‘Tactile Stimulation’ – the ‘SLOW stroke’ that can help heal your dog
Today I have to wait for a parcel. I woke up early, walked and fed my two dogs, ate my breakfast and then, found I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I felt tired. I lay down on the sofa and my Weechon, Ted, jumped up and lay down in the tight space between me and the sofa. With my coffee getting cold beside me, I fell asleep, with my loving dog, dreaming by my side.
Can you relate to that delicious melting feeling of having a dog choose to sleep beside you? Or sit with her back against your legs or jump up and lie down on your lap? We all know that it’s pleasurable for us and for most of our pet dogs, to receive our consensual human touch. There are many studies about the link between our contact with dogs and the increase of oxytocin. The feel-good hormone. A few studies have been with dogs. Some studies are on mice, but most are on humans. Since our physiology is like dogs, we can make some general correlations between the two.
“The healing gift of touch is in your hands”
Human and dog relationships consist of building trust when it comes to closeness. It depends on the individuals involved and their history. Sometimes there are no barriers to the kinaesthetic element of our dog relationships. We need to be patient with the canines in our lives. Therfore, we must strive to provide the right kind of contact with our dog companion. If she chooses to stay and accept our touch, both of us will experience positive hormones. It’s important to pay very close attention to their body language. Dogs never stop communicating, especially when we are close to them.
I can get a bit more technical than that. There is a special type of touch that is very beneficial to dogs, and it’s called ‘tactile stimulation.’ In their paper entitled ‘Self-soothing behaviors with particular reference to oxytocin release induced by non-noxious sensory stimulation,’ Uvnäs-Moberg, Handlin, and Petersson examine ‘…the fact that the anti-stress effects of oxytocin are particularly strong when oxytocin is released in response to “low intensity” stimulation of the skin…’and…
In other words, touching a dog in a consensual way, with a very light, slow stroke is a stress reducing activity! I first heard of this light touch ‘therapy’ for dogs from my teacher, Turid Rugaas, during my training. Carina Ulvestad is one of Turid’s previous students. Carina had presented her paper, ‘Tactile Stimulation,’ at the Dog Symposium Norway in 2015. You can read her paper here from page 10.(2)
‘Tactile Stimulation’ is a very light, slow stroking. You use both hands and touch the large muscles of the dog, like ‘effleurage’ but without any pressure. As you are stroking with one hand, the next one, rests lightly on the dog’s body. The second hand takes over before the first one is at the end of the dog. Your dog should always feel at least one hand on them. You can start with the back of the palm if that’s more acceptable to a dog who is not used to touch. As Carina reports ‘The skin is the largest organ in the body, and is covered in sensory nerves…. Tactile stimulation involves these superficial nerves, not the deeper muscles. The nerves in fact respond best to slow input, like a ‘slow stroke.’(2)
The best way to start, is to sit down somewhere comfortable for you both, and see if your dog comes and sits beside you. Take your time if you have a dog that is new to you and/or is unfamiliar and uneasy with touch. You will need to build up trust with slow, consent-based touch. Fifteen to twenty minutes is the ideal amount of time for a ‘tactile stimulation’ session. Carina recommends stroking your dog ‘very, very slowly, at about 3cm per second, with the flat of the hand just touching, not pressing on, the dog.’(2)
It’s important to allow your dog every opportunity to move away from you if they choose to. Stop if they start communicating that they are uncomfortable. They may turn their head, lip lick, or yawn etc. Some dogs may feel uncomfortable but may not move away from you. Stop and wait for a signal if you sense their unease. They may seek your hand, or they may move close again and present part of their body before you continue.
Once your dog is comfortable with a session of 15-20 minutes, continue to do it every day, for a few weeks. Three weeks is what I remember Turid recommending. This way, it becomes a good ‘habit’ as Carina says and the nervous system of your dog will build upon this relaxation. After three weeks of daily tactile stimulation, a dog’s neural pathways may heal past trauma.
There are plenty of papers covering ‘somatic’ touch for trauma on humans. I refer to the same paper mentioned above and found that ‘When oxytocin is administered repeatedly long-term effects are induced. For example blood pressure and cortisol levels are decreased and pain threshold as well as the release of gastrointestinal hormones such as insulin is increased for several weeks after the last administration of oxytocin.’ They go on further, with much scientific detail to conclude that ‘The long term anti-stress effects caused by repeated exposure to oxytocin …. which leads to decreased stress levels and reactivity to stress..’ and ‘Other effects of repeated oxytocin administration are increased rates of learning and wound healing.’ Carina echoes what the research proves – keep offering healing touch to your dog.
I have found that ‘tactile stimulation’ is a very valuable and bonding activity to do. My two ex-breeding rescue dogs, Nash, and Ted, responded very well. Our dog Nash passed away in 2017. Nash was part of our family for only four years and suffered from congenital heart disease. I learnt about ‘tactile stimulation’ one year after adopting Nash. I offered my hands to Nash every day, for twenty minutes, for three weeks. Nash was always happy with this routine and the results were profound.
Before this three-week experiment in closeness, Nash was a much different dog. He had evolved since we had adopted him. He was more confident and calmer but was still operating in ‘flight or fight’ mode much of the time. The tactile touch seemed to re-wire his brain or relieve him of his past trauma. He benefitted from this unique method of hands-on care. And so did our bond.
“The fight or flight response is an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening. The perception of threat activates the sympathetic nervous system and triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or flee.”(3)
Last April 2021, I started offering tactile touch to our second ex-breeding dog, Ted. Here are the first few sessions with Ted, captured in diary form below. (Don’t worry, my husband, Brett, provided Izzy with tactile stimulation so she didn’t miss out.)
I spent 15-20 minutes giving Ted tactile stimulation today with his consent. He was on edge though. I sat with him on the bed, beside me. He only lay his head down on the bed for 1/3 of the treatment. He was alert to sounds from the kitchen and our neighbours. Our other dog, Izzy, jumped on the bed twice during the session. My hands felt rough on his coat. His hair on his belly is matted and I am glad he is getting a grooming next week. I consciously emptied my mind of stressful thoughts – in fact, I did this so well that I almost fell asleep. Still, Ted was not as relaxed as I had hoped. He did not move away though!
For the 2nd night I struggled giving Ted his session. It was noisy and hot upstairs with people moving around. Ted couldn’t settle but did not move away from me. He really needs to be clipped (groomed) and I found, like I mentioned above, that my hands were rough, so I put lotion on my hands. He didn’t like the smell. He finally relaxed during the last 10 minutes. I started using music with high frequency to accompany the sessions – he seemed to like it.
I had a bad day on Monday and Ted picked up on it. Like the night before, it was difficult for Ted to relax. He didn’t move away but kept doing ‘licky monster’ so I stopped after about 5 minutes. I just kept my hands on his thigh and he went to sleep with no stroking.
Tuesday night was good. Ted took only 5 minutes or less to settle and moved a few times to get different sides of his body touched. He was completely relaxed. It helps when I ask my family to be quiet ahead of time.
After these days, my time with Ted grew easier and easier. I committed to three weeks and then, once per week. Playing ‘High Frequency Relaxation Music for Dogs’ (A YouTube Video) during the twenty minutes helped. The cue of the music set the mood for Ted. Something I didn’t need to do with Nash. Although with Nash, we lived on a narrowboat at the time and the constant ‘rocking’ of the boat was an asset!
Ted is now a different dog when it comes to touch and grooming. He allows me to comb under his armpits and remove mud from his feet. He is okay when I have to touch his belly. He is still in ‘flight or freeze’ mode (he’s not a fighter!) but much less than in 2020 when we adopted him. Ted seeks out human touch now.
Before we moved to Yorkshire, in October 2021, both of our dogs got a bad case of fleas. The grass in our neighbourhood was jumping because of the many cats around. Our dogs had never suffered with fleas before. We flea combed them about six times per day! Not only did Ted enjoy this and ask for grooming, our JRT, Izzy, begged to be flea combed. Izzy has a bad back and grooming her this often every day helped her back condition! We bought some ‘Deneem’ from Dr Conor Brady and got rid of the fleas.
This experience with intense grooming opened my eyes to the healing nature of touch. We all find ourselves busier than we would like to be. We see our dogs lying in their beds near to us, but they miss our touch. It’s important to take a break from work or whatever, sit on the sofa and ‘be there’ for your dog. Make ‘tactile stimulation’ part of your coffee break. If you don’t have time for that, plain contact is a good place to start.
Making a commitment to try ‘tactile stimulation’ for three weeks is kind of like a promise to your dog. It made me feel positive about helping my dogs. Our bond grew. At times, I found it difficult to stay awake! With both dogs, I felt like there was a before ‘tactile stimulation’ and after. It drew a healing line through our relationship. Like a jumping off point where we would get better, together. It’s a shared experience. I learnt about each dog by making the time to observe them. Let the oxytocin flow!
I hope that what I have shared makes sense. I also hope that you try this simple and profound way of connecting with your dog. Like most valuable things in life, it takes time and patience. I think it’s time I offer my dogs another three week spa treatment of ‘tactile stimulation.’
Additional resources consulted: