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Canine Massage: An Interview with Jennifer Jakes

SideKick Dog Training | Private Dog Training Milwaukee WI

A couple months ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Jennifer Jakes, the owner of North Shore Canine Massage LLC, to talk about canine massage - a topic I've been curious about for awhile and wanted to know more about!

I originally met Jennifer when we were both volunteering at the Wisconsin Humane Society (WHS) a couple years ago; we recently re-found each other in a group on Facebook (North Shore Dogs) - social media makes it a small world, right? Anyway, I had just been thinking about doing some research into the topic of canine massage for the SKDT Blog when I happened to see her post in the Facebook group about her business and services. I knew any blog post I could write based off my research would pale in comparison to what her knowledge could bring to the table; so, I reached out to find out if she'd be interested in an interview with me. She graciously agreed to it and this month's post is the result! BIOGRAPHY

Jennifer Jakes is a Canine Massage Therapist, Reiki Master, and Healing Touch for Animals practitioner. She has been working in animal care most of her life and started instinctively massaging dogs at the shelter where she volunteered (and is now part of the staff) since 2013. After personally witnessing the tremendous positive impact that canine massage has, she decided to take the plunge and pursue formal training at Canis Bodyworks School for Canine Massage in Chicago last Winter; she has since opened her own practice here in Milwaukee where she offers in-home or remote services. She is dedicated to bringing this modality to the forefront and spreading knowledge about the numerous benefits of massage for your animals and has great conviction in this work. Once she becomes NBCAAM certified, she will be one of only three other nationally certified Canine Massage Therapists in the state of Wisconsin. INTERVIEW

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​What got you interested in canine massage? As a volunteer Animal Care Technician at the Wisconsin Humane Society, I was always seeking out a way to help the dogs relax, to provide some relief from their anxiety and stress from being in the shelter and it felt instinctive to offer a gentle neck or shoulder rub, like you would a friend. It made such a noticeable difference in their demeanor and I was really touched by their responsiveness. It came to me that it might be something I could do for a living - help shift dogs' stress levels and anxiety and have a positive impact on their lives.

What exactly does canine massage involve or include? It's different with every dog and it's not like videos you see on Buzzfeed where the dogs are snoozing on their back with a towel wrapped around their head getting their toes massaged (with the possible exception of a few pitties I know)! It's very similar to human massage in that many of the same techniques are used, but it's much more passive and superficial. I also do my best to set up the environment in the same way you would a human massage with a diffuser, music, soft lighting. What happens next depends on my relationship with the dog and depends on what session we're at.

With a new dog, I'd start with a low-key greeting and interacting more with the parent and dishing out treats to the dog; I'm actively removing intent with the animal and keeping it very casual. I might even work on some behaviors (Sits, Downs, or tricks) to provide enrichment and begin building a trusting relationship..

During the initial visit, I will conduct a general assessment, watching for irregularities in gait and movement, how the dog goes into and gets up from a Sit, and watching for areas that may be overcompensating. A head bob, for instance, might indicate that an area in a front leg needs work. I also do an energy scan to see if there are any congested areas or to see if the dog has a reaction to any areas.

SideKick Dog Training | Private Dog Training Milwaukee WI

Before I begin any hands-on body work, I will initiate a 15-20 minute Reiki meditation. This helps break up the energy and put everyone into a relaxed state, as well as providing additional healing wherever it is needed. The dogs may pace and seem a little unsure at first, but they always settle and the pet parents get in on the experience too! After the Reiki meditation, I will mindfully start the body work portion using the different techniques for about 30 minutes to an hour:​ ​efflo​u​rage to warm the tissue; palpating - light pressure for trigger points, tight areas, areas of concern​; other techniques based on age or health, etc. for affected area or compensating areas​. I usually close the session with a healing touch sequence and scratching, petting, or play to end on a positive note!

Are there different types of massage? I like to keep it very simple; there are not really different types of massage - more like different techniques. Circular, cross fiber friction, lymphatic clearing, skin rolling, trigger point release, holding and compression are just a few of the techniques that can be used. What is used depends on the individual dog's needs, what the goal is, the health of the animal, the health of the tissue, and the area of concern on the dog. A senior dog will have different needs than an agility competitor or a dog who is post-surgery or illness, etc. What are some of the reasons people seek you out for canine massage?

The reasons vary. Most of my clients are seniors whose owners are hoping I can offer some relief from the symptoms of arthritis, help improve mobility and range of motion, and provide some general comfort. I have one client whose dog is very active at daycare and they like to help her with sore muscles and triggerpoint release every month to keep her healthy and prevent injury. Another client with a pup, who has had a long recovery from knee surgery, I work with to help keep swelling down, expedite healing, and keep the compensatory muscles mobile, so they can support her as she progresses. I also have a threesome that I visit once a month: one is a wonky senior, who loves hands-on Reiki and laying of hands, while the other two get a turn just so they don't feel left out! Additionally, I helped implement a massage and Reiki program at MADDAC where I volunteer once a week to provide relaxation and calming massage for the animals in the shelter.

What are the benefits of canine massage?

SideKick Dog Training | Private Dog Training Milwaukee WI
This is a photo of a card that Jennifer has available for the public.

How do you know it's working for the dog? I will often hear from the pet parents after the fact that the animal is calmer, more relaxed, and have an improved mood or that they're showing increased activity or mobility! In the moment, though, I'll see and feel the dog relaxing into me, stretching out, and putting themselves in vulnerable positions; a vocal dog may give verbal cues of comfort or I might see the dog shaking off the stress. Is there any pain associated with canine massage? How do you know? There should not be pain involved; the pressure is a lot lighter than what you’d think compared to a human massage (no more pressure than you’d put on your eyeball). The closest thing that might be uncomfortable for the dog is the releasing of a trigger point, which can be a new and confusing sensation. I know when a dog is uncomfortable by watching their behavior - stiffening, looking back, getting up and walking away, nudging my hands away, wide eyes, or lip-licking. How often do you usually visit clients and how many times do you usually visit a single client? It can depend on the dog, how much trust building is needed, the goals, the condition of the dog, and compatibility of schedules. For example, dogs who require more trust building I recommend more frequent, shorter sessions. I have some clients that I see once a week, and some that I see once or twice a month, another just once every other month.

How long is a massage session usually?

SideKick Dog Training | Private Dog Training Milwaukee WI

A massage session is usually 30 minutes to an hour, which usually starts with some enrichment and relationship building at the beginning of the session. It depends on what the dog wants or will tolerate, too. I operate totally fear-free, so I may recommend more frequent, shorter sessions for a dog that is uncomfortable in order to build a relationship with them. As a force-free trainer, I'm curious about how you define fear-free. Can you tell me what that means for you? Fear-free means letting the dog understand that any engagement is going to be their choice; animals respond more quickly when there is choice. Forcing yourself into a dog's space, forcing them into your space, or attempting to continue the session when the dog has had enough creates a negative association and sets a negative tone for the session and work, which affects the relationship with the dog and getting the most out of their sessions. What do you do in the cases of “difficult” clients? For instance, my dog is a bit skittish around strangers, takes some time to warm up to them and, even then, would likely not be comfortable with the handling involved with a canine massage... I almost always plan on some level of trust building - in fact, a major part of my training was dedicated to just that. Even the friendliest, most social dogs can be conflicted, so I always go very slow when I first meet a new client - almost to the point of ignoring them (while the treats are free-flowing). Dogs are smart; they know there is intent, but the don't know what it is, who I am, or what my purpose is. Often times, dogs are not used to being touched in certain areas and don't have a lot of body awareness, so they are taken by surprise by the sensation of being touched beyond a light pet. As I said, I operate fear-free and all hands-on is the dog's choice, so it can take some time, patience, and a lot of cheese and peanut butter. In these cases, patience and commitment from the pet parent is essential. I have yet to encounter a pet parent who isn’t willing to make the commitment and a dog who doesn’t come around eventually.

SideKick Dog Training | Private Dog Training Milwaukee WI

I will work on trust building exercises and be diligent about them. It may take several visits of giving the dog the choice to interact, so that we can build positive association with me and with touch. It’s always the dog’s choice. I may experiment with different environments, who is at each session, the type of treat, different levels of attention (like a drive-by, treat and retreat, or just sitting with the dog in the same room), or distracting the dog with toys or a Kong. One of the greatest rewards of this work is seeing a dog, who initially wanted nothing to do with me, progress and begin to trust and allow - even enjoy - touch. Myself and pet parents have been very surprised by a noticeable difference even if very little "work" is done.

Are there simple techniques that pet parents can employ for their Sidekicks at home on their own? I'm big on sharing tools with pet parents - there’s so much they can do at home! I often show pet parents laying of hands, "pancaking" the affected areas, and skin rolling; these are basic techniques that do a ton of good, such as after an active day at daycare, a trip to the dog park, or a long hike. They get sore just like we do and as pet parents we can really make a difference in how they feel the next day. These moments can also greatly deepen your bond and strengthen trust with your pet. Do you have any other recommendations for pet parents?

1) Work closely with your vet!

2) Get a routine with your dog where you are feeling their body, giving them a scan, watching for reactions to touch.

3) Be aware and proactive about changes or abnormalities you may notice.

4) Attend pet parent classes; in fact, I am putting together an itinerary to host a few locally in the near future - stay tuned! There are also workshops available to the public (trust and relationship building, massage fundamentals, physical dog massages) at Canis Bodyworks!

If you'd like to learn more about what Jennifer does or have questions about canine massage, be sure and check out her Facebook page, North Shore Canine Massage LLC, or email her at

Note: This post is not an exact transcript of my conversation with Jennifer Jakes, since we kept it pretty informal, but it hits on each of the main points we discussed. This post was published with her approval and consent.​

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