From Prison Dog Handler To Life As A Canine Massage Therapist

img_0226Louise Swindlehurst Vice Chairperson of the Canine Massage Guild talks to us about how she changed her career to work full time as a Canine Massage Therapist

It was on my first day in my new job in the Prison Service when I saw a dog handler exercising his Springer Spaniel, that I realised that I wanted a career which involved dogs. 3 years later after doing my ground work as a Prison Officer, my dream came true and I got the job as Drug Search Dog Handler.

As a Drug Search Dog Handler I was required to work 2 types of search dog, a passive and an active search dog. Mylo, a black lab, was my passive dog this meant he was trained and licensed with me to search people, both staff and visitors entering the prison and also prisoners held within the prison. Snoopy, a springer spaniel was my active dog which means he was licenced with me to search areas and vehicles. In our regular duties we searched all areas or items within the prison including cells, classrooms, parcels or vehicles entering the prison.

I later decided to become a Patrol Dog Handler this meant transferring to a maximum security prison. Patrol dogs and handlers have a very demanding job both physically and mentally and I noticed that quite often dogs would struggle in their duties, due to what at first glance often looked like training or behaviour issue but then transpired to be a physical issue. It was this that led me to my career as a Canine Massage Therapist.

img_0820Why would a dog who once charged across any floor or surface to search for or attack a criminal (in a training scenario) suddenly become afraid of a shiny floor? These dogs would be happy to attack on any other surface and had attacked on shiny floors before but suddenly they became afraid their whole body language changed as they walked on these types of floors. Instead of charging down the centre of the corridor they would be tight against the wall or the handlers leg. Claws out desperately trying to grip the floor. Dogs which reacted like this could then no longer work as it would not be fair to them and they could put the safety of the handler and prison at risk. When Is A Training Issue Actually A Physical Problem?

Its now all too obvious what the issue was, these dogs had clearly, at some point sustained a common slipping injury on these floors that had led to muscular strains, inhibiting their physical ability due to pain. This is an injury I see all too often in practice as many dog owners opt to have laminate or tiled flooring so its not just limited to working dogs.

Why train patrol dogs on shiny floors? Well prisoners have a lot of time on their hands and one of the jobs they can do to have extra time out of their cell is to become a cleaner. In modern prisons (since the age of Health and Safety at Work) prisons have non slip vinyl flooring but in older prisons they have shiny vinyl flooring. Prisoners LOVE to walk around all day with an electric buffing machines polishing such floors!! To ensure patrol dogs are suited to their work they have to train in a variety of situations to make sure they are quite literally up to anything prisoners may throw at them. So training on shiny flooring is essential to their job.

me-and-snoopyWhilst trying to find the answers to why a dog became scared I discovered the Canine Massage Therapy Centre and after completing a one day workshop with them I decided that was the direction I wanted to take my canine career in. It made perfect sense to me, as like many dog handlers, I now suffer the physical effects of Dog Handler Work with shoulder and back problems and massage is the therapy that gives me the most relief above all others. So it made perfect sense for me to apply the same therapy to dogs.
Massage Training

After successfully completing the in depth externally accredited 2 year Therapeutic Canine Massage Diplom
a I set up my business. A year later I took the leap and resigned from the Prison Service. I now work full time in my busy practice in Tardebigge, Worcestershire. I also run clinic days in Banbury and the North West of England.worcestershire-k9-logo

I am now lucky enough to be an Assistant Tutor for the Canine Massage Therapy Centre both on the practitioner programme and the one day workshops. I absolutely love this part of my work as it means I get to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for the subject with others.

I am always striving to further my knowledge so each year I complete many hours of Continuing Professional Development which includes keeping both my Canine and Human Massage skills up to date. My passion for massage led me to qualify in many human massage qualifications too which complements my work immensely as I am now an Advanced Clinical (human) Massage Therapist.

Massage and anatomy fascinate me, the body is an incredible thing, both ours and dogs alike. Using remedial massage to enhance the bodies own natural healing process to rehabilitate soft tissue and support orthopaedic and neurological issues is amazing. Massage can not only dramatically improve the mobility, posture, gait and performance of a dog but is a valuable tool in the management of chronic pain and is particularly suitable for dogs who have an NSAID intolerance.
Aiding the Rehabilitation of Muscular Injury and Pain Managementimg_8554

Muscular injuries can be debilitating for a dog and they can be very difficult for a vet to pin point and diagnose. Often I see dogs which have had x rays and MRI scans but nothing has been an obvious cause of the dogs’ issue.

The most common muscular injury is a Strain or a tear to the muscle which a fully trained masseuse will be able to locate and assess for. Other common issues include Trigger Points both active and secondary as well as Myofascial pain which inhibits the bodies mobility, ability and strength. All 3 of these conditions are also seen in my human work and are readily accepted in the human world of causes of pain however in dogs it seems these conditions often fall by the way side when it comes to their assessment. For example in humans we use Trigger Point Therapy to pertain the location of the Trigger Point which may be mimicking the symptoms or other issues; for example a Trigger Point in the Levator Scapula of a human will lead to pain and numbness in the fingers and hand; this is what is called referred pain. Do dogs suffer from it to? Yes they do! A skilled canine massage therapist is able to locate Trigger Points which cause patterns of pain referral, ischemia and visible signs such as skin twitching or early signs of fatigue or lameness. After the release of a Trigger Point a dog will have vastly improved comfort levels, improved range of motion and many owners report a return to normal exercise, gait and posture.

agility-dog-before-and-after-canine-massageThe picture of Hector displays the change in his performance. His owner would refer to him as the “One dog demolition derby” in the agility ring as Hector was knocking poles and had clearly changed his jumping style. After he had received just 2 massage sessions with me he went on to get clear rounds, was no longer knocking poles and had returned to normal jumping style. The above picture shows his jumping style before massage, where he is just clearing the jump. The picture below is just 3 weeks later when he got a clear round and you can clearly see his jumping style has positively changed.

Being a professional dog handler prior to being a canine massage therapist enhanced my skills no end. It gave me a working knowledge of dogs which I could not have gained anywhere else. I use Canine Massage to help with a variety of conditions including all soft tissue injuries and issues such as:
• Strains
• Trigger points
• Myofascial Pain
• Hypertonicity
• Tightness
• Sprains
I also see many dogs for Pain Management to help with orthopaedic conditions such as:
• Arthritis
• Hip Dysplasia
• Luxating Patella
• Spondylosis
• Post Surgery Care

I specialise in working with aggressive and difficult dogs with these conditions, due to my background. This led me to be invited to speak at Victoria Stilwells Dog Bite Prevention and Behaviour Conference in June 2015 which was a great honour to stand amongst other professionals in the dog world and speak to an audience of trainers, behaviourists, vets and dog handlers on the subject of how to recognise muscular and sub clinical signs of pain in dogs. My job working in canine massage as a results driven therapy to improve the lives and mobility of dogs is satisfying, rewarding and overall its great to be able to give something back to help owners and dogs. I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Louise Swindlehurst

Worcestershire Canine Massage

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308 thoughts on “From Prison Dog Handler To Life As A Canine Massage Therapist

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