By Laura H.F. Callender
For Peninsula Woman – Peninsula Daily News – September 2008
A dog is more than just an animal that barks at the door to someone who owns a canine companion. Cindy Horsfall knows how much dog “parents” worry and fuss over their animals. She knows how much they mean to them. And, she knows that dogs with limited movement due to age, injury or illness can live a more active life with therapy.
Cindy owns and operates La Paw Spa in Carlsborg, a business where canines and their companions receive pampering, understanding and therapy.
Cindy been involved with animals all her life and she understands what pets mean to their owners.
She says she will sit with her clients and cry with them. She will also laugh with them and celebrate with them, as well as mourn with them when an elderly dog chases its last ball.
Cindy developed her canine warm- water therapy business because of her own relationship with a dog.
“This is very sacred work. The bond between people and their dogs is as close as it gets,” she says.
Cindy was born in Seattle and wanted to be a vet when she was young.
But as she grew older and discovered what that would entail, she turned instead to accounting.
She worked as an accountant for many years while also working with horses in equine massage and rehabilitation. She was rehabilitating equines with a treadmill in water, a commonly accepted practice more than a decade ago.
Then, Cindy’s own German shepherd, Ava, became paralyzed in a stroke in the spine at the age of 4.
There was no such thing as water therapy for dogs back then, Cindy says. Her vet had given up on Ava.
But, one day, Cindy felt movement in Ava’s back legs and she knew she could help. She used all her credit cards and built a water therapy spa for Ava, and the dog started to walk again after four months of therapy.
Word got out and people began bringing their dogs to Cindy. She’s quick to note that it isn’t just the dog involved.
Healing starts with the emotional environment. Therefore, not only does La Paw Spa look very much like a spa for humans, Cindy involves both owners and animals. People who bring their dogs to the spa are very much connected with them, Cindy explains.
“Each time I’m in the pool, I feel like I’ve found my calling,” she says.
The water therapy business she started in Redmond quickly grew to the point where she could not take on any more clients.
Some of her clients branched off and got their own pools and there are now about 17 such spas in the Redmond area.
As the concept spread, however, standards became lax and Cindy says she saw it being used carelessly.
She decided she wanted to start a school and a national association that was not directly connected to her.
She had built up her own business to five therapists. It had become too much about handling employees and pool maintenance for her.
So, she moved to Sequim and started her school and the national organization, the Association of Canine Water Therapy.
For four years, she commuted to Redmond to continue her therapy practice, renting space at other pools.
About a year ago, she started dreaming once again of a pool of her own, so she could teach on the North Olympic Peninsula, an ideal place where her clients could find peace and solitude in between sessions.
“It felt like it had a life of its own when I found this space,” she says of her Carlsborg location.
The warm-water therapy entails Cindy being in the 94-degree, chemical-free water with the dog.
They begin with her simply holding the dog, earning the animal’s trust. If owners are willing, they may also get into the pool with the dog.
Comforting each other
Cindy says she has one particular client with a geriatric dog who would sit in the pool for an hour with her dog, holding it and being comforted as well by the dog’s presence.
Between the canine therapy and the equine therapy, Cindy has 25 years of experience in aquatic bodywork and more than 16,000 hours of work in the water.
The spa is accessible for those with disabilities, canines and humans.
She has not only had paralyzed and injured animals who use canine wheelchairs, but owners who are also wheelchair bound come to the spa.
Often, she notes, she can get animals who have been paralyzed to be able to move and walk again.
Her own dog
Such was the case with her German shepherd. Ava started walking again after a few months. Maggie, a canine client, was another such case. Maggie had been paralyzed for 2 years. Her owner could afford just one session.
“When I swam with Maggie, I could feel strength in her back legs,” Cindy says.
The session following the one with Maggie was with a dog whose owner was so impressed and pleased with the session that she asked Cindy if there were a dog she could sponsor.
Because the spa has a transition room where owners can dry their dogs and relax before heading for home, as well as a nice grassy area out back to use for the same purposes, Maggie and her owner were still at the spa.
Cindy introduced the two women and the result was that Maggie has been coming for regular sessions since April. She’s starting to walk again.
Many people, particularly ones who don’t understand the bond between a pet and its owner, would scoff at the expense of warm water treatments for an animal.
But, not everything about the emotional well-being a pet brings a person makes sense.
“When I built the spa for Ava, I pulled out my credit cards. It didn’t make sense, but look now,” Cindy says, sweeping her hands at the pool.
She has students coming from all over the world to take classes on what she calls a heart-centered approach to helping geriatric and injured canines.
Through work with the animals, humans also learn how to care for themselves.
As they start supporting and understanding the aging and dying process with their dogs, they learn how to support themselves, too, Cindy says.
And, there are those miraculous recoveries.
About three weeks ago, Cindy says, a 17-year-old golden retriever was brought to the spa by its owner.
The vet had suggested it was perhaps time to have the dog put to sleep because of its age.
The owner started bringing the dog twice a week for water therapy and now the dog is walking half a mile and chasing after tennis balls in the pool.
She has a client with a German shepherd which is paralyzed in the back legs and uses a canine wheelchair.
The dog loves the sessions so much, it dives into the pool.
She swims against the jets for an hour and then has to be coaxed out of the water, Cindy says.
As rehabilitation for after surgery (vets have been recommending water therapy for canine patients for a number of years), Cindy recommends weekly sessions for about six weeks.
For geriatric dogs, it may be something the owner and dog do on a regular basis for the rest of the dog’s life.
It is wonderful exercise for the dog because of the resistance factor of moving against water, while relieving the weight pressure.
While the dog is in the water, Cindy is also applying therapeutic massage.
The massage sessions can be done in the water and/or on land.
The front consultation rooms are set up for dry massage, and for pampering owners.
Cindy says she likes to keep cold beverages on hand for the humans and maintains a calm atmosphere so that the emotions of pet and “parent” are soothed.
The sessions can help canines with joint injury and lameness, hip and elbow dysplasia, spinal injuries, mobility problems, circulatory problems, arthritic conditions, weight reduction, pre- and post-surgery, chronic pain and geriatrics.
People who come to her classes stay in the area for about a week and she offers them every six to eight weeks.
She has had students come from as far away as Ireland and Japan.
Unable to bring their own dogs, the students get to know a few of Cindy’s canine clients.
One such animal would be Muffy, Susie and Bill Metzger’s golden retriever.
Muffy has been coming to the spa since June.
She has had a limp since she was a puppy due to elbow dysplasia and was tight in the shoulders when she started coming to Cindy.
She now has full range of motion and willingly chases after tennis balls in the pool, swimming unassisted from one end of the pool to the other.
While the sessions work well for injured or older dogs, several owners have discovered how helpful the occasional trip to the spa can be for healthy animals as well. It is calming.
Cindy says dogs who are typically nervous or aggressive often turn tranquil after time in the pool.
And, the owners benefit from time spent in the quiet, relaxing atmosphere.
While it is work, Cindy enjoys the benefits of the work as well.
“I’ve learned for myself when doing this kind of work, if you can build an atmosphere that inspires you, it helps put you back in touch with your higher self,” she says.
Learning to trust
A dog does not have to like water to be a good candidate for the sessions, she notes.
A great deal of the work involves getting the dog, particularly after an injury, to feel safe and secure in the water.
There are some who wouldn’t get out of Cindy’s lap during the first session who now happily jump into the pool on their own.
For information on the sessions at La Paw Spa e-mail cindy<at>lapawspa.com.