Introduction to the Perspectives and Skills of Canine Massage

The following was the presentation as published in the AHVMA 2013 Conference Prospectus. The 3 hour lecture was delivered Monday, August 26, 2013 in Kansas City, MO in the Lido Room of the Marriot Hotel. The actual presentation was a blend of this printed content and the extemporaneous comments about the PowerPoint images and responses to questions. Part two entailed demonstrations of canine massage with three dogs: a golden retriever, a Boston terrier, and a retriever/Rottweiler mix. Part three included guided exercises in awareness of energy layers of the body, palpation skills, T’ai Ch’i breathing skills, and Ch’i Gung exercises for grounding and regrouping.

Presenter: Jonathan Rudinger, RN LMT and Canine massage educator, Founder and Director of the PetMassage Training and Research Institute, Founder and President of the IAAMB/ACWT

Hour One: Introduction to the Perspectives and Skills of Canine Massage.

“Work with the hands is the apprenticeship of honesty. May the work of your hands be a sign of gratitude and reverence to the human condition.” Mahatma Gandhi


Remember your last great professional massage? It was more than just pampering; more than temporary relief and temporary flexibility. Your massage facilitated a new and improved lifestyle. Each and every massage provides a gentle course correction for the way you perceive and use your body! Think of massage as creating an ambient environment within the body, where everything functions more optimally.

Now, consider integrating canine massage into your practice.


Massage has a long history. Massage is the most ancient form of health care. Canine massage began when people began touching, calming, and comforting animals. This is an innate drive that animals have to identify and nurture others.

The manual skills used for canine massage has its roots in Swedish massage. The hand movement techniques used in Swedish massage are primarily: touching, stroking, compression, kneading, skin rolling, percussion, positioning and stretching. Variations of each of these techniques are achieved with changes in pressure, speed, and order of administration.

Over the past 25 years massage for humans has had a renaissance. Not that long ago massage was considered shady and disreputable; and had an (intimate) cultural connection with sexual foreplay and prostitution.

Massage as therapy came into its own as the yin energy of the boomer generation took hold as Empowered female professionals were able to integrate softer, more intuitive methods into care giving. This enhanced and expanded the medical systems that were taught and administered. Massage has been sanitized, reinvented, historically revised, legalized, regulated, tested, licensed, and marketed. Massage as a therapeutic modality now has established credibility and acceptance. It is accepted by the human medical community, the insurance industry, the beauty/spa industry, and the leisure/travel industry. It has created its own industry with vocational schools, media companies, professional organizations, legislative lobbyists, insurance programs, product manufacturers, magazines, websites, an impressive group of trade and peer experts and trade shows.

Although there are written records from as far back as 500 BC and pictographs from Egyptian hieroglyphics that demonstrate massage, in the US, it has only been in the last 50 years that massage has been administered to animals in any systematic or professional form. Initially massage was for competition horses. Equine massage was -and is- used to increase horses flexibility, endurance, and capacity for injury recovery. Horses that got massage had a competitive advantage. They could run faster, turn tighter, jump higher, and have more stamina. When the equestrian athletes embraced massage in the Rome, 1960 Olympic games, their competitive advantage was clear. Equine massage slowly and quietly became part of training and conditioning in competitions, from dressage to barrel racing. Noting the benefits, backyard hackers soon began getting their fragile and expensive horses massage. The first canine massage practitioners were equine massage therapists who saw the needs and opportunities to apply their skills with dogs.

In the 1990s, massage was introduced to the canine population. Canine massage was embraced initially by the dog agility enthusiasts. They sought benefits for their dogs similar to those that the horses were getting. They wanted their dogs to run faster, turn tighter, jump higher, and have more stamina. Since then it has been a steadily growing and evolving profession. Many of the students that I have taught work either in vet practices or solely with vet referrals. Others have private practices that are complementary to vet care. In the 2000’s the University of Tennessee Animal Rehabilitation Program notably included massage in every rehabilitation protocol. Now massage, as part of rehabilitation, is in every vet school in the US.

Recognition and acceptance of the power/need for massage within species

Animal massage, that is, animals massaging other animals is recognized and accepted throughout the animal kingdom. Apes groom and massage each other. We’ve all seen the YouTube of the mother elephant methodically and successfully knocking life into her non-responsive calf. Elephants exhibit signs and signals for their emotions that are similar to human emotions. It is easy for us to see a tear and understand it as a tear.

A study done by the Upledger Institute, [Vanderbilt, Shirley, “Synergy of Minds, Dolphin-Assisted Craniosacral Therapy,” Massage and Bodywork, October, 2005] observed dolphins. Dolphins are seen to observe and caress each other where they sense that there is discomfort or injury. One dolphin continues to press up against the other, rubbing and repositioning until there is an understanding sense that the other has felt some relief. Dolphins will stay with other species, as well, helping and, we assume, rechanneling energy, as demonstrated with their close encounters with disabled, pregnant, sick, or imbalanced people.

And, of course we’ve all seen dogs groom and lick themselves. They also groom, scratch, comfort. and nurture each other. Also, because they can.

Signs of empathy, reasoning, the memories of which skills and techniques are effective and which aren’t, and the drives/needs to comfort are the integral elements that we use in the process of canine massage. What is interesting here is, we have learned to combine the intuitive awareness of animals with the mechanical, left brained Swedish techniques. This is animal massage, which needs to be provided in a context that animals can understand and appreciate.

Canine massage

Canine massage is not limited to physically manipulating an animal’s body. The foundation of massage is “touch.” Touch is woven intricately into our human culture. We use touch intuitively for self-help. When we itch, we scratch. When we cramp, we knead and stretch. When we need comfort, we ask for a hug. When we’re stressed, soothing strokes over the brow provide relief. For good luck, we say “touch wood,” or “knock on wood” (percussion). Children are taught early on that they cannot be tagged out as long as they are touching a “safe” place. Baseball players touch the base. Fencers touché.

When I say, your words have “touched my heart,” touch has spiritual/emotional implications. Media advertising implores you to, “Reach out and touch someone.” The phrase, “touched in the head” historically implies that someone has become crazed by the overwhelming forces of intention when they were graced with the touch of God.

“Touching” with hands or with human intention, as used in canine massage, brings an animal’s awareness to each part of his body.  On the physical level, the sensation of touch engages his/her mind. Light touch brings awareness to the coat, the skin, the upper layers of connective tissue and surrounding superficial muscles. Stronger pressure draws the dogs’ conscious awareness to deeper structures.

Several of our clients report that their dogs so anticipate their massage sessions after they’ve experienced two or three of them, that they’ve scratched and pawed at the car windows as their vehicles were pulling into our parking lot, so eager were they, to get to the front door of our office! Then, while I am greeting the human, they’d dash though the corridor to the massage room, hop up onto the massage table, and wait in as straight a sit as they can muster, tail flopping, mouth open and smiling, for the session to begin.

So, massage has a touching effect on the dog’s mind … where basis reference memories are stored … before it works on the body. The endorphins begin flowing long before the actual massage begins. For dogs that know what to expect, it is an excitedly anticipated event. How would you feel knowing a dog is eager to come to your clinic? Canine massage will make huge differences in both your effectiveness with your clients, your reputation, and your own job satisfaction.


Canine massage training begins with Swedish techniques. It also includes a study of canine anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, behavior, pack awareness, body language, body mechanics, and dog handling. It then integrates, depending on the interests and intuitive abilities of the practitioner, applicable aspects from other massage and bodywork modalities such as Myo-fascial, Cranial Sacral, Neuromuscular Reprogramming, Myofascial work, Feldenkrais, TCM acupressure and meridian stimulation, Trigger Point, Reflexology, Orthobionomy, Rolfing, Alexander, Healing Touch and Reiki. Canine massage, then, becomes a more personalized, and less regimented form. Each practitioner offers a different version of massage. And, based on the responses of the dog, each massage will take off into a unique pattern.

Several years ago, while creating a job description for competency assurance testing for canine massage, I surveyed over a hundred practitioners and instructors. From the information I received, I was able to assemble extensive lists that cover General Knowledge,  Observation skills, Animal Behavior, and Palpation skills needed for canine massage. The final job description indicates that a practitioner of canine massage has to have thorough training in all of the above. Canine massage, is a serious vocation. Those who take the training understand the complexity and responsibility of interacting with dogs on such a profoundly honest level.

Animal massage has its own vocabulary which includes animal anatomy, physiology, psychology, behavior modification, kinesiology, massage therapy terms, terms from dog training and grooming, equine training, horsemanship, and gait descriptions.

The Canine massage session begins with a routine of developing a relationship of trust. We take a few minutes observing the pet parent and their dog, walking, sitting and breathing quietly with the dog. Sharing space as two supporting parts of a pair, we become comfortable with each other; and safe within with each other’s presence and current life situation.

Beginning a canine massage is much like taking a coffee with a new acquaintance. At the beginning we say hello, check each other out at we observe how the other one stands, holds his cup, pays for his coffee, makes the choices for an accompanying snack,  the quality of his posture, stride and gait, and facial expressions as we both get settled at our table. We are positioning to create an understandable relationship. We retrench when be sense resistance, and open more when we feel safe. We both listen, consider what we’re hearing, test the boundaries of how much of who we really are we can divulge. And at the end we hug or shake hands and wish each other well and decide whether to expand this relationship with another get-together.

Each session begins, by inviting the dog to participate. It is the dog’s session. They are the reason we are there. It is so much their session, that I release the need to control how the session will progress. This is a big deviation from the perspective of Physical therapy, which focuses on specific points and requires measurable changes. It is also a dramatically different approach to the “find it, diagnose it, fix it” work that you’ve been trained in. This is the aspect that makes massage such a good complement.  It is a process that references the dog’s lifestyle and historical gaps. Wouldn’t it be great to address the issues that are conflicting your dogs? With massage, the body makes its own discoveries and creates the shifts necessary for it to move toward homeostasis.

When I was in nursing training, we learned the 5 R’s when giving medications. Right patient, medication, time, route, dosage. The body, when it is in harmony, has its own exactly right means, methods, drives, and timetables for healing.

Canine massage creates an ambient environment within the dogs body where all body systems can function optimally. Consider how this can complement your work: medications, vaccines, flower essences, essential oils, acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments, and the food ingested will all be more effective. The gut’s muscle actions of peristalsis, and natural chemical infusions enhance digestion, absorption, and elimination.  Everything in a dog is be more functional when the dog has lower stress levels. And what is the best way to lower stress levels? Exactly.

Massage has an effect of the dog’s body-mind complex. In massage, this is what we acknowledge as the ultimate holder of body wisdom. The body knows what is best for the body. It knows where the resistance to free flow of energy is hiding. It holds the secrets of the memories that are affecting muscular and emotional holding patterns. If it is truly the dog’s massage, we must listen to, respect, and trust, what the body has to tell us. And we must learn to follow where it guides our hands.

This brings us to the manual skills of canine massage.

Our job is getting the pet to focus on themselves. And, find pleasure in that process.

We do not use food rewards. While using various values of the treats that we can smell (stronger is better) is a great way for us to condition and train dogs, during the massage, we do not want the animals to be distracted – or obsessed- by the possibility of getting food rewards. We want them to be focused on how they feel. How are they responding to the variations of touch they are experiencing?

The dog’s jobs are having the responsibility to participate in and direct the massage session, to pay attention to how my hands feel to them, and observe how their bodies enjoy the process. Every dog that I have massaged has indicated that they had derived some level of pleasure, satisfaction, and comfort from their sessions.


Getting the dog’s permission is a method to consciously engage the dog in the process of massage. We place our hands on the dog and observe our breathing patterns. As we settle into a sense of calm awareness, we offer permission for the dog to enter into our space.

We have declared our status as pack leader, and promised to be present and available while providing this service.  It is only when we sense that the signal is given that we can begin part of the massage that involves the physical manipulation.

What it means to be available and present.

By this time, even though we have barely touched the dog, the massage is already well underway. Our goals have been to get the dog to feel comfortable, at ease, safe, and supported. Setting these as our intentions got us to the point in the session where the dog is paying attention. The dog now follows our every breath, every movement, every thought; assessing and processing, referring and comparing to impressions of memories of similar feelings.

We must maintain a heightened level of awareness. We strive to experience the world through the filters of the dog. During a massage we observe the body’s subtle communication signals, which include the subtle gatherings and releases of tension in the skin and eyes, shifts in respiration, perspiration, and “remarkable” aromas. This can be challenging, with the all the shiny objects tantalizing us and the dogs.

(benefits) There are many tangible and measurable benefits of massage for dogs. They are the same as for humans. Increased circulation and balance of body fluids, which would include blood, lymph, cerebral spinal fluid, intercellular fluids, articular fluids, saliva, digestive juices, urine, and body water; increased articular flexibility and ROM, increased skin integrity, increased rate of healing, tissue replacement and scar tissue absorption. Massage also reduces restrictions within the fascia sheaths surrounding and supporting the muscles as they work. This supports increase in muscle tone and strength of tendon attachment sites.


You recall from cell biology that in the earliest stage of cell differentiations, one of the four general classes of biological tissues is Connective tissue (CT).  The others, of course, are epithelial, muscular, and nervous tissues. Connective tissue is a kind of biological tissue that supports, connects, or separates different types of tissues and organs of the body.

All CT has three main components: cells, fibers, and extracellular matrices, all immersed in the bodywater. Connective tissue can be broadly subdivided into connective tissue proper, special connective tissue, and series of other, less classifiable types of connective tissues. Connective tissue proper consists of loose connective tissue and dense connective tissue (which is further subdivided into dense regular and dense irregular connective tissues.) Special connective tissue consists of reticular connective tissue, adipose tissue, cartilage, bone, and blood. Other kinds of connective tissues include fibrous, elastic, and lymphoid connective tissues.

Functions of connective tissue

  • Storage of energy
  • Protection of organs
  • Provision of structural framework for the body
  • Connection of body tissues
  • Connection of epithelial tissues to muscle tissues

Connective tissue is the tissue that surrounds each muscle cell, each fibril, each fiber, each muscle, each muscle group, each tendon and ligament, each bone, each cartilage, each combination of agonist, antagonist and synergist muscle systems, each dermatome, each referral pattern, each reflexology pattern, each TCM point and meridian, each organ, each and every nerve pattern, each biomechanical and bio-emotional system in the body.

Canine massage focuses solely on the dog’s connective tissue. Myo-fascia massage is the massage of the muscle fascia, or connective tissue sheathes that encapsulate muscle. Tendons are the extensions of the sheathes that attach to bones. Located at the origins and insertions, the muscle attachment sites, are the touch and stretch receptor nerve endings. Whenever we stimulate any of the tissues, on or beneath the skin, we affect the matrix of fascia in the rest of the body. This is the focus, the medium, and the arena of massage.

This brings us to one big reason that canine massage is not already universally accepted and offered in vet clinics. Here is our conundrum: spontaneous experiences and responses function in a complex tangle of intangible planes. The life force qualities within each affect the texture and composition of soft tissue-fascia. Massage results are not readily reproducible.

How does one measure presence? You can have your hands on the dog and be focused on the massage; and as soon as your mind attaches to another subject, your energy that you have been infusing into the dog’s body is withdrawn and connected with that thought. You realize that you are thinking about your last client and redirect your presence back to this dog. The dog meanwhile, can smell your thoughts, can tell when you are distracted, can experience the same set of sensations and emotions as if he were being abandoned.

Through the lens of massage, this is just one of the many aspects of massage affecting the body. There would be a vey different response if this dog were a recent rescue, or had separation anxiety, or was compliant and accepting. What if this dog had epilepsy or asthma? What if there were other issues such as the dog has been shut up in a home with degassing walls and carpets, or the main caregiver had just died, or it’s thundering outside?

There are qualities that cannot be measured. How does one measure the release of a restrictive memory that is the source of a limp, or a tail tuck, a tight psoas, or a constipation? How do you measure resolving behavioral issues that were initiated at birth, or in the first four weeks of life? We can’t.

Consider that every touch on the body is processed uniquely and individually for that specific situation. It functions and processes as it does, only as it can, at this momentary opportunity. Each individual processes each touch through his or her unique life experience. There cannot be a double blind, or a control. A myofascial massage is non-reproducible from the Western medical perspective.

So while massage on the inner workings of the dog may be immeasurably amazing, massage provides a perspective that is an obvious complement to the practice of veterinary medicine. Working from the perspective of massage/bodywork will shift your perspective and potential for caring for the whole dog. Massage gives you a venue to work on the dog, not just mind-body and spirit; also, past-present and future.

Most diseases and behaviors are rooted in stress. Massage relieves stress. Period. Clinical applications include relaxing stressed tissues. These may be the muscle agonists, antagonists, synergists, the nerve bundles, the blood supply, compensating muscle groups, supporting and compensating areas of fascia, and all the interrelated and interdependent systems of the body.

With massage you are creating an ambient environment that offers tremendous benefits for everyone involved: you, your clients, their pet-parents and their families, the massage provider, and your clinical staff. Canine massage can complete your practice. Offer your clients their opportunities to experience massage. Experience how canine massage skills shift your approach in how you touch your clients.

Hour Two: Canine Massage Demonstration and Discussion of Myofascial Release

The Myofascial skills are unique to massage; they are not generally part of medical manipulation and anything other than massage handling. It is the myofascial skills that I find most exciting to observe and most fulfilling to facilitate; so these are the skills that I would like to share with you today.


View and experience a canine massage demonstration. Accompanying the demonstration is the discussion of how and why canine massage functions within its own paradigm.  The way we approach the dog’s body-mind complex have fundamentally changed due to recent developments in the understanding and integration of myo-fascial release in the massage and bodywork field. Discover examples of fascia in the body. How does massage affect the mind? What is a release? What does a release look like? How does one palpate it? How does it feel? With myo-fascial release, what is being released? Is this duplicatable? Why? Does this work provide you with skills that enhance what you are already doing?

Hour Three:

More than a Closed Set of Manual Skills: Immersion in Feeling, Being and Responding

In this final session we will experience the value – and joy – of canine massage. Experience the soft yin skills of feeling, responding and observing, pervade every technique. Observe how it feels to maintain presence, and the effects of distraction and unconscious withdrawal. Learn to track empathic responses to your client’s releases. Your thoughts and those of observers affect your clients. Experiential exercises develop your awareness of holding patterns and fascial releases.

The intention of a canine massage is to create an ambient environment within the dog’s body and mind, where the animals natural tendencies toward homeostasis, health, wellness and balance, are supported. Canine massage increases dogs’ body awareness, providing them opportunities to observe how their body is feeling and responding to each touch, each level of pressure, each lift, pull, push, or positioning. Massage works on the soft tissue, the fascia of the body. During every interaction, the fascia responds, affecting digestion, cardiovascular and lymphatic circulation, stimulating skin, nerves, fluids in joints, hormones, pheromones and the energy flows through acupressure points and meridians.


My objective in this presentation has been to you demonstrate massage that you can integrate into your current practice. Massage will shift the quality of your client care; radiating relaxation and calm throughout your staff and clientele. I’d like to see trained canine massage practitioners in every vet clinic. This is my vision.

In most practices, vets do not have the luxury to spend an hour with each pet that comes in. The people we would train would be your technicians. Or, if the practitioner is trained and qualified, take on an independent contractor to work with you and your patients. Their presence in your office, in addition to the massage, will create an atmosphere of competency, acceptance, support and calm-nurturing.

Vets offices, like spas, can be high value destinations. Your clinic can be the place that dogs and their people want to come to: a positively infused destination for happiness. Your clinic can be the place that dogs can get massage.


  1. 3counterbalance on January 12, 2022 at 4:28 PM


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