Raphaela Pope adjusts herself on the wooden bench, sitting with straightened spine, eyes shut, hands on knees. Her golden retriever sits panting at her feet. This Berkeley nurse is in the process of demonstrating her other occupation -- telepathic communication with animals.
"Imagine sending down a grounding cord from the base of your spine, that goes through the seat, through the earth, past the tree trunks, down down down, all the way to the center of the Earth. And then sit straight, with your spine aligned. Imagine that all the worries and tensions and anxieties are draining down this grounding cord. All negative emotions are going back to Mother Earth, and she can recycle it. We can take care of it. The Earth is vast, and can handle it."
A woman walks by the bench with her dog and smiles. Raphaela continues uninterrupted.
"And then think about calming, soothing earth energy rising up this tree trunk, this grounding cord, and rising up the spinal canal and coming out the top of your head in a shower and a fountain and all around you in a big circle of very loving light. Energetic, calming, soothing light. And breathe that light in, let it go to every molecule and atom in the body. If you take about 10 minutes to do this, and you get yourself real quiet, take some deep breaths, open the chest, you'll then be in a much, much more receptive state. We tell people to sit back, open their chest, take a deep breath, and receive. It's very simple. And the animals are fast. When the answers come, they come real quick."
So what's her dog thinking right now?
Raphaela pauses and shuts her eyes.
"She's just kicked back. She's kind of listening to something over there." The self-described telepathic communicator opens her eyes. "She says, 'Is this all we're gonna do all day? Are you gonna sit and talk to people?' She was in an agility class this morning, and she had a ball."
Raphaela addresses her panting retriever: "Do you wanna go do that again? You see, when I said that she perked up. They don't offer it again until tomorrow morning, sweetie. She says, 'Well then, how about dinner?'"
Aren't dogs cute when they're communicating via extrasensory perception?
Raphaela has been cranking out private half-hour consultations every day this week at the Canine Camp of the Redwoods, a first-ever West Coast retreat for dogs and their owners. The Happy Valley Conference Center, a pastoral facility outside Santa Cruz, is alive with the happy sounds of growls and barks, drowning out the Japanese tourists just across the highway who are visiting the Mystery Spot.
But it's not just Raphaela's Dionne Warwick psychic connection that has attracted a parking lot of vehicles from Washington state to Southern California. The green lawns, towering redwoods, and freshwater creek play host to a variety of professional-level seminars and workshops for the 75 doggies and owners, from lectures on vaccine risk and anatomy to classes in agility, tracking, and duck herding. Not to mention the classic dog movies available from the Canine Camp library.
"This will improve the quality of life for the dogs and their owners," says Canine Camp director Carol Pitlock, a German shepherd breeder and computer industry slave who came up with the camp idea to fulfill a need for a stress release in the world of dogs. "This sounds funny, but the Silicon Valley has too much asphalt," explains Pitlock. "I feel like the Earth is crying."
There is no crying this week at the camp -- just happy hounds on holiday, and proud ones at that. Champion Afghans, fastidiously groomed Pembroke Welsh corgis, flawless border collies. It's Dog Valhalla, an exclusive country club where every member is a perfect genetic specimen, a pristine trophy with paws. Some gracefully hop through hurdles or herd a pack of Italian runner ducks, others rest in their collapsible wire pens under shade, and still others enjoy their half-hour with Raphaela in the meadow: two dogs and two humans sitting together on a bench, four sets of eyes shut in telepathic lockdown.
But something is vaguely unsettling about the camp. It's not that everyone is overly friendly, or wearing Shepherds of Belgium T-shirts. It's not that occasionally you overhear bizarre conversation like "Willow's a wild child on the agility equipment" or "Look -- there's Muffin's mom!"
What is it, then?
It hits you. There are no curs. No mutant offspring spawned from a back-alley embrace between Great Dane and Chihuahua. No flea-bitten street mutt with bloody scabs on its ass. You know, normal dogs. Every animal at Camp Canine is showroom quality, trotting down paths with the jaunty confident air of a yuppie jingling the change in his Dockers.
One woman is dying to show off her Leonberger, one of only 850 registered in the U.S., originally developed in Germany to pull draft carts, and one of the few large breeds that does not drool, apparently a plus. She reverently opens the dog's baby book, containing the three-page purchase contract, photos of its original litter and first visit to the vet, and certified family pedigree on both sides going back six generations, all drool-free. All the dogs' names are German. Mmm, yes, it's all becoming more clear now. Say, isn't that Joseph Mengele hiding behind a tree with a syringe full of dye, ready to change the color of an eyeball?
If you're truly serious about dogs, there's nothing more serious than breeding.
"We had dogs for five years before we felt that we had something of quality to breed," says Judy Norris, a dental assistant from Concord who scours the country looking for likely candidates to mate with her Australian shepherds.
Because novice "backyard breeders" or puppy mills in the Midwest pay little attention to hereditary defects, which often don't show up in a litter for up to two years, any self-respecting dog aficionado won't touch a puppy unless its hips have been X-rayed for dysplasia and certified by the Orthopedic Foundation of America. You can buy cheaper pups out of a newspaper ad, say the breeders, but you might be looking at potential surgery down the road -- $1,500 per hip. Essentially, it's pay now or pay later.
Dog breeders are also the current civic scapegoat, conveniently to blame for crowded shelters. Berkeley and other cities charge owners more for licenses if a dog is not spayed, and in San Mateo, an ordinance was even passed to ban breeding dogs entirely -- the first such law in the country.
"They can't enforce these things," says a livid Carol Pitlock. "Why don't we lower the crime rate instead? That's their reaction to animal overpopulation -- to dogs getting euthanized in the shelters -- is to go back to the breeders."
Another current issue facing the doggie world is the trendiness factor: dog as fashion accessory.
"We're a throwaway society," says Joan Guertin, a dog trainer in from Sacramento. "We don't make a commitment when we get a pet." Whether it's Dalmatian or retriever, animal shelters are flooded with yesterday's breed-of-the-month, victims of somebody's upper-middle-class whim.
At least people here at the camp love their pets. After a gray shepherd struggles his way through a completely silly-looking activity -- herding three stupid little flightless ducks around a pen, coached by a woman in a sun hat -- its owner clicks on the leash and walks off, gushing to nobody in particular:
"I'm excited! He passed! I'm really excited! It was like my son out there!"
Another woman walking down a path is asked if her Afghan is a herder, and she responds proudly:
"Yes, they are. In the Sinai Desert. I just read an article on it!"
As the redwood shadows grow across the Happy Valley Conference Center lawn, activities are wrapping up. The agility equipment is long packed away and gone. The Italian runner ducks are worn out. Quentin LaHam's seminar on anatomy is winding to a close. A woman is hosing off her dog, fresh from a swim in the creek. A few owners are lounging at the main lodge, their animals splayed on the ground, little pear-size brains spinning with overstimulation.
Dog people get a rap for being goofy and cutesy, but they act the way they do for a number of reasons. Most civic laws are against them. Setting a good example as a responsible pet owner is important, so they take it very seriously. Also, they're constant parents of a child for the rest of its life. It's a full-time commitment. You can't break up with your dog and stop returning its calls. And dog people are frequently single folks living in a society that disdains couples, who choose canine companionship because it beats coming home to an empty house. Which may explain why an overwhelming majority here are women.
Regardless of gender or species, the Canine Camp has had an effect on everyone.
"There's something very spiritual up here," admits Joan Guertin. "It's a replenishment. It's a confidence-builder for people who weren't sure their dog was capable of doing some of these things, or weren't sure they were capable of training the dog to do some of these things."
Telepathic communicator Raphaela is even more succinct: "If you can communicate with an animal, it's much harder to treat them badly."
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