All Hands On Dog: Benefits of Physical Contact

The health of your dog’s nervous system is critical to their mental and physical well-being.

Touch and other mechanical means of providing sensory input help maintain and improve the condition of many neural connections throughout the body. 

Why is it so important?

A dog relies on nerves to interpret the world throughout their lifespan. But the most critical times are during puppyhood and the senior years.

All Hands On Dog: Benefits of Physical Contact

Canine nervous system

The nervous system matures during the first weeks and months of a puppy’s life.

At this stage, it is primitive, uninhibited, and has the greatest raw potential.  Here is a time when simple hands-on techniques help prepare your pup for future

  • grooming appointments
  • dental care
  • and handling by a veterinarian

They also provide the tools to focus and fine-tune nerve responses during hunting, field work, agility, and other activities.

Sensory stimulation for puppies

Here are my top recommendations for sensory stimulation of puppies, from 8 weeks to 1 year:

  1. Use the pad of your index finger or pinkie to lightly run along your pup’s gums, under the lip, including the upper and lower gums, 3-4 times around both gum lines, daily.
  2. Use a very soft careful touch with the tip of your thumb or index finger pad to touch the pup’s outer ear canal, in circles.  If they can tolerate it, lightly rub the inner and outer ear flaps too, daily.
  3. Handle each paw, rubbing the top and bottom in a circular manner and between each of their digits (toes) daily.
  4. Gently bend and straighten each paw at the carpus (wrist) and hock (ankle), 3-4 times each, daily.
  5. Lightly roll the puppy on its side, then onto the back, then onto the other side. Roll them back and forth this way several times. Three times per week
  6. Rotate the toys they play with, and vary the ways you play with them: if using circles chose clockwise, then counter clockwise, figure 8s, etc. Avoid boredom and over-repetition.
  7. Avoid massaging your dog at this young stage of life. Wait until growth plates in the bones are fully closed and the muscles have completed their development.

Stimulating nervous system in older dogs

In contrast, the later years of your dog’s life present a challenge for the nervous system. It tends to slow down and become depressed if not continually stimulated.  

This refers not only to cognitive functions but physical reflex reactions, sleep patterns, emotions, behaviors, etc.

Manual sensory stimulation serves as input signals or impulses, which evoke and trigger a neural response.

These signals maintain the firing mechanism between connections within nerve pathways.  

The flow of information occurs along with tiny gaps between nerves, called synapses. Neurons (nerve cells) release chemical neurotransmitters to bridge these junctions and complete the connection.

Hands-on stimulation

Neurotransmitters are influenced by the hands-on impulses received by the body. 

This is where the term “neuroplasticity” is derived.  It is the ability of the neural system to reorganize itself and form new pathway connections. It applies to nerves that are damaged but remain physically intact, having the potential to form alternate pathways. This doesn’t apply to nerves that have been physically severed. Those must regenerate and in some cases, it is not possible.

Sensory input for senior dogs

Here are my recommendations for providing sensory input for senior dogs:


This is a technique beyond brushing their coat for grooming purposes. It involves light, long brush strokes with a soft bristle brush with handle. Start high on the limb (at the shoulder or hip) and progressing down the length of the limb to the end (at the carpus or hock). The strokes are in one direction only, in line with fur or hair growth, and not in reverse (not a back and forth brushing. Ten brush strokes along the front of the limb, followed by ten along the back of the limb, then along the outer and inner sides of the limb are recommended. The speed of stroking is about 10-12 inches per second, in long rhythmical sweeps of the brush.

Petting and Massaging

Flat-hand, circular movements are safest. Use light pressure and stay away from bony areas and directly over the vertebrae of the spine. Specific techniques are best taught by an animal-trained therapist before attempting to perform massage on your dog at home.

Obstacle course

Set up a mildly challenging course using chairs, stools, pillows, a step ladder placed on the floor, etc. Guide your dog through the course, over and around the obstacles. Use a leash to control their speed and for safety. Reverse direction and repeat 5-6 times.

Repetitive interactions

Use repetition in your interactions with a senior dog: encourage them to stand and sit, roll and fetching a ball, walk in one direction, then turn toward another direction, offering “paw”, turning the head or body, etc. Repetition is important for older dogs to stimulate their neurological system, in contrast to a puppy that becomes easily bored and needs more variety with less repetition.

Mental stimulation

Challenge mental capacity by hiding favorite toys and using toys that hold treats inside.


Play music, sing, and talk to your dogs, engaging them in as many aspects of your daily life as feasible.


For dogs with sight and hearing deficits, approach them slowly and consistently. Keep some lights on the night. Consider using essential oils or special scents to help your dog recognize their surroundings.

Tail pulls

This is a specific technique your vet or therapist can demonstrate. It helps stimulate the neural system. Contact is made at the base of the tail near the spine (not on the tip). A firm (but never tight) grasp is used with a slow, steady pull, distracting the tail. Don’t attempt this without prior instruction.

If you love your dog so much you can barely keep your hands off, it’s a very good thing because they benefit from your touch through their entire life!

Related articles:
DIY Physical Therapy for Dogs: What Can You Do at Home?

Further reading:
Maintaining Healthy Physical Contact with Your Dog

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