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How to select a canine massage provider

by Margaret Auld-Louie

Click here for version published in The Whole Dog Journal, July 2004

Once thought to be a luxury for dogs, it is now becoming widely recognized that dogs can benefit from massage just as much as their human counterparts. In fact, they may need it even more than us because their structure has been altered due to breeding which can lead to muscle strains and joint pain.

So, once you’ve decided to incorporate massage into your dog’s health care program, how do you go about finding a qualified canine massage provider? Many people assume that canine massage providers are licensed and certified just like human massage therapists but this is not yet the case. There is no organization or board that certifies or licenses canine massage providers. Someone can call themselves “certified” when they have just taken a weekend course in canine massage and received a certificate for it. Or they may have taken a correspondence course but not received any hands-on training. So the title that a massage provider uses doesn’t tell you anything about their knowledge level.

Most canine massage providers call themselves “certified canine massage therapists” but actually the correct legal term is “canine massage provider”. In Colorado and most other states, a person cannot call themselves a “therapist” or “practitioner” or say they do “therapy” on animals unless they are a veterinarian. Otherwise, they can be accused of practicing veterinary medicine without a license. The laws are typically looser for humans. So a human massage provider can legally call themselves a “massage therapist” but a canine massage provider cannot. Most canine massage providers are unaware of this distinction so they follow the traditions of human massage therapists by calling themselves “canine massage therapists” practicing “canine massage therapy”. To keep from upsetting veterinarians, it is better to use the term “canine massage provider”, even though that is a little more confusing for people.

Since you can’t judge the quality of a canine massage provider by their title, what should you look for in selecting one? The first thing is to find out where they got their training and how many hours of instruction they received. There are numerous schools and organizations offering many different types of instruction in canine massage. Since human massage therapists generally need at least 500 hours of instruction to get licensed, the best canine massage schools offer a comparable amount of instruction.

Ask if your massage provider has received supervised hands-on practice in their studies. Some programs consist only of home study or perhaps the provider sends in a videotape of their massage sessions. Or maybe they were in a large class where they had little supervision. The best training consists of hands-on practice on numerous dogs in a small class where the instructor can work one-on-one with the student demonstrating correct technique and correcting the student’s mistakes.

The next thing to find out about a massage provider is what techniques they were taught. There are many styles of massage and bodywork. The most commonly taught canine technique is Swedish massage, which involves stroking and kneading of the more superficial muscles of the body. This is also the style typically found in the books and videos intended to teach owners to do massage on their dogs or cats. Swedish massage is generally very relaxing but can be limited in its therapeutic value.

Some schools teach other techniques, such as neuromuscular therapy, which can be more effective at addressing specific problems in the muscles, relieving muscle pain and improving movement. A deeper understanding of dog anatomy and movement is required to practice this technique safely and effectively. Therefore the provider should receive the same level of training as a professional human massage therapist. This is not a safe technique for an untrained owner to try on their dog. The massage provider may also be trained in stretching techniques, such as active/passive resistance technique. These stretches can be very effective if the provider has been trained in how to do them safely, without tearing or damaging muscles.

Another thing to consider is how the massage provider is taught to approach a session—are they trained to do a “recipe” style of massage where they always do the same strokes in the same order or have they been taught to customize the massage to the problems the dog is exhibiting? The books and videos created for the public as well as many of the massage schools teach a recipe style. A more customized approach is generally more effective at helping resolve the problems the dog’s problems and improving his movement as well as his general well-being.

If the massage provider is taught to evaluate the dog’s structure and gait as part of their training, they can detect specific problems and address the session to those. If the gait analysis is an extra service rather than a normal part of the session, then the provider may not be trained to customize each session to the dog’s specific structural issues. Your dog may also benefit from massage providers who can offer home exercises to strengthen the dog’s problem areas and can advise on what exercises and activities might be harmful to your dog.

Professional canine massage providers should also receive a sound scientific education in canine health topics such as anatomy, physiology, orthopedic pathology, structure and movement, first aid, breed characteristics, behavior and nutrition. With this background, the provider can work competently alongside vets and other animal health professionals. They will be able to discuss your dog’s health issues intelligently with your veterinarian. If they are lacking in sufficient knowledge of anatomy, they could actually harm your dog during the massage session. For instance, they could end up putting too much pressure on sensitive nerves, organs and glands or pressing muscle against sharp points of bone, bruising it.

Another advantage of a comprehensive, professional education is that it helps the provider look at the “big picture” of your dog’s health instead of just focusing on the massage session. This holistic approach can be more beneficial to your dog than a provider who just focuses on the massage session. It can be very helpful if the provider can discuss with you other topics related to your dog’s well being such as nutrition, exercise, behavior, etc. If the provider has new clients fill out a comprehensive health intake form about your dog, this is a sign of a professional and holistic approach to your dog’s well being. Professional providers should also maintain written records of each session detailing their work

A professional education will also help the provider avoid hurting your dog through ignorance of critical information such as the conditions that may be worsened by massage. Massage is not a “cure-all” for all conditions and it is contraindicated in some situations. The professional provider has been trained to recognize when it is best to avoid massaging a dog or to just do a light massage. For instance, dogs with kidney or liver problems cannot process the toxins released by massage and can be made worse. Also, puppies under four months of age don’t have fully developed kidney function and can only tolerate a short, light massage. Doing massage on an injured tendon could prolong the injury by spreading the fibers apart that are trying to pull together to heal the area. Providers who don’t have information such as this can inadvertently harm your dog.

If the provider offers other holistic modalities besides massage, this can enhance the session as well as provide alternatives if your dog cannot receive massage. For instance, Reiki energy balancing done in conjunction with the massage can enhance the effectiveness of the session and help the dog relax. It can also be done in place of massage if the dog cannot tolerate massage, has a condition that may be worsened by massage or is too scared to be massaged. Flower remedies can address emotional issues the dog is experiencing and enhance the effectiveness of energy balancing techniques.

Finally, look at how your dog responds to the massage session. Does your dog enjoy it and do you see improvement in his well-being after several sessions? You may see some temporary increase in soreness immediately after sessions but in the long-run you should see improved mobility and reduced pain if the massage is done correctly. Do you feel comfortable with how the massage provider handles your dog? They should be sensitive to how your dog is responding to the session and change what they are doing if your dog is responding poorly. If they are pressing too deeply on your dog’s muscles and causing excessive pain, they should have enough understanding of dog behavior to recognize your dog’s subtle signals of discomfort. Unlike humans, dogs can’t tell us when we are hurting them in a massage session. Your dog will benefit most from work by a massage provider who is sensitive to your dog’s reaction and has a good understanding of all aspects of canine health.

Margaret Auld-Louie, canine massage provider, graduated from the Lang Institute for Canine Massage, LLC in Loveland, Colorado. The Lang Institute is a state-accredited school offering a 682-hour program in canine massage, the most comprehensive program in the country, comparable to human massage programs. The program consists of a home study portion covering topics including anatomy, physiology, orthopedic pathology, structure, first aid, breed characteristics and nutrition plus a 1-week on-site practicum with supervised, hands-on practice in massage techniques and structural analysis plus guest speakers. For more information on the program, go to www.dogmassage.com.

We currently are not available for dog massage appointments. We recommend contacting Cindy Lloyd of Natural Pet who is trained in canine and equine massage as well as animal acupressure. If Cindy is not conveniently located for you, look on our member list for the Colorado Association of Animal Massage & Bodywork or go to the member list for the International Association of Animal Massage & Bodywork, and then choose the state where you are located.




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