Why do dogs stretch?
Well, why do you stretch? Why do I?
I stretch when I get up in the morning because it feels good. I stretch when I feel like my muscles have tightened up for whatever reason. I also stretch to prepare for physical exertion.
I just re-read that sentence and felt a need to stretch, so maybe it’s a bit like yawning, too – when you see it, you may feel the need to do it.
So there’s a couple of reasons there are more. And there are even times that, as a loving dog owner, you’ll want to initiate the stretching!
I believe much of this is the same for dogs. When they wake up, they stretch because it feels good. When they are lying around and feel tightening up, they stretch to loosen themselves up a bit. I think stretching in anticipation of exertion takes it a bit far for dogs, though. I think that one is just on us humans.
We’ll cover all of that and more below.
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There are various aspects of a dog stretching.
I am intrigued every time I see dogs stretch. I am honored when the stretch is clearly being given to me directly, and it evokes from me a response of loving up the dog. I am satisfied that this was the original intent.
I have occasion to see multiple dogs in the field, literally a huge field at the park. I will watch one stretch more than the others, and I can detect this stretching is an invitation to play.
The stretching dog makes the invitation to run away and play. The other dogs follow along, dodging and running. The main takeaway for me in this behavior is knowing that the stretching is indicative of a very happy dog.
Before I even knew the name for a dog stretching back legs only, I was enamored with the “sploot.” I never heard it called this – we always referred to it as the “frog dog”, but apparently, it’s a thing.
I have learned that this sploot is an easy way to stretch the hindquarters as well as a means of airing out the midriff in the heat of summer.
There is much more to the dog stretch, however. You know your dog’s behavior better than anyone, aside from your veterinarian. I say this because the type of stretch can be an indication of something more concerning, a tip-off to the condition of your dog’s health.
We will examine the different stretch profiles as we progress in this article.
Why do we (humans) stretch?
It feels important first to understand why we stretch as a basis for understanding why dogs stretch. This is also a good way to understand why some types of stretching can help your dog live a more comfortable life. So it’s not just about the reflexive morning stretch to loosen up the muscles, but also about the purposeful, manual type stretching we humans do (and can help our dogs do).
But first, what the heck is a stretch, and why do we do it?
Why do dogs stretch?
Dog’s aren’t much different from us in this respect. As described above, our bodies redistribute fluids and restrict muscle movement while sleeping. Your dog’s body does as well. Their reflexive stretching is the same as ours. They are re-calibrating their muscles while getting the fluids moving and redistributed.
Also, it just feels good!
Dogs need not be trained to have an intrinsic sense of how purposeful stretching is for them. Primarily, the dog stretch loosens up the muscles that can get stiff and short from sleep.
Not that much different from our own stretching after rest, dog stretching is a muscle-prepping exercise.
The dog stretch is multi-purpose.
Let’s examine the stretches known for their names and what they mean, and other methods of stretching we need to be aware of. We are once again in the realm of dog communication and learning how to interpret their means of expression.
Different kinds of stretches your dog will do
The morning stretch
We know this one well. We wake up, and before even getting out of bed, our arms are up to the side, muscles tensed, seemingly pushing or pulling against nothing but feeling so good. We’ll probably do another one.
What is this all about?
When we sleep, or indeed, anytime we are at rest, our body’s fluid tends to pool along the lowest part, depending on your sleeping position. Our muscles also deny movement by reducing or eliminating nerve impulses to prevent extension past acceptable ranges as they near their normal limits. This ensures you don’t overextend a hamstring in the middle of a dream (normally). Your body is caring for itself while you are resting.
The longer you sleep, the more pronounced these two become – more fluid pooling and your muscles becoming increasingly restricted to movement.
When you stretch, you are redistributing the fluids while at the same time pushing past the restrictive boundaries your body set for your muscles while you were sleeping. Your stretch will normally extend your muscles past their normal range of motion, recalibrating your body to understand your normal ranges of motion. Stretching is somewhat reflexive, but if you really think about it while you do it, you’ll find you usually twist and turn your torso and arms in irregular patterns. You are pushing past your normal ranges of motion, so your body is more aware of what is normal. You are improving your blood circulation while also reducing your muscle tension. Did I mention it just feels good?
The greeting stretch
If we are fortunate enough to have dogs that offer us the greeting stretch, we can be assured it is purely because the dog is paying us the recognition of being a favored human. Take comfort in this gesture.
You can easily identify this type of stretch as it is performed on approach with the dog directly looking right at you and maybe even giving you squinty eyes with relaxed ears.
This stretch looks like a bow. It is a decidedly friendly gesture that conveys a peaceful mind and a willingness to engage for fun.
This posture will be seen when the dog is comfortable with the person or other animal toward whom she has a preference. Some dog owners train their dogs to do the greeting stretch on command.
Consider the greeting stretch a high compliment from your pooch. If you benefit from this honor, return the favor with some physical contact to acknowledge the attention.
The “time to play” stretch
The profile of the play bow encompasses the front legs stretched out in front and leaning down. The elbows are either touching or practically touching the ground with the rump up in the air. On the face is captured a playful expression.
The play bow is not a random one. It is not a general gesture but a specific one. The play bow a signal that’s it’s time for frolicking and playfulness.
The play bow appears to be shared among adult dogs to re-initiate play following a pause and help play partners synchronize behavior. This posture takes place when dogs are within the other’s field of view, suggesting this is an intentional visual signal to each other.
We see this all the time here with our rescues as one dog will take this position to actively engage another, then a chase ensues.
The evident level of happiness is a joy to watch.
I’d never heard this called The Sploot until writing this article. We’d always referred to it as “the frog-dog” or “frog-dogging”. Apparently, the rest of the dog-owning world calls it the sploot.
This one is entertaining. It is most often the position taken just after a stretch to the front legs. Leaving the back feet planted, this is followed by crawling forward with the dog stretching back legs only or even crawling along the ground with the back legs seeming almost lifeless.
We have raised kids and grandkids at this point and have always had dogs. We’ve seen dogs do this around crawling babies, and it seems as though they are trying to show the baby how to crawl.
I can’t confirm that, of course. It’s just an observation.
It makes sense for dogs that have hip issues to take this pose to alleviate the stress on the joints. In the summer heat, some dogs will dig a recess in the earth and sploot over it to allow the underbelly to cool. You have to admit; they are clever creatures.
Splooting may have either one – the half-sploot – or both back legs stretched out behind the body. We see this most often with those dogs whose undercarriage is closer to the ground, in other words, with the short-legged breeds.
It is not uncommon to find any dog breed as well as cats splooting, depending on their flexibility. This position provides for a full-body stretch that is both relaxing and comfortable.
The praying position
The downward-facing dog poses from yoga is known as the praying position for dogs who most often are struggling with pancreatitis. This is a purposeful dog stretch and may also attribute its effects as admitted to frequently in yoga classes.
Dogs will take this position with the front legs forward and their tail end high up in the air. It is a method of easing a channel for trapped air to be quickly released, thereby relieving the pressure and easing the pain. Dogs intrinsically know to take this position in response to canine bloat.
Bloat is a condition that results when stomach gasses build up, causing the abdomen to stretch and push up against the surrounding internal organs. You can check this yourself if you notice your dog frequently stretching this way.
Observe your dog. Does his stomach seem overly round? Can you hear gurgling sounds? Is your dog’s tummy warm to the touch? Is he drooling excessively? These may all be signs of canine bloat, a condition that can be fatal if not treated in time.
Dogs also use the prayer position to stretch out the digestive cavity and take the pressure off the abdomen. Pancreatitis is the result of painful inflammation of the pancreas. It is not a condition to take lightly. It requires veterinary attention.
There may be underlying issues that bring on excessive stretching, which is another tip-off that this is more than a common stretch, one of an indication that your dog may be sick.
You may even notice other symptoms along with this stretching, including:
- Abdominal swelling
- Labored breathing
- Excessive salivation
This brings us to the point that stretching can indicate more serious issues. Therefore, it is important to know your dog’s stretching habits. You are the first best diagnostician when your dog is not well.
It is up to you to be ready to consult your veterinarian when your dog is displaying a response to more serious health conditions. We shall cover some important signs and symptoms.
What does it mean?
Stretching and dragging hind legs.
This can often result from your pooch laying in a confined area or even just in a cramped position for a prolonged period of time. A dog in a crate will often stretch and drag its rear legs when coming out of the crate.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the crate is too small, only that the dog was sleeping with its legs up against one of the crate walls.
So a periodic stretch and dragging the hind legs is normal. We like to joke that our dog’s hind legs just take longer to wake up than the rest of the pup.
If you see your dog dragging its hind legs at other times, this can be a cause for concern as this is often a symptom of a dog in need of TPLO surgery or at least some kind of therapeutic treatment to prevent that kind of surgery. If you see this repeatedly, it’s a good idea to check with your vet, as they’ll want to check for hip dysplasia.
Stretching head back / dog stretching neck upwards
When your dog stretches its head back, seemingly trying to stretch the neck area, this can be cause for alarm as it’s a fairly common thing dogs will do when they have bloat (XXX Image XXX) or if they have pancreatitis. Both can be deadly for your pup, so a quick visit to the vet is recommended to have your dog checked out.
Dogs with bloat do this to ease the stress on their stomach – stretching their neck out helps with this. Bloat can be deadly, so this is not something to take lightly. Consult your vet quickly.
Dogs with pancreatitis will often stretch their necks in the early stages of the disease as it helps to ease the internal organs resting against the pancreas, thereby easing some of the discomforts. As with bloat, this is something you want to consult with your vet on immediately. A hunched-over appearance while standing, being feverish, and vomiting are other symptoms of pancreatitis you’ll want to watch out for.
Another potential problem that can cause neck stretching is a severe blow or damage to your dog’s chest. If your dog is having problems breathing, stretching the neck can help with that. Again, this is something worthy of a visit to the vet.
If your dog has been checked out by the vet and is healthy, it may just be “one of those things” your dog likes to do. It feels good.
Stretching dog’s stomach.
This is a fairly common stretch we dog owners see – the dog with its hindquarters in the air and its front legs down on the floor. Vets often refer to this as the praying position or the downward dog position. Often this is an entirely normal routine for your dog and indicates no problems, but there are cases where this is cause for alarm.
Stomach problems or other digestive issues may cause your dog to do this kind of stretch more often than normal as it eases the internal pressure and the resulting discomfort.
Note that internal discomfort can also mean (as mentioned previously) pancreatitis or bloat, so this may be a case where a vet visit is needed, particularly if you see your dog doing this in conjunction with a lot of neck stretching.
Stretching while sleeping
This is normal. You do it too. No cause for worry here. Just enjoy it.
Stretching in praying position.
As mentioned above, the praying position could be a prelude to playtime, or it could indicate an upset stomach or even bloat or pancreatitis. Your dog’s other activities and actions will clue you in on if this is something to be concerned with or not.
Possible health issues
So, we know that dogs will stretch much the same way people do to warm up the muscles and to get the blood flowing. All of these are helpful when about to perform strenuous physical activity.
Your dog may also be stretching from lack of exercise. The sploot may be associated with the inability to flex or stretch easily without pain.
Dogs will stretch to relieve soreness from inactivity. If you notice more stretching accompanied by what appears to be high energy, it might be a good time to go for a walk.
Certain health issues such as arthritis, tendonitis, or other joint problems may be alleviated to some degree through stretching. Dogs with spinal issues can stretch out their backs, while dogs that raise their heads as they stretch or seem to star gaze could be suffering from gastritis.
Dogs who keep stretching the neck and looking up, perhaps even frantically, maybe reacting to stress or nervousness. This could be due to persons, places, or things. Sniffing at the air can give them a distraction, or they may be smelling a strange scent.
These and other behaviors could be related to health conditions such as:
- Congestive heart failure – the struggle for air could lead to stretching the neck
- Pneumonia – could cause dogs to sit with their back legs out and looking up to extend the chest to help get more air
- Pleural effusion – a condition otherwise known as water in the lungs due to the accumulation of fluids in the chest can cause dogs to sit or stand with their mouths open as they struggle to breathe
There are several compromising conditions that have our dogs trying hard to breathe more effectively while an illness or injury prevents this.
Several things can cause pancreatitis, but a high-fat diet (or even a single high-fat meal) is a common culprit in today’s households. We, as humans, eat high-fat meals every day, but a single high-fat meal for your dog can cause pancreatitis. Obesity, certain medications, genetics, etc. – all can also play a role in how or why a dog gets pancreatitis.
The AKC has a helpful article that goes into good detail on canine pancreatitis here.
Neck stretching and the praying position stretch with the butt in the air and the forelegs along the ground is an often seen stretch by dogs with early pancreatitis development as these stretches ease the internal pressure on the pancreas.
Pancreatitis can be fatal to your dog – if you have any reason to believe this may be the cause, consult your vet quickly.
Dogs with arthritis may stretch on their own to help alleviate the pain or discomfort. Below, we share a few examples of stretches you can initiate to help your arthritic pooch feel better.
My dog stretches a lot and vomits.
If your dog is stretching a lot (probably the stomach area?) and vomiting, it’s a pretty clear sign of some sort of gastrointestinal distress. We recommend a visit to the vet but if that’s not possible, keep a close eye on the dog to see what it is throwing up, if a fever develops, or if any other symptoms show up.
My dog stretches a lot and has labored breathing.
There are a number of reasons your dog may be experiencing difficulty in breathing, and pretty much all of them are reasons to visit your veterinarian. Think of yourself; if you were having problems breathing, you most likely wouldn’t try to “DIY” it or wait too long before going to see your own doctor.
A common cause is asthma which can be managed. Other causes range from growths in the airway to bronchitis, pneumonia, or even a pulmonary embolism. Obviously, all serious and none of which you should be trying to treat yourself.
Stretching and massaging your senior dog.
Below are a few tried and true stretching routines and stretching exercises that you can walk through with your pooch. It’s important to note that these should be done regularly for the best results. Daily is not too often! A nice pet massage is a great way to help your dog feel better while bonding with the pooch as well. If you have an older dog, these routines are especially appreciated.
Sacrum and back rub
The sacrum is the spot right above your dog’s tail, between the hip bones. A small circular motion with gentle pressure starting there and moving up the rest of your dog’s spine will alleviate some of the pain your dog may be feeling and, at the same time, offer a wonderful bonding experience.
Rear leg stretch
Older dogs can suffer from reduced movement in their hips or hip flexors, resulting in reduced flexibility of the hind legs. This will affect their ability to get around, walk up/downstairs, etc. It’s a quality of life issue for your pooch that you can help with a bit.
With your dog laying on its side, grab the upper rear leg near the knee joint, and with gentle and consistent motion, pull it back, so the hind leg is fully stretched out. Hold it there a few seconds, then slowly guide the leg back to its resting position. Do this a few times, and then ask Fido to roll over so you can do the other leg.
As with humans, these kinds of stretches should not be a “one and done” thing – your dog will benefit (as will you!) from repeated stretching sessions, so keep ’em coming!
To help a dog that is experiencing mobility issues or pain in the front shoulder area, a shoulder stretch or shoulder flexor stretch can be done with the dog either standing up or laying down. Gently but firmly grab the dog’s front elbow and move the arm forward to a fully extended range. Then allow it to move back and repeat a few times. As with the other stretches, this process should be performed consistently to help your dog see the best results.
This one is somewhat the opposite of the above Shoulder stretch. Here, with the dog in a seated position, you’ll gently guild the dog’s elbow back as far as possible, stretching or opening the chest muscles.
We all know this one – just rub vigorously until done (and you are never done!).
Why does my dog stretch so much?
Because it feels good! You do it too! Stretching is seldom a cause for alarm, so just enjoy the view. If your dog is stretching its neck, or if you see labored breathing along with the stretching, then some caution is advised – we covered this previously in this article.
Why does my dog bow and stretch?
Bowing and stretching are common and can indicate a desire to play or, perhaps, the dog just woke up and is getting his joints and muscles back in tune! No real cause for concern over the bow and stretch routine.
Why does my dog stretch all the time?
If it’s normal stretching, it’s probably because it feels good. If you see a lot of neck stretching or stretches that appear to be targeted at stretching out the abdominal area, it may be worth a closer look with bloat or pancreatitis in mind.
Why does my dog stretch on me?
Because it feels good and because your dog loves you!
Why does my dog keep stretching his front legs?
Stretching the front legs is entirely normal but if you see it with accompanied neck stretching, it could indicate bloat or pancreatitis, both of which are a cause for a visit to your vet.
Why does my dog keep stretching his hind legs?
Again, probably because it feels good! Stretching the hind legs is normal and fun to watch. If you see your dog dragging its hind legs after the stretch, then you may want to watch a bit close as it could indicate a joint issue. This is covered previously in this article.
Why is my dog stretching his stomach?
Because it feels good? Most of the time, this is the right answer but there can be a cause for alarm as a dog that is continually stretching out its stomach may be alleviating pain or discomfort by doing so. This bears further observation for things like vomiting, fever, etc. As mentioned above, neck stretching can be a symptom to watch for as well.
Dog stretching – in conclusion:
It is up to us as dog owners to have a keen sense of how our dogs appear when they are happy and healthy and to be prepared to notice and respond when they are compromised.
Movement is how the body heals. Take note of your dog’s stretching habits, when they started, the time of day, a change in your dog’s routine, examining your dog for pain or injury or other symptoms.
Regularly inspect your pet’s body for mobility issues. Check the knees and elbows, wrists, and ankles for any difficulty in movement, swelling, or pain. Also, pay attention to how much water your pooch drinks when returning from playtime.
We need to allow their breathing to reach a normal rate and for their temperature to come down a bit before giving them a reasonable amount of water. It is advisable to remove the water bowl to prevent them from gulping down too much.
Remember, examination by a professional can help us improve or solve life-threatening conditions or initiate proper treatment as soon as possible to help our best friends when they rely on us to do so.
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