By Tracy Campion
As Sarah and I walked into the expansive meeting room at Oregon Humane Society, we were awed by the blissful quiet of dogs and massage practitioners. If we’d closed our eyes, we never would’ve believed that this room was filled with one dozen dogs from local rescue, Angels With Misplaced Wings. Blissed out, reclining, with eyes closed in repose or shining softly and halfway open, students and teachers alike slowly moved healing hands on them. Voices lilted quietly above the dogs’ heads, punctuated by the dogs’ sighs of contentment. One senior dog even began to snore. Surely, this is what dogs dream about: being loved, being the center of attention, and feeling the recuperative power of healing hands.
This is the heart of what Northwest School of Animal Massage (NWSAM) does. Led by founder Lola Michelin, the dedicated teachers of NWSAM share their love of healing touch with hundreds of eager students (and very thankful animals) every year. NWSAM has up to 400 students enrolled at any time and 100-150 students graduate each year.
“Washington State has a 300-hour training requirement,” Lola said, “and 75% of our students take three or more levels of training. Our programs enable more people to help animals worldwide.”
Massage can help alleviate a multitude of health issues for people. NWSAM was initially created in 2001 as continuing education for human massage practitioners. Now a growing body of research shows that massage has many health benefits for animals, too. Massage can reduce pain, inflammation, stiffness, and muscle tension, relieve anxiety, stress, boredom, and separation anxiety, improve digestive disorders, flexibility, range of motion, and muscle tone, increase energy, alertness, immune function, and concentration, enhance overall wellbeing, decelerate degenerative processes, and help build the human-animal connection. NWSAM’s educational programs ensure that animals will continue to reap the rewards of massage: Since its founding, thousands of students have graduated from the school.
NWSAM was founded on three guiding principles: to foster compassion for the animal community, provide a higher standard of education for the industry, and nurture the continued growth of their student body. In addition to their gorgeous Vashon Island campus, NWSAM offers practical experience worldwide.
“Our programs are blended learning, including online and hands-on components,” Lola said. “Oregon Humane is one of our longest-term partners. We also work closely with organizations like Kauai Humane and Little Bit Therapeutic Riding Center.
“This week, our students practiced with shelter animals twice daily,” Lola said. “The staff at Oregon Humane were excited; 300 people from a conference came through to see us massaging pets. Adoption rates went up and the public asked us important questions, too.”
As Lola spoke, one of the dogs changed position, allowing a student to massage his shoulders. An instructor spoke quietly.
Lola has seen dramatic growth in rehabilitation services and in the veterinary sector – and the school is keeping up with this increased demand.
“It usually takes our students six to nine months to complete each level of training,” Lola explained. “Students travel for a five-day practical after completing their online coursework. This helps them maximize their learning while keeping costs to a minimum.”
“The students at this week’s practical had come from across the west to learn from industry experts. Student Kate Guptill, taking her first practical course, was inspired after massage helped her own pet.
“I had a dog with health problems who benefited greatly from massage therapy,” she explained.
Student Laura Houde was also taking her first practical. “This class has made me more aware of my own body, too,” she said, gently massaging a dog. “This has been the best week.”
“This has been amazing,” student Jenny Bracket concurred. “I wanted to do something with animals. I’m definitely interested in pursuing this professionally.”
Student Sara Hoovestal, who has worked with animals for 15 years, was massaging a dog named Holly who had been rescued from the Thai meat trade. “I wanted to explore non-invasive ways of healing,” Sara said, “and also wanted to use my creativity.” Thanks to NWSAM, Sara has found a field that marries those two interests perfectly.
Student Cassie Johnston, a vet tech from Montana, hopes to pursue veterinary rehabilitation work. “This is one of the first steps toward that,” she said. “I’m learning excellent techniques in reading the dogs while massaging them. Getting that response from them is the biggest reward.”
“I routinely hear about how massage makes a huge difference for animals,” Lola said. “Many people have their first experience with massage after they’ve tried a number of other things. They think massage would be a ‘nice thing to do’ and they’re surprised at just how much of a difference massage can make.”
There’s an important relationship between veterinary care and massage therapy. “Massage is so important, especially for an animal with a job, like service and agility dogs,” Lola explained. “And horses can be high-level competitors; then when they’re injured, they can’t perform. Within months, in conjunction with veterinary care, injured horses receiving massage can often compete again.” Massage should never be considered a substitute for proper veterinary care, but it is a valuable and complementary tool in a wide range of cases.
NWSAM has two tracks, one focusing on small animals (including cats, dogs, ferrets, and rabbits) and the other on large animals (including horses, livestock, dairy goats, alpacas, and zoo animals.) With its diversity and flexibility, it’s easy to see why many of NWSAM’s students participate in all six of the school’s programs.
NWSAM is licensed by the Oregon Department of Education and the Washington Workforce Training and Education Certification Board. It’s also an Approved Provider for the Washington State Department of Health. The school currently has nine instructors and a full-time staff of between three to four people at any time, including IT guru David and administrative expert Wendy.
“Most of our instructors are part-time. They also run successful practices themselves; that’s a requirement for our teachers,” Lola said.
“It’s been amazing to watch the development of this business into a far-reaching entity. The alumni are constantly coming back and asking for more classes. This school is its own microcosm.”
She added: “It’s all for the animals. Whatever they need.”
To learn more about NWSAM’s programs, and how their programs can change your life (and the lives of your animals, too) visit www.nwsam.com.