St. Cloud business comforts canines through massage therapy

ST. CLOUD, Minn. (AP) — For some people, a dog is more than just a pet. Their dog is a family member, a confidante and a best friend.

Becky Stawarski’s best friend was named Shatzi, the St. Cloud Times reported.

But two years ago, Stawarski was given the news that no dog parent wants to hear: Your dog has cancer.

“I was told it was a very aggressive form of cancer,” Stawarski said. “I was told she had about two months to live.”

With limited income and no stable form of transportation, she knew trips to the University of Minnesota for chemotherapy were out of the question.

Faced with a difficult decision and precious little time, Stawarski was running out of options.

Until a Facebook post caught her eye.

It was an ad for canine massages at Armstrong Equine & Canine Massage Therapy in Becker.

“I was like, `Really? Do people do that?’ ” she said.

After talking with the owner, Leda Mox, Stawarski decided to give it a try.

“It was just amazing to see (the dogs) look so relaxed,” she said. “I said I just have to do this.”

Stawarski enrolled in Mox’s classes and was able to perform massage therapy on Shatzi until she passed in January — outliving her projected life expectancy by more than a year.

In July, Stawarski, 31, decided to turn her hobby into an in-home business, helping other pet parents find healing. And Hands Healing Hounds was born.

Canine massage is a relatively new field in animal therapy. But according to Lola Michelin, founder of Fall City, Washington-based Northwest School of Animal Massage, the canine massage industry is on a rapid growth track.

“In the last 15 years it has become more and more popular,” Michelin said. “And has become more widely embraced by pet owners and veterinarians.”

Michelin said canine massage had evolved from equine massage, a technique that has been around for decades.

“A lot of those horse people had dogs and they had noticed some of their dogs had difficulty aging,” she said. “And so canine massage grew out of that.”

But canine massage is not strictly for elderly dogs.

“The use of massage is very relaxing and calming,” Michelin said. “And it can be used to help anxious pets or those recently adopted pets having difficulty transitioning into their new home.”

Much like humans who use professional massage therapy to help alleviate sore muscles and decrease tension, Michelin said dogs can have the same types of benefits.

“This is not a substitute for veterinary care,” she said. “We can’t diagnosis or prescribe treatment options. But what we can do is make observations about the health of your dog’s skin or coat and detect lumps or things that you might not be aware of.”

Even thought it is a new field, several governing agencies like the National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure and Massage and the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork have worked closely to provide regulatory standards for this industry.

Stawarski is certified through NCBTMB.

Stawarski’s clients are dropped off at her St. Cloud home for 30-45 minute sessions. She uses a combination of essential oils to create a relaxing environment for each dog while she works on massaging sore muscles.

“I want this to be an experience that they would want to have again,” Stawarski said. “So I let them get up and wander around a bit and get comfortable.”

Each session begins with a gentle kneading motion across the body, to get the dog familiar with the therapy. Depending on the dog and their health issues, Stawarski can target pressure to certain joints — for arthritic dogs — or the face to help with breathing and allergies.

Stawarski said each dog is different and will let her know if its painful or pleasurable.

“Some of the obvious signs I look for (if the dog is in pain) is if they pull away or move a part of their body away from me or if they snarl or growl,” she said. “But if it’s things they like, they will yawn or lick their lips or show their belly. And doggie kisses, of course.”

Like human massage, Stawarski recommends dogs drink plenty of water after their massage session.

Prices are determined by the weight of the dog. Toy breeds sessions cost around $25 and giant breeds can cost about $50. Appointments can be made through the Hands Healing Hounds Facebook page.

Stawarski has also worked with dog rescues in Princeton and the Twin Cities. She has plans to start working with the Tri-County Humane Society as well.

Stawarski has seen a lot of improvement with some of her clients, especially those that are recovering from injuries. But she is quick to point out her services do not replace traditional veterinary care — massage is a supplemental service.

But it’s a service that Stawarski has grown to love.

“This may sound cheesy, but this is my calling,” she said. “Dogs are your family and you will do whatever you can for your family. I’m not in this to make the big bucks. I’m here to give alternatives for pet owners and to help improve the quality of life for your pet. If I can give (owners) their dog back just for a little while, my job is done. That’s my reward.”

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