See more of the story

After a taxing day of snoozing on the couch, sniffing hydrants and lunging at squirrels, my best friend Jenny needed a massage.

The fact that Jenny is a dog wasn't an obstacle thanks to Heidi Hesse, a Minneapolis resident and owner of Sound Hound Canine Massage.

If anyone could teach me how to rub Jenny the right way, it would be Hesse.

Canine massage isn't just the latest pet perk. It can help improve flexibility and movement or alleviate joint or muscle pain for a dog suffering from ailments like arthritis. It can boost the immune system and help with healing and reduce scar tissue after surgery, Hesse said. It can even reduce stress or separation anxiety.

"Some dogs just don't know how to relax," she said.

Since she started her business in 2016, most of her clients — from dachshunds to Great Pyrenees — have been older dogs, although she once got booked to give a dog a massage as a treat for its fourth birthday.

Unlike many of Hesse's clients, Jenny doesn't have a health or behavioral issues that I was trying to fix. I was just interested in keeping my 9-year-old, 40-pound, mixed-breed rescue dog mobile as she ages. I decided to learn some massage techniques that I could practice with Jenny while we're loafing on the couch watching Netflix.

"There's a lot more involved than just petting," said Hesse, a graduate of the Chicago School of Canine Massage and certified with the National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure and Massage. "It's a great way to bond with your dog."

You may not have heard of animal massage, but it's been around for decades. As with humans, it's used to help with injuries and promote recovery and performance among athletes — racehorses and dog agility competitors.

The "father of animal massage," according to Hesse, was sports masseuse Jack Meagher, who massaged pro football players and equestrian competition horses back in the 1970s. He wrote books about preventing injuries to two- and four-footed runners.

Now Hesse, who had a long career as a sound engineer for film and television, offers one-on-one hourlong massages for dogs in their homes ($70 plus tax and possible travel charges). She also has been teaching basic dog massage through Minneapolis Community Education and St. Paul Parks and Recreation.

What it's like

When she came to my house, Hesse asked about Jenny's health and history. At 9, my dog isn't young, but she's still pretty spry.

Hesse brought a pad that dogs can lie on for a massage, but it was easier to have Jenny stay where she spends most of the day: on the couch.

Hesse started playing "Through a Dog's Ear" on her phone. It's a collection of slow, lower-octave piano pieces that are supposed to be particularly calming for canines.

Jenny, a mixed breed rescue dog, meets massage therapist Heidi Hesse.
Jenny, a mixed breed rescue dog, meets massage therapist Heidi Hesse.

Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune

Then, she kneaded Jenny's pectoral muscles and stroking what she called the "sea of tranquillity" acupoint on her sternum.

"It's a nice calming point," Hesse said.

Hesse also stroked the calming "yin tang" acupoint between Jenny's eyes before moving on to long, slow, circular strokes, cross fiber friction on the sides of the neck, compression on the triceps and biceps, circular friction on the sides of the torso and mild shoulder blade rocking to stretch the trapezius muscles.

"It's a little tight in the neck, but not significantly so," Hesse said as she worked.

Certified dog massage therapist Heidi Hesse does some compression on Jenny's hind legs.
Certified dog massage therapist Heidi Hesse does some compression on Jenny's hind legs.

Shari L. Gross, Star Tribune

She used her fingers to vibrate and stimulate Jenny's hamstrings and pressed on an acupressure point on her ankle.

"This is great for hind end weakness," Hesse said.

Then she showed me how to do "ear glides," slow, soothing strokes along the ears that help calm and relax dogs.

We finished up with petrissage — rolling and kneading the skin — which Hesse said is helpful for the fascia connective tissue.

For the most part, Jenny seemed to like her massage. Sometimes she wiggled with pleasure. Sometimes her eyelids drooped like she was about to fall asleep. Other times, she interrupted the massage to sneeze, yawn, lick her groin or give Hesse a kiss. Once she jumped off the couch to give some affection to the photographer.

Afterward, Hesse gave me a report about what she observed in Jenny with information like "Latissimus dorsi (large fan muscle on side of torso) mildly tight with stringy trigger point in the right latissimus dorsi."

Hesse said Jenny seemed more comfortable than most dogs getting their first massage. In general, I think she just enjoyed the attention.

Hesse said if I wanted to try some massage myself, I should make sure to keep my movements slow and do a little bit at a time, five to 10 minutes every other day to start.

"The more she gets used to the massage, the more she will allow," Hesse said.

I wouldn't say Jenny was a changed dog after her first massage. (After Hesse was done, Jenny went right back to napping.) But she did seem to enjoy the special dog treat Hesse gave her for being such a good girl.