Ahh, That’s the Sweet Spawt
Story & Photo by Emily Dieckman
Tashi, a 5-year-old German shepherd, was limping, or as his owner, Jodi Gabriel, put it, he was “bunny hopping.” His back legs were out of shape, and she could hear Tashi sigh when there was any amount strain on his hips.
She worked with an orthopedic surgeon to help him feel better, but then she decided to look into something a little unorthodox: canine massage.
“If it‘s good for us, and it feels good, why don’t we see what it does for the dog?” she said.
She took Tashi in to Jacquelyn Reed of K9 Performance Massage. Reed earned her canine massage license in 2014. Not only was she able to help stretch Tashi’s legs and make him more physically comfortable, but she also helped eradicate his fear of being touched.
“By the time the massage was over, he was chasing me around the table,” Reed said. “The next time I saw him, he broke away from his owner and ran into my arms — Tashi, who doesn’t like to be touched!”
Reed works with lots of dogs that are involved in sports, such as Shutzund, a sport that originated in Germany to develop protective traits in dogs. However, she believes any dog is a good candidate for a massage. Gabriel was so impressed with the improvements she saw in Tashi that she is planning to bring her other dog in for massages as a preventative measure.
While the concept of treating your dog to a massage might sound like an over-the-top luxury, there can be significant health benefits for dogs that are anxious around or afraid of people, for older dogs that have a hard time getting around, and even for healthy dogs to keep them from developing problems as they age. Reed also massages humans through her practice, Balanced By Touch, and has been doing so for 18 years. It wasn’t until she was working to earn her canine massage license that she realized just how similar humans are to our best friends.
“I used to teach anatomy and physiology. I’ve had dogs forever, and it never occurred to me that dogs are so much like humans,” she said. “What I really came out [of school] realizing is why would there be any difference in how a dog experiences a massage than how a human does?”
Nancy McDonald, founder of Animal Ally of Arizona, primarily massages older dogs; she uses her techniques to increase mobility and alleviate some of the pain caused by conditions like arthritis and hip displacement.
“[Massage] also stimulates the immune system, moving the nutrients in the blood to feed areas with inflammation,” said McDonald, who has been a certified canine massage therapist for six years. “And it helps stimulate feel-good chemicals like oxytocin. A lot of the same benefits humans get, animals get.”
McDonald shared a story about a client named Norma, who had a small poodle named Baby Girl. Baby Girl used to lie on her owner’s shoulder to cuddle, but she had grown so old and arthritic that her back was in a permanent arch. McDonald spent four sessions doing gentle massage with her, and even tried some of her other techniques, such as reiki.
“I picked Baby Girl up and I held her, and I gave her to Norma and Norma just started crying,” she said. “Baby Girl’s quality of life has just improved so much.”
Success stories from canine massage therapists aren’t hard to come by. Reed has worked with everyone from a Pomeranian with a pinned patella tendon to a foster dog that was anxious around people since his original owner had passed away. She’s attentive to the dogs’ needs: offering them treats to keep them interested, turning the lights down for dogs who are sensitive to brightness, and watching her canine clients’ faces and body language to see how they’re feeling.
Once, McDonald massaged a limping dachshund named Elvis, and at a follow-up massage six months later, the dog’s owners told her Elvis had never limped again after his massage. Another dog had Cushing’s Disease, which can cause dogs to lose their fur. After a few massages, hair started to grow back in the dog’s bald spots. An older terrier, whose owners usually had to pick him up and carry him around, started running around the backyard and wagging his tail like a puppy after his massage.
Both women have their own dogs, which they massage regularly, and both do more than just canine massage. While Reed massages humans as well, McDonald specializes in dogs, and employs techniques including essential oil treatments, reiki, and acupressure. McDonald even plays specialized music called, “Through a Dog’s Ear,” now known as “iCalm Music for Dogs,” which was specifically designed by a concert pianist and a sound researcher to be soothing to dogs. This music has even been shown to cause enormous reductions in barking at animal shelters. Reed practices in a special massage facility, while McDonald massages dogs in their own homes.
Just as canine massage isn’t simply a pamper session for your pet, there’s also a lot more to the job than just simple petting. Both of these therapists are happy to have owners watch, or to offer tips for at-home massage.
“You’ve got to use your smarts, your experience, your intuition, and your creative side to figure out what’s going to be the best for the dog,” McDonald said. “It really helps your heart. Dogs are so great because there’s no judgment.”