Listening to animals

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Horse and dog owners around Whidbey Island turn to Elizabeth Johnson for her skilled care in promoting the health and well-being of their beloved four-leggeds.

Elizabeth Johnson visits with Ranger for a late winter check up

“Liz knows what she is doing,” said Terry Portillo, whose 28-year-old horse Ranger had been dropping weight during the winter and was being treated by Elizabeth in his pasture. The rural ranch, with one structure dating back to the 1880s, is framed by old evergreens and still-producing apple trees more than a century old. “She has years of experience. You can tell when she’s doing something that helps them feel better.”

Having suffered digestive problems over the winter, Ranger’s now-peaceful expression and calm body language could be seen as Elizabeth ran her hands along the horse’s flanks. Ranger has been with the Portillo family since he was two and Portillo said he is the leader of his equine herd, including his best horse friend Taffy, a burro named Jasper, and a miniature donkey named Benny. Ranger had been a wild horse captured in Nevada, who became entangled in a barbed wire enclosure before being adopted by Portillo’s family.

Last Saturday while Ranger was being treated, Taffy, 23, stood with her eyes and ears pointed toward Elizabeth and Ranger, as if wondering when her turn would be. “Ranger will push everyone out of the way to be treated first by Liz,” Portillo said, admiring Elizabeth’s connection shared with her old horse.

“He’s sore in his right jaw and hips,” Elizabeth said, running her hands along the big horse’s jaw and flanks. “He’s such a great old horse. Every five hundred or so horses, I fall in love and he’s one of them. Many older horses, like people, don’t digest nutrients well and they lose muscle tone. I often recommend owners of geriatric horses support the gut for better digestion of nutrients and be aware of their protein intake.”

Silver-haired woman with arms around a furry burro

Elizabeth gives Jasper a hug while visiting him in his stall.

Jasper, a wry-humored furry 32-year-old burro, was a caretaker to an aging blind horse named Toad before being adopted in to his current family. Portillo’s farrier gifted Jasper when Toad died. “Jasper is the other love of my life,” Elizabeth said, giving the burro’s long ears a good rub.

For more than 35 years, Elizabeth has worked to promote the health and wellness of animals big and small, domestic and wild. Her work with canines and equines includes bodywork and rehabilitation on competitive and companion animals, including advising owners on nutrition and environmental practices to promote wellness.

She uses a variety of complimentary modalities to treat animals. With experience training and working with top veterinarians and doctors in the field of saddle fit, nutrition, biomechanics, farrier science, Craniosacral therapy, myofascial release, trigger-point work, body balancing, Applied Kinesiology, herbal and homeopathic medicine, energy modalities and Traditional Chinese medicine, Elizabeth said she works from a point of deep clinical understanding, empathy and compassion for the animal. 

“A big part of my practice is to help owners understand their animals’ issues and possible solutions to those issues,” Elizabeth said. “I take a history when first meeting a client. I also get a sense of the animal. I follow my heart and my nose. We look at the horse’s movement and I palpate them, all the while listening to the horse and its response to my touch. I involve the owner as much as possible, sharing what I find on the horse. Next we begin treatment and see where that takes us. Depending on the horse and the issues, it may take a series of treatments.

“Horses are a prey species and masters at compensation so that they don’t appear weak,” Elizabeth added. “When we ride them, they will compensate for not only their own issues, but also the owners’. In many cases this awareness prompts the owners to seek help with balancing their own bodies to help the horse. It’s horses helping people and people helping horses.” 

Elizabeth Johnson gets a sense of Ranger’s well-being.

Although horses are her primary work, Elizabeth treats dogs as well.

“The typical dogs I see are older or have had an injury,” she said. “Hip dysplasia and weak hind ends are chronic conditions I often treat. I work with the dogs’ owners and teach them techniques they can do that can help. We can’t always reverse the condition, but can create management strategies and attain comfort for the animal. I love working with geriatric dogs and their owners to help create quality of life for them in their later years.”

A while ago, Elizabeth owned an older dog, who worked as a service dog for years, Too old for service work anymore, her beloved pet still wanted a job to do. She enrolled in Georgia Edwards’ K9 nose work class, offered through South Whidbey Parks and Recreation. Befriending Edwards who has a pair of Bouvier des Flandres herding dogs, named Leda and Hawkeye, Elizabeth now treats the dogs.

“Leda is our more chronically ill dog, on antibiotics and steroids more than half her life due to systemic actinomycetes,” said David Welton, Edwards’ husband and TIW’s photographer. “Leda enjoys physiotherapy for really bad arthritis in her hind leg. Hawkeye is the oldest dog and Liz works on his back for lower back pain.”

Woman with silver hair and big black shaggy dog licking her face

Liz gets a lick of appreciation from Leda, a Bouvier des Flanders herding dog.

“She’s a real asset to our community,” Edwards said of Elizabeth. “She is so compassionate and loving.”

In addition to treating animals, Elizabeth co-instructs classes and wildlife chemical immobilization courses across the country with her veterinarian husband, Dr. Mark Johnson. Instruction includes humane and compassionate capture methods and handling techniques, self-awareness, animal awareness, and safe administration and monitoring of chemical immobilization.

Elizabeth said she loves her work and gets so much back in return.

“Our domestic animals are quintessential empaths; they pick up on what their humans are feeling and they mirror their humans,” she added. “We have a certain responsibility toward helping them. When an animal and their owner are thriving, they heal faster. One of the beautiful benefits of my work is helping owners with their own health, seeing the owners get healthier and more balanced to help their animals.The best part is when the owners’ take that balance and awareness out into the world and make it a better place.

Woman with arms around a horse

Ranger stands contentedly while Elizabeth Johnson gives him a late-winter checkup

“I believe we are all partners in the animal’s well-being,” Elizabeth notes in her biography. “I openly work with all professionals and my goal has been to be diverse in my methods of approach depending on the needs of the animal at any given segment of their healing. The owners and caretakers that love and care for their animals have gifted me understanding for the human heart, a heart that often knows no boundaries when it comes to loving their animals. Lastly, but by no means least, my own animals have gifted me their lives, wisdom, and devotion in return for their care, big chunks of my heart, and some great smells when I get home each day.“

For more information contact Elizabeth Johnson at 4leggeds@gmail.com or visit her website. There you will find a growing wellness library with equine, canine and 2-legged information, a wisdom blog, educational opportunities, and a monthly newsletter sign up.

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