Sophie paced around the room, unnerved. She had never had this kind of treatment before and didn’t know what to do with herself. I was under the covers, face down on the massage table. But her nervousness made it hard for me to relax, which in turn made her more anxious. To calm her down, I invited her onto the table with me. She curled up and settled as I stroked her ears. “Good dog, good dog,” I whispered.
Yes, Sophie is my dog, and yes, we got a couples massage. I’ve had Sophie since 2013, and for a while it was just me and her. But in 2018, I rescued a six-month-old pup. Since Sophie hadn’t quite volunteered to share the attention I had lavished on her before with an interloper, I decided to take a trip for just the two of us. So as 2019 came to a close, we set off for Paws Up, a high-end dude ranch about two hours from where we live in Montana.
The idea was to lounge around the fireplace, spoil ourselves with steaks, and play fetch as often as the schedule allowed, but upon arrival I discovered that their spa offered something special: couples massages with your dog. My mom and I used to go for massages together on our special occasions, so I jumped at the chance to continue that tradition with my own dog-child. I called my mom to share my discovery, and in between bouts of laughter, she agreed I had to try it. We both pictured Sophie and me getting tandem rubdowns; however, the therapist explained she would work on us one at a time (with a special dog-friendly massage oil for Sophie).
It turns out Sophie and I aren’t the lone human-dog duo learning about the benefits of getting joint massages. “People started asking to bring their dogs in,” says Wisconsin-based bodyworker Tami Goldstein, who has been practicing for 15 years. During her career she’s worked with clients alongside their dogs, horses, goats, and even a 30-pound cat named Zeus. About 65% of Goldstein’s clients live on the autism spectrum disorder or have other neuro-developmental conditions and processing disorders; having an animal present can enhance the therapeutic experience. “Sometimes I can’t get to the kid right away, but if I start with their animal, we create this beautiful, melded circle of the owner, the pet, and myself working together,” she says.
Science backs up the health benefits of dog ownership in general—even the CDC thinks you should have a pet—so it’s not surprising that sharing a massage with your dog can be a rewarding experience. “There’s a substantial body of research that demonstrates the positive physical and mental impact that dog ownership has on people,” says Rebecca Greenstein, D.V.M., the veterinary medical advisor for rover.com. She specifies that physical contact with pets in particular makes our lives better, adding, “In the right context, shared massage therapy would certainly enhance the human-animal bond and be a win for everybody involved!”
At our own treatment, I felt that. At one point during the session, the masseuse who was working on me started to knead my tense shoulders, and while normally I’d be focused on the pain that comes with relieving troublesome knots, this time I was rubbing Sophie’s ears, passing that healing energy on.
“We’re electromagnetic beings: everything we do involves energy,” bodyworker Goldstein explains. Anyone with a dog knows how easily a pet can pick up on the way we feel, sometimes before we’re even aware that we’re feeling anything specific at all. This canine intuition is one of the major pluses of dog companionship: It’s proof of the infinite depths of love of which only dogs seem capable.
Bringing that relationship into a therapeutic session designed to heal can be highly effective. “The one thing that loves you unconditionally is on the table with you,” Goldstein says, explaining how this eases the client into a deeper state of relaxation. “That parasympathetic response…that’s when the body heals. So if you’re coming in for pain or trauma, now you’re in a state where you’re more ready for that healing.”
Perhaps that explains the uptick in wellness services designed to include dogs, from L.A.’s YogaForce, which offers “doga,” to the Hotel DeLuxe in Portland, Oregon, which has created a proper English afternoon tea just for guests and their dogs. And while treatments like the one I did at Paws Up—which has been doing this for more than 13 years—are still niche, the trend appears to be gaining traction. Last year Ubika Spa in Sydney, Australia, ran a successful one-day event with human-dog couples massages, while Hand2Paws, a house-call service in California’s Orange County, has a Canine & Companion Massage package on its menu of predominantly dog-focused massage services.
Dog massage—as in, just the dog receiving a treatment—has risen in popularity over the past few years, according to Greenstein. “Veterinary researchers are focusing more attention on its potential benefits: altering levels of key neurotransmitters (like dopamine and serotonin), improving blood flow to tissues, reducing muscle spasms, and increasing flexibility,” as just a few examples. She says performing a massage on your own dog can help your human-pet bond, with the physical contact “increasing trust, and decreasing anxiety and fearfulness.”
Had I known this before my couples massage with Sophie, maybe I would have been less surprised to see her instantly relax under the hands of our masseuse. My dog is very sweet and loving but is deeply loyal to me, and she typically takes a long time to move beyond ambivalence about other people, let alone seek their affection. But Goldstein wasn’t surprised to hear about Sophie’s shift in behavior. “If the client has a nervous or anxious demeanor, the bodywork I facilitate can have a huge impact on the client, and you can see the pet settle down right along with their owner. So if the owner is calm and happy, that pet is calm and happy.”
And it was true: Sophie and I departed our massage session relaxed. Her initial angst from being locked in a hot, strange room abated as soon as I settled in for my massage, allowing her to reap the full benefits of the experience when her turn came up. That night she seemed more relaxed than she had in months. Is her relationship with her “little brother” perfect? Not quite. But as time goes on, I can feel the tension start to melt.
Ali Wunderman is a freelance writer, wildlife photographer, and unabashed lover of all things canine. Originally from San Francisco, she has since traded in skyscrapers for the big skies of Montana, alongside her husband, Michael, and their two very cute dogs, Sophie and Vinny.
Valentine’s Day gets a bad rap. It’s become a punchline, a cliché, a cash cow for 1-800-Flowers.com and Godiva. But in these troubled times, shouldn’t we embrace the one occasion our culture has that is devoted to pure love and affection? This week we’re reclaiming it with unconventional takes, off-label objects of affection, and an ode to…Twitter? This is My Kind of Valentine.
Originally Appeared on Glamour