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When Nancy Gordon relaxes in front of the TV in her San Diego living room, the pain in her neck often flares up. But instead of reaching for ibuprofen or a heating pad, she simply says, "Neck, please," to the little gray, brown, and white dog snuggled at her side. Right away Toaster jumps onto Gordon's shoulders and wraps her 14-pound body around her owner's neck, offering instant relief.
Toaster is a Mexican hairless breed known as Xolos (pronounced show-low). Considered sacred by the Aztecs, who believed that the dogs have healing powers, the breed has a 3,000-year history of soothing arthritic pain. The body temperature of a Xolo is a toasty 102 degrees F., the same as any other dog. But the lack of fur means there's little to no insulation -- when you touch a Xolo, you feel every bit of that heat. Combine that with the dog's friendly nature and you've got a living, breathing heating pad.
Gordon, 54, says her Xolo saved her life. She was living in Portland, Oregon, and working as a licensed clinical social worker when her car crashed on a rainy highway in 1992. Doctors told her she was lucky to have survived the accident, but Gordon was left with excruciating neck and back pain. "A year later the pain wasn't any better," she says. "There were days when the simple act of driving to work would leave me feeling sore and exhausted."
Medications and physical therapy didn't help, and Gordon sank into a depression. In 1995, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. Finally, in 1998, she closed her psychotherapy practice. "Letting go of my career was one of the most painful experiences of my life," she says. "I loved helping people, but I didn't know how I could really be a good therapist when I couldn't even help myself."
In 1999, when a friend called to tell her about Xolos and how they relieve pain by giving off extraordinary body heat, Gordon was cautiously optimistic. The friend knew a breeder who had told her of the Xolos' history as healers. Intrigued, and smitten with the dogs' cute appearance and bat-like ears, Gordon bought a Xolo puppy -- her first dog -- and named it Toaster.
Gordon was amazed at how quickly the cuddly puppy could not only lift her spirits but also relieve her pain. "Before I adopted Toaster I had to wear a microwavable wrap around my neck almost 24/7." Toaster's not quite as warm as a heating pad, which means she can lie on Gordon's neck indefinitely without causing burns, and Gordon says that the little dog's weight provides gentle traction, which helps relax her muscles.
The benefits go far beyond that, though. Before she got Toaster, simple errands were exhausting and painful for Gordon. Suddenly they became fun. "She'd be wrapped around my neck while I was driving, helping my muscles stay relaxed and lifting my mood," Gordon says. Toaster turned out to have plenty of other qualities not found in a medical device. Often, before Gordon could even utter a command, Toaster would intuitively move to lie against the area of her body that was hurting. And Toaster needed her, too. "Having to get up each morning and take her for a walk helped me to focus less on my own pain."
Michel Selmer, DVM, of the Advanced Animal Care Center, in Huntington Station, New York, isn't surprised at Gordon's dramatic turnaround. "Xolos are perfectly suited for soothing joint and soft tissue pains because they easily give off body heat," he says. And owning any kind of dog has therapeutic benefits. "Just petting a dog has been shown to lower blood pressure," Dr. Selmer says. "Dog owners tend to be healthier, and taking care of a dog can lower stress and help ward off depression."
When Toaster, now 10, was 1 year old, Gordon enrolled her in a service-dog program, which opened up Gordon's world even more. With the service-dog-in-training certificate, Toaster could accompany Gordon wherever she went: the movies, the mall, even restaurants.
Xolos are rare and expensive -- until recently the American Kennel Club considered them nearly extinct -- so part of Gordon's deal with Toaster's breeder was that she'd breed Toaster and give him the pick of the litter. Toaster had four pups in 2002, and Gordon eventually decided to keep the runt, an even-hotter-to-the-touch dog she named Pink. (There are two types of Xolos, both essentially hairless, but Toaster is the variety that has an extremely short coat and a hairless belly. Pink has hardly any hair at all.)
Pink got into service-dog training as a puppy and excelled at it. Now 6, she brings Gordon the cell phone and picks up anything she has dropped, so Gordon doesn't have to bend down. "She can retrieve all four of my television system remotes by name." And at night, when Gordon's pain turns to stiffness, Pink helps her to get ready for bed by pulling off her socks and sweaters.
When Gordon went to place Toaster's other puppies with people who suffer from chronic pain, she found that there was a huge demand. So, inspired by her dogs, Gordon slowly got back into the business of helping others. In 2003, following up on an idea she'd had when Toaster was a puppy, she set up Paws for Comfort, a company selling greeting cards that feature cute pictures of Toaster and Pink and inspiring messages for people living with chronic illness. And in April 2008 she founded Xolos for Chronic Pain Relief (X-CPR), a nonprofit that matches these unique dogs with pain sufferers who can't afford to buy one.
To date Gordon has placed about 10 Xolos in loving homes, where they provide their owners with comfort and pain relief. She hopes to increase the number of dogs available through X-CPR and is looking to partner with more breeders and to secure corporate funding. "I'd love to be able to match a Xolo with everyone who needs one of these wonderful dogs," she says.
With both Xolos snuggling on her lap, Gordon laughs when she thinks of how in her younger years she was a confirmed cat person. "My friends use to rave about their dogs and I never understood the bond they claimed to have with their pets," she says. "Now, these two are a part of my family and they make me smile every day."
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Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2009.