Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bay Woof Article: "The Heeling Power of Love"

(This essay, written by one of my human companions, has been published in the February issue of the Bay Woof newspaper, given out free at SF Bay Area pet stores. Thanks Bay Woof for sharing our story with your readers!)

The Heeling Power of Love

“When I first met Luther he was wild and uncontrollable. He had so much pent-up energy that his muscles quivered,” reflects Luther’s foster mom, Lynsey. Luther had been at the pound for three months in a small cell, deprived of regular human contact, without even the minimal privilege of access to the larger exercise area. This athletic, 75-pound Rottweiler-Mastiff-German Shepherd mix puppy had developed many destructive habits while locked up and was scheduled for euthanasia. On what would have been his last day alive, Lynsey adopted him and saved his life.

Today, it is difficult for me to image that my cuddly, face-licking service dog came so close to having his beautiful life force extinguished. Lynsey had already fostered twelve other dogs before Luther; a highly skilled professional dog trainer with a giant heart, she was just what Luther needed.

Many shelter dogs who are euthanized have had similar experiences, explains Lynsey: “Dogs locked up too long without human contact can develop social anxieties and become unsuitable for the public to adopt.” Yet after six months of Lynsey’s priceless love and direction, Luther had overcome his fears and was ready for adoption. Our paths would soon meet.

In 2006, almost two years into training for a summer-long cycling tour, I injured my lower back. Two slipped/herniated discs caused the worst physical pain in my life and made walking almost impossible. After months of physical therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic adjustments, and steroid injections, I had surgery. The surgery certainly helped me walk better and improved my quality of life, but it also created new challenges; for example, standing in place and sitting upright for extended periods became difficult.

Four years later, after only marginal improvement, I decided to get a service dog. I read Lynsey’s ad, and the rest, as they say, is history. Along with his job as my service dog, Luther immediately became a member of the family. Words cannot express how deeply my fiancĂ© and I have fallen in love with the furry “little one” now sharing our home. Raising Luther together has added a whole new dimension to our relationship.

Acting as both a “therapy dog” and a “service dog,” Luther helps me in two major ways. As happens with other therapy dogs for patients with chronic pain conditions, his companionship activates my body’s release of endorphins, which naturally relieve stress and physical pain. As my back pain decreases, I am better able to perform my most problematic activities: walking, standing in place, and sitting upright. The pain relief helps me to get around and perform daily activities, and Luther’s mobility assistance makes him a service dog, with full access to any public place I go.

Luther also helps me with my physical therapy, which is crucial for recovery from my injury. The endorphin effect is essential, but motivation is equally important. Luther and I have built a new exercise routine together, going out for off-leash hikes in the many beautiful open-space parks in the East Bay.

I grew up in the East Bay and have always been inspired by the natural beauty here. I used to love hiking, but before Luther I was usually bored walking at my new, unnaturally slow pace, and it was difficult not to fixate on my aching back. Now, in my efforts to find Luther the best off-leash spots in the East Bay, I have discovered some beautiful new hiking areas. I’m walking the same slow pace, but that gives Luther extra time to run around, chase squirrels, and play with other dogs along the trial. As I admire his athleticism and watch his whole being radiate positive energy, I have no time to dwell on negative thoughts.

In the six short months since adopting Luther, I have shown more improvement than in all of the previous four years since my surgery! I have lost 15 pounds of the weight I gained post-injury and my blood pressure is 15 points lower. I still have a long way to go, but with Luther by my side I am confident that I will keep improving.

Looking to the future, I’m reminded of the book Dogs & Devotion by the Monks of New Skete, which explores the emotional and spiritual connections formed between dogs and their human companions. The Monks reflect: “Dogs and human beings have been journeying together for over fifteen thousand years, helping each other in ways that are astonishing considering they take place between different species. We have both evolved to the point where we are in this relationship together for the long haul, and it is endlessly fascinating to witness the new ways this companionship expresses itself.”

The History of Rottweilers, Mastiffs, and German Shepherd Dogs

To provide some background on Luther's ancestry, we are featuring short descriptions and videos from the Animal Planet website. Also be sure to check out all the photos of these three breeds along the left side of the website.

The Rottweiler


The Rottweiler's ancestors were probably Roman drover dogs, responsible for driving and guarding herds of cattle as they accompanied Roman troops on long marches. At least one of these marches led to southern Germany, where some of the people and their dogs settled.

Throughout the succeeding centuries, the dogs continued to play a vital role as cattle drovers around what was to become the town of Rottweil (which is derived from red tile, denoting the red-tile roof of the Roman baths that had been unearthed there in the eighth century). Rottweil prospered and became a center of cattle commerce. Their dogs drove and guarded cattle, guarded the money earned by the cattle sales and served as draft animals. So evolved the Rottweiler metzgerhund ("butcher dog"), an integral component in the town's industry until the mid-19th century. At that time, cattle driving was outlawed, and dog carting was replaced by donkey carts and railroads.

With little need for this once vital breed, the Rottweiler fell into such decline that it was nearly lost. With the realization that the breed was teetering near extinction, dog fanciers formed a club in 1901 and set about to revive it. Even though the 1901 club was short-lived, it did formulate a breed standard. Two subsequent clubs were formed in 1907, one of which promoted the breed as a police dog. The two clubs merged in 1921. The breed continued to grow, and by the 1930s it was competing in AKC competitions. The Rottweiler has recovered from its brush with extinction to become the second-most popular breed in America.

The English Mastiff

Watch video here (embedding unavailable).


The mastiff is the prototypical breed of the ancient mastiff group of dogs. The confusion between the mastiff breed and the mastiff family makes it very difficult to trace the history of the breed. Even though the mastiff family is one of the oldest and most influential, the breed is undoubtedly of more recent, though still ancient, origin. By the time of Caesar, mastiffs were used as war dogs and gladiators.

In medieval times, they were used as guard dogs and hunting dogs and became so widespread as to become commonplace. Mastiffs later stepped into the arena of dog fighting, bull-baiting and bearbaiting. Even when these cruel sports were banned in England in 1835, they continued to be popular events.

The modern mastiff descends not only from these pit dogs but also from more noble lines, being descendants of one of the most famous mastiffs of all time: the mastiff of Sir Peers Legh. When Legh was wounded in the battle of Agincourt, his mastiff stood over him and protected him for many hours through the battle. Although Legh later died, the mastiff returned to his home and was the foundation of the Lyme Hall mastiffs. Five centuries later the Lyme Hall mastiffs figured prominently in founding the modern breed.

Some evidence exists that the mastiff came to America on the Mayflower, but the breed's documented entry to America did not occur until the late 1800s. The breed was nearly decimated in England by World War II, but sufficient numbers had been brought to America by that time to keep the breed going. Since that time, it has gradually risen in popularity.

The German Shepherd Dog


Despite an outward appearance slightly resembling a wolf, the German shepherd dog is a fairly recently developed breed and, contrary to some beliefs, it is no more closely related to the wolf than any other breed of dog. The breed is the result of a conscious effort to produce the ideal shepherd, capable of herding and guarding its flocks. Perhaps never in the history of any breed has such concerted effort been put into improving a dog, mostly due to the formation in 1899 of the Verein fur Deutsche Scharferhunde SV, an organization devoted to overseeing the breeding of the German shepherd.

Breeders sought to develop not only a herding dog but also one that could excel at jobs requiring courage, athleticism and intelligence. In short order, the German shepherd had proved itself a more than capable police dog, and subsequent breeding strove to perfect its abilities as an intelligent and fearless companion and guardian. During World War I, it was the obvious choice for a war sentry. At the same time, the AKC changed the breed's name from German sheepdog to shepherd dog, and Britain changed it to Alsatian wolf dog, both attempts to dissociate the dog from its unpopular German roots. The wolf dog was later dropped as it caused many people to fear the breed. In 1931, the AKC restored the breed's name to German shepherd dog.

The greatest boon to the shepherd's popularity came in the form of two dogs, both movie stars: Strongheart and Rin Tin Tin. The German shepherd held the number-one spot in American popularity for many years. Although presently it has dropped from the top spot, the German shepherd remains as one of the most versatile dogs ever created, serving as a police dog, war dog, guide dog, search-and-rescue dog, narcotics- or explosives-detecting dog, show dog, guard dog, pet — and even shepherd.