8 Simple Massage Techniques to Ease Anxiety and Stiffness

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Massage is a wonderful tool for dogs of all ages to relieve stress and anxiety, reduce pain and stiffness, increase flexible movement and promote healing after injury
  • Back strokes, forehead rub, ear rubs and thigh and glute rubs are examples of simple massage techniques that pet owners can safely try on their dogs
  • Specific beginner techniques can also be used for daily massage, activity warm-ups, calming and relief of joint stiffness and soreness
  • If you enjoy giving your dog massages, I recommend taking a workshop or continuing education course to learn basic hands-on massage skills to maximize the benefits of animal massage

If you think your pet is “living a dog’s life” — napping when she feels like it, enjoying meals delivered to her bowel, and treats and belly scratches throughout the day — you may wonder why she, of all the beings in your home, needs a massage. But the truth it, massage is a wonderful tool for dogs of all ages to relieve stress and anxiety, reduce pain and stiffness, increase flexible movement and promote healing after injury.

Senior dogs may first come to mind as most in need of regular massages — and it’s true that massage therapy offers relief from soreness and possibly help with cognitive dysfunction — but even younger dogs can benefit. For youthful, energetic dogs, massage can build resilience against injury, and for dogs that have been previously injured, massage can help reduce the formation of scar tissue and increase flexibility.

If you’ve recently adopted a dog from a shelter, massage can assist with relaxation and positively affect your relationship. Shelter dogs that receive massages are often noticeably more relaxed and the process can help to increase their trust.1 Plus, it simply feels good, too, and massaging your dog is an excellent way to build and improve your bond.

Four Techniques to Massage Your Dog

If you’re now convinced that your dog could benefit from a massage, your next question is likely, how can you do it? Professional animal massage therapists are available in many areas, and may come to your home or offer in-clinic appointments.

Your integrative veterinarian can likely give you a referral, and be aware that certain massage therapists specialize in different forms of animal massage, for instance focusing on lymphatic massage, rehabilitation, maintenance, palliative care or pre/post-surgery.

Therapeutic, deep tissue massage is typically best left for professionals, who will know how much pressure is safe and what areas to focus on, but you can certainly massage your dog yourself as well. I recommend taking a workshop or continuing education course to learn basic hands-on massage skills, but the techniques that follow, compiled by PetMD, can also be used.2

1. Backstroke — Gently stroke up and down your dog’s back, avoiding the spine and putting slight pressure on either side. This is a relaxing movement that may help your dog feel more calm.3

2. Forehead rub — There’s an acupressure point at the top of your dog’s nose that promotes calm. By applying pressure with your thumb from the top of your dog’s nose, over her head and back again, you can promote relaxation and healing.4

3. Thigh and glute rub — Certified animal massage therapist Becky Brandenburg recommends using a thumb-circle technique to massage your dog’s back legs and glutes. Using gentle pressure, press both thumbs into the area, making a backward “c” and moving in clockwise circles throughout the region. This can also be used on the base of the neck, an area where dogs can’t reach.5

4. Ear rub — Ear massage can be both calming and therapeutic. With your thumb on the inner side of the base of your dog’s ear, and your index finger on the outside, make gentle strokes in an outward motion, ending with a slight, gentle pull.6

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Massages for Every Purpose

Depending on what you’re trying to achieve with the massage — calming, exercise warm-up or daily maintenance, for instance — different types of massage can be more effective. This is again where a professional can help, but the following types of massage may help for these specific reasons:7

Daily massage — An everyday massage for your dog is not entirely different than a thorough petting session, in terms of body contact. Use your flat palm and light fingertips to gently massage your pet’s body, taking care to notice areas of tension, sensitivity, swelling or skin changes.

Not only is this relaxing for your dog and you, but it can help you stay on top of any changes on your dog’s body that need to be evaluated by your veterinarian.

Calming a nervous dog — When your dog is nervous, such as during a thunderstorm or fireworks, try slowly sweeping your palm along the length of your dog’s spine and tail, starting at the head and moving toward the tale, then repeating, taking care not to press down on the lower part of the back.

Joint stiffness and soreness — Gentle compressions on a tight joint or muscle can help to relieve pain. Writing in Modern Dog Magazine, Lola Michelin, founder of the Northwest School of Animal Massage, explains:8

“Start by petting the area around the joint to warm the tissue. Then place your hand(s) over the area and apply gentle compressions over the area. You can use your breathing or count slowly to establish a rhythm as you press and release the muscles. The pumping motion moves fluids through the muscles and takes tension off the tendons surrounding the joint.”

Pre-activity warm-up — A warm-up massage is a good idea prior to any competitive or rigorous activity (including chasing a tennis ball) or even before a long walk, run or hike. Michelin recommends the following:9

“Start with several minutes of petting strokes over your dog’s entire body. Briskly rub the large muscles (neck, shoulders, buttocks, and thighs) with the heel of your hand. Gently lift and squeeze the muscles. The technique is a lot like kneading bread dough. Wrap your fingers around each lower leg and squeeze gently. Relax your grip and move up.”

Not all dogs immediately warm up to the idea of massage, especially if it’s done by someone unfamiliar or in a new environment. To ensure massage becomes a positive part of your dog’s life, try to conduct sessions in a quiet, comfortable area. You can even play pet massage music or incorporate brushing to enhance the experience. Allow your dog to choose which position to be in, whether it’s lying down, sitting or standing up.

Also, stick with more basic, light-touch techniques, unless you’ve received animal massage training, and avoid full body massages if your pet is severely ill or painful.

It’s best to listen to your dog’s cues during the massage session, too; if she’s relaxed or even falls asleep, she’s probably enjoying it, but if she’s tentative, hesitant or resists, stop the session and try again another time. Always conclude any healing touch or massage session before she exhibits any signs of restlessness or agitation.

+ Sources and References