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I haven’t really been active with writing blog posts for a while, but lately I have come across something that I feel needs to be addressed. The importance of working with a skilled practitioner. Last week I got a call from a new client who wanted to ask if her dog would be still be able to walk (he has hip problems but is doing great) after the massage. If not, they would have to cancel the appointment, as he was walking pretty well. At first I wasn’t sure what she was asking, but she was inquiring about the pressure of the massage making him sore. We had a long talk about how I work and I reassured her that I would never work a dog that hard. Ever!  But it reminded me of some incidents when I was working a couple of agility trials in April. At both trials I was asked if I did deep tissue massage. My answer was a clear no, as there very rarely is any use for deep tissue work on a dog. All four people had had a bad experience with practitioners who had worked their dogs way too deep. One dog had yelped during the massage, two had serious problems with gait afterwards, and the fourth had to be taken out of the agility trial as he was refusing to jump (this was 4 days after his last session). I thought it was a given to practitioners that rule #1 is “Do no harm”. I don’t know if it is a lack of training, undeveloped palpation skills, or simply being under the impression that you need to really work deep to get results, and that sports dogs need more pressure.

I very rarely do any deep tissue massage, and I still get the result needed. I often hear people say “no pain no gain” when they get their own massages, and they grind their teeth for the entire hour they are worked on. The result is very sore muscles for days after, and honestly, probably more tension than they had before the massage. Research shows that you shouldn’t use more pressure than when you feel the muscle “push back” at your hand. That is the point where you back up, and work at that level. Especially with animals who can’t voice their concern when it starts to hurt. They can bite you, sure – but you have no business working a dog to the point of yelping in the first place.

I work with all types of dogs at different levels, and what it boils down to, is respect for the animal. I see the really old guys with severe arthritis pain, the terminal ill dogs, the super active agility dogs, and dogs doing IPO. They all need different types of pressure, but none of them are getting deep tissue. Not even the IPO dog who has the greatest demands made on their bodies while working. Body work is in great deal a question of trust and relationship with the dog. At trials and dog events I rarely know the dogs, so it is finding common ground that is the key. There is no simple formula for body work. It is all about letting your hands tell you when the correct pressure is there and knowing how to read a dog. Not all dogs extend their legs the same way, or hold their paws correctly when they walk. That means you acknowledge what the dog is “bringing to the table”, no pun intended as I rarely use a table when working, and respect their limitations. In time you will get that better range of motion, but not by forcing it the first time. Again, if you listen, your hands will let you know – if you are a skilled practitioner. I am not bashing anyone, I don’t know either of the practitioners very well – it just saddens me that it appears to be “ego over animal”. Honestly, you are never better than your last massage.

So to give you a couple of pointers when finding a practitioner:

  • Ask for credentials. What kind of training do they have?
  • Do they have references for you to read, or existing clients you can call? (If they don’t, or aren’t willing to let you contact them, you might want to rethink it)
  • Are they insured?
  • Do they ask for signed vet supervision forms? They should! Texas State Law requires us to work on direct or general supervision. If they don’t ask, they aren’t in compliance with the law – and what other corners might they be cutting?
  • What background do they have with dogs in general? Do they know how to read body language, have they dealt with behavior issues such as anxiety…
  • Never be afraid to change your mind, not even mid-massage. The only loyalty you should have is to your dog. They rely on you to look out for them.

I know that at events that can be hard, but then trust your dog. Animals have a great intuition, and if they want nothing to do with the practitioner, they are probably trying to tell you something. Never force body work on an animal, it isn’t a vet visit. Massage is a grey area when it comes to regulations, so every practitioner has an obligation to make sure we all work at the highest level we can.

All this being said – massage and body work is a wonderful ailment for your dog. Done correctly it has great benefits for your dog and can keep them happy and healthy for a very long time.

 

 

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For the past 3 years I have been certified as a Large and Small Animal Acupressure Therapist and I work with both dogs and horses. Acupressure is a wonderful tool when it comes to getting the body back on track. The principles of acupressure are the same as acupuncture, there are just no needles involved. In Texas only veterinarians are allowed to “break skin”, so technically acupressure is the non-invasive version. The response you get from animals with this specific therapy is very giving and the results can be pretty remarkable. To give you the short version of what acupressure does, is it helps restore balance in the body. Sometimes our energy paths can be off and it can cause the body to get sick, or prevent it from healing.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to work on a filly with a crooked leg. For some reason, one hind leg seemed to curve inwards and the owner wasn’t really sure how to approach it, as there wasn’t anything wrong with the horse. The horse was all the way out in Fredericksburg, where the owner breeds polo horses, so there was a drive ahead of me. I filled up my thermos with hot coffee and headed out on this cold and raining December day. I was met by a pretty skeptic owner (I knew his sister, who had suggested to him to have me come out) with the welcome being “So.. you are the voodoo lady..” Um.. well.. not really, but hey – whatever works for you, right. The entire family was there to see me work on this beautiful 6 months old filly and I’ll admit I couldn’t help but being a bit nervous. Not only was this unknown territory to me, there was a full audience to watch. I left hoping for the best and two weeks later I came back for the 2nd session. This time no audience, just the owner who was more talkative this time around. He asked me to walk him through the session and explain it all as I worked – he really wanted to understand, which was fine with me as I have a very fact based approach to my work.  I am not all about “incense sticks and the alignment of the moon” unlike some practitioners, and there are proven facts and solid knowledge behind Traditional Chinese Medicine and acupressure. I felt his energy change as his questions got answered which was a relief, all though I very much welcome skepticism, it is easier when everyone is on-board.

After 3 sessions over 6 weeks, the sister called to let me know that the hind leg had almost straightened out and they had found a home for her. There was no way she would ever be a polo or barrel riding horse, but as a trail horse she would do just fine. I was excited to say the least. Her growth had been stunted at some point and by applying acupressure to the areas involved, her body got back on track. The only thing I regretted was not having any pictures to document the change. Live and learn, I guess.

Fast forward to last year. I got a call from a woman I had met at a rescue event in Austin where I had my massage booth set up. I had worked on their dog and remembered both her, and her boyfriend, quite well as we had talked about holistic approaches in general. Something they were very interested in. They now had a second dog, a 2 year old Maltese named Jilly Boo. She was a stray that had been found wandering around the fields behind the airport. The thing was, Jilly had a broken hind paw when she was found and now, 3 months later, the vet had tried everything. The paw simply wouldn’t heal. It looked like an amputation was needed, which they weren’t quite ready to do yet. “I remember you told me about the benefits of acupressure, she said,  and we were wondering if you would be willing to give it a shot and see if you can make a difference?” I answered that I would give it a try, but that I couldn’t make any promises. They were aware of that, but worst case scenario, Jilly would just be more relaxed. I knew then that we were on the same page in regards to  expectations and so we began.

Knowing that we had a month to do this, I told Jilly’s owners that I would suggest we did 5 sessions close together before having the vet reassess the injured foot – which seemed fair to them. After having completed three session, Jilly went in to get her bandages changed, and the fourth session was that same evening. I met her owner outside their apartment complex and as we walked in, I asked how the paw had looked under the bandage. “Well, we went ahead and had the x-rays done today after all”, she said. Her face was completely neutral, and my heart sank. I was thinking to myself that I had really wanted 5 sessions, but done was done. I looked at her and went “OK…” – I was almost scared to ask… Then her face lit up and she said – “Oh I got you good! I have been dying to tell you; the bones have grown back together! And we have the x-rays to show it”. There was a lot of cheering and jumping up and down after that. I don’t have words to describe the feeling or the thoughts that went through my head. I was simply grateful for the outcome, not that I don’t have faith in what I do, but you never know how an animal will respond. To know that Jilly got to keep her leg, because her owners had an open mind to trying other modalities was such a blessing. Jilly’s body just needed a little help to start growing new bone cells again. Once we got her imbalances in check, it is exactly what it did. I hope Jilly’s story will encourage others to consider alternative routes when facing a decision like this. The vets I have spoken with afterwards are not really sure what to believe, not that believing has anything to do with the results. – There is no arguing with the x-rays.  And that is priceless.

This is the story of Finley, aka Mr. Finney, The Finster, our Fin-Bin – and what he taught me about life.

Growing up in Denmark, I always wanted a dog. This wasn’t an option as my brother had asthma. In Denmark dogs are a part of the family, however it seems like in Austin everyone has at least one furry friend. After moving to Austin, the decision was made. We got Happy, our youngest Labrador when she was three months old, and two years later a second Labrador named Shiner joined our family. At that time I got certified as a canine massage and acupressure therapist, so my life slowly started evolving around “all things dog.” Life was good. Three years passed and then I met my fiancée who, to no surprise, was a dog lover with two dogs of his own. His youngest was named Boony, a Rottweiler mix, and the older one named Finley who was labeled a Pit Bull by the shelter. He had been found out in Dripping Springs, and judging from the pellet lodged in his right ear, someone had used him for target practice or tried to scare him off. I am ashamed to admit that I knew nothing about Pit Bulls. I knew only the myths such as they fight more; don’t get along as well with other dogs and so on.  I was ignorant, to be honest, but I fell in love with his gentle face and sweet demeanor. After a trip out of town where all the dogs were boarded at the same place, we returned to find Finley bruised from an encounter with another dog. The story we got from the boarding place did not match the Finley we knew, and I got scared. How were we to merge two households if he was indeed this “dangerous dog” they made him out to be?

Luckily through work I knew Tara Stermer who is one of the best dog trainers who specializes in behavior. We set up an evaluation to get a correct assessment of Finley, who knew; maybe we had been missing signs or read him wrong. My stomach was in a knot as her assistant took his leash and walked him into the training facility. We waited for what seemed like forever and drew a sigh of relief when Tara asked us to come in; she had a big smile on her face. Finley had aced the tests and was, in her own words, “the best American Bull Dog she had seen in years”. Yes, an American Bull Dog, not a Pit Bull. We left with instructions on how to merge 4 dogs and create a harmonious pack. – And so, in the beginning of 2010, we started our journey.

After 6 months, the new members of our little family moved in. Finely quickly became my shadow at home. When I worked in my office, he would be under the table with his head resting on my feet. It was almost as he if he knew I had been reluctant at first and was determined to change my mind. You couldn’t help but love him. I became his biggest defender when strangers would meet us walking the dogs. We could hear their remarks about Pit Bulls as they passed us. I would usually say in a really loud voice, “No he is actually an American Bull Dog!” Not that it mattered to them, but I got as protective of my two furry “step-kids” as I had always been of my Labradors.

Two dogs can be a handful, 4 dogs can be downright overwhelming. Our vet’s wife jokingly called me the “crazy dog lady” and we would laugh about it. Dog lady? Absolutely! Crazy? Hmm, we had some frazzled moments, but the nights where you could hear all four dogs snoring always made me smile. We had a house full of life. A couple of months went by, and then in October of that year, Finley got this weird wound on his hind leg. At first it was treated as a spider bite and it seemed to respond and went away. Then he got one on his back, then another one. At that time, it started to look like a form of dermatitis and blood tests came back telling us that he was extremely allergic to dust and mold mites. Steroid shots would make it go away for a bit, and then it would return full force. We tried everything under the sun, including switching him to special food which made him lose 6 pounds in three weeks.

He needed his strength to fight whatever this was so I ended up cooking his food myself. Nothing seemed to help. I spent endless evenings researching every symptom he had. He was such a trooper through it all, still falling asleep under my desk or curled up by the sofa at night. As his illness got worse, we watched Boony’s behavior change. Finley had helped raise Boony and the bond between the two was so strong. They would snuggle at night and when the wounds got bad, Boony would gently lie next to him and rest his head on his hip, quietly watching over him as he slept.

I drove the vet crazy during those four months. Emailing him my nightly research ideas, updating him on what I would find and he spend his days off cross posting on veterinary forums, sharing pictures, and asking questions. No one seemed to know. I was devastated. I worked with other people’s pets every day, letting them find relief with the healing touch of my hands, and then I would come home to my sweet boy with eyes of an old soul, and I couldn’t help him. He was so covered in wounds; he couldn’t bear being touched.

In February I was at my wits end. Finley was whimpering and restless one night. I lifted him up in my bed and he curled up as close as he could, only his paw touching my hand. I whispered in his ear “I don’t know what to do anymore”. I can’t describe the look in his eyes, but he quietly looked at me as if to say “Why aren’t you doing anything? You already know.” That night I cried myself to sleep, frustrated and feeling helpless, gently stroking his head till he closed his eyes and fell asleep for a while.

The next morning I called Texas A&M and made an appointment with their Dermatology Department. Then called our vet to let him know that I needed a referral and they needed all the files which he faxed within an hour. The following Thursday we headed to College Station. None of the specialists had ever seen wounds like his. They named several conditions it could be, including cancer, but assured us that wasn’t very likely. They did biopsies and then we went home. The way Finley looked at me as we lifted him into the car; I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. The weekend passed ever so slowly. At night I researched the cancer type they had mentioned and started crying. All his wounds looked exactly like the pictures online. Monday morning the dreaded phone call from A&M came, but in my gut I already knew. Finley had a very rare skin cancer called Cutaneous Lymphoma, a cancer only 3 % of dogs get. There was no cure for him, only pain and misery ahead. We called our vet and gave him the sad news. It got really quiet at the other end as I asked him to please come to the house the following day so we could let Finley find peace. He had suffered enough.

I deal with dying dogs all the time and offer support to my clients as they say their goodbyes, but I had never had to let one of my own go. I knew in my heart we were doing the right thing, and seeing his decline I had already prepared myself. I wanted Finley to leave this world with whatever dignity he had left. We looked at each other as he lowered his head in my hands and quietly let go. I gently whispered “no more suffering, Finney, we’ll see you on the other side”. All of us, including the vet, were crying. I think secretly he and I both felt we had let Finley down.

The amount of cards and emails from friends, family, and the staff at A&M was so touching. Finley affected the lives of everyone he met, even if it was just for a short moment. Most of all he changed me.  I truly believe that there is a reason for every animal we get to share our lives with. I needed Finley to show me what unconditional love looks like. We had both been through things in our lives that could have broken us, but we both emerged. I needed him to remind me that your past doesn’t define your future as long as you are open to not traveling alone. And he needed me to fight for him and walk him through this last part of his earthly journey. He started his life alone and lost, and ended it surrounded by people that loved him more than anything. What he and I went through has made me a better therapist for my clients and a better person. Our bond will always be there, we are just a little further apart… I still miss him every day.

When I started my animal bodywork business in 2007, it was out of a desire to help dogs and horses feel better. I quickly started out seeing dogs for a wide variety of issues, anything from arthritis pain to muscle strains from agility and over the years I have also seen quite a few dogs with behavior issues such as separation anxiety. My main client base over the years has been, and still is, senior dogs and all the health issues that accompany the journey of growing old. Joints aching from arthritis, muscle atrophy from not being able to move around as much and circulation in need of a gentle boost. Some get referred by their veterinarians who have become aware that massage and acupressure can deliver pain relief and all-over comfort to an older dog. I am always grateful for those vets cause they are on-board with the fact that we are working together to help an animal feel better.  Some clients call when their dog is around 7 or 8 years old and the vet gave them the stamp of being “a senior dog” – others when symptoms become visible such as limping or struggling to get up from the floor. One thing most of them say is “I didn’t even know that bodywork was an option”. It most certainly is.

Massage helps reduce pain and stimulates muscles that are tense from compensating. Hips that can’t carry the weight they used to cause shoulders to get tight. A lowered circulation means less white blood cells getting around and an immune system that is less effective. Bodywork boosts the body’s defense system and helps keep your dog healthier.  Make sure that you still go for a walk every day, don’t overdo it, but make sure they get out and keep their muscles active. It isn’t about how far or fast they walk, it is about gentle exercise that will keep the muscle atrophy at bay. Even if it is just down the block at turtle speed. Muscles that don’t get used slowly disappear. Swimming is also an excellent form of exercise as their joints aren’t carrying any weight in the water.

Swimming does a body good.

One thing I always ask my new clients is what medication their dog is on. I walk in and am often greeted by an old dog that is having a really hard time moving around. When I double-check their paperwork, rarely is there any pain medication listed. When I ask, I get the reply that they thought that is what the massage and acupressure would take care of, the pain relief. And it will to a certain extent, but there is no amount of acupressure or massage that is going to rebuild an arthritic joint. It can help reduce the pain, yes – most old dogs, however, will need pain medication in addition to the bodywork.

Another thing I often hear is “I really don’t like to give him anything; I never take headache pills myself”. When I gently suggest that it isn’t quite the same, I get the I-thought-you-were-holistic-look. And I absolutely am as holistic as they come, but there is a time for Western medicine, and a time for Eastern – the challenge is to know when to use what. To put it a bit in perspective you wouldn’t ask your 97-year-old grandmother with arthritis to get through her days without her medication. So why would we ask that of our dogs? Studies show that animals experience pain in similar ways to humans. They just don’t ask for the Tylenol, instead they hide it or seek to be by themselves.

For me it isn’t either or, it is a symbiosis. My two Labradors at home both have severe joint issues. The younger one (“Happy” is 6 years old) has degenerative joint disease in both her shoulders, and the older (“Shiner” is 8 years old) has dysplasia in both hips and serious arthritis because of that. They both get massage and acupressure, but they also both get three different kinds of pain medication to ensure their quality of life. If you are one of the people who don’t like to put your dog on an anti-inflammatory like Rimadyl due to potential liver problems – try giving them Boswelia instead. It is a herb that a group of German vets have had great results with. Boswelia is also good for stomach imbalances such as IBS. (Yes dogs get it too).  And keep in mind that acupressure can help reduce any side effects that traditional medication can have on their liver. My guys get Milk Thistle capsules every now and then, to help their systems work to the best of their ability.

For minor muscle aches you can use Rhu Tox 30C or Arnica Montana 30C and there is a world of beneficial other supplements too. One thing they all have in common is that they are most effective when taken early on. – And most dogs are masters of hiding pain, so by the time they are showing signs, they need something a bit more potent. A body in constant pain never gets a chance to heal and regenerate itself. I’ll be the first one to admit that it can be hard to know when to start. It did become very clear to me the first night my old guy started his Tramadol. He slept the entire night without getting up. Not because he was drugged out of his brain, but for the first time in a while, he wasn’t hurting.

How do you know if your dog is hurting then? The following are only pointers, all dogs are different, but the most important thing is for you to know your dog. Your vet only sees them when they are sick or at their annual check-up. You are the one your dog relies on to keep track of changes. You also have to take into consideration what breed your dog is. My Labradors are too busy wagging to show me what is really going on. So look for the subtle signs.

* Unexplained howling, whimpering, moaning, yelping and groaning.

* Changes in behavior. The dog might seem depressed, lethargic, or refusing to go on walks.

* Constant pacing. (When we move the brain doesn’t focus as well on pain which is why we rock a baby with colic or why people say “I was pacing the floor all night” when they are hurting. Dogs do the same. They keep moving to distract themselves from pain.)

* Panting excessively while resting.

* Obsessive licking or chewing of a specific area. (This can also be a sign of other problems, such as allergies.)

The best thing about working with older dogs is the joy of seeing them get more mobile after having had bodywork done. All  of a sudden they want to go for a walk or play again. Don’t think that it will necessarily get expensive to add massages to their care. Sure once a week is perfect, but once a month is so much better than not at all. It is never too late to start your senior dog on regular massage and acupressure sessions – it will make you both feel better in the long run.

Please remember that massage and acupressure is never a replacement for veterinary care.