WEST FARGO — Talk about service.
This masseuse not only shows up at your door, her clients don't have to disrobe or lie still in a darkened room while listening to Enya for an hour.
In fact, on this particular afternoon, Michele Gedgaud's client scampers across the room to eat snacks off the floor, hides behind his mom for a spell and then, rather brazenly, gives Gedgaud a big, sloppy kiss on the nose.
Then again, free-range clients are a specialty of Gedgaud, a certified animal massage therapist. Since receiving her certification in Equissage in 2018, the Moorhead woman has learned how to treat the sore backs and aching muscles of dogs and — in the rare instances they'll tolerate it — extremely mellow cats.
Gedgaud's home business, Mutts Unleashed, also includes making healthy treats, muffins and birthday cakes for pets, as well as aromatherapy products and intricate, multi-colored paracord leashes and collars for man's best friend. She even designs and sews a line of doggie ties for the sharpest-dressed Shar Pei on the block.
"Michele is the best," says Noreen Thomas, a Moorhead organic farmer who first met Gedgaud when their kids were in 4-H together. "When she comes over the dogs lean on her. She has fostered lots of animals. She has a heart of gold."
Gedgaud admits that she slips in a few massage strokes whenever petting Thomas's large, friendly farm dogs. After all, she says, petting is simply the gateway to more therapeutic touch. Massage, she says, "is petting with a purpose."
A life of dogged devotion
For as long as she can remember, Gedgaud has loved dogs. After college, she and husband, Jeff, adopted a dog together before they got married. Since then, they've been constant and conscientious dog owners, even preparing their dogs' food from scratch to ensure maximum nutrition.
Gedgaud has worked for years with the 4-H dog-training program and has gone through therapy dog-training with two of her canines, Xavier and Storm. She and Jeff also have provided foster homes to numerous displaced dogs for Diamond in the Ruff Rescue and Homeward Animal Shelter in Fargo.
For 25 years, Gedgaud's vocation was childcare. But after Nokomis Child Care Center in Fargo closed a few years ago, Gedgaud lost her job. She decided to follow her heart and start caring for fur babies instead. She earned a certificate in natural pet care in 2017 and her certification in Equissage, the oldest trainer of animal massage therapists in the world, after that.
Amid COVID, Gedgaud hasn't been able to do house calls, but she periodically gives classes through Moorhead Community Education so owners can learn how to use therapeutic touch to help their pets. She also sells her products through local craft and farmers' markets as well as Making More Than Custom at Moorhead Center Mall.
Working out Wally's kinks
I was able to see Gedgaud's technique firsthand a few weeks ago, when she treated my 10-year-old Lhasa-Bichon mix, Wally, to a massage. Like a lot of small dogs, Wally is a peppy adolescent at heart who likes to jump on and off things he shouldn't. That means he has some knee issues and back arthritis, so I was interested to see how he responded to therapeutic touch.
Gedgaud started out by lightly running her hands over Wally, from head to toe, to relax him and acclimate him to her touch. This introductory once-over also allowed her to identify any "focus points" — those inflamed areas or lumps that could indicate tight muscles or trouble spots.
She observed him as he trotted around the living room, surmising — correctly — that he has some instability in his back legs.
Initially, Wally seemed happy to get all this attention from a friendly stranger. But when she started a slightly more intensive technique known as effleurage — a gliding stroke using medium pressure — he hightailed it over to me.
It didn't seem to bother Gedgaud at all. Wally had never had an official massage before, she explains, so it was unfamiliar. And as dogs obviously can't groan, "That hurts!," they express their discomfort by running away, flinching, yelping or sometimes even snapping.
Gedgaud wisely prepared for this possibility by bringing along a "stunt dog" — a stuffed animal that is almost exactly the same size as Wally. For some reason, Wally was completely enamored with this fake canine. He spent a lot of time sniffing its face and trying to make eye contact, despite only receiving a glassy-eyed stare in return.
He also tried the obligatory butt-sniff, perhaps trying to determine if this curiously stoic pooch was animal, vegetable, mineral or fiberfill.
When Gedgaud turned her attention to demonstrating certain massage strokes on Wally's stuffed stand-in, he seemed a little jealous. Before long, he had parked himself in front of her and was staring adoringly into her eyes.
Old time chuck and roll
Gedgaud works from front to back, nose to tail, using a variety of techniques that range from small, circular motions to "skin rolling," a technique in which she gently lifts the a fold of skin upward, then rolls it slightly to the side. "Skin rolling can release adherence of the skin to the deeper tissues, and it can increase circulation of both lymph and blood in the skin and subcutaneous tissues," according to the Veterinary Centers of America website. "Most dogs really enjoy the sensations associated with skin rolling."
She also does something called "chucking" — wrapping a hand around a leg, then gently pulling the skin slightly downward and then upward. This procedure "gets the circulation and the muscles going in the legs," she explains.
At another point, she thumps him lightly on the chest and rib cage. "I do this because where are dog's noses? Down where it's dusty," she says. The thumping helps the animal to cough and clear out their lungs, as well as increases circulation of lymph and blood, according to the VCA site.
Although Wally's free-wheeling ways keep Gedgaud from following her usual massage routine, I do note some consistencies. She normally works from head to tail and always works the left and right side of the body simultaneously. She never uses her thumbs as they are too strong for small-animal massage. Instead, she follows one pet massage expert's advice to press on the lid of her closed eye to gauge how much pressure to use on her pet clients.
"If it hurts on you, it's going to hurt on the dog," she says.
Through patience and careful observation of an animal's body language, Gedgaud has been able to get certain dogs accustomed to being touched in places they've never liked before. As one example, her dogs now like getting their paws massaged — down to the webbing between the toes — even though many pooches are pretty particular about who touches their mitts.
A typical massage lasts about a half-hour, but sometimes runs longer. Pets are usually pretty relaxed afterward. When Gedgaud videotaped her massage to submit as her final exam for Equissage certification, her dog fell asleep.
Although Gedgaud is fully certified in massage, she's always looking to learn more. She's currently studying Tellington T-touch, a gentle bodywork/training method/owner-pet bonding system that's been used to train every animal from whales and birds to farm animals.
Biscuits and muffins and cakes, oh my!
Gedgaud likes to pamper pups not only through touch but also through their tastebuds.
She makes a variety of cat and dog treats, using whole foods and human-grade ingredients.
"People can eat them," Gedgaud says, smiling. "My husband has actually tried them."
Indeed, their labels read like extremely clean human snacks. Her carrot treats contain whole wheat flour, rolled oats, banana, carrots and apple juice. Her honey cinnamon dog treats contain whole wheat flour, honey, vegetable oil, real vanilla, egg, milk, baking powder and cinnamon.
Gedgaud tries to source as many ingredients locally as possible. She gets her flours and grains from outlets like Doubting Thomas Farms in Moorhead.
She'll also fill special orders if a pet is allergic to wheat flour or dairy, substituting those ingredients with almond flour, buckwheat, rice flour or oat milk. Her recipes contain some healthy fats, but she doesn't go overboard as she knows some animals are prone to pancreatitis.
Gedgaud does a lot of research to ensure the ingredients in her homemade treats are 100% safe. For instance, the peanut butter in her biscuits doesn't contain xylitol, which can be very toxic to canines.
She also steers away from other dog-unfriendly ingredients, like nutmeg, raisins, grapes and chocolate.
For the latter, she substitutes carob, so that pups can also enjoy the occasional "chocolate" chip cookie or brownie.
In addition, Gedgaud bakes items like pumpkin cupcakes topped with peanut butter frosting and unsweetened coconut, pumpkin biscotti, banana bread, granola and special-occasion cakes. She sweetens them with natural sugars like honey or maple syrup and decorates them as elaborately as any human birthday cake.
"I can do just about any flavor," she says. "As long as the dog can have it, I've made it."
Her treats are affordably priced, at 75 cents per ounce for her cookie treats and $10 for a birthday cake. In Gedgaud's world, it doesn't seem to be as much about profit as it is about the pupsters. "My life kind of revolves around dogs," she says.