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Why is Canine Myofunctional Therapy such a valuable discipline?

Massage is a discipline that has the ability to promote healing in the body. This has been known about and used highly successfully for centuries. Massage can offer preventative care as well as help cure existing health concerns. So much so that more and more people start to see the benefits of this holistic treatment and they want to be able to access massage therapy for their four-legged friends.

Massage comes as a big package with different kinds of benefits. It affects the whole body in many ways. It can be given as an ongoing treatment for all different types of dogs, from puppies to seniors. It is a non-invasive, drug-free therapy. Best of all, massage is well accepted and liked by dogs.

Only if we understand some of the benefits that massage provides, can we truly appreciate the invaluable impact that it has to offer on our dogs’ body and behaviour.

“Canine Myofunctional Therapy” pertains to the muscles. It is the action of palpating the muscles and surrounding soft tissue with different techniques in order to stretch, loosen or separate muscle fibres. This in return will help heal muscles and keep them maintained. Well-functioning muscles throughout the body are imperative for wellbeing as they are responsible for a series of health benefits for acute or chronic pain, joint problems, age related or hereditary diseases, acquired posture problems and many more issues that can burden the body through once-off or everyday occurrences. A dog’s body is designed for physical performance and depending on the breed our canines are meant to be jumping, running, endurance trailing and playing lots of fetch. Sometimes these actions can end in obvious and acute injuries and we know that it’s time to seek treatment. But what happens if we notice that our four legged friend doesn’t want to jump up on the couch anymore or slows down a little or may not be too keen on their walk. Quite often dogs don’t show signs of discomfort until they’re in great pain. Muscle injuries can result from tiny little tears in the muscle fibres and as such can’t be seen. By the time we notice lameness, limping, stiffness or other physical symptoms, a whole series of problems has already happened in the muscles which can result in issues with joints, cruciate ligaments and so on. “Repeat Strain Injuries” (RSI’s) are a slow detrimental condition. They carry with them the problem of other muscles needing to compensate for the RSI and before long can lead to larger acute trauma. It is the responsibility of the owners to be on the lookout of subtle changes in their pet’s behaviour and act accordingly. This is where myofunctional treatment can show off all its benefits whether it be for puppies, adult dogs or seniors as it not only benefits the muscles but also induces its healing powers in the integumentary, cardiovascular, lymphatic, digestive, endocrine, nervous, respiratory and urinary system. However, physical problems will be the first and foremost reason why owners choose to have their dog treated with myofunctional therapy.

Puppies and adolescent dogs can greatly profit from massage during their growing stage. As their body evolves, bones grow and muscles develop it is important to keep the size and breed of the dog in mind and match the daily exercise to their physical abilities. Puppies are always excited to play and be active and this can be quite detrimental to their physical development as we might let them overdo their activities and jeopardise a healthy slow development of bones, joints, muscles and ligaments. Adrenalin can play a big role in a canine’s excitement and push them to physical exertion. Massage can relieve and relax the muscles after a big play session and also calm a high strung dog or puppy. Often a young dog but also an adult that has found themselves in a rescue situation or change of owner / moving house etc. can suffer from separation or other anxieties as their world changes constantly with new owners, environment, training, vet visits, dog park socialisation, learning leash manners etc. As the dog develops and even when fully grown, everyday occurrences such as fetching things, jumping up and down on the sofa, bed, car or ute, running around with dog friends, playing, twisting, slippery floors, steps, poor training, leash pulling and overuse of muscles can all lead to direct trauma or injury or contribute to repeat strain and concussive injuries. We need to understand the difference between “exercise” that is stimulating and beneficial to the body versus avoiding exercise that would let our dogs reach the point of muscle fatigue. Dogs who are involved in sports activities or canine events may be physically and mentally pushed to the limit. Crossbreeds may have inherited physical challenges due to the mixing of their genes that may lead to posture problems or improper functionality of their movements due to the imbalance of the body proportions. Let’s also think of our golden oldies; a dog’s body may become “elderly” and more fragile from around 6-8 years of age and sometimes we don’t notice it as they just want to keep up with our exercise regime to please us and this can result in a build up of adrenalin in the body which keeps them looking happy and may mean that the dog will continue with the activity beyond its actual capability. Adult and senior dogs also suffer from conditions like arthritis and the results of previous injuries that may have had a detrimental consequence on their physical ability. This may even be the cause for taking pain relief or ongoing medication that could burden the internal structures of the body.

No matter what age the dog is and what the cause may be, once muscle fibres tear or the tendons are impaired a cycle of dysfunctionality begins and can be the reason for tight muscles, spasms, restriction in movement, shortened stride, joint problems and be the set up for severe injuries, arthritis, hip / elbow dysplasia and posture problems. This can lead to pain which in turn can result in mental, emotional and behavioural issues as well as having consequences in other areas such as the inability to digest properly, absorb nutrients and oxygen, enjoy restful sleep and cope with stress. All cells and systems in the body are connected and can only function sufficiently if they each can fulfil their “jobs” so that the body can work as a “whole” machine and our dogs can lead a happy healthy life. We want to maintain the equilibrium of their body at all times, not only restoring it after something bad has happened but rather so that we can give them the best chance for longevity.

Massage conducted as a clinical therapy firstly stretches the muscle fibres, makes the muscles more relaxed and relieves tension which in return increases the blood flow to the muscles. Now an entire series of events starts to happen throughout the body. With the increase of blood, more nutrients from food and also oxygen travel through the body via the cardiovascular system, being released in the cells as needed. These healthy cells are able to absorb nutrients more efficiently which means food can be converted into energy, may it be for healing in certain parts of the body, mental functionality or physical exercise. The metabolism gets a boost which is so important for the upkeep of enzymes, minerals and vitamins and more. In return, this delivers important “food” to the muscles, joints, ligaments, bones and connective tissue which results in better functionality of these. The improved circulation also has the benefit that wastes and toxins are being transported in a more adequate manner and eliminated from the body through excretory pathways such as bowel, skin, lungs and urinary system. As massage “moves” the muscles and increases the blood flow, it moves oxygen through the vessels and at the same time eliminates carbon dioxide. Only healthy, fully functioning muscles that are involved in respiration can equal the balance of oxygen intake and carbon dioxide outtake and therefore prevent an acidic build up of carbon dioxide in the body. Another advantage of having your dog enjoy a massage is the improvement of the lymphatic function. This is important due to the inability of the lymphatic system to move the lymph fluid by itself. It is reliant on muscle contraction to do so. Therefore massage will help pass the lymph fluid through the body so it can maintain blood volume, retain tissue fluid which includes hormones and nutrients to the blood, filter bacteria in the lymph nodes and produce and store antibodies and hasten the secretion of toxins. This is a particularly interesting aspect when considering the benefits Canine Myofunctional Therapy has as a “passive exercise” for dogs that are unable to be physically active due to old age, injury or illness. As all the systems work together and are benefitting from massage, we can also observe that the endocrine system which is responsible for hormone production as well as the nervous system are greatly affected by the manual manipulation of the muscles. The nervous system is responsible for the stimulation of the muscles to action upon certain impulses via nerve cell receptors. These “messages” can be impaired if muscles or their neuro-transmitters have an imbalance or dysfunction. The physical application of massage will initiate and develop “Proprioception”, which means the resetting of the muscle memory pattern in the nerve receptors and restoring the proper fulfilment of an action by stretching and lengthening the muscles to where they can “feel” what they must do when told by the nerve cells. Another crucial aspect of myofunctional therapy is the importance of how we can use it to stimulate the nervous system to either calm and relax a dog or get them into a heightened state of mind, for example when we want to prepare them for a sports event. Depending on the massage techniques, the pace of the application, the length of the treatment and “tapping” into a certain part of the nervous system determines the outcome of the massage. This is closely linked to the endocrine system which will either release calming hormones such as endorphins, which promote a feeling of wellbeing and help to inhibit pain or create a sense of “readiness” and excitability by producing adrenalin.

We can use this to apply different types of canine massage from remedial to therapeutic to sports massage. It is the remedial therapy which we use as a means of supporting the healing properties post surgery, as injury management, for dogs with compensational issues, RSI’s and so on. The techniques in this type of massage promote general wellbeing, balancing of the body functions, efficient metabolism and will enhance the healing of the cells as to reduce pain, compensation and dysfunction, increase stride length and frequency, improve joint articulation, strengthening of the whole musculature and more. Remedial massage therapy connects to the calm state of mind, this means that techniques are being applied slowly and with pressure increasing from light to deep depending on the dog’s acceptance. Post-operative or remedial treatment should be considered to be done weekly until improvement can be seen. Then the sessions can be spread further apart, fortnightly to eventually monthly to the point where remedial massage turns into therapeutic massage. This is physical therapy for dogs that are generally healthy or elderly / geriatric dogs or those that suffer from anxieties or stress symptoms. It is paramount to keep up with the massage treatment as a maintenance program to help prevent incidents in the future and to support the wellbeing of the dog’s body and mind. There are a few things we can do in order to harvest the full benefits of remedial and therapeutic body therapy: offer a suitable (to the dog!) time and place to conduct the massage, promote calmness and a relaxing environment, walk the dog in a controlled way after the massage, which means on hard surfaces and not running exuberantly, helping impaired dogs with ramps along steps, cars, sofa, non slip mats and being aware of changes in their movements or behaviour.

In contrast to these kinds of massage, we can also utilise certain techniques to warm up or cool down a dog that is involved in heavy physical activities be it in sports events such as flyball, agility, racing, treibball, sledding/ urban mushing or going to play lots of fetch at the dog park, run and swim at the beach or be a running partner for athletic owners. Pre-event massages have the opposite effect to remedial and therapeutic treatment: they stimulate and arouse the body, get the dog ready for action and tap into the part of the nervous system that is responsible for excitement and physical peak performance. The post-event part of the sports massage is conducted in order to bring the heart rate down, lessening the tension in the body, loosening muscles and to release spasms, knots or tight muscles in the way of myofascial release and possibly trigger /stress point release.

Before Canine Myofunctional Therapy can be applied, we must rule out any contraindications. These are conditions where using massage could cause potential harm for example injuries, unknown health problems, pregnancy, pain, swelling, joint instabilities or may lead to exacerbation of existing situations such as burns, inflammation, haematomas, arthritis, recent muscle injury and similar problems. Due to massage working on a deep cellular level accessing all the systems, it influences a great range of body functions even though it is a topical treatment. Therefore approval or referral by a vet needs to be granted in order to conduct massage safely.

The treatment starts with getting to know the dog and owner, taking in the age, breed, history, previous conditions, any health or mental concerns before the practitioner carries out a visual observation. This includes a gait analysis and by looking at how the dog moves, uses its range of motion, positions certain body parts and how they’re aligning with each other as well as noting the condition of the coat, how the dog sits or stands and how it places its paws, the massage therapist can be mindful of potential issues when conducting the next step of the treatment, the soft tissue diagnosis. This is where the practitioner runs their hands over the entire body of the canine to assess whether there is any inflammation, coolness, changes in the coat, tension, adhesions, knots or spasms, atrophy or hypertrophy present in the body. This is an important factor so that the practitioner can feel for stresses that are occurring in the body and can extend their thoughts to the compensation that must be happening in certain muscles. This way they can then determine the techniques and sequence that they will apply and on what body part to have the most beneficial outcome. The actual massage begins with the foundation technique“Effleurage”, which means moulding of the hands to the muscles which depending on purpose of the massage and the dog’s condition or dysfunction is followed by other techniques such as petrissage, kneading, cross fibre raking, compressions, rotations, frictions and others. The whole dog is being massaged as we now know the entire body is connected and massage in only one area would not take any compensation into consideration which would make the massage pointless. At the end of the treatment, some dogs may enjoy the benefits of complimentary techniques such as passive stretches and pole exercises. This can be built upon from session to session and can help correct biomechanics, improve joint articulation and reset body balance.

Now that we can appreciate the crucial connection of the physical, mental and emotional aspects of a body can we understand and treasure why massage is so beneficial to a canine’s wellbeing at any age and life stage. The brain and body utilising the coordinated influence of all the systems is what massage uses to truly make it one of the most wholesome treatments for the entire body.

Only if we know better, can we do better. So let’s do the best for our dogs by understanding the benefits of and treating them to Canine Myofunctional Therapy.

You’ll find more information in:

· Robertson, J. 2010, The complete dog massage manual, Hubble&Hattie (Veloce Publishing Limited), Dorset, England

· Robertson, J. and Mead, A. 2013, Physical Therapy and Massage for the Dog, CRC Press (Taylor & Francis Group), Boca Raton, Florida, USA

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