One of the great joys of my job is that I get to spend my days with a rotating cast of characters. During the course of our sessions, I build a relationship with each dog. When I arrive for our appointment, I watch their reaction to my arrival. Are they seeking out my attention or are they caught up in the excitement and movement in the house? Do they head toward our massage area or do they wander to a distant corner? Do they move into my hands or are they more interested in being in my space but just out of reach? Most importantly, what do their eyes and ears say? Are they soft and gently laid back or are they searching and erect, alert to any distraction?
All of my dogs expect me to pay attention to what they have to say and to incorporate that information into our interaction. Sometimes those cues say, “I’m not in the mood to be touched on my head” or “I feel restricted when you have both hands on me” or even “your hands feel needy today and I don’t like it”. Other times I hear “please work on my neck” or “help me stretch my legs.” Whether I perceive it as positive or negative is not the dog’s concern. He just asks that I respect it.
Zorro is a terrific example. Zorro is a 7-year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Bred to retain juvenile features, Cavaliers are often joyful, engaging and high-energy. Remember how cute and bubbly Charlotte York’s puppy, Elizabeth Taylor, was on Sex and the City? That’s not Zorro. He is an old soul in a young dog’s body. Zorro doesn’t enjoy toys, he rarely plays with abandon, he is cautious and reserved. His sister, Katie, stands in stark contrast, a typical attention-seeking Cavalier. More often than not, he sits in Katie’s shadow, watching and waiting—but no one is sure for what.
I work with Zorro every week but no two weeks are ever the same. Even from the start, my work with Zorro has been focused on the mental and emotional rather than physical aspects of massage. If he had had more confidence, I would have said he was aloof, a bit too cat-like in his unwillingness to interact. But he wasn’t aloof, he was unsure in many situations and his default behavior was to move back quickly to an open area and reassess.
From the beginning, I learned to move slowly with Zorro, checking in constantly to ensure that he was comfortable with my touch. Zorro taught me to temper my energy, to release only what a dog wants or needs. It’s not uncommon for me to massage Zorro one-handed. He often gives the impression that my using both hands is restrictive, needy, and scary to him. He always needs a way out, just in case there is danger lurking. I respect that.
Zorro is very sensitive to my moods and emotions, so I’m careful to assess my own energy even before I go into his house. He taught me the power of my energy during one session when he pulled away from my hands, moved a few feet away and sat down. He looked back at me, and seemed to tell me that I needed to clean up my mess before I touched him again. He was right. I was tired, felt like I was being pulled in five directions and was in over my head. I reoriented myself and moved toward him. He allowed me to approach, sniffed a bit, looked into my eyes and stayed still as I worked myself into a better massaging position.
We finished that session and as I reattached his collar, he lingered. He looked directly into my eyes, paused, then wagged his feathery tail and spun in a quick circle. That is his happy dance. Amazed and moved, I decided to engage him further. I leaned forward on my knees, assumed a play bow position and gently slapped my hands on the floor. He spun again—and this time he smiled. It’s on! I leaned further forward and slapped my hands again, this time harder, making a sharp crack on the hardwood. He quickly retreated and spun again. This time, he play bowed back. I crawled forward with my head and body low, doing my best Big Cat imitation. He let out a short, high-pitched whine of delight and took off for the kitchen. On all fours, I chased after him, again slapping the floor with my hands and scurrying noisily into the kitchen. Scraping and digging in for traction on the slick floors, Zorro sped around the island and back into the dining area where we had started.
As I was cornering the kitchen island and in hot pursuit, a smiling and giggling fool, I nearly ran through Karen, Katie and Zorro’s mom. Think freight train versus bicycle. Luckily, I’m not a speedster and was able to pull up before we made contact. We both looked at Zorro smiling and happy and playful. He had allowed himself to relax and play, at least briefly. The change in his face and posture was incredible. The serious shroud that usually hung from him was lifted and replaced by a lightness, almost weightlessness, that surrounded his form. He was carefree.
Now when I visit with Zorro, I look for that glint of lightness in his eye. Does he want to go back there? Does he want to race around the island? What does he want from our session this week? If I listen closely enough, he’ll tell me and I’ll take him anywhere he wants to go.