Chapter Five...The Art of Stretching

  • Stretching and Range of Motion (ROM) Massage refers to gently pulling and extending the limbs, neck, head, tail, shoulders, hips and waist of the dog within its normal movement parameters. Stretching and keeping free the dog’s natural range of motion is incredibly important. Dogs stretch spontaneously and naturally which helps to tune up their muscles and help keep their joints flexible. In normal conditions, a dog will not overstretch or cause themselves injury. Regular stretching can help to prevent muscle problems, promotes relaxation, and develop your dog’s body awareness. Stretching will improve your dog’s coordination and give you feedback on his physical condition.

    The benefits of stretching are both physical and cerebral. It is important to note that if your dog has had recent physical problems associated will fall or trauma, surgery to the joints and muscles, it is best to consult a veterinarian before beginning a stretching program.
    Frequent stretching exercises result in increases flexibility and better movement, increased metabolism, and a decreased propensity for injuries.

    What flexibility does for a pet:

    Physical Benefits

    When you stretch a muscle, you lengthen its fibers. This action generally affects the Gogli sensory nerve cells and the muscle spindle sensory nerve cells, resetting the feedback mechanism to the central nervous system. The results of this are vasodilation and tonification of the fibers.
    In addition stretching improves the tone of the muscle fibers and the elasticity of the ligaments and joint capsules. Since stretching therefor reduces muscle tension, it can prevent muscle tears. A strong and pre-stretched muscle resists better than a strong but un-stretched muscle. Better elasticity of the muscles, tendons and ligaments allows for free and easy and more controlled quick movements- resulting in better overall coordination. Stretching not only prevents muscle strain, ligament sprain and loosens joint capsules, but it also makes the body feel more relaxed. It releases muscle contracture due to old scar tissue, helps to relieve muscle pain from chronic tension and reduces the soreness or stiffness associated with heavy exercise. Muscle stretching increases blood and lymph circulation and brings more oxygen and nutrients to all parts of the body. It prevents inflammation and scar tissue formation, trigger point formations and stress point build-up. Regular stretching will improve the range of motion of the joints, the length of stride, overall coordination, and the response time of the reflexes. The physiological benefits to the body are immediate and it should be stressed that stretching regularly should be added to all general massage routines.

    Cerebral Benefits

    A dog’s body awareness is mental. Therefor one aspect of stretching is cerebral, or mental, as this exercise develops body awareness. During the ROM massage, as you stretch each part of your dog’s body, you are a catalyst for them to focus on each part. This helps to develop the dog’s self-awareness to each of those parts, which in turn helps them to form better reflexes and coordination during all types of movement. The stretching of muscles sends relaxation impulses via the sensory nerves to the central nervous system, reflexively loosening the dog’s mind control over their body. Stretching will also decrease motor nerve tension transmitted throughout the body. The animal will relax both physically and mentally which can be an important aspect of healing for dogs’ that have been through accidents and coinciding emotional trauma, dog’s which are fearful or suffering from ongoing pain.
    Stretching will give you feedback on the state of health of each of the muscle groups, tendons and ligaments with regard to their elasticity and tone- this can be evident in the dog’s response via facial expression, posturing, or resistance in the event of pain or discomfort.

    Stretching must always be done when the dog’s body is warm, not doing so could result in injury. Stretching after a warm up walk or light trot will limit the risk of injury from overstretching. It is best to stretch as cool-downs immediately after a play or training session. It should be done every day, after all training or heavy play sessions, and should be included in your massage work.
    Again, if the animal has had any medical intervention concerning their muscles or ligaments or joints, or if they have been sedentary or inactive for some time, always consult the dog’s veterinarian before beginning a stretching or massage regimen. More will be discussed on networking with vets and working within your scope of practice allowances later in this book. Part of stretching and massage work with regard to feedback, is that it helps to form the care plan and the training program so that it is always benefiting the pet progressively. Note that if you need to stretch an area during a localized massage treatment for a handicapped or physically impaired dog, that area can be warmed up with a hot towel, a hot hard pack wrapped in a cloth or simply by gentle massage.

    Understanding the Stretch Reflex

    This reflex is a protective mechanism which prevents a muscle from being overstretched and torn. The stretch reflex is a nervous reaction caused when the muscle spindle, a sensory nerve cell, is overstretched. When overstretched, the muscle spindle fires nerve impulses to the spinal cord. The reflex arc mechanism located in the spine then fires back motor nerve impulses that cause the instant muscle contraction. This contraction prevents the muscle from being injured. So, it is important to NOT overstretch, do not try to reach beyond the muscle’s maximum flexibility. Instead, just hold the stretch in a relaxed manner and for a longer period of time. The dog’s flexibility will increase naturally when you start stretching regularly.
    How to Stretch: To attain the best results, you need to respect the structures that you are working with. To manipulate correctly, it is important to be concerned with the animal’s natural body alignment. Always stretch and move the limbs within the animal’s natural range of motion and do not exert torque in an abnormal twist. Stretching is not a contest to see how far one can stretch, or how much more you can stretch each time. The object of stretching is to relax muscle and ligament tension so in order to promote freer movement and to trigger all of the other benefits listed above. To achieve all of this you need to stretch safely starting with the easy stretch described in this chapter, and building to a regular, deeper stretch. Never go too far; the stretch reflex will cause a muscle to contract to prevent tearing of the fibers.

    Stretching should always be done in a relaxed and steady manner. The first time you stretch your dog, do it slowly and gently. Give the dog time to adjust its body and mind to the physical and the nervous stress release that stretching initiates. This stretch should be tailored to the animal's particular musculature structure, flexibility and varying tension levels.
    Again, because you will risk tearing a muscle in ligament fibers, do not overstretch. When you release a stretch, gently return the leg to its original position. Note that many dogs show varying degrees of sensitivity to handling. Understand that how you handle your dog from the beginning is a very definite impact on how you will be able to handle the dog in the future. Make a distinction between a reaction to pain and objection to handling.

    The Easy Stretch
    Always start with the easy stretch. The easy stretch means stretching only 75% to 80% of the total stretching capability of that particular body part and holding it only for 10 to 20 seconds. Your dog will enjoy this gentle approach. Be steady in the development of your work. Never work hastily or with jerky movements. Do not pull excessively on the leg because you risk tearing muscle fibers by over stretching. For example take hold of the dog's foreleg and guide it through its forward range of motion, bringing it to its natural point of stretch. There you should feel a mild tension, and at that point, release your traction slightly. That is the easy stretch. Be relaxed as you hold the stretch.
    Hold the position for 10 seconds during which the tension should subside. Then gently return the leg to its natural position.

    The Deeper Stretch
    Once the dog it's used to the easy stretch, you can work into the deeper stretch. Start with the easy stretch. After the initial 10 seconds, and as the muscle tightness decreases, adjust your traction until you feel again a mild tension. Hold for another five seconds. If your dog does not mind, repeat two or three times until you feel you have reached the maximum stretching capacity of the muscle. Do not exceed one minute on any given stretch. Avoid triggering the stretch reflex by over stretching. Be in control.
    Spontaneous Stretch
    Often during the development stretch and sometimes during the easy stretch, the dog will spontaneously stretch himself only for a few seconds. This is a definite sign of the animal is enjoying the stretchable needs it very much. As you hold the limb during such spontaneous release, you can feel all the deep tension coming out as a vibration- and this is quite an experience. After such a release, there is no need to hold the stretch further. Bring the limb back to its natural position. The stretching routine before leg stretches there are three foreleg stretches: the forward stretch, the backward stretch, and the shoulder rotation.

    The Forward Stretch
    This protraction movement will stretch the muscles involved in the retraction of the foreleg. Pick up the leg above the paw with one hand and place the other behind the elbow. Gently bring the leg forward and upward. This stretch will affect the muscles of the shoulder: the trapezius, the rhomboideus, the latissimus dorsi, the serratus cervicis, the deltoid and the triceps. Once the dog is well into the stretch, maintain the tension with one hand behind and above the wrist, and with your other hand extend the paw. This action will deepen the stretch of the flexor tendons. Be gentle and cautious.

    The Backwards Stretch
    The retraction movement will stretch the muscles involved in the protraction of the foreleg. With one hand, pick up the leg above the paw. Place the other hand in front and below the elbow joint. Gently bring the leg backward until the radius bone is slightly past the 90° angle with the ground. This is a good stretch for the muscle of the chest and the upper leg, specifically, the pectorals, the brachiocephalicus, the biceps and the extensors.
    Foreleg Backward Stretch
    Once the dog is well into the stretch, maintain tension with one hand in front of and above the wrist, and with your other hand flex the paw. This action will deepen the stretch of the extensor tendons. Be gentle and cautious.

    The Shoulder Rotation
    The following variation will help loosen deep muscles such as the pectorals, the serratus cervicis and thoracis, the intercostal fascia, and to relax the ligaments and muscles of the shoulder girdle structure. Slide one hand between the chest and the forearm, and with your other hand grab gently the lower foreleg above the paw. Start a circular movement moving the leg inward, then forward, outward, and back. Repeat 3 to 5 times then reverse the movement. Avoid excessive pressure at the shoulder joint.

    Behind Leg Stretches
    There are three hind leg stretches: the forward stretch, the backward stretch, and the hind leg transverse stretch.

    The Forward Stretch
    This protraction movement- also known as the hamstring stretch- will stretch the muscles involved in the retraction of hindleg. With one of you hands, pick up the paw. Position your other hand below and behind the hip joint, and gently move the leg forward in its natural line of movement. While the leg is forward, you may consider moving it a little inward. Do not move the hind leg to the outside because this is not a natural movement and it could adversely affect the hip joint. This is a good stretch for the muscles of the hips and thighs including the tensor fascia latae, the gluteus and the hamstring muscles (the semi-tendinosus, the semi-membranosus and the biceps femoris). Once comfortable in the stretch you can consider extending the paw to deepen the stretch over the flexor tendons. Be gentle and cautious.

    The Backwards Stretch
    This retraction movement will stretch the muscles involved in the flexion of the hip and of the leg. With one hand pick up the paw and place your other hand in front of the hip joint. Bring the leg back through its natural range until you feel the stretch. Once comfortable in the stretch, you can consider flexing the paw to deepen the stretch over the extensor tendons. Be gentle and cautious. This is a good stretch for the following muscles: the iliacus, the sartorius, the tensor fascia latae, the quadriceps femoris, the extensor and the abdominal muscles.

    The Hind Leg Transverse Stretch
    This is another movement to stretch the quadriceps femoralis muscle of the hind leg and the TFL muscle. Grasp the rear leg above the paw on the opposite side of the dog and bring the leg under the belly and slightly toward the opposite front paw. Be aware of the torque you will produce on the hock and the stifle joint by stretching this way. Do not apply too much pressure. Be gentle, paying attention to the dog's comfort.


    The Back Muscle Stretch
    There is no particular stretching movement for the back muscles, but by reflex, you can affect these muscles if you press your thumb into the belly region, right over the attachment tendon of the pectoralis minor profundas muscle on the sternum bone. This will cause the dog to tuck up, thereby rounding it's back and stretching these muscles: latissimus dorsi, iliocostalis and the spinalis dorsi. Also tickling the belly will cause the same reflex. This is one of the easiest stretches. Another way to affect these muscles is to stimulate the sacrum area along its edges was some thumb point pressure moves. This will cause a reflex action in the abdominal muscles which will result in arching of the back structure and stretching of the back muscles.

    The Tail Stretch
    The tail stretch is a great way to produce a feeling of deep relaxation in your dog. This stretch is a major part of the relaxation massage routine. When approaching the rear, use gentle stroking along the tailbone and down the buttocks before picking up the tail with one of your hands. Leave the other hand on the sacrum. Take hold of the tail a few inches from its base and gently move it in a circle starting clockwise, two or three times.
    Repeat in anti-clockwise direction two or three times. During these movements take note of any restriction found in moving the tail to either side. At this point, move to the back of the dog and gently pull on the tail using 1 to 2 pounds of maximum pressure (use commonsense don't pull to the point of discomfort). Hold this stretch for approximately 1 minute unless the dog shows discomfort. Usually if the dog is feeling good, it responds positively by pulling against your traction or lowering its head. Use light muscle squeezing moves between the thumb and fingers on your right hand. Gently squeeze each vertebra from the base down to the tip and keep stretching with the left hand. Reverse hands if that is more comfortable to suit you. Take note of the tail's flexibility, looking for sore spots and possible inflammation. Release the stretch progressively and then stroke the hindquarters and the sacrum area for a few seconds. If the dog shows discomfort, if you find inflammation or abnormal symptoms with palpation of this area prior to your stretching, the stretching would be contraindicated. Check with the dog's veterinarian before progressing.

    Neck Stretches
    These neck stretches will affect all aspects of the next muscles. You can do all stretches using an incentive such as a piece of dog biscuit. This makes the work much, much easier.

    Lateral Stretch
    Allow the dog to sniff the "incentive" and guide it towards the side/back. This movement will stretch the next extensor and flexor muscles on the opposite side. You can increase the lateral stretch by asking the dog to stretch further towards the point of the hip. Talk softly to your animal as you get it into the stretch. Do both the right and left sides.

    Action Stretch
    As with the lateral stretch, using an incentive, guide the dog's head down in between its legs. You can add a variation into the stretch: as you bring the head down into it's there as you bring the head down, move its head either to the left or to the right with your hands. The extensor muscles will thus be thoroughly stretched. For maximum benefits, ensure your dog does not flex his elbows during the stretch.

    Neck Extension Stretch
    As with other next stretches, use an incentive to get the dog's head upward and out as far as it can go. This moment will stretch the next flexor muscles.
    Regular stretching exercises will contribute greatly to the dog's overall flexibility and fitness. They should be part of its regular exercise program. Done individually, stretching will assist you in the application success of your massage treatments.