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Therapeutic pets

Heat-generating dogs treat fibromyalgia pain in humans

Friday, June 23, 2006 by: Elisabeth Deffner
Tags: therapeutic pets, fibromyalgia, service dogs

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Nancy Gordon has no trouble remembering her first encounter with a Mexican hairless dog, a Xoloitzcuintli. Renowned for their intense body heat, Xolos (pronounced sho-los) have been used as therapy dogs for centuries -- and Gordon soon discovered why. "I put my wrists under his belly where I was having wrist pain," says the Southern California resident. "After about 15 minutes, my pain was relieved."

That was when Gordon decided to get a Xolo of her very own. "I'm going to get one of these dogs, put it around my neck, and call it Toaster," she thought. Because the breeder was aware in advance of the intended use of the dog's body heat, she periodically placed the Xolo puppy on people's necks, getting the dog accustomed to the unusual position. Little Toaster took to the work immediately.

Gordon and Toaster have since been featured in Fibromyalgia AWARE, Discovery Channel's "Animal Planet," and many other media venues, though the concept of animals helping people feel better is not new. One UCLA study found that dog owners required much less medical care for stress-induced aches and pains than people who don't own dogs, and in a study from New York's City Hospital, it was found that heart patients who owned pets were more likely to live longer than those who didn't own pets -- up to a year longer once they left the hospital.

It must be admitted, though, that Gordon's particular brand of "pet therapy" is unique. And her Xolos -- Toaster and her daughter Pink -- have changed her life in wholly unexpected ways.

Born with a kneecap problem, Pink eventually had to have one of her hind legs amputated. Though she has to compensate for the lack of her leg -- relieving herself can be a challenge, as can climbing the ramp onto Gordon's bed -- Pink doesn't seem to miss it much.

Her body heat is higher than Toaster's, and she's better at retrieval than her mother, too. But even more importantly, it's Pink's reaction to her physical challenge that has impacted Gordon's life.

"Pink and Toaster used to have ritual in the morning; I'd let them out the back door and they'd race," Gordon says. One morning, after Pink's leg was amputated, the dogs began their race -- but this time was different.

"Pink slipped on a bend, trying to go around the corner. She fell. My heart just sank," Gordon recalls. "I started to well up, and before I had time to get a tear out she was up and after Toaster. I looked up and thought, 'Wow, look at what she has done to accept what she has.' "Above just loving me for who I am and what I am, they have really inspired me to have the determination to do whatever I ... need to do."

Dogs in service

Gordon has started an organization to connect other people with Xolos called X-CPR (Xolos Chronic Pain Relief). And to train Xolos she works with Leashes for Living, a San Diego-based program that allows people with disabilities to train their own service dogs.

Other programs across the country help people with health challenges connect with service dogs. Domesti-PUPS is one of these. Founded by Michelle Ashley, Domesti-PUPS is a volunteer-driven organization that places dogs with people who have special needs, as well as in classroom situations and in pet therapy programs.

The dogs are raised in foster homes from about eight weeks to 14 months, getting basic training and socialization. Then they return to Domesti-PUPS for evaluation. The organization determines the dogs' strengths -- whether they would be best working with someone in a wheelchair, for instance -- and then sends them to Alabama where a team of volunteers finish training and placement. (Clients must attend a 13-day training camp before returning home with their dogs.)

About 20 percent of Domesti-PUP's clients are fibromyalgia patients--including Ashley herself, though she was not diagnosed until a year after she started the organization.

Ashley can barely contain her excitement when she begins talking about the benefits of service dogs: the constant companionship, the independence they allow a patient to develop, a shift in focus from one's disability to the dog.

"I think we heighten the visibility of FM, not just making it that condition that's 'in your head,'" Ashley says. "We know what it is like, we know how we can help, and we are there for our clients to help them live more independent lives. I couldn't work without my dog, and that would impact my self esteem greatly, so I am grateful to be able to live on my own and continue living my life the way I want to."

Other service dog connections

In addition to X-CPR (AnimalAngelHealers.com) and Domesti-PUPS (Domesti-Pups.org), there are organizations across the country that train and place service dogs with people who have disabilities. Check these out:

Elisabeth Deffner is the editor of Fibromyalgia AWARE magazine and the National Fibromyalgia Association's e-newsletter, FMOnline. For more information about fibromyalgia and the National Fibromyalgia Association, go to www.FMAware.org.

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