The Northwest School Of Animal Massage

It’s been a while since we featured a school here on AWG, but today, we have an interview with Lola Michelin,Northwest School of Animal Massage founder and Director of Education of The Northwest School of Animal Massage (NWSAM), located in Vashon, WA (Lola is also one of our expert contributors here at AWG).

The Northwest School of Animal Massage was founded in 2001 in response to the growing demand for approved training programs in canine and equine massage. In its early years, the school focused on serving the Puget Sound region and the Pacific Northwest animal community, but demand grew rapidly and each year, new satellite campuses have been added. The school now offers six levels of training in animal massage, including advanced courses in performance and rehabilitation massage. They also teach workshops in a wide range of subjects including aromatherapy, Reiki and Integrated Massage and Acupressure, and they are the exclusive provider of training in Manual Ligament Therapy for Animals. And the school donates a portion of all of its proceeds to several animal charities

NWSAM was also among the first to offer a hybrid program combining online studies with resident training. Students can complete much of their studies on their own schedule with the assistance of a distance-learning instructor before attending one of the NWSAM campuses to complete training. All instructors are professionals in the industry with active animal massage practices and classes are taught by veterinarians, physical therapists and leading animal trainers and behaviorists.

The school is licensed by the Oregon Department of Education and recognized by the Washington State Department of Health and the Washington Workforce Training and Educational Certification Board. NWSAM is a founding member of the National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure and Massage (NBCAAM), and was the first animal massage program to be recognized by NCBTMB (The National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork).

Meet Lola Michelin

Lola Michelin has a long background in massage, both human and animal, and she still has her own practice in addition to being the Director of Education and teaching several of the programs at NWSAM. She has provided animal massage training for zookeepers in zoological parks, and has also trained inmates at the Frasier Valley Women’s Prison and the McClaren Youth Correctional Facility through Project Pooch. Lola is a past President of the Washington Animal Massage Association, and has been featured extensively in magazines, journals, on TV and radio.

Q: Lola, how did you get into the massage field/business?
I started massaging horses when I was still in college and working at a local racetrack while completing a Pre-Veterinary program at Michigan State University. The horses evolved into working on dogs and later, people.

Q: I saw that you also have worked with exotic species – could you tell us more about that?
After college, I went to work in the education department at Busch Gardens Zoological Park in Tampa, Florida. My friendships with individuals within that industry have allowed me to continue working with exotic species and train zookeepers to perform massage as well. I have also had opportunities to work with raptors and with marine mammals. Although it is quite different from working on horses or dogs, I have yet to find an animal that did not benefit from massage work. It is very rewarding to see the changes for these amazing creatures.

Q: That’s very interesting, and I don’t know that most people would think of zoo animals getting massage. What specific species of zoo animals have you worked on?
I have worked on a diverse list of species including giraffe, rhinoceros, primates, elephants and even reptiles. Some of my favorites include a howler monkey and a coatamundi, but of course the giraffe were awesome as well.

Q: What changes have the zoo staff observed in the animals that they work on?
Many of the zoo staff I work with do a lot of enrichment and training with their animals, so massage became a great reinforcement tool. Of course, the medical staff at the zoos use the massage during surgery or recovery for sick or injured animals. And in the case of some primates, we used massage as a way to help train the animals to volunteer for routine procedures like getting weighed or getting blood drawn or taking medicine. It is far less stressful for the animals if those things don’t have to be done under restraint or sedation.

Q: It’s nice to hear that the zoo staff is so open to the animals receiving bodywork. Do you find that people’s view of animal massage has changed in the time you’ve been in the field?
Hugely. At the start of my career, there were less than a dozen people doing animal massage in North America and many people and professionals were resistant to the idea. The change just in the last 10 years has been monumental. Our classes now often include vet techs and assistants whose veterinary clinics have sent them for the training so that they can offer the service in clinic. The different varieties of animal massage now available have changed as well…traditionally massage was for sport animals or as a luxury to spoil “pampered pets”. This is still a large and valuable aspect of the animal massage world, but we are seeing tremendous growth in our Rehabilitation Massage courses and geriatric specialties or the new Manual Ligament Therapy.

Q: What about West coast vs. East coast – does the attitude towards animal massage differ?
I don’t see a difference between coasts so much as a difference between urban and rural areas. I am blessed to live in the Pacific Northwest where both Seattle and Portland are in the Top Three “Pet Loving Cities” year after year. Our students come from all over the US and for that matter, from all over the globe. Animal massage is gaining recognition from Hong Kong to Hoboken and from L.A. to to D.C. A decade ago, the vast majority of our students were from the West Coast. Today, we teach at over 15 satellite campuses including New Jersey, Utah, Canada, Hawaii and Hong Kong. I hear the same things everywhere I go…people want to find rewarding work with animals and people want the best for their pets and animals. The biggest difference is exposure…once animal massage is visible within a community, the demand for it grows steadily. My own private practice has taken me from coast to coast and even overseas and I have yet to find someplace where I could not fairly quickly build a practice. Sometimes it took more effort to educate a community about the benefits, but I never found that work was scarce once people knew what you had to offer.

Q: I did see that you teach in Hong Kong. Is animal massage a new thing there?
NWSAM has been offering animal massage classes in Hong Kong for over three years. It is a growing phenomenon there too. People in Hong Kong LOVE their pets, but living in that big a city can present a lot of challenges for pets and pet-owners alike. Several years ago, three students came from Hong Kong to take our class in British Columbia. They owned a grooming school and salon in the city and after the class, they approached NWSAM about offering animal massage at their school. The International Pet Therapy and Grooming Academy (IPTGA) became our educational partner in Asia.

Q: And you teach at animal shelters too. I have long a been a fan and supporter of Best Friends in Utah, and I saw that you now collaborate with them. How did that come about?

Student Deanna Murgatroyd after a massage session with one of the deserving dogs at the Oregon Humane Society

Yes, this was one of the most exciting developments of 2011 for NWSAM. We actually partner with over 15 shelter and rescue organizations around North America including places like Oregon Humane Society, Washington Animal Rescue League in DC, Kauai Humane Society and now, Best Friends Animal Society! When we partner with a shelter, we hold our classes at their facility and in exchange the animals receive massage and the shelter receives a portion of the proceeds from the class. We also offer one-day “FUNdamentals of Animal Massage” workshops at the shelters with all of the money going to the shelter and free attendance for staff and volunteers.

We spent a magical three weeks in Utah this summer teaching students and also mentoring a select group of potential instructors from among our graduates. The “Fundamentals of Animal Massage” workshop there was the largest we have ever held! We couldn’t believe the number of volunteers, staff and even BFAS Founders who showed up to learn massage! Needless to say, the experience was amazing and everyone at Best Friends was so happy with the attention the animals received during our stay. We will be back at BFAS several times in 2012 for classes.

The collaboration came about mostly because of the hard work of Rubi Sullivan, one of our graduates, and NWSAM’s own “I.T. Guy”, David Cota-Robles. Rubi is a graduate of all three small animal levels and runs a successful practice called HEALNW. She contacted me to see if she could arrange a private mentorship to work on some specific areas in her practice. Since both she and I have often talked about wanting to visit BFAS, I suggested we try to hold the mentorship there and work in some volunteering. All she needed was the suggestion to get the ball rolling. Little did I know that at the same time, David had just finished reading a recent edition of the BFAS magazine that we subscribe to and had contacted their education department to see if they would be interested in a collaboration. Were they ever!!!


So far we have held a Small Animal Level 100 class, a Large Animal Level 100 class and a one-week mentorship clinic there. It truly is a remarkable organization and the facility was perfect for our classes. There were hundreds of animals to work on (dogs, cats, horses, pigs, mules, rabbits and wildlife) and our classrooms (indoor and outdoor) were breathtaking! Our mentorship group even got to work with one of the the Guardian Angel dogs, “Alfie”. Alfie is a puppy who survived the Parvo Virus AND Distemper but was left with debilitating neurological deficits. His massage and physical therapies were key to his survival and we saw some pretty amazing changes during our time with him. Thanks to the loving attentions of the BFAS staff, in particular Alfie’s own guardian angel, caregiver “Haven”, Alfie improved to the point of moving about in a specially designed cart and was adopted in September. (I have attached a photo of Alfie with our mentor group) We are looking forward to more life-changing moments like these at BFAS.

Cattie, you’ve gotta go if you haven’t been… as a supporter, you deserve to be surrounded with the magic, the energy, the animals and the people that are BFAS!

Cattie: Yes, it has always seemed like an amazing place to me. I really hope I will get a chance to visit there someday – it’s high up on my “must see” list!

Q: In addition to massage, you also teach Reiki, Acupressure and Aromatherapy, and earlier, you mentioned Manual Ligament Therapy for animals, which I had never heard of before. What is it?
Manual Ligament Therapy is an osteopathic massage technique developed by Arik Gohl for people based on the work of Dr. Hugh Logan, D.C. and Dr. Solomonov, O.D. Manual Ligament Therapy rebalances joint dynamics through gentle massage and positioning to reduce muscle tension and re-establish better proprioceptive communication between the musculoskeletal system and the nervous system. The effects are instantaneous and tremendous. I studied Manual Ligament Therapy for my human practice (yes, I occasionally still work on people, if they ask very, very nicely!). The results I got from my own back and hip issues were astounding and I immediately recognized an application for it in animals, particularly many of the show horses I was working on who had back pain or immobility. NWSAM was selected by Arik Gohl to further develop the technique specifically for animals (large and small). After time spent modifying the technique to suit quadrupeds and developing five modules for both small and large animals, NWSAM is now the exclusive training site for MLT for Animals.

Q: Now, about your school body, do you have a “typical” student? My class at Bancroft was very diverse as far as previous education and fields of work. Do you find the same at your school? What types of backgrounds do your students come from? Do you find that there is a common thread or reason why people decide to go into this business?
A large percentage of our students are looking for a new career, sometimes after years in a corporate setting or a traditional job. So we hear from a good number of people that they are looking to work with animals because of the emotional reward. About a third of our students are career-changers or first-time career-seekers, another third are already working either in the animal care industry or the human massage industry and the remainder are pet and horse-owners looking to improve their ability to care for their animals. Student age ranges from 13 (our youngest graduate) to 72, but the average age is 35-45. We are seeing a growth in the younger students, 18-25. Many of our students have been involved with animals in one capacity or another most of their life and most have some college education. We also get some veterinarians and other animal professionals, which is always a treat. The common thread in the group is of course their compassion for animals. An unfortunate thread for many of them is a growing dislike or distrust of people they work with, which is a sad commentary of our times, but a reality for many.

I feel very blessed to have spent the majority of my life surrounded by amazing animals and amazing people. I am learning that mine is a rare experience and that needs to change. Some people go into animal massage because they want to work for themselves and have flexibility in their worklife…I tell them that running a small business gives you tremendous flexibility in that you get to pick any 80 hours a week that you want to work! (Cattie: so true!) Seriously though, there are easier ways to make a living but I would be hard-pressed to name any as fulfilling or as fun.

Q: Do you know how many of your graduates go on to work in their chosen field? Do you offer support after graduation? Are there alumni meetings, online networking or something similar?
While we don’t offer placement services, we do stay in touch with our graduates. Because NWSAM is a Washington State Vocational School, we have to send reports in annually about the percentage of students working in the field compared to the number of graduates. We file similar reports with the Oregon Department of Education who we are licensed under. In 2010, 52% of our small animal massage graduates and 68% of large animal graduates were working in the field. This is comparable or better than the percentages of human massage practitioners who go on to practice. In many cases, our graduates are also pursuing an advanced level of our training and therefore don’t show up in the statistics. I think this is fairly representative or a little higher than the national average. Also, many people are already working as groomers or farriers etc. and using massage within an already existing practice. Many people chose to provide animal massage part-time while working in another chosen field simultaneously.

We do provide an alumni online group and social networking for both students and graduates as well as prospective students. We also offer continuing education workshops so that graduates can continue to perfect their skills and expand their services. Over the last decade, 72% of our students returned to take more training with NWSAM. I am pretty proud of that fact and I think it speaks to the fact that today’s consumer is more knowledgeable about massage and asking for specific things like Manual Lymphatic Drainage or Myofascial Release. It isn’t enough to just know Swedish Massage anymore or to perform a choreographed routine on every animal. Savvy animal owners are great for our industry and we work with graduates to help educate their community.

Also, some of our graduates come back to assist in classes or become NWSAM staff. We are quick to brag about some of the amazing things our graduates are doing whether it is working with the U.S. Olympic Endurance team horses, volunteering to rescue animals during disasters such as Katrina or winning the Top Dog Holistic Provider in Portland, OR by a landslide! We have soldiers who completed our training while serving in Iraq and courageous students such as Sam Banry who graduated from our small animal massage program and is working alongside a veterinarian despite being paraplegic and confined to a wheelchair.

Q: I get emails all the time from people who are thinking about becoming professional animal massage therapists, and one question that keeps coming up again and again is “how do I choose a school?” Do you have any advice to share?
Well, I think it is wise to compare as many schools as you can based on their curriculum, their history in the industry and their dedication to promoting a professional standard of practice. Their programs should be a minimum of 100 hours, 200 is even better. Our curriculum is divided into three levels of training for a total of 450 hours. NBCAAM (the National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure and Massage) provides a standard of practice and code of ethics for the industry and any school worth attending will uphold similar standards, even if they are not recognized or a participating member of the organization. As legislative regulation of animal massage becomes more widespread, having the training you need to get national certification will increase in importance, NBCAAM requires 200 hours of study to sit for their certification exams, so that might be a good starting point.

I would strongly encourage anyone considering a school to make sure that they have a science-based curriculum (anatomy, physiology, kinesiology…). While most do, there are those that still don’t teach basic musculoskeletal anatomy. Which is not to say that you cannot provide good massage without that knowledge, but in this fast-changing industry, it is harder to compete with those that have solid scientific as well as modality-specific training. If a pet-owner is looking for basic skills and not planning to provide services professionally, a course that is less science-based is fine. But more and more, animal massage practitioners are called upon to work on animals with a history of illness or injury or breed-specific conditions. We have to assess the animal and make a decision about its need for proper veterinary intervention. Animal massage practitioners cannot diagnose conditions or provide treatments or prognosis pertaining to a specific condition. If you don’t have the knowledge needed to make that assessment, you could run the risk of overstepping your boundaries unwittingly.

Second, you should compare history. History tells you a lot about a program…have they been around long enough to have weathered some changes in our industry? If so, they are more likely to be aware of changing needs that could affect your success in school and beyond. What about their instructors…how long have they been practicing and teaching? How many instructors are present in class and what is the normal class-size? Don’t be fooled by a long list of “accreditations” behind a school’s name. While it is great if a school is recognized by others within the industry (such as NBCAAM or IAAMB), many affiliations only require filling out an application and writing a check but don’t provide any true measure of quality.

NWSAM instructor Joan Sorita demonstrating massage on “Bird”

I also encourage prospective students who inquire about our programs to talk to our graduates and students about their experience. We are happy to connect them with someone in their area or they can solicit information directly from others via our social networks. Lastly, I would look at their ability to meet your needs…if it is flexibility you need you may favor a school that has blended learning programs (distance-learning combined with resident training). If finances are an issue, talk to the school about potential scholarships or funding opportunities…don’t just pick a school based on price because you often do get what you pay for.

After you have gathered as much information on as many different programs as you feel you need, make a list of pros and cons and then do a gut check…usually you got a particularly good feeling about one or more schools or had some concerns in the back of your mind about others. Your instinct is generally right! One other thing…most of the top schools do work closely and have good relationships. If you are upfront about your needs and they don’t have what you need, the good administrators will direct you to the school that might be a better fit for you, so don’t be afraid to ask for a recommendation. At NWSAM, I have often helped a prospective student contact another educator that I think will be a better fit or even suggested a different modality based on their goals such as acupressure or a veterinary technician program for example.

Q: With your ever expanding network of teaching facilities, do you have any future plans to teach in Nova Scotia? I have received several emails from people who are looking for classes there.
We currently offer classes in British Columbia and we have been asked to teach a class in summer in Alberta, which we are strongly considering. Nothing in Nova Scotia at this time. However, one of the big advantages of an NWSAM education is that much of the training is done online with the help of a distance-learning instructor. The resident training is completed after the distance-learning portion is completed and students can travel to any of our campuses to attend the 5-day hands-on practical. They could complete much of their training in Nova Scotia and then travel to either location in Canada or any of our other sites to complete.

Q: And there are new exciting learning opportunities happening all the time: I saw that you are teaming up with Tallgrass so that people can get “combo training”. Great idea! How does that work?
Yes, we are offering students interested in taking both programs the opportunity to attend an intensive acupressure course with Tallgrass if they have completed our Level 100 animal massage course.  Tallgrass is able to provide their complete program to our students because much of the anatomy and some other materials are common to the two programs, so grads won’t have to study the same material twice and will instead be able to focus on the hands-on experience. This year, NWSAM grads will be able to attend a September intensive with Tallgrass. We will be doing something similar later so that graduates of the Tallgrass program will be able to take an intensive animal massage course (represents less time and money for the same training) in either late 2012 or early 2013. We are very excited to be working with Tallgrass on this. We have collaborated with Tallgrass Animal Acupressure on many occasions to offer their intro courses at NWSAM and in teaching our unique Integrated Massage and Acupressure series. It is a great way for students to get the most out of two of the best schools in the industry.

Lola, thank you so much for taking the time to answer all these questions. I think this will be a great help for both pet owners and people looking to get into the field of animal massage. To find out more about the school and the different programs and courses they offer, go to the NWSAM website (I also list their introductory courses on the bi-monthly Events & Workshops lists here on AWG).

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Cattie Coyle

Cattie Coyle

Founder and Editor at Animal Wellness Guide
Cattie is the founder and editor of Animal Wellness Guide. She is a freelance photographer, graduate of Bancroft School of Massage Therapy’s small animal program, and has studied Applied Zoopharmacognosy. Learn more about Cattie
Cattie Coyle
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