Our Best Teachers

By Sara May | NCCMT, NCCAP

It's true with most careers that no matter how good your education, the best training comes through on-the-job experiences.  The same can be said for canine massage therapy.  Proper training and education are crucial for providing safe and effective massage, but it's really only when we get into the trenches, so to speak, that we learn the most about this work.  And, the clients who teach us the most are the shelter and rescue dogs in our care.

In most cases, we don't know much, if any, information about a shelter dog other than what the facility staff and volunteers have learned about the dog since its arrival at the shelter or rescue organization.  Important details we can usually gather from a pet parent are not available - medical history, past experiences with people and other animals, behavior issues, and touch preferences, for example.  We start from square-one when we work with shelter and rescue dogs, and they become our best teachers.

Shelter and rescue dogs reinforce and sharpen our ability to observe body language; without keen observation skills, we can miss important cues and inadvertently create an unwilling participant or even an unsafe situation.  By observing, we can learn what kinds of interactions and what types of touch are welcome and which ones make the dog uncomfortable.  Observation also reveals subtle, or not so subtle, inconsistencies in gait and structure, thereby allowing us to gain insight into where a dog might be feeling discomfort in its body.

We learn quickly that patience, compassion, and consistency are among our most important skills because gaining the trust of a shelter or rescue dog can take more time than it would take to gain the trust of a dog living in a comfortable, loving home.  Once we make that connection, though, and the dog understands it can trust our presence and our touch, we can begin to make an enormous impact on that dog's physical, emotional, and social well-being.  

Every canine massage therapist should seek out a shelter or rescue organization for which to volunteer because the learning partnership we have as therapists with shelter and rescue dogs is filled with opportunity.  Dogs provide us with the opportunity to strengthen our skills, while we provide dogs with the opportunity to learn how to trust and to accept touch that feels good, making them more adoptable.  Best of all, the experience of helping another living being in need is undeniably satisfying.  Through our work with shelter and rescue dogs, we truly can see how much of a positive difference we make.

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