Lisa Nickens didn’t realize it at the time, but watching Cheyenne, her beloved and aging German Shepherd-Chow, struggle to walk was the beginning of her journey toward a major career change.
“It just flipped a switch for me,” said Nickens, a CU Denver alumna, ’97 Bachelor of Science (geology). “I just couldn’t imagine how many physiological benefits it offered the dog until I saw it for myself.”
“It” was canine massage therapy. Nickens, who enjoyed a successful two decades as a geologist, a career launched by her education at CU Denver, last summer made the full leap to a new full-time career as a certified canine massage therapist and animal reiki practitioner.
“I just realized that I wanted to devote my time to the animals and helping them live their best lives and helping them feel good,” she said. “It is spiritually and mentally rewarding. I would not say it’s fiscally rewarding – yet. But I just got started.”
CU Denver’s connection to city pays dividends
Integral to her start in professional life – even this latest career move – was Nickens’ education at Colorado’s only public urban research university. Like so many CU Denver students, both decades ago and currently, Nickens, who grew up on the Western Slope, was looking for a university that offered a flexible schedule, small class sizes, was affordable and located in a vibrant area with ample employment opportunities.
“At CU Denver, I was able to work and go to school, and I could take day or night classes,” she said. “Being so close to downtown, I was able to get jobs in my industry. I went to class in the morning and then walked across Speer Boulevard and worked at Amoco.”
Amoco would be the first of several oil-gas businesses that employed Nickens, who’d been fascinated with geology since working in Montana’s Glacier National Park in her early 20s. “Attending CU Denver allowed me to work in my field of study before I got a degree, which was awesome,” she said. “I worked for a different oil company during my senior year, and they paid my tuition, which was hugely helpful. I was actually able to buy a car.”
Also at CU Denver, with the small class sizes and accessible professors, Nickens never felt like a face in the crowd. “My professors always knew who I was – that meant a lot to me,” she said. “I was very well prepared after my education.”
She went on to a graduate program at the Colorado School of Mines and, from there, a dynamic career with large energy companies. Shell Oil Company moved Nickens to Houston, where she had a “ton of fun” and got to travel the world.
But her high-flying corporate career came with a few downsides as well. The time on the road grew somewhat wearisome and it eventually took a toll on Nickens’ personal life.
In 2008, she moved back to Denver, landing a job with a company that had employed her once before – when she was a student at CU Denver. Nickens also started volunteering at a local animal rescue. Immediately, she found the experience both rewarding and healing. “I was in kind of a tough place … I was starting over.”
She discovered canine massage when Cheyenne began suffering from arthritis – specifically balky hips. A veterinarian, noting that the prescribed drugs weren’t working, suggested Cheyenne might benefit from massage therapy. “I was like, ‘Massage? Really, there are people who do this?’” Nickens did some research and discovered it was a legitimate therapy; in fact, the practice of animal massage dates as far back as 5,000 years in China.
“I just wanted to give my dog the best care I possibly could in her senior years. If there was something I could do for her in the form of physical therapy, I was all about that.”
Nickens earned her massage therapist certification at the Rocky Mountain School of Animal Acupressure and Massage and began doing animal massage as a sideline to her geology job. She gradually built up a client base and eventually it reached a point where Nickens could no longer balance both a corporate job and animal massage. She broke away from the former occupation last summer, launching her own business, Canine Wellness Colorado, in August. Despite its name, her business also provides massage to one client’s cat because the feline acts “put out” if it doesn’t get equal time under Nickens’ expert touch.
She tailors the bodywork/massage sessions to address the needs of each animal, and much of her work is palliative care for pets in the end stages of their lives. “We love our animals so much that being able to give them comfort is tremendously important,” she said.
During a recent house call, Nickens kneaded the back of Tazo, a 12-year-old Belgian Tervuren, a breed resembling wolves, as the dog reclined in a bed on the living-room floor. Tazo expressed a range of looks and sounds – soft groans and pants – as Nickens’ fingers moved down her spine. “That’s just her telling me she’s sore there,” the therapist said.
Treating her own dogs
Nickens gives both of her own dogs – 11-year-old Lucy and 14-year-old Gigi, who she rescued from a puppy mill – regular treatments in the massage studio of her Denver home.
Nickens still gets the occasional odd look from people when she tells them about her career transition, so an emphasis of her business is to educate people about canine therapy. “This is a legitimate modality for healing animals,” she said, as she stroked Gigi’s fur and gave the tiny Yorkshire terrier, who was once terrified of humans, a loving kiss.
It’s a rewarding career that she likely wouldn’t have found if not for the foundation she received from CU Denver.
“Going to college at CU Denver helped me get a good career that allowed me to live the dream – a house and an exciting career,” she said. “I’m just having a midlife change of career at this point. If I hadn’t gotten my education at CU Denver, I wouldn’t have the leeway to do this right now.”