| By Jorn Oleby
We humans have learned how important it is to do our stretches and warm-ups before diving into sports and exercise. By keeping our bodies supple through stretching, we retain flexibility and can maintain great energy. But did you realize that this same principle is true for our animal companions?
Many dog owners invest incredible amounts of time being active with their dogs in order to keep their animal companions physically and mentally alert. There is considerable research, and many more opinions, on the topics of what kinds of food and exercise are best for dogs.
But, no matter how well we care for our dogs, disease and injuries do still occur. As dog owners, there is nothing we can do to repair problems related to unhealthy breeding. Nor can we prevent all accidents. However, we can prevent muscle related problems and strain injuries by massaging and stretching our dogs regularly. This keeps the dog well-balanced, both physically and psychologically, allowing it to retain the agility of the young dog well into an advanced age. A well-functioning dog retains its natural elasticity and suppleness.
By contrast, a dog with restricted mobility has short and stiff muscles. In this case, when a dog has shortened musculature or tonicity, pressure is exerted on the joints, which leads to decreased mobility. This ‘strangles’ the blood vessels and impairs blood circulation. Muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments then receive insufficient nutrition and less oxygen. Impaired or reduced blood flow also indicates that the lactic acid that had accumulated in the muscles has not been naturally transported away. The lactic acid, therefore builds up, along with other waste products, thereby irritating the pain receptors in the muscles. As a result, the dog experiences pain. The pain, in turn, causes further tension and reduces the blood flow even more. A vicious cycle arises and will persist, until it is discovered and treated.
Another illness that may reduce our dogs’ mobility is Arthrosis. A common symptom of Arthrosis is stiffness and lameness, when connective tissues and cartilage become fibrous. It is common in older persons or dogs, and it especially affects the weight-bearing joints. Younger people and dogs can also get Arthrosis through genetic causes, injuries or the combination of being overweight and doing little exercise. Studies on dogs have shown that regular massage and stretching over a long period of time can prevent and reduce the effects of Arthrosis and age-related stiffness.
Massage and stretching are effective ways to prevent muscle-related problems and strain injuries. They should be conducted as a complement to daily exercise, obedience training, diet, and help build more contact between you and your dog in a natural way.
Warming up before an activity has a preventative effect, and stretching is just as effective after the dog has used its muscles. The dog should have warmed up and exercised, before you start to stretch its muscles. I recommend that you allow your dog to wind down after physical exertion. Let the dog walk for a while on the lead, in the same way a race horse runs an extra lap at half pace to round off the race. This helps to remove lactic acid and waste muscles. As with massage, it is important that the dog be relaxed before starting this treatment.
STRETCHING THE BACK UPPER FORELEG AND THE FLEXOR MUSCLES OF THE FORELEG
Begin by stretching the back of the dog’s upper foreleg and the flexor muscles of the foreleg. Hold the dog’s elbow with one hand, grasping its wrist with the other. Move the leg forward and upwards, stretching the elbow joint. Stretch the muscles slowly and carefully to their fullest extent. You will feel when the muscles become taut, causing resistance at the back foreleg. The ultimate position will vary considerably, depending on age, breed and mobility capacity. Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat the movement between 1 and 3 times. At each repetition, you can gently try to extend the leg a bit more. The aim is to work up to good mobility in the muscles by stretching. The result can be seen in an extended gait. If the muscle is shortened, the dog may appear to be lame.
The forelegs act as supports for the torso, and they bear a considerable proportion of the dog’s weight. Overweight dogs place greater pressure on these joints and ligaments. The same is true for large, heavy breeds. If they also suffer from shortened muscles, the pressure on the joints will be considerable.
By stretching, you keep the muscles extended and pliable, thereby, increasing the mobility capacity around the joints.
Warming up can involve walking with the dog on the lead for 15 to 20 minutes, before allowing it to run freely. In this way, the muscles soften up and are ready for physical activity. Competitive or working dogs should warm up in a more goal-oriented way. First remember that the dog should have warmed up and exercised BEFORE starting a competition or an active session. I strongly recommend that you also allow your dog to wind down after a competition or active session before any stretching exercises. Here is a checklist that may be used before a competition or active session.
Let the dog walk slowly for a while. Then increase the tempo for 2-3 minutes.
Let the dog trot for 2-3 minutes.
Let the dog gallop for 1 minute.
Then let the dog make some short, explosive moves.
Finally, let the dog wind down by going back to trotting and then walking.
Warming up does not tire the dog. Instead, it increases blood circulation and warms up the muscles, ensuring that the joints are lubricated and more supple. The dog is now ready to perform.
After the warm up, you could easily test your dog’s mobility by using the eight most common stretch techniques. You should be sensitive to your dog’s signals. The dog should not experience any discomfort. If it does, do not hesitate to contact the vet.
Place one hand directly above the knee joint, and the other on the lower part of the leg around the hock joint. Lift the leg upwards so that the knee is bent. Push gently upwards and backwards with the hand positioned above the knee joint.
After completing a competition or active session, let the dog wind down. Then carefully do some stretching exercises. Then when you return home, reward to dog with a massage. You will get a happy dog, ready for new challenges. Massage and stretching are essential, as well as a low cost investment into your dog’s health. On top of that, this process improves the quality of your dog’s life.
Jorn Oleby is the author of CANINE MASSAGE AND STRETCHING—A DOG OWNER’S MANUAL. You can find the book at the following locations:
South Africa: www.petspublication.co.za