Stretching at Joints

In its most basic form, stretching is a naturally instinctive activity; it is performed by humans and many other animals. Stretching often occurs instinctively after waking from sleep, after long periods of inactivity, or after exiting confined spaces. This is an appropriate activity to foster and use, since it comes from our dog’s natural instincts.

Stretching refreshes dormant muscles by elongating them. The alteration of pressure within the muscle tissue squeezes out old, tired, used fluids and draws in fluids that are fresh and clean.

Increasing flexibility through stretching is one of the basic tenets of physical fitness. It is common for athletes to stretch before and after exercise in order to reduce injury and increase performance.

When a specific muscle or tendon (or muscle group) is deliberately flexed or stretched, it results in increased muscle control, flexibility, and range of motion. Stretching, in combination with bringing the elements of the joint toward each other, is used therapeutically to alleviate cramps.

When you are stretching your dog’s limb, be sure that it’s a controlled and safe activity. There is more to stretching a leg than pulling the paw away from the shoulder. There are physiological, body mechanic, and emotional behaviors you need to keep in mind. Remember the key words here: controlled and safe.

For example, if you are stretching the elbow, you need to remember that the elbow and the wrist are reciprocal joints. That is, when one bends, the other bends. And, when one straightens, so does the other. When you grasp the humerus above the joint and the radius and ulna bones below it, be careful not to grasp so low that your dog’s wrist movements are restricted. If the wrist is not free to move, you are placing unnecessary strain on the elbow. The stifle and hock are also reciprocal joints.

Your grip must be light. Use just enough pressure so that the coat cannot slide from your fingers yet the leg is held securely. I seldom close my fingers around the limb. I prefer to cradle it, allowing its weight to hold it in place.  

Supporting the bones of your dog’s limb on either side of the joint being elongated gives the dog a sense of security. Your gentle supporting hands remind the dog where his limb is, and how it is positioned during movement. This is called proprioception.  During the stretch, your proximal hand, the hand closer to the trunk, supports, while your distal hand, the one further from the trunk, guides. You are not pulling; you are guiding. The movement must come from the dog.

During the return, when the stretch is complete and the limb reflexively pulls back toward its normal position, your hands work in the reverse. Your proximal hand accepts, while your distal hand guides. Every time I feel the leg retract into my palm I feel as if I’m receiving a precious gift. This is the control that insures that the dog does not pull out or kick out to the side.

Watch the tissues between your hands as they move. It’s true that what you focus on expands. Stretching is an expansion of the joint, so … your concentration, your intentional focus on the elbow energetically assists its movement. Your dog will bask in the focused presence that you are giving. Firstly, he loves, loves, loves the attention. Who wouldn’t? And, he will be more willing to cooperate when he knows what you are thinking and asking of him.

Your thoughts can be enhanced with your breath. They work together to support the movement you are requesting him to make. When we say breathe with the dog, we do not suggest that you can match the dog, breath for breath. Dogs breathe at different rates than people. Synchronize your breath with the movement you want to elicit. Inhaling is collecting, or bringing in. Exhaling is releasing, or pushing out. Exhaling with the stretch, and inhale with the return. You do not have to do everything in one breath. Your dog may want to sustain the stretch for several seconds. Just support him during his big movements.

Now, your breath, your presence, your intention, your support, your understanding of how your dog moves, all come together to assist your dog to stretch his limb.

This is a chapter from the book Canine Massage for a Senior Dog. Purchase this and other PetMassage books and DVDs at

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