From Talk Therapy to Touch Therapy


Rita Smith has been a therapist and counselor helping people resolve problems for over 30 years.  These days, however, she is following her passion and serving a whole different breed of client:  the four-legged variety.

Jumping up on couches, down from beds, rough-tumbling with friends or climbing the stairs, like their human companions, dogs also have their share of everyday aches and pains.  And just as humans benefit from a good massage, so do our pets.

A lifelong animal lover, Smith learned firsthand the benefits of massage therapy through her holistic approach to addressing physical concerns as well as general wellness.  Combine the two and you’ve got Loving Touch Animal Massage.

Fun, energetic and engaging, Smith loves a challenge.  “When people commented that I must be very brave to start a new career at this point in my life, I just got it in my head that I wanted to work with animals and dove right in.” she says.

Smith left a position with Jewish Family and Child Services and set up a private practice while she trained and became certified as a Small Animal Massage Practitioner.  She finished her two-week practicum this time last year, and began practicing on animals.  “Mostly dogs of friends and relatives,” she jokes.

She now sees several animal clients a week and operates her human counseling practice part-time, mainly focusing on individuals going through transitions such as divorce, retirement and, fittingly:  career change.

Treating critters with massage strokes and humans with the ear and guidance of a counselor may seem vastly different, but Smith says the two careers complement each other perfectly.  “It’s all about listening and building trust,” Smith says, “having a genuine connection with your clients, both the animal, and the human that loves the animal.”

As with human massage, animal massage has all the physical benefits of stretching and loosening muscles to help prevent physical injury, maintain muscle tone and also release  endorphins to block pain brought on by aging and arthritis. 


Massage also has psychological benefits, often helping anxious, fearful, or aggressive dogs relax and de-stress. 

Just as she listens to her people patients in a verbal capacity, Smith “listens” to her animal patients’ body language to gauge whether they’re calm, nervous or feeling pain.  “It’s almost the same as counseling,” she remarks “except animals have a different way of communicating.”

These days, Smith no longer has to “practice” on enthusiastic friend’s or family member’s pets; she sees two to five clients each week.  Sessions run 30 to 60 minutes, based on the needs of each animal determined by Smith’s observations and hands-on evaluations.  Smith says she likes doing massage sessions at the animal’s home, where they are most comfortable.

Money’s tight for many these days, and Smith realizes that some might consider weekly massage for their dog, however beneficial, extravagant.  Her mission (and passion) is to be able to connect with folks who consider their pets members of the family and help keep them healthy and happy.

Recently, Smith says she’s been focusing on mindfulness, or “being in the moment,” as animals naturally are.  “Life gets so busy and everyone has so much on their plates,” she says, adding that pets pick up on their people’s emotional states.

Last month, Smith held her first Power of Touch workshop to teach people basic massage techniques.  A bonus for attendees was that the first segment was aimed at humans, having them focus on their breathing to clear their minds, allowing them to tune in to their animals to help ensure a great massage experience.  “Massage should help the person doing it as well,” Smith says, adding that one of the ways it does is by providing uninterrupted bonding time between human and animal.

Smith’s own furry family includes two cats, Sugarcat and Carmi, and Nicki (aka Nickers), an almost 9-year old “special blend” dog.  She says they’re all willing subjects for her loving touch massages.

Coming Up

Power of Touch Workshop

Nov. 8, 7-8:30

Play & Chase Dog Daycare

Details 503-730-9599 or


Vonnie Harris is a freelance writer, and operator of Pet Stop Pit Stop of SW WA. She and her brood, Jake and Jessie, both yellow Labs, and parrots Pedro (Yellow-Nape Amazon) and Lorali (African Grey) reside in Vancouver. Contact her at