Chris regularly goes to a Kettle Bell class (run by M2M Fitness) and on Saturdays often meets up with Sue and her guidedog Zara. Zara is a very special dog (aren’t they all) and even has her own Facebook page – http://www.facebook.com/zara.guidedog. Like most guide dogs, Zara is an attentive working dog while she is wearing her harness. But as soon as the harness is off she is able to revert to being a happy loving soppy puppy. So while her Mum, Sue, is flinging kettle bells around and doing other sporty things, Zara sits contently in the corner having a snooze or a cuddle from Chris.
Chris has told Sue about what I do with canine massage and she contacted me the other week to talk about it. We ended up being on the phone for around an hour. As Sue is very sporty she understands the value of massage and time-outs. When Zara is in guide dog mode, which happens the moment she puts on her harness, she is always attentive, looking round, ready to help Sue and generally being vigilant.
Sue told me that Zara is not just her first guide dog but her first dog ever so she went into this relationship with considerable trepidation. She has even read a book about her experience. She didn’t ‘speak’ dog like many of us do who have been brought up with dogs. As Sue says in her book “Then there was the small matter of the fact that I was not really a dog person……I think there is a misconception that when you are blind that you automatically have a guide dog and can read Braille!! Errr no, that certainly not my case”.
So, at first, whenever Zara made a noise or did something out of the normal Sue was on the phone to the organisation who replied “She is just being a dog”. Sue said that she was initially on the phone so much she was convinced they had made a special loop tape just for her which said “She is just being a dog…she is just being a dog”.
Even things like “Why does Zara not give her a paw?” whereas most of the other guide dogs do so at the drop of a hat, worried Sue. I reassured her that is because Zara is a girl…they don’t need to give you a paw. They are canny enough to realise that they will get the kiss, cuddle or treat without presenting their paws. Our Sam always gives a high five, his sister just looks at you as though to say “Dream on….and give me the treat”. Or why does Zara not always give her a kiss – does she not love me? Again I was able to reassure Sue that Zara is absolutely besotted with her and never takes her eyes off her. Zara may not give out soppy wet ones but that doesn’t mean she loves her less.
The outcome of our phone call was that Sue asked whether I could come over and show her how to give Zara a relaxation massage. This will help with her down time and help with the bonding between dog and owner even more. I was very excited about this new challenge – not the training of someone on how to massage their own dog as I do that frequently – but training someone who can’t see. This would be a new type of education process for me. Normally when we do training for canine massage, we demonstrate, then give the owners guided help. They may also get a workbook or a picture to follow. Of course, none of this is possible with someone who cannot see, but, as massage is all about feel and is a physical therapy, many people who have lost their sight have enhanced abilities to build a mental map of something.
How to start? Whenever I get stuck for ideas I put on the DVD presented by Natalie Lenton of the Canine Massage Therapy Centre and there it was.....lesson one, join the dots! Obviously I couldn’t use actual dots but what I could do was to place Sue’s hands on the bony landmarks of Zara so she can recognise what is where and then, by joining the landmarks, start to trace out the main superficial muscle groups – joining dot to dot. In that way she would learn where Zara’s muscles are and what they do.
I wrote to Natalie asking if I could ‘borrow’ her dot to dot method and received some good advice of doing a full body palpation myself beforehand so I could warn Sue if Zara already had any sore parts that we didn’t know about. Sue had already obtained the vet referral form necessary for me to work on Zara so everything was OK. As it was, Zara was a little reluctant to have her hind legs massaged and we guessed that was probably because she once had a necessary but uncomfortable procedure there, so maybe associated hind leg touch with anxiety.
So on Sue & Zara’s 2nd Gotcha Day – the 2 year anniversary of when Zara and Sue became an item – I went round to meet the lovely couple. Zara won my heart in seconds. And Sue was the perfect pupil.
All guide dog owners are taught a basic groom and feel routine so that are aware of lumps and bumps but this does not extend to the depth of massage. Interestingly, the first grooming move is the same as the way I do effleurage, namely toward the heart from rear end to neck, i.e. the opposite to the lie of the fur. I explained to Sue how dogs quickly come to associate this direction as ‘therapy’ rather than simple petting which Zara did immediately. Stroking her from neck to bottom resulted in frantic tail wagging whereas massaging her from rump to neck made her lie there attentively and eventually close her eyes in bliss.
We started by joining the dots of the bony landmarks so that Sue could picture where things were before we got down to actual massage training - again with me holding her hands and moulding them into the correct shape.
Sue picked everything up like a natural. We went through the various moves that I use for relaxation purposes and Sue seemed to immediately get the idea for pace and depth of pressure. OK, Zara was a bit wriggly and wanted to have tummy rubs, but this amount of attention was all new for her. She knew it wasn’t petting, she knew it wasn’t grooming so what was it? But she quickly got the idea and settled down. I had warned Sue that massaging a dog for the first time often involves you moving round a bit to fit in where and how the dog wants to lie but Zara is a bright dog, a VERY bright dog, she will get the hang of this Mummy and Zara special bonding time. She soon peppered us with big sighs of pleasure and grunts of approval every couple of minutes as well as the soppy massage smile and sleepy eyes.
At the end of the session I was chatting to Sue about her life with a new dog talking about her book and was generally massaging Zara when I noticed that quite a bit of heat was being generated from her neck area between the front and back of her shoulder blade. I asked Sue to put on Zara’s harness so I could see where it lies. Obvious really, the harness sits right between her shoulder blades. Also the harness is quite rigid and held in the left hand along with the lead so the neck and front end of the dog is always slightly turned at an angle when walking with their owner. Imagine the back end being straight while the front end is slightly turned forward with the neck slightly tipped upwards and to the right (have a look at the video I refer to at the end of this article). It is inevitable that Zara will be a little offset which was displayed by the difference in tension between the two sides and the heat being generated as I lifted her skin where the harness usually sits.
Sue quickly picked up on this so we tried a few skin lifting moves later which seemed to help very quickly. The fur on Zara’s back which was slightly coarser where her harness lies already started to feel softer.
The plan that Sue and I made was to carry on with the moves we went through today and then to return to add some more into the mix. Zara has already posted an update on her Facebook page of “I thoroughly recommend that all dog owners let their dog have a massage and learn the techniques like mummy, especially us working dogs… so all you Guide dogs talk to your owners and have this massage as it will keep us fit and healthy and in tip top condition.” Thank you Zara…it was my pleasure and I am looking forward to seeing you and any of your special guide dog chums again soon.
If you want to see a heart-warming video about two of Zara’s friends in Brighton made by some students of the University of Sussex, watch this YouTube clip. (http://youtu.be/4c8jH_jsgmg"). As well as being a great watch, it is very informative about how sighted people often disregard people with guide dogs and really raises your awareness of how special these dogs are.
Acknowledgements to Natalie Lenton who runs the Canine Massage Therapy Centre and her informative DVD “Canine Massage in 3 Easy Steps”.