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Specialist offers massages to canine partners of blind

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

By Linda Wilson Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Room 321 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center is a place where a dog can be a dog.

Carla Campbell, of Menlo Park, Calif., massages Baxter, a 6-year-old yellow Labrador guide dog belonging to Nancy Trzcinski of North Adams, Mass., yesterday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

The canine hospitality suite is specifically for the use of the 450 guide dogs who have traveled from all over the country to guide their partners through the weeklong meeting of the American Council of the Blind, being held Downtown.

Instead of the alcohol that usually is a staple of hospitality suites for human conventioneers, this room is stocked with an abundant supply of dog treats and toys. When working harnesses are taken off, the guide dogs can rest, get massages or romp around and just be dogs.

Some of them also jump up on people and lick their faces, though they have been trained not to do that.

"Guide dogs are dogs first," said Carla Campbell, who has been licked and jumped on by dozens of canine conventioneers. "They are working dogs and they are very good, but they are not perfect. You have to correct them and you have to be consistent."

A support group called Guide Dog Users Inc. has created the space to give dogs a break from the difficult work they have in maneuvering visually impaired humans through heavy traffic. They have to contend with motorists who run red lights and don't yield to pedestrians in cross walks. Audible traffic signals raise the noise level for the sensitive ears of dogs already subjected to the din of construction equipment layered atop the usual noise produced by cars, buses and trucks.

The dogs must deal with all of that while also coping with soaring temperatures, high humidity and sizzling hot sidewalks.

The term these conventioneers use to describe themselves and their canines is "dog guide teams." The people consider themselves partners of the dogs rather than owners.

"The kind of work these dogs do is amazing because it's such team work," Campbell said.

The very best teams schedule time for rest and rehabilitation, which is where Campbell comes in.

Her card reads, "Equine and Canine Body Worker" and notes that she has spent more than 1,000 hours learning how to massage horses and dogs.

Campbell, of Menlo Park, Calif., explained what she's doing while massaging a golden retriever named Cori, 3 1/2.

"I did 10 dogs the first day, and I'm really happy that more people are signing up," Campbell said. "I do a basic massage to relax them. Working dogs need more than regular pets because they pound the pavement" and are subject to physical and emotional stress.

Campbell's hands rubbed Cori's ears and gradually moved onto her neck and shoulders. She squeezed and rubbed her back, hip and tail.

How did Cori react? Her eyes were half-closed, her tongue lolled out of her mouth and she moaned with pleasure. A sighted spectator told Cori's partner, Deborah Ver Steeg of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. "Your dog is smiling. She is totally blissed out."

Ver Steeg beamed and told other guide dog partners that Cori is a honey blonde color and a "perfect corporate citizen" in the work place.

Other dog guide team members shared stories and anecdotes about their dogs.

Cori voluntarily rolled over onto to her back to have her belly rubbed. Campbell manipulated and pulled each of her legs, paying special attention to her feet.

"I work their wrists because pounding the pavement can take a toll."

She emphasized that she is neither a veterinarian nor a chiropractor, but her sensitive fingers can find lumps, bumps and strains that could be harbingers of future problems.

Mostly what she feels is tension, which in guide dogs is often centered around their shoulders.

Massages are $15 for 10 to 15 minutes, but usually Campbell spends more time "because I won't stop until all the tension is gone."

A percent of proceeds goes to Guide Dog Users.

As Campbell worked and talked, her own golden retriever guide dog, Justin, lay quietly at her side.

"Justin is like the cobbler's child" who is the last to get new shoes, Campbell joked. "He gets more than his share of massages, and I use him for demos.

"I love doing this because the guide dog movement is so important to me," Campbell said. "People tell me, 'my dog was dragging, but now she is sharp and focused.' "

Guide Dog Users is also polling the dog guide teams about problems they've had with attacks from dogs running loose.

"Attack by other dogs is a huge problem nationally,"said Ginger Bennet, chairman of the organization's task force. "Sadly about one-third of teams have had some problem with other dogs."

Only South Carolina and Texas have good laws to protect guide dogs, she said. "Legislators want statistics before they will enact laws, and that's what we're trying to document here."


Linda Wilson Fuoco can be contacted at lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1512.