Releasing Reciprocal Joints

Sometimes when we pick up the dogs foreleg the whole limb feels stiff.  All three major joints, the shoulder, the elbow, and the carpus, or wrist, are locked. There are several reasons why these joints might be held so rigidly. Some of them could be physiological, some behavioral.

Chronic (long term) stiffness and arthritis could be the movement restricting force in one of these joint combinations. There might be the presence of swelling and inflammation from recent bruises, strains, and sprains. Inflammation increases pressure, which puts pressure on the nerves within joint capsules. Our dogs may be reacting and guarding against pain they experience with movement. Their stiffness could be residual effects of old injuries.  Joints might be stabilized with pins from surgeries. It could be habits, learned ways of moving, based on modeling after other dogs.


As a PetMassage practitioner I am careful to stay within my scope of practice. I cannot diagnose, treat, or create a situation that might harm dogs. So I define everything I see and sense in term of “behaviors.” The gait is a behavior. Balance is a behavior. Breathing patterns and heart rates are behaviors. Coat and paw pad textures are behaviors. Lumps, bumps, patches of thin hair, thick hair, cool areas and warm areas, soft areas, dense areas, areas that elicit reactions, areas that don’t, are all behaviors. And, of course, the way dogs behave socially and emotionally are behaviors.

A dog may be confused; unaware of what we want him to do. His whole body-mind moves into protective mode when he is not sure what to do, where to go,  being touched this way and why he’s on a massage table which smells different than any other table he’s been on.  Apprehension tightens his entire body. He also may be exercising his power; being willful is a way to state nonverbally that he’s the one in control. He may be playing to his adoring human; that he will only be compliant with them-and nobody else. Or, he may simply be stubborn; needing to resist everything. We all have days like that.

Full And Empty

Another reason for the rigidity , is that the limb may be weight bearing. It may be what is propping up his body. If that’s the case, shift his center to the other forelimb with a gentle push. In Tai Chi terms, the weight bearing limb is described as “full,” since it is the main support. When it is no longer supporting the weight, it is called “empty.” The full leg is filled with stress, intention, and action. It is working. The empty leg is relaxed; functioning as the steady-ready support. Shifting the center from one side to the other, you are emptying one leg and filling up the other. The empty leg is usually more flexible since it has less on its plate.


All three of these joints work in tandem. Whenever restrictions manifest in one, it affects the movement of the entire limb.

The elbow and the wrist especially, are recognized to work reciprocally. They are called “reciprocal joints.” The same can be said for the stifle and hock in the hind leg. When the elbow bends, the wrist bends. When the wrist straightens, the elbow straightens. Another way to put this is, when you bend one, the other one bends. And when you straighten one, the other one straightens.  We can apply this reciprocity to our advantage in PetMassage.

Tightness usually begins closer to the midline and extends out from there. It’s similar to origin and attachment sites of muscles. Muscles originate closer toward the midline and stretch out attaching further from the core. The actions of muscles are either to contract or relax. When a muscle contracts, it pulls whatever it is attached to, at the distal end, back, closer to midline. That’s called flexion. When muscles relax, the distal end is free to move away from the midline. That’s called extension.

It is often easier to address the stiffness that we noted in the locked limb from outside, in. That is, bending the wrist will soften the elbow and shoulder. Flexing the hock, reduces the lock-up in the stifle and hip.

If we were to pick up the dog’s foreleg with the intention of collapsing it back onto the ribs and it is stiff from shoulder to toes, there’s a way to collapse it back comfortably and easily. Gently fold the joint furthest from the midline of the body, the carpus, and the elbow naturally folds. As the elbow flexes, the humerus drops. And, the flow of all the elements of the forelimb into the ribs is as easy.  Remember to support the elbow while bending the carpus.

The same is true with the hind leg.  Fold the joint furthest from the midline of the body, the hock, or tarsus, and the stifle, knee, naturally folds. As the stifle flexes, the femur rises, nestling into the flank. Support the stifle while compressing the hock.

Inside Out, Outside In

Consider the many applications of this with other “behaviors”. Softening, creating ease and flexibility, instilling balance and comfort, joy, love, attention, compassion, or even shifting full and empty relationships; these are all things we do with exterior PetMassage.

We are working from the outside-in. Just imagine how incorporating reciprocity affects the interrelated and interdependent systems within; those closer to the dogs core, where body-mind confluence with spirit!

Video Example

I just posted a 5 second video on the PetMassage Facebook page. Here, you see an example of a response from working from the outside-in. Holding this little pug’s cranium.  Watch for the twitch of her deeply seated myofascial release.


1 Comment

  1. Raymond De Castro on August 29, 2019 at 11:56 AM

    I didn’t even know massaging and releasing reciprocal joints for dogs was even a thing. Our dog is a little older and has stiffness at his back legs. We’ve tried joint supplements and they work somewhat. I’ll have to look into this more as another solution. Thanks.

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