A relaxing session with a client named Doug da Pug.

Massage therapist Rubi Sullivan never needs to ask her clients to disrobe. But otherwise, the dogs she treats have much in common with people getting a rubdown. "They respond a lot like we do," says Sullivan, a former preschool teacher and the owner of Heal Animal Massage in Portland, Oregon. "Some will relax, stretch out, take deep breaths. Others just yawn and fall asleep." While sessions don't involve candles and incense, Sullivan says a melodious soundtrack can come in handy: "Soft music helps nervous dogs calm down. I like playing piano and classical music for them—and Yo-Yo Ma."

Photo: Laurine Apollini of Apolloni Vineyards
Sullivan works on Samson, a black Labrador.

Sullivan is trained in techniques like Swedish massage and soft tissue therapy, but her regulars aren't just pampered pups being overindulged. Most of them have osteoarthritis or joint inflammation, or are recovering from surgery. For senior pooches, the psychological rewards can outweigh the physical ones. Says Sullivan: "I worked with an older long-haired collie named Quincy, who had painful arthritis, for more than a year. The massage was great for his sticky joints, but the mental stimulation really perked him up."

Photo: Andie Petkus
Through her clients and volunteer work at shelters, Sullivan has helped care for at least 500 canines. But a special pair of pups stand out. "Sacha is my three-legged dog, mostly German shepherd, from the Galápagos Islands, and Thor is a 12-year-old Great Pyrenees I adopted ten years ago," she says. "They're not spoiled, but they definitely demand hands-on attention—and I'm happy to oblige!"


Three easy massage techniques to try on your dog, courtesy of Rubi Sullivan.

1. "Gentle percussive taps on an area can stimulate weak muscles and help stressed dogs relax. Try doing it right over their sacrum, which is at the base of the spine between the hips, or on their chest."

2. "There are a lot of muscle attachment sites where the neck meets the base of the skull. That's a great area to knead—it can help loosen tight muscles."

3. "Using your palm, slowly and firmly stroke your dog from head to tail or down each leg, going with the grain of the fur. This stroke can slough off dry skin, improve blood flow, and more."


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