April 11, 2008— -- Nancy Gordon's fibromyalgia pain had haunted her for years, forcing her to quit her job and sending her into depression. She's found salvation, however, in the form of two primitive jungle creatures with magical healing powers.
Or so the Aztec legend goes.
Gordon's creatures are rare and ancient Mexican hairless dogs, known as the Xoloitzcuintli (pronounced "show-low-its-queent-lee"). The breed, considered the oldest in the Americas, was revered by the Aztecs, who believed the dogs could protect people and heal their pain.
It's a myth that our modern age has debunked. But while this naked canine is anything but ordinary, some owners continue to claim their Xolos' charms extend to a spiritual level.
"They are an amazing, rare breed," says Gordon. "I do believe they are special; I do believe that you don't get the same effect from any old breed. … They're highly intuitive."
The dogs help ease her physical pain by acting as living water bottles, draping their permanently toasty bodies around Gordon's neck when she drives in her car or goes to the movies.
She swears that Toaster, a coated Xolo (roughly half of Xolo puppies are born with fur), and Toaster's hairless daughter, Pink, turned her life around.
"It's night and day in a lot of ways. I was basically pretty much bedridden and house ridden," says Gordon. The dogs "help me get out and move more comfortably. They've helped with my depression tremendously."
The ancient Aztecs certainly seemed to feel the same way. They believed the dogs were gifts from the gods, with the power to heal people's' illnesses.
This legend continued beyond the Aztec era. "Dogs That Changed the World," a PBS Nature show, visited a rural village in Mexico, where an old woman demonstrated how she applies Xolo puppies to her arthritic joints.
"If you go back and read these old dog books, they say, If you take the dog to bed with you for three nights, the disease will go from you to the dog," says Amy Fernandez, president of the Xolo Club of America.
But Fernandez says it's nothing but a myth -- and one that some people are willing to exploit.
"There are breeders who are using it for a selling point," she says. "Modern medicine has pretty much explored the parameters of what a dog can do. It will lower your cholesterol, it will help you recover from a heart attack, but there's no proof that a dog is going to cure rheumatoid arthritis."
Shannon Larson, another Xolo owner, says the dogs' healing reputation originates from their warmth. Although the breed doesn't produce more heat than others, their lack of hair means they radiate it better. The warmth is certainly soothing, and as Dr. Paul Christo, director of the Pain Treatment Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, points out, it can certainly help to alleviate certain types of pain. And so the legend of Xolos' healing powers goes on.
"There are a few people who have purchased them for that reason, and I do have people who have contacted me with health problems wanting to adopt them," says Larson.
She says she tries to clarify that the dogs have no magical healing properties, but "if it's not hurting the animals and it works for [the person], and you realize that getting a dog is a lifetime commitment, it's fine by me ... but you don't need to get a dog to have a hot water bottle."
Still, multiple Xolo owners swear their dogs' ability to soothe and comfort goes beyond just heat.
"They seem to be more alert and more keen," says Pattie Gerrie, who lives in San Francisco. "They're always looking to see what I'm doing. If I'm sitting on the floor and I'm upset, they come up and kiss me all over. .... You feel a charge from the animal. It's a spiritual charge, it's almost godlike."
Jan Carson, a Xolo breeder based in California, agreed. "I kind of swear [the Xolo is] from the Aztec gods. I just have a feeling that they are."
While there are no large-scale scientific studies proving that dogs, let alone Xolos, can heal pain, doctors acknowledge that pets are certainly good for your health.
"I think it has been shown that pets can have health benefits -- that is, lowering blood pressure, lowering cholesterol and acting as stress reducers," says Christo. "I have seen the beneficial effects [of dogs] reducing anxiety, and comforting the patients."
All kinds of dogs have helped to heal people through therapy programs that send volunteers and their pets into hospitals and other care facilities.
Deborah Jury, a nurse practitioner for pain management who helps manage the pet therapy program at the Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, says the dogs have a profound effect on their patients' pain. Any child going through a particularly painful procedure that day gets a canine companion at their side to provide comfort and distraction from the pain.
Jury notes that when their child patients were asked to rate their pain on a 10-point scale before the therapy dogs visited, they averaged between a 6 and an 8. After the dogs visited the pain went down to a two-to-four range.
Maybe it isn't so hard to believe the Aztecs' legend.
"We really see a spiritual element to what the dogs do when they're with people," says Kathy Klotz, executive director of Intermountain Therapy Animals. "They seem to have a particular intuition to what the patient needs that often the staff or handler or family may not see. They can spot a person in the room who needs their companionship at the moment."
Xolos are no exception.
"They give both a physical and emotional support," says Gordon. "I really can say they have saved my soul. You're not going to get that from a neck wrap."