This week, I announced that I attained my Fear Free certification; completing this certification was one of my professional development goals for the year.
(I am currently New Zealand’s first practitioner in the canine massage and rehab field to hold this certification.)
I have been in practice in canine massage and rehabilitation since 2009. I see dogs who are injured, are recovering from surgeries and those who have developed age-related conditions like intervertebral disc disease or arthritis.
An ordinarily friendly and happy dog can become fearful when it is in pain – which is totally understandable. For this reason, I became more interested in dog behavior and how behavior was a reflection of physical status (and often, vice-versa).
So I spent a fair amount of my professional development time between 2013 and 2017 at Best Friends Animal Society learning from their dog trainers and behavior consultants. Understanding non-verbal communication, and methods for de-sensitization and counter-conditioning are all skills that are very useful when working hands-on with dogs.
Added to this is the fact that in many cases, management of these dogs requires me to develop a long-term relationship with them. These dogs need to trust me – that I won’t knowingly hurt them and that I respect their boundaries when they tell me that something hurts too much.
They also help me in my job when they let me know that something feels good and is working.
So Fear Free certification was on the To Do list to expand my skills tool box.
Then one day last year, I was asked to see a new client. Her 12-year old mixed-breed dog was regularly lame; she had stopped seeing a physical therapist about 4 months earlier after 6 months of regular sessions. Her dog needed to be handled on the floor because he would not tolerate being lifted onto a massage table.
During our first session, he progressed with his warnings to me that he wasn’t happy: first a low growl, then a lip curl, and then baring of teeth. The entire time, the owner was telling me, ‘he’s just being a guts’ to which I replied, ‘no, he’s telling me he isn’t happy with being touched there.’
This owner was also one of those who was adamant her dog wasn’t in pain, to which I also disagreed, based on his age and regular lameness. She also didn’t have many positive things to say about her vet, which for me was a signal that perhaps she wasn’t willing to listen to either her vet or me. She hadn’t supplied copies of her dog’s veterinary records, either, and so I explained that until I saw his vet records, I wouldn’t be able to book him in for subsequent appointments. (Provision of vet records is part of my standard intake process.)
Then she said, ‘our other physical therapist muzzled him.’
This is when I explained that I didn’t want to do that; that massage and physical therapy were likely to feature in her dog’s long-term management for quality of life. Dogs don’t ‘opt-in’ the way people can for a massage. They don’t book me in – their owner does. And they don’t know what to expect from a massage and so it is all new to them. Add a level of pain into the equation, and you can understand a dog’s reluctance to be touched.
By muzzling him for hands-on work (without pain management), the previous therapist set this dog up for escalated levels of fear, anxiety and stress.
The relationship with both owner and dog was going to take time. Sadly, this owner didn’t like my recommendation that her vet should be consulted about trialing a short course of anti-inflammatory drugs to see if this resulted in a happier and less lame dog. She wanted a quick fix which I was unable to give her- and I also had my personal safety to consider.
It was a light bulb moment. I had more work to do – and Fear Free was another platform to explain and educate my customers about my approach to working with their dogs.
Fear Free seems like a ‘no brainer,’ but in reality it isn’t for many owners and therapists who don’t understand that there is a better way. Some procedures are a ‘must have’ (veterinarians will know this!), but others are worth the wait if we can build a better relationship with the dog that doesn’t make them go over threshold into anxiety and fear.
Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand