How to Give Your Dog a Gentle Massage

Disclaimer: The information contain in this article "How to Give Your Dog a Gentle Massage" is meant only for pet parents who wish to give their family dog a massage.  Please check with your vet before starting any program of massage for your dog.  Massage is not a replacement for veterinary care.  When in doubt, do not massage. Ask your vet!  This article is meant for information purposes only.  It does not replace a formal education in Canine Massage, nor does it replace advice given by licensed medical practitioners.  Bev Spotton and Mobile Canine Care specifically disclaim any liability for any injury whatsoever incurred by those that read this article, as unlikely is the possibility.  The reader assumes all possible risks and liabilities for the use of these techniques.

Before you start:

Massage contraindications

Do not massage your dog if s/he has:

Fever (ie feels hotter than normal), open wounds, infections, or has just had surgery.

If your dog has an autoimmune disease and/or is on medication for a condition, then please give your vet a quick call before you begin a program of regular massage, to make sure massaging your dog is okay.

If your dog has a diagnosis of congestive heart failure, massage is contraindicated.

Pregnancy – double check first

When in doubt, check with your vet

NB – do not massage just after your dog has eaten, and ideally let dog have opportunity to relieve itself before starting massage.

Some important information before you begin:

In canine massage, we don’t generally use the same amount of pressure on tissues as in human massage. If you have ever had a massage yourself, you may have experienced that, if your massage therapist is pressing too hard, you can feel yourself tense up. This tensing actually negates the benefits of the massage. You can tell your massage therapist that they are pressing too hard, and they will reduce the pressure. But dogs don’t have words, so, often, they will just ‘grin and bear it’, which is not a relaxing or therapeutic state. So it is up to us to be mindful of keeping the contact within a range that is acceptable to our pets.

You do want to be keeping some attention on your dog’s reactions. Watch for your dog’s responses to your touch. One way dogs show concern is by what are called Calming Signals, which can be an indicator of increasing stress. Click here to go to page that explains more about Calming Signals for more information. That page also has a link to a video that gives a good demonstration and explanation.

As you observe while you are giving your dog their massage, you will be able to tell when your dog really likes what you are doing. Their eyes may start to droop, they may give a big sigh, they may start taking deeper breaths.  Generally, their bodies will look more relaxed. As you become more practiced, you will become more confident in understanding what your dog likes best - what parts of the body, what types of strokes.

To Start:

Purposefully and intentionally put yourself into a calm state before starting to massage your dog.

You can work sitting on the floor with your dog laying on the floor beside you, or you can work with your dog laying on the couch.

Get comfortable, and please make sure your dog is laying down and comfortable. If your dog won’t settle, then leave off trying to massage at that time, and try again later, or another day.

Laying on of hands: simply put your hands on your dog where you know your pet is comfortable being touched.  Let your hands rest quietly.  Relax and just let your hands relax. And breathe!  Smile a little!  When your dog stays and relaxes, you can take that as permission granted to massage!

Start by making smallish, circular strokes on the top of your dog’s head. You can move down the ears, if your dog likes having their ears rubbed. Use just enough weight in your fingers to move the skin.

The size of the stroke will be determined by the size of the area you are working, and the size of your dog. If you have a small dog, you will find that using the ends of your fingers is sufficient to work. Just be mindful that you are applying weight, not pressure - you should not feel like you are poking at the tissue.

For larger dogs, you can use only the ends of your fingers if that feels right, but, depending on the size of the area you are working, you will probably find using more of your hand feels more appropriate.

Use your instinct combined with your observations of your dog’s reactions (see Calming Signals, above) to guide you. Your dog’s responses will help inform you whether to change your pressure, or the speed of your stroke (slower is better for relaxation massage), or to move to a different part of your dog’s body (or to stop altogether!).

When it feels like you have spent enough time on this area (usually after a minute or two massaging their head and ears), lengthen your stroke, outlining the shape of their head, moving from the top of their head along to their neck, to encourage good circulation. Properly, this type of stroke is called ‘effleurage’.

Start to move down the sides of their neck, first using this longer, more sweeping stroke. As the tissues warm up, you can bring the size of the movement down to the smaller, circular strokes you used when you started on the top of the head.

An important note here. There are a few ‘no go’ places on a dog’s body - areas where you should not massage. One is their throat. The others: armpits, groin, back of the knees. The belly can be very gently massaged, but only to check for softness and to encourage good digestion. However, this is best done once you have been shown how to do it properly and safely.

What all these areas have sensitive structures below the skin that are not protected.
Please do not work those areas. They are best left up to a trained professional.

As you move down the neck, you will be focusing only on the muscles beside the spine. A further caution: it is good massage practice to avoid massaging right on top of the spine. There are trained practitioners, especially trained practitioners of other modalities, that do work directly on and with the spine, but that is beyond the scope of the average pet parent, and therefore not advised for the purposes of this type of massage.

Continue to move your hands down your dog’s body, onto to their shoulders. You can work around and on top of the shoulder blade, starting with longer strokes to warm up the tissue, then using those same circular strokes you used on the top of the head. Before you move on to the chest, do a few of those longer effleurage strokes.

Generally, you will use the longer, effleurage strokes when you finish in one area, use them to move to the next area, and use them to begin in the new area.

After you have been massaging for a few minutes, take both your hands off and just sit a minute.  If your dog stays beside you or leans into you, or maybe licks your hand while you take this little pause, then continue on with the massage. 

But if your dog gets up and moves away, give them a minute, then gently call them back (as an ask, not as a command).  If they come back to you, then continue on.  If they do not come back over, then they are letting you know that they have had enough for that session.  Please respect that, and call it a day.

If they have let you know they would like some more, then continue along their body, down their back (not directly on their spine, remember!), to their hips. You can even work down each leg as far as your dog is comfortable.

When you have covered all the areas where your dog is comfortable being touched (remembering this is a relaxation massage), do a few long, slow, gentle strokes from your dog’s head, along their back, down their hips. You can make it continuous by alternating hands, keeping one hand moving down your dog while the other hand moves back to the starting point.

And you are done! Good job!

Things to be remember:

Start relaxed.

Stay relaxed.

Remember to breath.

Stay in a comfortable position. 


Do not massage lumps or lesions!  Take note if you find a little lump or lesion while working on your dog. Do not massage the lump or lesion. Work around them. If the lump or lesion is new, and haven’t been checked by your vet, be sure to give your vet a call for advice.

Final note: as you do this regularly, you will probably notice that your dog relaxes more quickly. It is a wonderful way to will deepen your connection to each other! Enjoy!

Supplementary to Dog Massage: Tellington Ttouch

Click here for a link to a sample lesson from Janet Finlay, a Ttouch Instructor, who has an online course.

This sample contains information for both the ear slide and a helpful touch called the zigzag, as well as a mouth touch that can be useful for soothing your dog.  This sample lesson also contains some useful reading material.

For another lovely calming touch called the abalone, click here for a link to another Janet Finlay video (with apologies about the Xmas music at the beginning)

It also contains the heart hug touch, which is useful for calming yourself! One precaution – try first with one hand only, especially if you have low blood pressure. Do not continue if doing it makes you feel light-headed.

© Mobile Canine Care/Bev Spotton  

Questions, or want to know more? Do get in touch!   416 574-7797