike humans, they need no oil. You can do it any place, any time. They generally love to lie next to you anyway, and if your dog is fit and lean, it is easy to feel muscle and trace bones.


Animals are also great to massage because when they have had enough, they walk away. Few humans do that in the middle of a massage. People tend to "endure" what is painful or uncomfortable, thinking it is for the best. Your dog will give you immediate and clear feedback, by moving or vocalizing, if something doesn't feel right.


Numerous studies on humans show that massage enhances well being by improving circulation, facilitating healing of simple injuries, helping lymph flow (part of the immune system), helping to calm nerves, and helping muscle soreness.


The three most basic approaches to dog massage would be to focus on:


fascial tissue

boney attachments


Each is simple, and can be quickly learned and practiced.


Massaging muscle is what most people think of when they think of massage. This can be either superficial (usually longer strokes across the skin) or deep (more directed heavier pressure into what is called the muscle belly, or the big parts of the muscle).


With the lighter strokes over the skin you can help circulation and lymphatic flow, and help calm the nervous system. For blood and lymph benefits, always massage toward the heart. On a limb, you would move from the paws toward the body; from the tail, toward the head; from the top of the head, to the shoulders; and on the belly, from the groin to the chest.


Your touch is light, you are moving skin more than muscle, and your strokes can be continuous full length, with your whole hand or maybe just a thumb or finger stroking an inch or two, moving to a new position closer to the heart, and repeating.


For calming and quieting the nervous system, long, rhythmic, even strokes work best for most dogs. Again, work from tail toward head, groin over the belly to the chest, passing over the skin. Your strokes should be slow enough that you can notice the response of the hair and skin as you move your hand. On my small-sized bitch it might take four to five seconds to complete each long stroke. Stroking the head and especially the forehead will also have a calming effect. Again, I work from the head to the shoulder area -- usually a little faster than with the whole body, stroking down and returning to begin the stroke again more quickly. You can use one hand only, or alternate hands. The rhythm and pressure will vary. Let your dog teach you what he or she likes.


The deeper work on muscles is also simple. They key is to learn the difference between a muscle that is tight, and one that is well toned. In teaching massage for nearly 20 years, I know of only one way to do this: by experience. Find a strong, big muscle on your Ridgeback. Maybe the muscle of the upper leg, near where the hip joins the body. Notice if it is taut, or more mushy. When you begin to press into it, is it resistant? Is there smoothness to it or lumps? Does it feel like small ropes or a flat surface?


After you have gotten some idea what the muscle feels like, try working the muscle with some small circles using your thumb. The pressure should be direct, and deep enough that you actually make a small depression into the muscle. Don't think that you have to gouge your dog, though. Experiment with a few different levels of pressure; your dog will let you know if you are getting too rough. It will be different with each dog depending on age, amount of exercise, recent activity and even how recently they had water.


After less than a minute of massage, feel the muscle again. What has changed? If not much is different, probably the muscle wasn't very tight to begin with. If there are now noticeable differences, the "before" feeling can go into your memory bank of what a tight muscle feels like. With repeated practice, you'll know when the muscle is tight and when you've accomplished some release.


Puppies often enjoy massage on their gums when they are teething. Try it on yourself first, too learn how to feel the gums beneath the lips. Massage can help temporarily relieve that aching feeling as the teeth emerge.


Just by looking at most fit Ridgebacks you can see the major muscles on their body. Areas of the legs, hips and shoulders are good places to work. There are also lots of smaller muscles, and this is where focus on bones comes in.


Muscles attach to bones. So if you find a bone, a muscle will be nearby. You can follow the bones of the spine and the legs especially. While the rib bones are easy to find, there is less muscle needing massage connected with them. While you are using the bones to find areas to work on, do not massage the bones themselves. Mostly because it doesn't feel good, but also because that is where an inexperienced person could actually cause some problems. Instead of massaging bone, feel for the muscle next to it. On the spine, the most prominent bone is the spinous process. On each side, located just bit deeper, is the transverse process of the spine. You should feel muscle just above and to the side of the transverse process. On a full-grown Ridgeback, you would want to massage about 3/4 to 1 inch from the big bumps that are the spinous process. For this massage, it is best to work both side of the spine at once.


You might stroke away from the spine, toward the tail or the head. Small symmetric circles are great, progressing gradually either up or down the spine. The pressure will vary greatly depending on the dog, and how heavily muscled he or she is. Basically, if you encounter strong, thick, wide muscles, you can work more deeply. For a dog who gets moderate exercise, deep work would be uncomfortable. The dog arching into your hand, relaxing into a flatter position, lying down, are all good signs that you are using the right amount of pressure.


On the legs, work from the paw up. Most of the muscles in the legs are long, and run from joint to joint. Smooth strokes or longer lighter strokes are both useful here. Learning and becoming familiar with your dog's leg muscles can be helpful in the future if your dog experiences an injury. You'll know what is normal, and can feel if something is wrong.


Fascial tissue work is probably the easiest, and something most dog owners do instinctively. "Myofascial release" is a fancy way of saying you are picking up and stretching tissue just under the skin. Fascial tissue is also called connective tissue. It surrounds all the organs and muscle of the body, and is connected throughout the body. Fascial tissue is just under the skin, and can also be found in more intricate patterns and layers over and between muscles and organs, and the spine. Lifting and very gently stretching fascial tissue anywhere on the body can help to release stored tension both directly as well as more deeply in the area you are working.


This simple technique is accomplished by picking up a fold of skin, without pinching, and lifting it away from the body. Hold for a short period, and move on. This technique is especially effective in the area of the base of the spine, and "low back," but is unlikely to be pleasant on the more sensitive areas of the face and belly. Surprisingly, this simple picking up and releasing is very effective in relaxing tight muscles, even fairly deeply. You can work randomly over the back, and eventually you will learn to feel the slight resistance decrease as the fascial tissue relaxes.


Some dogs who seem to not like massage may be reacting to how the massage is given, rather than the touch itself. Some dogs are nervous if you reach over their back. Others may not be able to relax if you are directly facing them during the massage. A hand around the neck, having to expose their belly before they are ready to, can all decrease the dog's pleasure. This will be different with every dog, so be aware of what postures or positions make your dog nervous. Most dogs are comfortable with you sitting next to them, both of you looking in the same direction, and with most of the massage done on the side of the dog's body closest to you. You can then change sides to work on the other side. As your dog grows used to the massage, you may be able to give the whole massage without changing position and with the dog having no concern about how he or she is approached.


With these three techniques, you are well on your way to being able to help your dog, as well as gaining one more enjoyable way to spend time together.