T he cold fact of age -- ten years now -- has taken the spring out of our Scottish terrier Nellie's step. "She doesn't even jump up on the bed anymore," lamented Patrick, even though he's been shooing her off the quilt for years. The family vet said it was arthritis and suggested I look into canine massage. "Canine massage? Was he kidding?" asked Patrick. No, he was not. Ann Yerevanian, a licensed RN and a graduate of the Lang Institute for Canine Massage, runs Healing Hands Canine Massage (619-980-5405; www.healinghandscaninemassage.com ). "Just like people," she said, "dogs get sore, aching muscles and tightness. It can be caused by structural imbalance -- if the balance between the dog's front and back end or left and right side is off. If a dog's hind legs are too high for the front legs, you'll have much more weight shifted toward the front, and you could have neck and shoulder issues. Hip dysplasia can cause painful hips, leading to limping. Then the dog will use its good legs to compensate, and since they take more weight, they'll get sore. Then the tightness can travel along the spinal muscles, just as it does with us. If we limp or hop on one leg, first the hip will start to hurt, then the waist, and before you know it, the pain will be up in your mid-back.
"Dogs can be born with structural imbalances," continued Yerevanian, "or they may be the result of surgery. For example, after bad trauma or injury, a broken leg sometimes cannot be reset exactly the way it was originally."
Sometimes, dogs can benefit from massage after soft-tissue injuries. And sometimes, they're just getting old, debilitated, and arthritic. Yerevanian stressed that she leaves the formal diagnostic work to the vet, "but what I can do is use my hands to feel for tight muscles. I do a lot of work based on traditional Chinese veterinary medicine. I feel for deficiencies [soft indented areas] or excesses [a harder nodule that's tender to the touch] to facilitate the flow of Chi [energy]. I put the dog through passive range of motion, and I put the neck and limbs through extension and flexion and rotation to find where I meet resistance. I watch the dog walk and trot; the gait can tell me if there's a problem. And I watch them sit and see if they consistently sit to one side or the other. I also rely on owner history." Nellie's abandonment of the bed is a prime example.
She prefers owners to be present during massage sessions, but says that occasionally, that makes things trickier. "Some dogs are like children -- more manipulative when their owners are around. Sometimes, the owners don't let the dog relax -- they want to pet the dog, maybe get the dog a little bit stimulated. In that case, it's better for the owner to leave the room, so that there's calmness."
The massage room is decorated with couches and rugs and curtains, so that it looks more like a home than an office. "I like to use scented candles and play music to make it peaceful. And I do use some essential oils; I put them on the dog topically." (Frankincense is a favorite.) "I look for positive and negative responses. If the dog gets up, moves away, shows its teeth, growls, or gives me the whale-eye, I stop and try a different technique. The whale-eye is when they're looking straight ahead but move their eyes to look at you. It's usually a warning. Positives include yawning, licking the lips, soft eyes, and ears going back or falling down.
"If you have an older dog with a degenerative joint disease, I will work with the muscles in the problem area. The muscles have a great deal to do with the alignment of the bones. In an arthritic area, the muscles clamp down to support that area. My job is to find the area and work out the spasms in the muscles. After the muscle has been massaged and softened, I perform an active release -- that's opposition stretching, and it helps keep the muscle from re-spasming. The goal is to keep the dog moving normally and without pain; we want our dogs to be able to run and jump and do the things they love to do."
And the goal can be even more than that; there's a holistic element to Yerevanian's brand of therapeutic massage. "You get better oxygenation. You have release of built-up toxins, and massage can stimulate the immune system." Further, said Yerevanian, massage can get at behavioral maladies as well as physical ones. "Massage helps improve socialization skills. I work with dogs that have behavior issues due to anxieties, insecurities, and fears. I've had dogs come in that were adopted from shelters and were very shy and scared of people. Maybe they had abuse or neglect in their backgrounds. Often, the owner is the only person who can touch or handle the dog. What I do is slowly help the dogs realize that humans are good. I start out by lying on the floor next to the dog. Eventually, I scratch them under the chest and give them treats. Over time, I start to work on massaging. After six visits, one dog was running to me in the office, and now, everybody can pet her."
Massage sessions cost around $35 to $60 each, depending on session length. "I try to keep it reasonable. I want to see as many dogs benefit as possible. I work with Dr. Keith Weingardt at the Animal Healing Center in Bay Park.