These cold January days we’re all starting to get a bit of cabin fever. There’s no sun for warming our bones out on the deck, and it’s too chilly even to open the windows. My friends in the Sierras are snowed in, and here in Northern California there’s enough mud to make it way too squishy to go out without rubber boots. When the Greenies are all gnawed to bits and even the Cat Dancer has become a bore, we start casting about for an enjoyable way to spend another evening indoors.

It’s a good excuse to treat everyone in the family to a bit of gentle bodywork to calm a restless mind, warm the spirit, and spend some genuine quality time together. There are as many techniques to choose from as there are cookies in the cookie jar, but one of the easiest and safest methods is Therapeutic Touch. Its benefits have been well documented, and it’s absolutely safe for any animal, even those who are very young or very old, or dealing with an illness or injury.

Therapeutic Touch is derived from the ancient practice known as “laying on of hands,” in which the healer seeks to rebalance the energy field of the patient. In the early 1970s therapist Dora Kunz and Delores Krieger, Ph.D., R.N., developed a systematic approach to the technique, and were instrumental in the acceptance and implementation of Therapeutic Touch in nursing programs and hospitals throughout the United States. Since then, it has been widely recognized as a way to relieve stress, stimulate the immune system, and promote healing. One study documented a significantly higher level of hemoglobin in the blood of patients who received Therapeutic Touch as compared to a control group that did not, even though the therapy was administered by nurses who had no prior experience with it.

Interestingly enough, Therapeutic Touch doesn’t actually involve touching the body at all. Rather, it involves moving the hands over the patient’s energy field—about 3 to 5 inches away from the physical body—assessing any irregularities and restoring balance where they exist. Because no actual touch is involved, even very sensitive animals can enjoy it, so you can use it for animals who share your home as well as any others in your care. It’s beneficial for dogs and cats, of course, but also horses, birds, cows, goats — most any animal who is comfortable having you within a few feet of his body. Frequently, when receiving the therapy they relax into a deep sigh, give a gentle nudge with the nose, or a lazy wag at the tip of the tail, even though no physical contact has been made.

“Touching” someone’s energy field may sound like a foreign concept for anyone imbued with Western notions of physical reality. But with a little experimentation and practice, almost anyone can feel what might be described as subtle variations in the air around the body. These variations can provide valuable clues to early-stage health problems, and may even help you locate an elusive injury. Once you’ve assessed your companion’s condition, you can apply the technique to help get blocked energy moving again, or just to treat your friend to a deep relaxation even when he’s feeling fine.

Try this:

  • If you’re working with an animal who shares your home, have her rest quietly on her bed or other comfortable spot. If your treating an animal outside or one who’s more comfortable standing up, that’s fine. Just join him in his favorite resting place, and give him a chance to settle quietly into your company. Talk to him gently and touch him in any way that is soothing for him.
  • It’s customary among Therapeutic Touch practitioners to ask their patients’ permission before beginning a treatment. Since your animal friend deserves the same respect accorded human patients, go ahead and do the same for her.
  • Take a moment to clear and quiet your mind. Make a conscious intention to set aside any negative thoughts or emotions for the moment. (Imagine putting them in a box and tucking it away where you can return to it later, if necessary.) Fill your mind, your heart, and your body with the love you feel for your friend, and make a conscious intention to make this a time of deep healing for both of you.
  • Rub your hands together briskly several times to stimulate their sensitivity. When they feel a little warm and tingly, hold one hand over the animal’s body about 6 to 12 inches away (or further away if that’s what’s required for him to feel comfortable), palm facing him, and slowly move it closer and closer to his body, gliding it gently in the direction of his fur, feathers, or scales. Move from nose or beak to the tip of the tail, or from top to bottom, a little closer each time. For most of us this is the direction of the natural flow of energy. Do this several times, till you are about 3 to 6 inches away from his body (again, a greater distance if fine if the animal is more comfortable that way). You may find that the air feels slightly denser as you get within a few inches. That density you feel is a layer of his energy field, or aura.
  • Continue to float your hand over her body just where the density increases, until you begin to feel subtle differences in the texture of the energy as you move along the length of the body—there may be a place where the air feels particularly thick, or where the density seems to diminish. You may even find that your hands tingle when they glide over a particular spot. Don’t be misled by changes in temperature due to body heat; the sensations you’re interested in are related to disturbances in the energy pattern around the body, not temperature.
  • Be observant of your companion’s responses. Chances are he’ll relax, his breath may become slower and more even, he may even go to sleep. However, if he seems disturbed by your efforts, respect his feedback. Check to be sure that your mind is calm and quiet. Try moving your hands further away from his body, or moving them more slowly. Some very sensitive animals feel your energy acutely; in other cases the energy is so disrupted in a particular area that he’s unable to tolerate more than a very mild energetic touch from you. In any case, if he gets up and moves away, don’t persist. Take note of his sensitivity, and consider the possibility that it’s a sign of illness or injury. Reassess your techniques and try again another time.
  • If your friend relaxes into your treatment, as most will, continue to move your hands in the direction of her energy flow, as though you’re smoothing any disturbances. Move your hands gently, just as if you were softly stroking and smoothing the coat. Pay special attention to those places where you felt a disturbance. Imagine that you’re encouraging movement where energy is blocked, drawing out excessive energy, or adding energy where it’s depleted. Always move the energy out toward the tip of her tail, or down through the bottom of her feet.
  • Finish your session by gently smoothing over his entire aura. Sit quietly a moment with him.

Therapeutic Touch is a technique that you can explore with a minimum of training. However, the more you practice the more skilled you will become. Everyone has the capacity to feel energy, but for some it takes time. Continue to practice, and explore opportunities to attend workshops or study with a skilled therapist. Many nursing schools now teach the technique. Your local hospital may be able to guide you to training opportunities.
Use your Therapeutic Touch any time you want to make a special connection with any friend, regardless of species. I promise you, these winter nights won’t feel nearly as cold anymore.

Adapted from The Complete Holistic Dog Book: Home Health Care for Our Canine Companions by Jan Allegretti and Katy Sommers, D.V.M. Copyright © 2003 by Jan Allegretti and Katy Sommers.