E318: Aleks Woodroffe - "Canine Massage for the Sports Dog"

 In this episode, I interview Canine Bodyworker and Scent Work Trainer Aleks Woodroffe on the benefits and application of canine massage for our sports dogs.


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast, brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high quality instruction for competitive dog sports, using only the most current and progressive training methods. Today I have Alex Woodroffe here with me to talk about her journey to becoming a canine body worker and scent work trainer.

Melissa Breau: Hi Alex, welcome to the podcast.

Aleks Woodroffe: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me join you.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, I'd love to talk a little bit about you and kinda your journey as a trainer. Do you wanna just tell us a little about your dogs maybe and what you're working on working with them?

Aleks Woodroffe: Sure. I've got two dogs right now. I've got Tana, who's a seven year old flat coated retriever, although we've trained for a lot of other things. We're just playing nosework now and she's pretty well titled and we're having a lot of fun with that. So right now she's at the summit level and kind of chipping away at extra numbers at the master level in AKC.

Melissa Breau: So cool.

Aleks Woodroffe: So yeah, we're working just on nosework stuff and finding tuning things and because she's seven we're always working on fitness stuff for her. So that's kind of a daily fun thing that we get to play with with her. And then my other dog, George, which is actually Tana's baby, I bred her last year or two years ago because I really quite like Tana.

And so with George, he's young and he is enthusiastic and we're doing all the things with him. So right now his BA main focus is nosework, but we'll get into agility soon. I'm gonna try for me my GP tracking, which we need. We need some obedience and kind of fun stuff like that.

Melissa Breau: Very cool. Lots of fun stuff. So how did you get into all this stuff? How'd you get into Canine Massage dog sports? Perfect. So in 2008 I did have a flat coat retriever and she was full of energy and I knew we needed to do something. So I got into the sport of agility, and agility was super fun. We were doing club stuff and it was something that I really loved. And so then I got into it more and more and I started teaching and in 2015 she actually got injured with a psoas injury.

And so because she got injured, I had to go through all the rehab for it and took a lot of time off. And I realized at the time in Phoenix we don't really have any canine massage practitioners. And so because we didn't really have anybody that I could go to for something like that, a friend and I, we both went up to Colorado and we got certified so that we could go do canine massage.

And we lucked out that all the laws were changing in Arizona at the time, so it actually became legal just as we became certified. So it was really kinda a nice benefit that we could get out there and not just work on our own dogs but actually do it for other people as well. And that I got bit by the bug at that point and I really started enjoying being able to help out fellow competitors in agility.

But then it started expanding more and more from there. And it's something that I don't do, like all day work because it's very physically demanding and mentally demanding. But I do several clients every week that I can work on for massage.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. So what kind of got you started on the positive training journey in particular? Luckily because I got into dog sports from agility, I really didn't end up going with any other methods than learning positive at the very beginning. I grew up on a horse farm and so we worked with high-end dressage horses and they're powerful and I'm not a very big person. And so very quickly you learn, you have to have a lot of respect for the animal around you and work with treats in your pocket and guess what?

You can make them do anything, especially as a young girl growing up. So I did a lot of that stuff just with positive reinforcement from the very beginning. I remember when I was little, I used to have a field spaniel and I was playing agility in the backyard. So at the time in Canada, super dogs. So I grew up trying to do super dogs with my dog in the backyard and it was all with treats cuz how else do you make a field spaniel? You'll do anything. So yeah, that was kind of how I got started.

Melissa Breau: Interesting. If I was to kinda ask you to describe your training philosophy these days. Yeah, for sure. So I still definitely am positive reinforcement based. I might be a little bit more open-minded because I've worked with a large range of dogs. I work with a lot of Schutzhund dogs and Schutzhund trainers as well as obedience and agility and all these different nosework and professional dogs as well.

So detection dogs and of course all the philosophies aren't all the same. And so I've seen how you can apply different methods. It's not necessarily how I like to train, but I understand them. So my relationship-based training is still relationship and watching the dog and responding and I like, I'm the philosophy of splitting things down. If they aren't getting it, it's probably because they aren't understanding it and punishing isn't necessarily my method for it. It might be a faster answer in some situations. I like training so I go back to the training aspect and kind of putting some finesse and joy and enthusiasm into it and then put it back together. So I do that kind of same thing, not just with training but with massage as well. So we do a lot of fitness training that way and massage that way.

Melissa Breau: Is that observational based thing. So you kinda talked about this a little bit in there, but kinda looking at training that way, how does that impact what you do with massage?

Aleks Woodroffe: Sure. A lot of massage is patience and being able to see the responses in the dog as they are getting touched in different locations and seeing what their responses are and being patient and allowing them to process and tell you what's going on.

So it's a very much still trust and relationship based kind of interaction through observation in observation, meaning like watching their eyes, watching how they respond, their body to your hands and to your touch and different locations that you're touching. So their eyes are big. I didn't realize that I looked at their eyes so much until I worked on a dog that doesn't have eyes.

Melissa Breau: It was kind of eye opening if you say right. Pun intended.

Aleks Woodroffe: Okay. Yes, exactly. Yeah. So I realized at that point that I watched their eyes cuz they start getting a little squinty eyes and soft when they're happy. When it's something sore then their eyes bolt open and you can tell a lot of information from their eyes, but you can see it through the way that they're breathing, the tension in their body and all those kinds of things as well.

Melissa Breau: So since massage is such a big part of what you do, do you, do you mind just kinda talking a little bit about what the benefits are?

Aleks Woodroffe: Sure, for sure. Well the reason why I got into it at the very beginning was rehabilitation, right? Working with muscle tissue that's not healthy and that you're trying to increase circulation and get it healthy.

It can really help with surgery. I work with a lot of my clients after surgery, not necessarily where the surgery happened, but through the rest of their body. So compensations that happen when they're not walking evenly. It also really helps with flexibility, range of motion, having that healthy tone of muscle. So as a dog's building muscle and they have regular massage even though they don't have all these pains everywhere, you can really build nice even muscle tissue and support the dog that way. Circulation, having a lot of blood flow through those areas which promotes healthier muscles and reducing stress, which was kind of a side effect that we don't always think about. I don't have her anymore, but I had a very reactive anxious dog, which actually got me into nosework way back when. But because she's so stressed, we would do massage to reduce our anxiety levels and actually reduce the endorphins in her system that are causing some of that anxious energy and it really can help with something like that.

Melissa Breau: Interesting. I mean it kinda makes sense, right? Like a lot of times humans go in for massage for stress purposes, so yeah, exactly.

Are there different types of massage for some of those different things? For sure. There's like the overwhelming therapeutic is what you call it, a wellness type massage. Those ones are gonna be for seniors or if you just want your dog to go in and get a nice overall massage full body looking at everything puppies, we do a lot of the massages for puppies.

I do a lot of massages for puppies for sport dogs because those owners want their dogs to be touched and introduced to what canine massage is before their dog needs it. So there's the therapeutic kind of things. What I do most of is sport massage, so very targeted. It can include trigger point therapy, which some people are very amazing trigger point specialists.

I'm not one of those, but there are some really great people out there that do really good trigger point massages, but it's very targeted. It's not necessarily whole body and you're looking more at addressing a single little piece of the body that has an issue. And then there's deep tissue massage, which I could tell you many dogs don't tolerate deep tissue massage because if something hurts, a dog doesn't wanna be there for it. In humans we think about deep tissue a little bit more often. Especially for sports massage, you have to be a little more thoughtful about deep tissue with a dog and they have to be able to tolerate it.

Melissa Breau: Right, that makes sense. Kind of to that point, do dogs need training? Are there skills that it makes sense for dogs to have before they try massage or before you start massage or any of that?

Aleks Woodroffe: Yeah, the big answer is no, not really, but the dogs that understand what a massage is are much easier to work on. I don't find that a dog needs a certain position so they don't have to be laying down on their side, which is typically what you see when you see people doing massages, is the dog's nice and perfect. It's always a Border Collie at agility. I can tell you Border Collies are way easier to say, "Can you lay on your side please?" After like two or three sessions they get it. I have retrievers that I work on that will never lay down and the closest we can get, I call it turtle position, where they're in a perfect lay down, like a down position, but they're knee elbows underneath and their knees all tucked up and that's all we get and that's their position and that's fine. We can work on a lot of different things. Maybe they stand up for different pieces so you can get to their legs, but you don't have that typical, I don't think that because a dog needs to learn how to lie down means that that person can't have massage for their dog because their dog doesn't do that thing.

Right. But it doesn't mean that you can't teach it and build up that experience. The more the dog is experienced in massage, it's cool you can start seeing them know they can give a response. So they might look at you a little bit and they go, that's a spot. And you go, okay, and you move on because it's sore. You continue there a little bit and the dog goes, okay, thank you. And they really know how to respond back and forth with the massage therapist. So it's kind of cool to see that experienced dog happen.

Melissa Breau: Interesting. Thinking about canine massage for the average sports athlete, right? When, when are we looking at it? Are we talking about it as part of the warmup, as part of the cool down, just when the dog's injured? Like what do you, when do you recommend it? When do you kind of integrate it into the dog's life?

Aleks Woodroffe: For sure. There's two different versions, right? There's non-sport days and then there's sport days. So if we're talking about a sport dog and doing canine massage right now most of my clients see me on non-sport days.

So we are working on ongoing issues, we are keeping track of things. We're maybe keeping an eye on different parts of the body to make sure nothing new is popping up. And so those are gonna be on the end of therapeutic massage with little pieces of sport massage within there to make sure that we're addressing any sort of tension or issues that are popping up in their body.

So that's away from the sport day during massages. And I've worked national events and I've worked at just local events as well. There's a whole bunch of different groupings. So I find some dogs really don't do well for massage until the very end of the day. They get too relaxed, they get too loose and then they're slow. Like in agility, they're a little bit slower to move, they aren't as finessed, they aren't so powerful. Other dogs need that warmup and they get really tight easily. So having a little bit of a warmup massage, which is gonna focus more on circulation and getting blood flow moving that works really well for them in the morning or first thing in the day. Other dogs need little tuneups throughout the day. And so the little tuneup in the middle of the day might be really good to hit a very specific location, like maybe the middle of the back or really tight muscle in the leg. And then it can keep that circulation going. So your warmup actually lengthens a little bit longer without a lot of the problems that can happen from cooling down to quickly after doing sports. And then you have the cool down. Tight massages might be right after the ring, which is a lot more circulation based and making sure the lactic acid isn't building up or you do at the very end of the day before they go home so that they're ready to go for the next morning. So a lot of different versions I find different people have their different preferences and the dogs have their own preferences on when that happens.

Melissa Breau: And I imagine it's a little bit of trial and error to kind of figure out what's best for that particular team, right?

Aleks Woodroffe: Exactly. Exactly. And so you notice, oh my dog's a little slow today, they're kind of sluggish. Ok, let's not do that before again.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, fair enough, fair enough. Yeah. So when we're, when we're talking about like handlers actually doing some of the massage workers, is there information or Yes. What kinds of information can they kind of gather from working maybe a little bit on their own dog or, or maybe they should watch out for as like an early sign that something may be becoming more sensitive or might be on the verge of an injury or you know, talk to me a little bit about that stuff. So I find canine massage is the biggest thing that we can do to really keep track of that stuff. We can watch our dogs and I find we don't watch our dogs as much as we should because we're ahead of them or above them and we don't see that kind of thing. And so a canine massage can be really helpful for that.

So regularly you're doing it on your own, which I really recommend, even for my massage clients, I'm like, okay, here are the basic stuff that you need to be doing on your dog every day so that you can get a feel of what's going on or you're going to see a massage practitioner and then you're having a regular appointment with them. And so then they're keeping track of things as well.

It depends on, some practitioners will keep notes themselves, some will give reports. It depends on what one, if you feel like you wanna keep track of those things, you can always ask them to give you notes. Whether that notes is just written in a text message or you're getting a full on report, which is really kind of nice to have.

But you can keep track of things that are happening and it's the patterns that are happening. So it's not just once that we see something that pops up and then we have to get worried. And it might be, but maybe it's that same like, oh they're really sore on their back. Oh they're really sore at the specific part of their back again and again and again.

So then we start going, okay, is there a fitness program that needs to be happening to prevent this? Maybe there's an ongoing something you need to go see your vet and get a diagnosis for. And this is talking about healthy dogs, right? It's not just an injured dog, a healthy dog that's going to come in specifically in the massage itself.

There's a few things that we can be looking for to have the dog give us that information. So there's things I call 'em behavioral reactions. So you can have something like as simple as the dog wants to get up when you touch a certain part or they turn over on their back, which looks really cute, right? But it's submissive. It's trying to turn away from that pressure on their back or wherever you're touching.

That's a problem. I see it most often if you're touching like a sore spot along the middle of their back or in their glutes and they might turn over and they go, okay, that's enough. You don't need to touch that anymore. Right? So that's one of those behavioral reactions. Other ones can be a little bit more specific. So eyes getting wide, that's an easy one if you're looking for it. If you're not looking for it, you might not see it at all head turning cuz that's the precursor to head turning and snapping that really fast turnaround that goes, Ooh, that's sore. Something I might see that on is a dog who has a tight psoas muscle, which is, if you talk to agility people that's like, oh my gosh, it's psoas muscle. Because if you have an injury in psoas, it's a really hard rehab and it's an easy muscle to get injured when there's other things going on. So a head snap when the psoas muscle is touched, that can definitely be an indication that something's going on there. It doesn't necessarily mean that that muscle's injured, it could just mean that it's tight or guarded because it's sore.

Other things are vocalization, some dogs are really vocal and not even just like yelping, right? It's like, or growling grumbling. And you can hear different kind of vocalizations that will happen when you touch different parts of their body. So it is good indicator, you kind of recognize that and you go, oh, maybe we need to stay here longer.

And that's what that signal means. Other ones it's like, okay, we're gonna leave that alone for a little while and maybe we'll address it again later. Maybe they're just feeling overwhelmed from something else and you come back to that location later and it's nothing. And so then you let the dog give you that information as you move through. Trying to think of some other ones. I've had some that will put a paw on my hand every once in a while. Okay, that's enough. We don't need to touch that anymore. But usually the eyes and head turns and then how tense they are within their body will be big signals for you.

Melissa Breau: Do they just kind of relax into it over time? If everything is going well? Okay.

Aleks Woodroffe: Yeah. Yeah. So if you hit a spot, and I was working on a Border colleague just like a few hours ago, and as he was laying there, we got into his glutes and I just gentle pressure right on that location of the glute that was really tight and the whole leg stretches out and you can see even the toes stretch out to the very tips and it stretches out behind him and then the everything and the whole body goes, ah. And he just relaxes on the bed and the head down. And before he was like looking at me and twisting around and moving around and he hit that spot and, and he is like, yep, that's it. And so it's really cool to see those releases when they happen.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, that is pretty neat. Yeah. You, you mentioned kind of rehab earlier and, and I'd love to dig into that just a little bit more, you know, how can massage work maybe be complimentary to vet care? Can you talk a little bit about the role when we're talking about recovery or treatment of an injury?

Aleks Woodroffe: Sure, for sure. The biggest piece about any sort of injury, and this I think I'm gonna speak for almost all K9 massage practitioners, is try and get a diagnosis before coming to us first. And there's like, I've been there in the agility world, it's like my dog's lame or they're sort of off, can you put your hands on and see what's going on? And like I understand it, especially as a competitor, but at the same time massage is the most effective when you have a diagnosis when you're working with a team of good specialists.

And so most of my clients now, because I'm doing most of my work from home, I do ask for diagnosis because it allows us to have a unified front to try and treat something. The veterinarian teams, when you go in to get a diagnosis or we have a treatment plan that's in place that normally has other modalities, things like acupuncture, maybe acupressure or some of that can be done by a massage practitioner if they're certified a laser.

You've got really high powered lasers that the vets can use and very much target a specific location, maybe even prescriptive medicine. And being able to have that forefront of dealing something acute can be very effective. Or maybe there's arthritis or something happening like that within the system and you need to know that to be able to manage it effectively and not just kind of guess when you're guessing it's kind of like ongoing, like hopefully it makes it better and you don't really know if it's happening or not. So being able to work with a team that can really be helpful for something like that. With the vets that I work with and I work with several different rehab vets as well as specialists, I find that they use my information because I have a dog that's calm and I'm patient.

I have a lot of time that I can spend with that dog to be able to figure out exactly what's going on or close-ish. So maybe they weren't able to figure something out, they came and saw me and I got to work on them a little bit and then I've seen something even more specific. Then they go back to their vet and now we have an actual diagnosis that can happen.

So that's really kind of cool to go back and forth within the teams or maintain a post-surgery or post rehab, okay, this is ongoing and we're getting some compensation still happening here or they're still turning out on their shoulder here. And so then we can work back and forth to try and figure out what's going on. If there's something further, maybe one piece of the problem was fixed, but maybe there's another piece that was also injured at the same time. And so working with a team can really help with something like that.

Melissa Breau: That makes a lot of sense. And I can see how being able to have kinda some of that back and forth conversation is really useful, especially if you're willing to talk to their vet.

Aleks Woodroffe: Yeah, yeah. I actually, so not all vets want to email back and forth and I totally understand like their life is so busy. So sometimes I just give the report to the client if they're going to be going back and forth with a vet frequently. I say like I let them communicate that to me and I will give them a full on report versus just my notes that I see that day and it's ongoing.

Just healthy dog stuff. So yeah. So you're offering a workshop and all of this canine massage stuff at at FDSA. It starts June 25th. Do you wanna just talk a little bit about what the workshop's gonna cover and maybe who should consider signing up? For sure. So the sports or the, the workshop itself is gonna be focused on sport massage and because that's what I do most of, and I think that's going to be most of the people that are wanting to do the workshop, especially through Fenzi, is they've got sport dogs and they wanna make sure that they're keeping up with their dogs and trying to keep them as healthy as possible, which I'm totally supportive. I think that's awesome. Teaching people how to do massage on their own dogs is really helpful, even as a canine massage practitioner, cuz it means they're gonna come in with some more information. My dog keeps getting sore right here, right? And then we can work at it and come in with my expertise to say, okay, well have we looked down here, what about over here? Maybe it's front end that's causing this back end and we can kind of nail down that stuff.

So the workshop is gonna be focused on sport massage and what will happen with the owner. Maybe at the end of a day that they're at an event and they wanna do some cool down and help their dog release some of the stress that might pent up from a certain massage or a certain sport. But I wanna make sure people don't think that they have to have this perfect dog that lays down, even my dog who it took, she's seven for the videos that I took for the workshop. She's not one that was like that at the very beginning. She's lying down really nice on her side for the demos now, but that took me five years to build from Puppyhood. All right, so don't think that you have to have this perfect dog. They can just be sitting.

What's nice about doing canine massage at home, and I'm hoping that this kind of gets portrayed in that workshop is that you could do it in bed, you could do it sitting, cuddled on the couch watching tv. You don't have to have this perfect environment that we think of for canine massage. So something that I'm doing with the workshop is not really diving into too much anatomy.

I think Sue's out there doing an amazing job with her classes and there's some really great classes through Fenzi to really have the time to go into anatomy. So I'm not gonna spend that time doing that. I'm gonna go through major areas in the body and kind of generalize them a little bit more and focus on how to work with each individual types of dogs.

So at the very end of the workshop we'll go through different types of sports and what muscles might be affected by different kinds of sports and what you might wanna look up for your dog. Very cool. And so in terms of who should consider signing up, pretty much anyone's out there competing any age limits or anything there to worry about? Not at all.

Senior dogs are welcome. I find if you've got a younger dog knowing how to do this, putting your hands on your dog, everybody's getting used to it so that by the time that they meet reach middle age, they're gonna be a little bit more used to it and you can get your feeling of what they should feel like as the time goes on.

Melissa Breau: Are there any times when messages are not recommended?

Aleks Woodroffe: There is. So some of the main ones is when we don't want circulation to move something through the system. And that's kind of the easiest way to think of it. So things like fever or severe illness, abscesses, cancer, valley fever, or any other fungal infections like that cuz you don't want it if it's localized somewhere,

you don't want cancer spreading through the rest of the body. Now there's end of life consideration. So if that's your dog, then massage might be a good end of life care for easing pain. But being very aware that it increases circulation so you have more chances of things spreading through the body, fresh injuries. So if there's like a cut or a sprain,

you don't wanna be putting any sort of pressure on that location. And something that doesn't always is like a strict rule, but in general, as a canine massage practitioner, I'm only going to touch a dog with a spinal injury on their extremities. I'm not gonna work around that spine until the heeling is there if there's gonna be heeling. And so being very aware of any sort of spine issues like bulging discs or slip discs and things like that.

And then the last one is if your dog says no, and that's something that we don't always pay attention to because we have our plan, we're going to sit down, we're gonna learn massage. And so letting go of our ego of what we think we should be doing is gonna be pretty important for that. So if you have a dog that says no, try and pick a different time of the day, maybe a different place. Maybe you're doing this on the carpet in the middle of the floor and you're like, okay, we've all set up and your dog's like, no, we're not doing this here. I'm really exposed. So maybe hanging out in bed or on the couch or somewhere a little bit more relaxing for your dog, maybe pulling out a big comfy dog bed that might be the answer. But if your doctor says no, you're gonna have to listen to them. Don't force a massage on a dog that really doesn't want it.

Melissa Breau: Yeah.

Aleks Woodroffe: Could you imagine if somebody dragged you to the massage? I mean, that's just not ideal, right?

Melissa Breau: No. Any final thoughts or key points you can maybe wanna leave listeners with?

Aleks Woodroffe: Sure. The big ones is that I want you to observe your dogs. I don't think that we do enough of this observing and even documenting our dogs. I know Sue Yanoff is a big one on this too. Take video of your dog, take photos of your dog, and not just like, oh, they're cute of their face. I wanna see how they're sitting.

I wanna see are they roached in their back as they're standing, are they moving? Okay, are they even when they're moving? And if you can do this regularly, you can start seeing chronic issues, something that happens over a long period of time a little more easily versus oh, all of a sudden I just noticed something, but how long has it been going on?

Nobody knows. So the more that you can document your dog from the side and just having video, the more you can see some of these things. And then the last one is like get a diagnosis. If you have a dog that has an injury or you suspect something's going on, I do find the vet is the best spot to start. And coming to a massage practitioner with that information is really helpful. And then I can start creating a whole plan. I'm a recent canine fitness trainer certification, which is really kind of fun.

Melissa Breau: Congrats.

Aleks Woodroffe: Thank you. It's the same thing there is coming in with some sort of vet approval and knowledge coming in is gonna be super important because fitness training is not rehab training, and so we have to make sure that we're very clear on where those lines are, so yeah.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Well, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much, Aleks, for coming on the podcast.

Aleks Woodroffe: Yeah, thank you.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it. If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.

Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast, music provided royalty free by bensound.com. The track featured here is called Buddy Audio Editing provided by Chris Lang. Thanks again for tuning in and happy training.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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