Looking out from under beguiling eyelashes at his loving adopters, North London antique collectors Carol and Alan, is a very special Romanian rescue dog. Transported from Bucharest back in 2014, Mozart, as he was called at the rescue shelter, arrived in London estimated at between 2 and 4 years old. Nothing was known of his past except that he hated getting his feet wet, which is pretty smart if you have a thick shaggy coat and are sleeping on the streets in a snowy Romanian winter. His adopters chose to retain the musical angle and chose ‘Jazzy’ as his new name.
Jazzy is a popular daily visitor to our local park for his morning walk. As he has aged, some back leg stiffness and tremors in both his back legs appeared and Carol felt he was a bit lethargic. Trained Clinical Canine Massage Therapists use The Five Principles of Pain – Gait, Posture, Activities of Daily Living, Behaviour and Performance - to perform a holistic assessment of the full spectrum of pain symptoms and understand their impact. When assessing a dog like Jazzy with minor lameness it’s important to firstly consider his age (10) and breed (“limited edition”) as well as obvious physical changes in his walk (stiffness), changes in posture (swaying in the rear), activities of daily living (slowing down on walks, weakness in back legs) and changes in behaviour (reluctance to be touched in the back end). Understanding both the physical symptoms in a dog and the impact of their pain helps to inform an assessment, treatment plan and after care.
Jazzy’s owners were curious to try massage to alleviate the stiffness before resorting to pain medication. Their vet had fully assessed Jazzy and provided helpful observations on the hind limb stiffness, tremors, and limited hip extension range, recommending Jazzy as a good candidate for massage therapy. Vet consent is an important preparation step as any skeletal or neurological conditions causing lameness should be ruled out prior to massage. Working closely with your vet to confirm suitability for treatment and providing feedback after treatment in a vet report is the optimal way to ensure a holistic approach to your dog’s condition.
Initial Assessment of the Issue
My first session with a client and their dog is usually around 90 minutes and involves a fact-finding mission into medical history, breeding, diet and lifestyle, usual daily activity, owner’s observation of changes, observation of the dog’s walk and run, plus a hands-on examination of the major muscles for issues.
Jazzy is estimated at 10 years old, give or take a year. Carol describes his breed as a “Bitser – bits of this and that and whatever was on the streets of Bucharest!” Having had the pleasure of seeing Jazzy walking in the park regularly, I was already familiar with the gentle sway of his hips indicating some likely tightness in this area. Carol talked me through his hind leg issues and how she had noticed him slowing down, leg tremors for no apparent reason and Jazzy sticking to the carpet for added comfort at home. Jazzy is fed small healthy meals to manage his digestion better and takes good quality joint supplements which is recommended for older dogs to support joint function. Their vet had indicated the limited range of hip rotation, the tremors of no known cause and the degree of stiffness.
On doing a muscle palpation all over his body, Jazzy indicated no concern with me feeling his neck, though it was tight and thick, and no pain in his shoulders and front legs. However, as we moved along his spine it was a different story. Trigger points midway along his spine caused him to visibly twitch and as I moved further back Jazzy became more reluctant to be touched around his hips and back legs. His inner hind legs felt very tight and thick on both sides.
The Massage Treatment Plan
After the assessment stage, I formulate a proposed treatment plan in my head. It’s important to set an intention upfront for what you can reasonably achieve in a few sessions and outline the plan, rationale, and expected outcomes with the dog’s owner for agreement. Oh, how I wish I had Dr Doolittle super-powers and could also explain it to my client’s dogs and secure their cooperation. It would be a lot easier if I could explain the brief moments of therapeutic discomfort to deliver the relief it could give them afterwards. Instead, we must balance a good muscular release effect with gaining the trust of the dog.
I explained to Carol that I would need to focus on Jazzy’s hips and hind legs to alleviate some chronic long term muscle strain in this area. But with him being reluctant to be touched here, we needed to work up to this level of trust using massage techniques he would accept and enjoy first.
Clinical canine massage uses a combination of techniques including Swedish, sports, myofascial, deep tissue and the Lenton Method™ - a set of clinically trialled myofascial release techniques. We literally have a toolbox of options to achieve the best results for specific issues in different areas of the canine body, not restricted to one type of therapy.
I built trust with Jazzy by using gentle, relaxing Swedish massage strokes around the ears then the neck and shoulder area. He appeared to enjoy this so much he turned his head to give me lots of happy kisses. This is one of the sweetest rewards of my job – happy, trusting kisses throughout from a client. The canine client, that is. I prefer owners hold back such enthusiasm during a session!
Once Jazzy seemed more comfortable, I introduced a Lenton Method™ neck release technique to ease some of the tightness he was carrying there and improve circulation to the area. We may not realise that an injury to one area can cause compensatory issues in another area. Muscular issues in the hind legs can sometimes affect the neck if the dog has been learning to support and carry its weight differently.
A week later Jazzy arrived for the second session with his right back leg trembling. Carol explained that he had been walked by someone else earlier and this had triggered some stress for him. It’s always important to understand any stress triggers that might have impacted a dog prior to a session. Massage can be quite stressful for some dogs, so being aware of other stressors prior to the session helps us to work cautiously.
Having built some good trust with Jazzy, he was happy to get back on the massage mat and reconnect by starting on his neck, which he enjoyed, and move to his back legs in this session. With the right leg trembling, the left back leg had been taking more weight and therefore was thicker and the muscles much tighter. With Carol’s support to calm Jazzy, I was able to check his range of movement on each leg and found the back legs were somewhat restricted by the hamstrings muscle group, stopping them from extending back comfortably.
Sports massage techniques including kneading and muscle compressions were used to stimulate muscle tone, cause an increase in blood and lymphatic circulation, increased oxygenation to the muscles and speed up removal of toxins and excess fluids from the tissues. The Lenton Method™ myofascial release techniques for the hind legs are very effective for releasing these larger muscle groups and enabling less restricted movement of the legs. Jazzy slept well that night.
After this session Carol messaged me the next day to say Jazzy was “jolly and playful” and “feeling his new tense-free self” when out walking. When I saw him in the park later that week, he was indeed bouncier than I had seen him in a while. We expect to see some improvement in one to three sessions from clinical canine massage, so this was a really good sign for him.
For the third treatment I returned to investigate Jazzy’s chest and spinal area and the trigger points that indicate myofascial pain. Using specific techniques to “un-stick” bound fascia that restricts how muscles glide against each other, I could release some of these twitches and enable this area to move more freely. I also worked on the hind legs again to continue releasing the long term muscle issues and relieve pain and promote easier movement.
By the 3rd treatment session, I ensure my clients are clear about a plan for how they will continue to support these improvements at home. Carol had a good understanding of how she could enhance Jazzy’s regular casual massage sessions at home on the carpet by working on his gluteal muscles to make his hips more comfortable.
I still see Jazzy regularly in the park and it’s wonderful to hear Carol report how massage made such a difference to his energy levels and his personality: “Now he’s running more and seems joyful in the park. Several dog owners have commented on his new lively behaviour”.
I get regular massage on myself and understand the positive effects on my physical and emotional energy after a great session. It’s so satisfying to hear when a dog seems more joyful and enjoys their walks more after helping put that spring back in their step. That’s what a clinical canine massage practitioner can do for your dog.