The Vashon Chamber of Commerce routinely fields calls from people from all over wondering about places to stay on the island, the vast majority of which come from people planning to attend classes at the Northwest School of Animal Massage.
Relocated from Redmond to Vashon in 2011, the unique school has kept a low profile on the island, but is one of only a few in the country that offers classes and professional certification in the growing field of animal massage.
“With the demand for animal massage practitioners growing ... so is the spectrum of students enrolling,” said Lola Michelin, the school’s director.
Last week Michelin sat cross-legged in the center of the converted barn — known as “The Hangar,” after former owner Al Paxhia, who was a Vashon airport commissioner for many years and built a recreational plane in the space. Now the building functions as the school’s classroom. Relaxing comfortably there in front of her was Zoe, a local rescue dog who served as a model while Michelin discussed massage techniques and demonstrated them on her.
About a dozen students who scribbled notes and practiced the moves on their own stuffed-animal dogs and cats of various sizes and colors sat at tables circling Michelin.
“I want to do this for my pets and my friends’ pets, just to help maintain their quality of life,” said one student, Felisa Smithson of north Seattle, after the class. “If I excel at it, I would definitely consider studying it further.”
Looking for a unique gift for her boyfriend’s dog, Smithson came across NWSAM online a few years ago, and recently decided to sign up for the introductory course the school offers.
Smithson called the class thorough but accessible, even for those without a background in massage or health care.
“There’s lots of biology and physiology that’s understandable but not dumbed down,” she said.
The introductory class for pet owners and those simply curious about the practice, called the FUNdamentals of Animal Massage, is only the beginning of what NWSAM offers. With an online program, hundreds of students and more than a dozen satellite campuses, the growing school offers three different massage certifications as well as continuing education and several topic-specific workshops such as aromatherapy and Reiki for animals.
The courses — a mix of academic work and hands-on practice — can be intense, as Washington has some of the highest standards for animal massage training and regulation.
In fact, Washington now considers animal massage a health care profession and as such, it falls under the auspices of the state Department of Health. To become licensed, 300 hours of training are required unless a therapist is already licensed in human massage, then the requirement falls to 100 hours.
“This is a fast growing profession,” Michelin said, “and in Washington you have to be licensed to practice.”
Michelin, who now lives at the beautiful Vashon campus with her partner David Costa-Robles, has loved animals, and particularly horses, all of her life. At 14 years old, she started working as an assistant in veterinary clinics and went on to earn a degree in animal science and genetics from Michigan State University. Her plan had always been to become a veterinarian.
While in college, however, she spent her summers working at a racetrack, and it was there that she saw equine massage — the massage of horses — for the first time.
“That was it. That changed my focus,” she said.
The year Michelin was to start a veterinary medicine program, she also had the opportunity to apprentice with an equine massage practitioner she’d met at the racetrack. So vet school was put on hold, indefinitely as it turned out, while Michelin focused her efforts on massage.
After the apprenticeship, Michelin worked for a time as a zookeeper and incorporated massage into her care of the exotic animals — mammals as large as a giraffe and a rhinoceros to as small as a kinkajou, a small rainforest mammal kept at the zoo she worked at. After horses, the giraffe is Michelin’s second favorite animal to massage, she said, and the rhino seemed to enjoy it too, though for safety reasons she did have to remain behind a barrier.
In 2001, Michelin opened her massage school in Redmond, initially providing continuing education for certified animal massage therapists. Soon, however, she discovered there was a large demand from new animal massage students, and she started a full certification program.
Most of NWSAM’s coursework can be done via online distance learning, which makes it an attractive choice for students from all over the world. To address the logistical difficulty of the hands-on training components, Michelin has set up 15 satellite campuses in other states and countries, including Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, Pennsylvania, California, Canada, China and Mexico. Every satellite site is associated with an animal shelter or therapeutic animal program.
Animals, Michelin explained, are increasingly given massages for many of the same reasons that humans are — to ease stress and improve health, help recover from illness or injury or to help address behavioral issues.
At NWSAM, Michelin offers three levels of professional certification training, for either small or large animal practice. Maintenance Massage provides general massage fundamentals, Performance Massage focuses on working with sporting and working animals or animals in transition, and Rehabilitation Massage teaches how massage techniques in conjunction with veterinary care can help animals recover from injury or illness.
The field of animal massage is growing, Michelin said, and many veterinary clinics, groomers and boarding and training facilities are looking to add massage therapists to their staffs.
“And we have a lot of veterinary technicians coming through the program now,” she added.
On the serene 12-acres of Paxhia Farm nestled in the trees off of 156th Street, Michelin holds her classes in the Hangar Barn. Charts of animals’ body systems, veterinary volumes and cases filled with bones line the walls and an actual horse skeleton sets off the front of the room.
“We have a very academic curriculum, with a strong focus on anatomy and the sciences,” Michelin said, noting that a group of her students had been the ones to put the skeleton together, providing an invaluable learning experience in the process.
Heather Rankin, a student from Richmond, British Columbia, was in attendance at the introductory class on Saturday because she plans to study animal acupressure at a school in Colorado and the school had recommended NWSAM for pre-requisite training.
In an interview, Rankin said she had wanted to work with animals in a non-invasive way her whole life, but there were no program such as this available when she was younger.
“I’ve been thrilled with my time here and what I’ve learned. I love it. ... It used to be that being a vet tech was the only option,” she said.
Michelin and Costa-Robles had run the school in Redmond since 2001, but they found their dream location, she said, when the Paxhia Farm became available in 2011.
The grounds also provide a home for several animals Michelin has rescued over the years. Two retired show horses, several rescue goats once slated to be slaughtered and two rescued mini-horses that are now cared for in meticulous paddocks and a stable on the Paxhia grounds are willing subjects for the school’s programs.
Though the school doesn’t advertise much on Vashon, Michelin said she and her program have been embraced by many from the island’s horse and dog communities. The Pony Club has held meetings at the farm; local residents sometimes bring pets for massages when students need hands-on practice, and the school was present at the popular Vashon Sheepdog Classic, a three-day sheepdog trial event where students worked on 75 dogs over the weekend.
“This is such a wonderful property,s and Vashon is fantastic,” Michelin said. “We weren’t sure how people would feel about traveling here when we moved and added the ferry ride, but everyone loves it.”
For more information about the Northwest School of Animal Massage, go to www.nwsam.com or www.facebook.com/NWSAM.