Should you give dogs treats during a massage treatment?
17 Dec, 2019
There are a number of viewpoints among canine myofunctional therapists about the use of food rewards while treating a dog. For me, I am happy with using food rewards if it supports our (my and the dog’s carer’s) treatment goals. Factors that would influence my view of using food rewards would include the number of treatments the dog has received, the dog’s history with being touched in an intentional way, the dog’s history in a clinical setting, the dog’s personality, and the dog’s response to food.
Here are some pros and cons of using food during a massage treatment.
Pros of using food rewards
Introductions and acclimation
For shy or anxious dogs, using food during the initial consultation can assist the dog relax and start exploring their environment. While I am taking a lifestyle and health history for the dog, we can scatter food on the floor of the treatment room and allow the dog to use their nose to “forage” for the food.
This scattered food game has a number of advantages. Firstly, the dog must lower their head and use their nose to find the food. Lowering the head calms the dog and eating food triggers the autonomic nervous system response of “rest and digest” vs “flight, fight or freeze”. Secondly, it encourages the dog to move around the treatment room and explore the space so they can feel safe and comfortable. While they are exploring the space, the dog is becoming accustomed to my smell and the sound of my voice. Finally, this “game” allows us to determine the dog’s comfort levels. If a dog is too worried to move away from their owner to find food, then we need to take this into consideration when formulating a treatment plan.
Pair food with massage treatments
Initially, massage treatments are a little disconcerting for dogs. Dogs can be unsure of how they need to behave and position themselves to be treated. Additionally, they may have sensitivity in some body areas which causes them to be cautious about being touched in their areas. By rewarding the dog for lying or standing in a particular way to be treated and pairing touch with a food reward, the dog’s confidence and level of comfort with being massaged increases.
During a treatment, the placement of a food treat can reinforce for the dog the position we want them to hold for treatment. For instance, placing a treat on the floor in front of the dog’s nose, reinforces them for holding a comfortable drop position.
Ease of re-positioning during a treatment
As I don’t manhandle dogs to re-position them during a treatment, using food as a lure can be useful. Asking the dog to follow a piece of food in your hand is a gentle way to move dogs into a new position.
Cons of using food rewards
Food obsessed dogs
The main downside to using food rewards during a massage treatment is when the dog becomes overly focussed on the food. Dogs that are “obsessive” about getting the food wriggle, move and are generally not relaxed. In this mode, it is difficult to treat the dog and the benefits of a treatment are diminished.
Additionally, the presence of food can sometimes override the dog’s ability to consent to a treatment. When the dog is obsessing about food, they are unable to give me good signals about their level of comfort being handled in particularly areas. During a massage, I rely on the dog’s responses to guide the treatment. When the dog’s mind is focussed on treats, they are not giving me good indications about the treatment.
One way of reducing a dog’s focus on treats is to lower the value of the food reward. For example, if the dog is obsessing about cooked chicken, consider using a dehydrated liver treat or even pieces of fruit or vegetables i.e. apple, carrot etc.
Limit digestive process after a massage
Ideally, after a massage treatment, dogs should toilet, have access to plenty of fresh water and rest. I recommend not feeding the dog for several hours after a massage so the effects of increased circulation (including lymphatics) can deliver fluid, oxygen and nutrients to the organs and muscles and remove waste. For this reason, limiting the amount of treats offered to the dog during the treatment is beneficial.
While using food rewards are useful during a dog’s initial treatments, for some dogs the treats can be phased out as the dog’s understanding and confidence with the massage treatment protocol increases.
For more information about how you can help your dog feel comfortable receiving a massage, please contact Full Stride. Full Stride offers remedial massage treatments to keep dogs active and pain free.
Until next time, enjoy your dogs.