July 3, 2002, 2:26PM


Guide dogs get stress relief at convention

Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

Massage therapist Carla Campbell worked her way down a client's back Tuesday, pressing on the long muscles that bracket his spine.

Steve Campbell / Chronicle

Carla Campbell massages her canine client, Baxter, at the American Council of the Blind convention in west Houston on Tuesday.

After she smoothed out a knot of muscle between his ribs, he yawned loudly -- muzzle agape -- and then licked his lips contentedly. Baxter, a 5-year-old golden retriever, was too relaxed to "woof."

"It's like Prozac for puppies," said Nancy Trzcinski, 45, of North Adams, Mass., laughing at her guide dog.

Guide dogs like Baxter are getting some much-needed extra TLC during the American Council of the Blind's annual national convention in Houston this week.

Guide Dog Users Inc., a nonprofit advocacy organization for the blind and guide dogs, turned Room 462 of the Adam's Mark Hotel in west Houston into a pooch pampering palace.

Canine massage brings to mind visions of spoiled lap dogs, pet spas and indulgent owners who set up play dates for Fluffy and friends.

But proponents say it relieves stress, restores mobility and helps maintain fitness and optimum performance in a working animal -- be it a herd dog or a racehorse.

"The gift of touch is a wonderful thing," said Mary Schreiber, founder of Equissage, a leader in canine and equine massage therapy in the Virginia horse country.

Animal massage is not a new idea.

"It goes back thousands of years," Schreiber said from her home in Round Hill, Va. "I've heard of a form of sports massage, a stroke called percussion, being done by the Greeks on horses 5,000 years ago."

Alternative, holistic veterinary treatments such as therapeutic massage are catching on with Americans, especially among those with working animals. The search dogs who played such a vital role in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks received massages daily.

"As well as causing pain and discomfort, a buildup of muscle tension impacts a dog's ability to concentrate," said therapist Campbell, "causing many to become anxious, hesitant and distractible or to tire easily."

None of which is desirable in a working dog, especially one whose job is to guide the blind and visually impaired around obstacles or across a busy street.

But nowhere is a guide dog under more stress than in the fast-paced, chaotic convention environment, which is often crowded with people and other dogs.

Guide dog users say their patient pups are called on to carry more of the load at a convention because the humans are in an unfamiliar place. In a normal environment, it's more of a 50-50 partnership, they say.

"I work Adrienne harder in an environment like this than I do at home," said Glenda Born, 51, of Austin.

Adrienne, an 8-year-old black Labrador retriever with a salt-and-pepper muzzle, needed the massage.

"Right now, I'm going over the muscles that control the ears and eyebrows," said Campbell, moving her healing hands over the dog's head.

From the knots of muscle, she could tell Adrienne had been furrowing her brow a lot in near-constant, intense concentration.

Campbell, 31, also certified in equine massage, explained what she was doing as she moved down the dog's body.

"I'm working on the wrist because these guys pound the pavement a lot," she said.

Adrienne let out an occasional canine grunt of contentedness, but she didn't wag her tail, an action humans associate with a happy dog.

"They don't do a lot of tail-wagging during the massage," said Campbell, who lives in Northern California. "Instead, they do a lot of lip-licking and yawning."

Campbell ended the session by pulling gently but steadily on the dog's tail to make sure the bones were in alignment and to stretch the back muscles.

The Lab lay like a throw rug until Campbell called her. Then Adrienne got up and sat so close, she nearly ended up in her lap.

"If she sits on you, she's claimed you," Born said before she and Adrienne headed back downstairs to the conference.