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Your Happy Pet: Stretch your dog for flexibility

Original Publication Date: March 17, 2014
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

When I was young, I could bend over and touch my toes. I could even touch my palms to the floor.

Today, I can just touch my toes.

Similarly, when my Irish wolfhound Zoe was young, she was so flexible, she could bend and reach a cookie placed on her rump.

As she aged, stretching was still a favorite activity, but like me, her reach became more limited. Zoe and I lost range of motion as we grew older.

With age, muscles and tendons become shorter and tighter. That reduces flexibility and makes you and your dog more susceptible to muscle, joint and tendon injuries.

Flexibility is important for a dog of any age but especially for an aging dog. Age tends to give way to arthritis and neuromuscular problems that rob joints of freedom of movement.

Maintaining or increasing range of motion by stretching can keep your dog up and moving comfortably, improve his athletic performance and reduce the risk of injury as he works or plays. This is true whether he is going for a walk around the block, playing fetch, chasing squirrels in the yard or working as a service dog.

So, how do you get your dog to stretch? You can teach your dog to perform what canine massage practitioners call an active stretch. You choreograph the stretch, and he does the work. A lateral stretch is a great way to start. It is a simple technique that your dog will probably think is a game.

The trick is to first stabilize the dog so he remains relatively stationary during the stretch.

To stretch a small dog, place your hand on the hip opposite the direction you wish him to stretch. Steady a medium or large dog by standing next to him with your leg against his hind quarters.

Hold a small treat in front of your dog, and let him get a good sniff. Move the treat toward the dog's rump. He should follow the treat with his nose. Continue to anchor his hindquarters so he cannot circle in a tail-chasing motion.

As the dog's nose follows the treat in your hand, he stretches the muscles of the neck, shoulder, rib cage and trunk, increasing flexibility.

Always stretch both sides of the dog.

The first few times you try the technique, the stretch should last at least five seconds. Once the dog understands the stretch will result in a reward, encourage him to hold it at least 10 to 15 seconds.

The benefit the dog derives from the stretch relies on your ability to entice him to hold it for several seconds. Lots of praise for pets is just as important as the treat.

Stretching can maintain and increase flexibility while reducing the risk of injuries. It also increases circulation, refreshes tissues and can result in increased energy levels.

Encourage your dog to stretch. He will enjoy playing the game with you, and you will appreciate the health benefits for him.

Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at