LITTLE VILLAGE — Big Head Todd did the time but he didn't do the crime.
Now, the chocolate-brown pit bull-mix is thriving — playing, learning and getting regular massages as part of the city's Safe Humane program, which rescues and rehabilitates "court case" dogs whose owners are tied up in criminal cases.
"Canine massage is not a luxury, it's not just for the rich," said Denise Theobald, owner of the Chicago School of Canine Massage.
Each week, Theobald brings a group of canine massage students to Chicago Animal Care and Control to work with dogs like Big Head Todd, who was rescued in February from a felon who was not allowed to have unfixed dogs.
"The physiological and physical benefits are amazing," said Theobald, who began her career as a massage therapist for people before starting her massage school for dogs more than a decade ago.
Theobald said although the benefits of massage are as great in dogs as they are in people, the techniques are different.
"The first thing we do is take the dog off lead and watch what the dog is telling us," Theobald said. "The first thing is understanding the communication."
When Big Head Todd entered the room on a recent Saturday, he quickly sniffed his way through the group, appealing for head scratches and vigorously wagging his tail.
Soon, Theobald and two of her students were crouching around the dog, searching for trigger points along his neck and back and gently rubbing his injured back leg.
"Some dogs are going to be more willing than others," Theobald said. "We have to decipher how we individually work with each individual dog."
Janice Triptow, who's the lead trainer and behavior consultant for Safe Humane, said massages can help alleviate discomfort in dogs who have injuries, like Big Head Todd.
"Because of the relief experienced by the dog, the dog may make different behavior choices and become more receptive to training because now they're feeling more comfortable," said Triptow, who's worked with the program for two years.
Triptow evaluates dogs when they enter the Safe Humane program and develops rehabilitation programs based on the specific needs of the dog. Triptow said in addition to the standard training and exercise regimen, she often recommends massages for injured dogs and dogs who are not well-socialized.
In her experience, Triptow said most people think of canine massage as a luxe service.
"When you apply that same massage technique to dogs whose owners would probably never even consider paying for such a service, you see what the actual benefit is to dogs that would never otherwise see that," Triptow said.
Triptow said the average length of stay for dogs in the Safe Humane program is less than a month. At that time, the dogs are transferred to other rescue organizations where they are put up for adoption.
"Anything you can do to shorten the dogs' length of stay in the shelter is really what you want to devote resources to," Triptow said.
Watch the video to see Big Head Todd and another Safe Humane dog in action.