Athletes know the importance of stretching to keeping their bodies limber and helping to ease the tightness that can accompany sporting activities.
Done properly, most of us can benefit from regular stretching, and that includes our canine companions.
Shelah Barr, owner of Happy Hounds Massage in San Francisco, California, uses stretching as part of her massage treatments she offers for small animals in all life's stages-including dogs, who “bang themselves up more than other pets,” she says.
The Honest Kitchen: How do you use canine stretching in your business?
Shelah Barr: I integrate stretching into massage to help elongate and relax a muscle, or to check if the range of motion a joint has seems “normal” or painful. That tells me a lot about the animal's body, where and how I should concentrate my work, or if the pet needs to be referred to a different specialist.
THK: What are the benefits of stretching your dog?
SB: Stretching elongates muscle fibers to help maintain or increase flexibility: think yoga. It also helps increase blood flow to muscles, which helps keep them healthy and strong. All that together can mean increased resistance to injury, better performance, and less stiffness and pain.
THK: What dogs are good candidates for stretching?
SB: Most any dog can benefit from stretching, with a few exceptions. Because stretching can increase range of motion, keep muscles healthy, and reduce chance of potential injury, it can help dogs whether they're a couch surfer, weekend warrior, or a competitive athlete.
THK: When should stretching be done?
SB: The best time to stretch your pet is when they're quiet and relaxed and there are few distractions. Nap time or bedtime are ideal. A healthy stretching session before bed can help a dog get more restful sleep.
There are newer studies that recommend that stretching not be done before an athletic event or any kind of intense play or work. The findings indicate that pre-event stretching can reduce performance and increase injury, but post-event stretching has been, and still is, highly recommended.
THK: What are at least 4 major muscle stretches dog owners can do at home?
SB: The neck, shoulder/arm, hip/leg, and feet/toes. Some notes about stretching: You don't want to force a stretch; your dog should learn this is a comfortable and fun activity to do; and overstretching can be harmful. Remember to only stretch the dog as far as they want to go, and if they want to move out of the stretch, or even away from you, let them go and try another time when they're more open to it.
Neck stretches are easy and fun for the dog and are especially good for dogs that like to play tug-of-war and shake their toys with a vengeance. With the dog sitting in front of you, use a treat to have them follow your hand up with just their head. A few inches up will do. Do the same turning their head to both sides and then down. Hold each position for 5-10 seconds then give them the treat after each stretch.
Dogs use their shoulders and arms to do just about everything, including holding the majority of their weight. Stretching these big muscles can help your dog stay limber and strong.
The easiest way to stretch the shoulder and arm is with your dog laying on their side with you behind them. If you're working on their right side, cup your left hand around the top of their shoulder and your right hand behind it. Your left hand is only a guide and won't be moving. Your right hand slowly moves along the back of the arm to above the elbow while slowly moving the arm toward the head, keeping the arm parallel to the floor. Stop at the point you feel some resistance—we don't want to overstretch or make your dog uncomfortable. Hold for 5-10 seconds, then switch sides.
If your dog won't lay down for this stretch, you can do the same thing from behind them while they sit.
The rear legs propel when they walk, run, jump, sit up to beg. They're also almost always the first place you'll see stiffness in a maturing dog. Stretching the back end is similar to stretching the front, just the opposite. With the dog laying down, and again we'll start on their right side. Now your right hand is the guide and your left hand will do the moving. So, right hand on the end of their hip right on the round part to the side of their tail, and your left hand starts where the leg and belly meet. Slowly glide your hand down the front of the leg while moving the leg back toward their tail. Keep the leg parallel to the floor and stop when you feel some resistance.
Feet and toes…ticklish things, especially for dogs. If your dog hates their feet touched, this is a great opportunity to help them learn it's a good thing. If they don't mind, then you're ahead of the game.
Slow and light is the best approach. From behind the leg you're working on, place one hand under your dog's entire foot. Use your other hand to gently massage each toe (4 on each foot) on all sides. If your dog lets you, gently bend each one up and down a teeny bit. And watch out for those webbed feet: Pressing on the webbing can be uncomfortable, so if your dog is built to be a swimmer, go around their built-in “paddles.”
THK: Is there ever a time stretching is not recommended?
SB: If your dog has an injury or a physical condition where stretching could cause harm, then wait until they're better to do it. You also want to avoid stretching your dog before they're about to run around a lot, perform, or work. It's also best to keep stretching time to when your dog is already relaxed or there won't be interruptions, like there would be at mealtime or when someone usually comes home from school or work.
Consult your vet if you have any questions about whether stretching is appropriate for your dog. If it is, keep him nice and limber with a few gentle stretches.
Jessica Peralta has been a journalist for more than 15 years and an animal lover all her life. She has had dogs, cats, birds, turtles, fish, frogs, and rabbits. Her current children are a German shepherd named Guinness and a black kitten named Riot (and he lives up to that name). It’s because of her love for animals that she focused her journalistic career to the world of holistic animal care and pet nutrition. In between keeping Riot and Guinness out of mischief, she’s constantly learning about all the ways she can make them healthier and happier.