Canine massage, as a profession, is still in its infancy.

It is in a place similar to where massage therapy for humans was 30 years ago — and the way one markets canine massage today is similar to the way one would have marketed a human massage practice in the 1980s.

We can’t predict the future of the dog massage market, but we do know that Americans are increasing the amount they spend on their pets — with $75.38 projected for 2019, up from $45.53 billion in 2009 — and that interest in canine boarding, day-care and spa businesses is growing too.

However, massage for dogs is not fully recognized, acknowledged or understood. It is not widely available. It is, in many regions, still discredited by the veterinary community. Canine massage is considered to be a threat to professional turf by entrenched animal health stakeholders.

Legal Considerations

Depending on what the laws are in the state or country you are practicing in, there are various levels of legal limitations on the practice of any kind of professional manipulation of animals for therapeutic purposes. Throughout the animal massage community, there is a lingering fear that tomorrow’s mail may contain the dreaded cease-and-desist order that could close down a practice. This is a real stressor in the lives of animal massage practitioners.

That said, there are thousands of people who have completed training in canine massage. They know the legal situations. They know the risks. They understand how beneficial massage is for dogs and provide the service in spite of the hazards.

These people, practicing under the radar, are the heroes of our entire massage therapy industry. They are living their principles. They know that eventually the legislation will catch up with the reasonableness of what they are doing. Their human clients know, too.

There are always exceptions. The American Holistic Veterinary Association is embracing massage. The state of Washington now has a licensing credential for small and large animal massage therapy. California’s state legislature is currently addressing the legal status of animal massage. Wherever this legislation surfaces for discussion, the restrictive terminology is modulated, allowing for a less fettered practice of canine massage.

You may have noticed that I used the term practitioner rather than therapist. I had to. I have to be careful and precise in the words I choose. If one were to use the terms therapy, therapist, healing — or any medical term that suggests treatment or diagnosis — I could be considered to be practicing veterinary medicine without a license.

Where animal massage is included in the scope of practice of veterinary medicine, it can only be practiced legally by a veterinarian (D.V.M.), under a vet’s supervision, or by a registered veterinary technician. Your license to massage humans does not give you the right to work on dogs. Animals are under a different context of legislation. For this reason, be careful what you say and what you publish on your website and social networking pages.

We are obliged to use a coded language. We use terms like balancing, enhancing, supporting, realigning, increasing circulation, and lymphatics. We reference referral points, acupoints, meridian flows, stretching, flexing and myofascial release.

Your Business Plan

What you describe in your business plan is your ideal future: your clients and what you envision your business as. It describes the services you would like to offer your clients, where you will practice, how much you will charge, and what you do that makes your company unique.

Your business plan is flexible, meaning it could change as your plan bumps up against reality. Just remember, you shape your own reality, based on what you choose to believe.

Just as with a human clientele, there are various types of canine clients to choose from:

Working Dogs

Canines that work for police, search-and-rescue or military organizations are one type of dog that can benefit from massage therapy.

Sport Dogs

Sport dogs are athletes and their owners and handlers understand how massage enhances training; addresses sports injuries; and maintains health in the face of long-term arthritis, tissue and bone weakness, strain, fatigue and hyperactivity. They embrace trigger-point neuromuscular releases. They take care of their elderly, retired athletes.

You would connect with these dogs at agility events, sport dog clubs and local dog events. Contact the event coordinator and request to have a booth where you can demonstrate and offer canine massage. There will be a fee. You may not earn enough to cover the fee and your expenses at the first few events, but as your reputation grows, so will your following — and so will your income.

Geriatric Dogs

Another group of canine clients that are ready for massage are geriatric pet dogs. These dogs’ owners are looking for anything that will add a few quality years to their dogs’ lives.

The dogs are so appreciative and communicative about the way they feel when massaged that their owners are eager to return for more sessions. Many of these dogs’ owners prefer to have their dogs massaged at home, so be ready to schlep your table on house calls. I have a physical clinic and encourage clients to come to me. That way, they do not have to pay a travel fee, which they appreciate.

Ways to find clients include networking with veterinarians, animal physical therapists, groomers and dog walkers.

Although every dog needs massage, not every dog should be your client. Just as you may not enjoy everyone’s company, you will notice that there are sizes and breeds that you may find yourself attracted to or avoiding.

You may have been frightened by German Shepherds as a child. You may have been chased by a little terrier as a youngster or bitten by a neighbor’s dog. If you project anxiety when you encounter one of these breeds now, your massages will have to work through these inhibiting filters and your work may not be effective.

So, when you decide which dogs you would like to massage, you just might want to avoid certain breeds.

In Practice

There are many practice venues from which you can choose. My preference is a brick-and-mortar clinic with an office, staff, monthly rent, utilities and taxes. I like the permanence of this; but it is not for everyone.

Many of my graduates run their businesses out of their homes, where they can keep their expenses low. Their primary overhead is transportation, since they do primarily house calls. Others share overhead by working in vets’ offices, with groomers, or at doggie day cares.

Fee Per Session

The rate for canine massage is similar to the rate for human massage. It is usually done by the session, rather than by time on the table. Dogs are often ready to end the session at around 40 minutes. Sometimes it lasts an hour. Sometimes they refuse to be touched.

If they refuse to be touched, there is still the same charge. The session is simply redirected to client teaching, which is also important to the well-being of the dog.

Be Yourself

You are unique. Your history is unique. The way you move, the way you think, the way you talk, the references you use, the humor you use, the loves you had, the hurts you’ve had, the experiences with dogs you’ve had — these have all determined who you are and how you approach what you want to do.

It follows that the way you present yourself will be as unique as you are. There is no one who can do what you do, the way you do it. You have no competition. Period.

Your marketing, the way you connect with others, is entirely and uniquely yours. So get out there and meet people. Dog owners will only bring their pets to you when they know and trust you. This can best be done in person, face-to-face, person-to-person.

Talk with people. Let them see your face, feel your handshake and hear your voice. Let them see your confidence in the way you move. Give them the opportunity to see how intently you listen to them. You’ll soon have a connection, and they will be interested in you.

I love to go to networking events that have sidewalk booths at charity walkathons. When I shake a hand at one of these events, I automatically do a little assessment. I describe what I feel in their palms. That often turns into a minute-long hand massage demo; I describe skin pressure points and referral zones and share how these are very similar in dogs. Soon I’m scheduling their dog’s appointment.

7 Keys to Marketing Canine Massage

1. Give yourself time to create a great website and Facebook page, business cards and brochures. Post short videos on Facebook and Twitter to let the world know your style of canine massage exists, what it looks like, and that it is available.

2. Be patient. Give yourself time to learn and make mistakes. Give yourself time to enjoy the journey.

3. Practice massage on many dogs. It is always nice to get paid; and it is even better to develop your craft. Do not be stymied if your first clients are the dogs of friends or people who cannot pay. They are part of your education and their word-of-mouth appreciation will be a big part of your marketing campaign.

4. Surround yourself with supportive, loving friends and family.

5. Continue to affirm your power and commitment to become a canine massage practitioner. You may be tested by others.

6. Develop a network of professionals to help you. Running a business takes many hats, and you have only one head.

7. Returning clients come back because they trust and like you and will continue as long as you are passionate about what you do.

A New Industry

I believe that massaging dogs is a calling. The service and the sense of validation we get with each canine massage are golden.

Surround yourself with a solid team who supports your passion. Let go of people whose negativity and doubt are influencing you. Your goals are not about pleasing them. If they’re family members, bless them, and know that they are doing the best they can with the resources they’ve been given.

Starting a business and getting clients is a job. Not a strenuous or difficult job; but one that takes planning, a network, exposure, time and patience. The more energy you put into each of these, the more you will be rewarded.

And remember, canine massage is a new industry. You will have to commit time and exposure to make success happen.

About the Author:

Jonathan Rudinger, LMT, is a registered nurse and has been instrumental in developing the field of canine massage for use at home and PetMassage at the professional level since the mid-1990s. As an instructor, he has taught more than 300 canine massage workshops. He is the founder of the International Association of Animal Massage and Bodywork and has served as president of the Association of Canine Water Therapy. He wrote “6 Essentials for Equine Massage Marketing Success” for MASSAGE Magazine.