Thursday, 30 April 2015

A Day in the Life of a Canine Massage Therapist

I recently became a featured member of the Good Vet Guide and they published an article from me about the Day in the Life Of....

I warned them it would be long but they published anyway.

"A Day in the Life of a Canine Massage Therapist – Dr Les Ellam from AchyPaw

I love writing, probably because I was an academic for 21 years before starting my new career. Researching new stuff, explaining what I do, writing about the benefits and conditions that can be treated with canine massage and myotherapy, are all things I do every day. But to explain a single day in the life of a canine massage therapist stumped me for a while

I looked back through my records at the dogs I have treated in the past 3 years. No day is actually the same. There have been a variety of ages. My youngest was a 6 month old puppy where I was actually called to help the owner bond with him more. By teaching her a daily massage routine the power of touch was remarkable and within a few weeks they were inseparable. The puppy had finally stopped climbing the ceiling as he found climbing into his mum’s lap for a massage was far more fun. Then there was the 1 year old who I was asked to help after they became over exuberant and strained some leg muscles. In the middle range, I have had lots of 8 year old dogs who have started to display signs of slowing down. They can often be treated on a regular basis to maintain mobility and quality of life for as long as possible. At the far extreme I have been referred a couple of 13 and 14 year old dogs for palliative care. The aim with those was not to treat the disease that was affecting them but to help them relax, ease their muscles and joints, so they could be relatively pain free with regard to their mobility to help their own internal healing.

Then there were the conditions I have treated. The list is lengthy. Muscle issues are clearly the most frequent on the list, followed by joint issues, arthritis, sports massage, spinal problems, lack of symmetry due to amputation, dogs with a fear of fireworks and even a dog with epilepsy. It is not just about prevention but also maintenance, treating specific injuries, rehabilitation, sports and relaxation. Personally I think to pigeon-hole the rationale behind canine massage and myotherapy as having one benefit is not the way to go. I prefer to think holistically – where the therapy can work on the whole body since everything is ultimately interrelated and interconnected. 

Recently we have expanded our toolbox of therapy techniques to include Reiki and Animal Healing for those dogs or owners who prefer a less physical treatment. Dogs have no guile; they don’t understand the concept of placebo. If Reiki or Animal Healing works on them, then it works, no need to question the whys and hows. 

As far as the numbers of dogs seen in a day, that can be anything from 1 to my largest number of 5. On one occasion I worked on 4 dogs of different ages and abilities back to back (literally too). They each had their own issues, their own ways of lying for me and their own 'feel'. The first dog was a true athlete, an agility dog who had muscles like Usain Bolt (I guess, not that I have massaged Usain Bolt.....) firm and plentiful. Dog #2 was a retired athlete, still possessing the sporty muscles but they were a lot looser with the beginnings of evident wastage. He fell asleep for me. Dog #3 was the puppy of the first dog and didn't know the meaning of “just try to relax”. I think she heard that as “wriggle as much as you can”. Dog #4 was an ability dog who had thyroid problems which had resulted in the loss of all his fur before being diagnosed and treated with thyroxin. With him it was all about the skin, no kneading. Lots and lots and lots of skin lifting, fascial work and stimulation. By the end of his session he was not only fast asleep but had noticeably softer fur. His owner said “ not spikey anymore”. A variety of dogs, a variety of conditions, a variety of aims, but in each the outcome was successful. 

Feedback typically comes from the dogs (apparently!) I am always surprised how many are able to send me selfies of them snoozing after a session or texts telling me how much better they feel now. 

There is also education. At AchyPaw, we not only treat animals but also like to share our knowledge with owners. After all, they are the people with their dogs 24/7. When treating a dog I always work with the owner. They sit in the treatment session with me and if I feel a tight muscle, or find a move that is very beneficial then I will share it. Everyone goes away with some ‘homework’ and I always follow up a session with a workbook of things to do tailored to each dog. This could be massage techniques or exercises, which is where the myotherapy side comes in. Massage is easy to explain but the explanation I like best is “The scientific manipulation of the soft tissues of the body, as apart from mere rubbing” (Prosser, E.M. (1941) A manual of Massage and Movement. 2nd ed. Faber & Faber: London). The effects and benefits of massage can be mechanical, physiological and psychological varying according to the intent with which massage is given, the selection of techniques used, the condition of the client and the frequency of sessions. Myotherapy describes muscle therapy or, as I like to explain it, the therapist exercising the muscle for the client. It is a form of manual therapy focussing on the assessment, treatment and rehabilitation of musculoskeletal pain. The term is not just a technique taught at a particular school but was originally used in the 1970’s by Bonnie Prudden to describe a specific type of trigger point therapy which she developed following earlier research and studies into pain and from myofascial trigger points. Used today, the term myotherapy incorporates a wider range of techniques including massage, joint mobilization, therapeutic stretching, exercise, postural advice and, most important for me, education. 

Demonstrating a few appropriate exercises to the owner that they can do with their dog to stretch and mobilise appropriate joints and muscles can then be their ‘homework’ to build on the therapy session with me and maintain the mobility until the next session. These exercises don’t have to be expensive with lots of kit. They can be simple walking, sitting or standing exercises. Our Sam loves the beach and loves digging in the sand. This is a great free exercise that is under my control. When I think he has had enough, I take the ball away. But while he is digging he is exercising his shoulders, back and rear leg muscles…..and it is free and fun. 

There are also days when we deliver one to one or group training sessions. These are great fun and allow the academic in me to resurface. The day always starts with a game and I ensure the session is not just a lecture but interactive and hands on. Those days in the life of a canine massage therapist can be hard work but very rewarding. Seeing a frisky boisterous puppy turn into a slumbering snoring dog in a couple of hours of being massaged by their owner can’t fail to make me smile. Or an older dog who struggles in but leaves with softer fur, a wagging tail plus an owner who is happy that they can now help their dog themselves. 

One thing that is always constant in my daily life though, is my own dogs. I never forget the reason why I started AchyPaw Canine Massage, which was to help our Sarah. Every night, she and her brother Sam, sit either side of me on the floor and have their daily treatment. Instead of being petted now by stroking, they get therapy. Not always intensive or long, but always some kneading, some effleurage, some stretching, all of which result in smiling faces and “Don’t stop now Dad” stamps of their paws. 

Is this the best thing I have ever done? Most certainly. The best job in the world"

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Looking through the eyes of love

As much as I love research, there are many that make me think “I already knew that” but it is good to read things that have now been proven scientifically. This recent piece of research is another one that seems to support the coevolution of human-dog bonding by engaging common modes of communicating social attachment. 

The latest piece of I-told-you-so was published in the journal Science and revealed ways in which humans and dogs bond with each other by looking into each other’s eyes. Japanese animal behaviourists (Nagasawa et al of Azabu University published here) found that interaction between dogs and their owners, especially by eye contact, raises levels of oxytocin in both the human and dog brains. Oxytocin is a very powerful hormone commonly referred to as the ‘love hormone’ since when we hug or kiss a loved one, the levels of oxytocin go up. And when the hormone elicits this caring behaviour, then the levels go even higher causing a looping effect. Because of this effect, it is said to play a big role in pair bonding. 

Although it had already been found that oxytocin bonding occurs in other mammals, too, (interesting fact –Prairie voles, one of nature's most monogamous species, produce tons and tons of oxytocin) humans were thought to be unique in using eye contact as part of this cycle. But now it has been shown that domesticated dogs and humans share the same effect. When the research team tested hand-reared wolves (which tend to be undomesticated), they found no such effect, and wolves spent little time gazing into their owners' eyes. 

The study is surprising to many who work on animal behaviour, as eye contact, especially staring or gazing, is typically viewed as threatening. However, a gaze shared between a dog and their human owner produces quite different results than one between two dogs. The team suggested that early domesticated dogs began unknowingly and unintentionally utilizing a mechanism meant for bonding a human parent with their child. Because those ancestor dogs benefited from the behaviour, the trait was passed on. 

If, like us, you tend to humanize your dogs, this piece of research gets even more scary. They found that that if they sprayed either oxytocin or a placebo into 27 dogs' noses in a randomised experiment, female dogs that received the hormone spent more time staring longingly at their owners, and oxytocin levels also rose in those people. So your girl dog really does look at Mum or Dad more longingly! Our Sarah will never go over that piece of research. 

There is a sweet little video from New Scientist on YouTube here which describes what we already knew. 

A study in 2012 showed that, in humans, giving a massage also helps to raise oxytocin levels ( So for the perfect double bond, giving your dog a massage and gazing lovingly into their eyes (probably not both at the same time as that could make for an awkward massage technique) the bond will be strengthened even more. We have actually noticed that often, when one of us massages Sam or Sarah, they frequently gaze at the other of us. Clever dogs! They get one oxytocin boost from the massaging Dad and another from the other Dad.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Further canine massage workshops : Next Steps and Warm-up / Cool-down routines

Last weekend we delivered our first “Next Steps” workshop which included a warm-up / cool-down routine. This added an extra 9 massage techniques to the 8 that were taught in the Introduction workshops. One of these moves was a move unique to us which we have called the "AchyPaws, Play & Stay technique" in homage to Paws, Play and Stay for hosting us.

That gives everyone a huge toolkit of techniques that they can now use on their dogs. We also included a demonstration and knowledge of a routine for warming up and cooling for everyday or specifically for sports. And to add to the bundle we included some revision of passive movements, joints and bones and a brand new active stretch technique. Not bad value for two workshops.

As usual we started with an interactive game. To assist with revision and see what everyone had remembered we started with the Post-It game but this time it was joints and bones.

It was Skye’s third time in the class so she resolutely lay down enduring the sticking.

Skye with her 'joints and bones'

It was first time for Little Millie and Big Disney but both behaved incredibly well as their joints and bones were stuck on.

Millie has an expression like "Dad...I'm only small.  I'm covered now"

Disney's first time with the Post-It game

During the event all sorts of lightbulb moments went off. We found a previously undiscovered trigger point on one dog, we found an area on another which caused a back leg to flick when the rear leg and lumbar muscles were massaged (possibly due to 'sticky' fascia or simply to muscle tension) and also discussed how the new active stretch could really benefit the Cani-Sports dogs.

Discussion time at the end (note all the chilled dogs)

We received some great feedback. Gary, the owner of Paws, Play & Stay Dog Hotel wrote “Furthering our knowledge and benefitting our dogs is what it is all about. The difference in Milly over the last 4 months is so noticeable - her feel, movement and recovery all affected with positive noticeable impacts, this transfers over on all of the dogs we lay our hands on in both massage sessions and just in general bonding in daycare Paws Play & Stay. Today's activity of warm up, cool down and further techniques has cemented the basic fundamentals and given me yet more substantial tools to benefit my dog's health and the relationship I have with them. Most noticeably for me is the enjoyable calming effect and bonding on both myself and the dogs I interact with. The valuable tools to take care of daily the impacts on our canine friends cannot be underestimated from diet, training and interrelationship bonding to recovery from injuries and maintaining a healthy dog. I cannot thank AchyPaw & Massage by Chris enough for your time and professional approach to Canine Massage."

And from one of the owners : "Great day today and all the dogs were really well behaved! Disney is still chilling even now Les, he went out on a double walk (first with Skye then puppy Toby) and has spent the rest of the day completely zonked! I am just about to see if Toby will let me do a bedtime massage so we have a quiet night!"

So another very worthwhile session. We are looking forward to our continuing relationship with Paws, Play & Stay.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Massage training for Guide Dogs and their owners

A few months ago I had a training session with Sue and her GuideDog Zara. She has been singing my praises and organised several of her friends to come and learn the best ways for a partially sighted person to massage their own dog.

We had cleared out AchyPaw HQ to accommodate the four owners and dogs who were due to arrive and went to meet them all at the bus stop. Immediately I was presented with the daily difficulties a partially sighted or blind person has to face. Walking up to our house there were lots of A Boards outside shops and cafes, bollards, seats, people and all sorts of things we sighted people take for granted that we can avoid. The owners had complete trust in their dogs to navigate the way through all these obstacles.

Once we had arrived, we released the dogs from their harnesses and they immediately became happy, bouncy, excited puppies. We had dogs racing round our house and garden sniffing, chewing, playing and generally being dogs.

Getting ready for the session

Princess Debbie had her own special mat

After a short while of this play activity, we got the dogs back and started the session with the Dot To Dot method that I had used before (borrowed from Natalie Lenton of the Canine Massage Therapy Centre) so the owners could learn to recognise what goes where on their dog.

We then took the owners through 8 massage moves that they could use daily on their dogs for general relaxation, if performed slowly, or for warming-up before their free-runs, if performed more rapidly.

As with Sue, the owners picked everything up in no time at all.

All in AchyPaw HQ

Professor Thomas enjoying his massage

Zara having a great time

Dogs everywhere

Bassey in bliss with his owner's technique

As the session went on, and their owners became more confident, the Guide Dogs became more chilled. But as soon as we had finished the routine and they knew it was all over, they reverted to play mode again emptying out our dog’s toy box, playing tug with one of Chris’s socks, throwing the draft excluders around as well as demolishing several litres of water and wee-ing in every available space in our garden (which kept our Sam and Sarah amused for hours when they returned home later that day).

We received lots of thank yous and goodbyes from all the dogs after the session.

Thomas gets an extra massage from Chris

Thomas says goodbye to me

And thank you too Thomas

Princess Debbie says thanks too

We ended the day with a final photo call of all the dogs waiting for their treat and in a line.

It's a treat Dr first, me me me

Bassey, smiling Debbie, Thomas and Zara

That had to be one of the best days, if not THE best day, of my new AchyPaw career. I look forward to hearing how they all get along and meeting them again.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

“And now for something completely different”

Our Sarah has been limping on and off for the past few months. We have tried all sorts from massage (of course), to magnetic therapy and even ultrasound. Plus we have had quite a few visits to the vets to see if they can actually localise the issue. She is now on long-term NSAIDs and is 75% better but I want that to be totally better. 

Although she is not displaying pain, in that her tail is up and she never drags behind, there is still an obvious limp on the front left leg. Plus she has recently started to develop a thickening around the left lumbar area as her body tends to be held in a slight U shape now – with weight being transferred to her right hind leg. We began to think that maybe her problem was no longer the arthritis but actually muscular. However we really needed confirmation and a second opinion plus an alternative method of treating her issue. 

 I have had acupuncture myself with amazing results so finally decided to book Sarah in for an appointment with a vet acupuncturist from our own surgery. Guy Liebenberg works at Coastway Veterinary Practice and is qualified as an animal acupuncturist. Yesterday we took Sarah over to his practice in Portslade for her session. 

He immediately diagnosed what he had thought – namely that her limping was not due to any problem in her wrist or elbow but actually came from her left. The original issue might have been her arthritis but he thinks that has now passed and the issue is due to her long-term compensation. 

He explained all about acupuncture and the results he has and proceeded to insert 12 needles into Sarah. Our girl is a tough ol’ girl and just stood stock still while he did it. He was amazed at her resilience so inserted some more taking the total up to 20. 
He said that she will yawn three times. “Okayyyyyy” I thought. So I looked at Chris, he looked at me, we looked at Sarah and she yawned. "That's number one" Guy said. We continued discussing her issues and she yawned again. "And there's number two" he said. A couple more needle twiddles and she yawned again. "Told you" he said. We were gobsmacked. 

She had her needles in for the full 30 minutes and simply rested her head in my hands looking at me as though to say “I don’t actually LIKE this but I will tolerate it as I trust you Dad”. 

I was very impressed that Guy didn't try to sell us a whole series of treatments but said that the one treatment today plus daily massage, especially with the hands-free Butterfly move that Chris has learned and started doing on her nightly, will finally sort her out. He said that using the two complementary therapies will be doubly beneficial and bring about much faster recovery than using either alone. He said that should the issue ever come back, then all we would probably need is another top-up session. 

Clearly dogs, although we now they are really intelligent, have no concept of a placebo effect. So if the treatment works, then it works. Who cares about the whys and wherefores, if it fixes it, then that suits me. 

We took her for a short walk and the difference was already noticeable. She had so much more mobility for the first time in weeks and her little backside was wiggling like mad. It was like she actually felt free. 

If you have a dog with long term mobility issues or know of someone who does, I can wholeheartedly recommend acupuncture. Drop me a line if you want to know more about our experience. 

That evening I saw a very timely article about animal pain from Dr Jessica Vogelsang and the importance of being able to recognise it yourself : ). 

At the end of her article she says “The best pain control in pets, as in people, comes with multimodal pain management: using more than one approach that addresses pain from multiple fronts. It’s good stuff. We’re blessed to be able to provide these comforts for our pets. If your pet has any changes in behaviour, from reluctance to eat to a change in exercise tolerance, give your vet a call” which is exactly what we did. 

Very timely indeed. 

Sarah all evening after her acupuncture treatment - fast asleep