Humans aren't the only ones in need of a good massage and a little strength training.
Just ask certified canine fitness trainer (yes, that's really a thing) Shelah Barr, who's been soothing the aches and pains of pups for more than a decade through the art of massage. But Barr wanted to do more for the pets she worked with, recognizing "more instances where animals would benefit from physical training in areas such as strength, balance, cardio capacity, flexibility, and weight loss," she says, because regular walks and play aren't always enough to get a dog into peak condition. And so it is that, this month, Barr opened Happy Hounds Massage and Fitness—physical therapy studio, dog gym, and massage parlor—in the Mission.
At Happy Hounds, brightly colored exercise balls and disks line the walls, and adjustable hurdles and a dog-size treadmill occupy the second floor. Barr uses every doodad and square inch in her work with dogs with a variety of needs: Barrett, a highly active shepherd mix, was looking to hone his stand-up paddle boarding skills—when he first started on the water, he'd lose confidence and drop into a down position every time a wave hit. After intensive core work on Barr's fitness equipment, Barrett is now a SUP pro, with the strength to stand up alongside his owner. Locke, a four-year-old maltipoo, had plenty of energy but was having trouble losing some excess weight. Two months into a fitness program focusing on cardio, strength, and mental stimulation exercises, Locke is only a half-pound away from her goal and has learned a slew of new tricks.
But it isn't all about beauty and sports. Barr also works with dogs who are recovering from surgery and medical issues, helping them relearn how to use and trust their bodies. For these cases, she receives veterinary approval before designing a fitness plan to ensure there are no negative effects to the dog's overall health. Take 11-year old pit bull Tana: Years after undergoing surgery on both his knees, the otherwise healthy dog continued to favor his right leg, refusing to bend the left knee when sitting and laying down. After a few weeks on Barr's exercise plan, Tana was back to using both his legs normally. Seniors are also regular clients here—just like cross-training for humans, canine fitness programs keeps dogs physically fit and independent, decreasing the risk of expensive vet bills and physical debilitation over time.
Barr, who performs all the services herself and even offers home visits within San Francisco, plans a custom training program based on each dog's specific needs, which often includes massage as a form of healing and treatment. "Helping them dogs maintain or regain their ability to move the way they were meant to is the goal of massage," explains Barr. "Especially for dogs in recovery from surgery or other injury, dogs looking to improve performance or to soothe muscles, and for mobility in seniors."
"I want to see animals living and aging as well as possible," she adds.
// An initial session is $90 and includes a medical history review, conformation and gait analysis, projected outcome consult, and hands on session. Follow-up visits are $75; 3150 18th St. (Mission), happyhoundsmassage.com
Post-workout nap time at Happy Hounds. (Courtesy of Shelah Barr)