story by Ben Swan, originally published in The New Mexican
Sherry Gaber doesn't talk about miracles, but she does talk about hope. The certified animal chiropractor knows that sometimes all it takes to allow a body to heal and move more easily, is a simple adjustment.
But during a recent demonstration at Kindred Spirits Animal Sanctuary, it sure seemed like a miracle was taking place. Juliana, an aged Dachshund rescued from a puppy mill, had been failing lately, according to her best friend, volunteer Claire Leonard. The dog couldn't walk and it seemed as if nothing would help her regain her stamina.
After a quick examination, Gaber gently adjusted Juliana's aching joints. A few moments later, the dog stood on her own and waddled over to Leonard. The crowd that gathered to witness the event clapped and whooped cheers of gratitude as the happy hound got her gift: Leonard's gentle cradling.
Gaber, smiling at Juliana's performance, shrugged off her role in the transformation.
"This is all so easy," Gaber said in a later interview. "All it takes is a few minutes to figure things out and then you realign. Muscles retrain slowly, and for older animals, where the rear legs are weak, I look for pain and misalignment, and work for a better neuromuscular connection."
From buffalos to birds, Gaber has yet to meet an animal she hasn't wanted to help. Raised in a family of chiropractors with a menagerie of animals, the first thing she always thought of as a child was to check an animal's alignment.
"Even our little parakeet that was at the end of his life," Gaber recalls. "I brought him to my father and said, 'Can't you do something?' So I innately knew that the nervous system was intricately tied to life and death."
Chiropractic medicine emphasizes treatment of the musculoskeletal system, especially the spine, to help the nervous system and enhance the overall health of the body. It's done through a series of therapeutic techniques, usually involving the manipulation of the spine or other joints.
Gaber said she always thought, while growing up, that she'd become a veterinarian. But when she started studying animal science at the University of Illinois and an instructor took her out into the field, Gaber said she realized that she was brought up to think about healing in a radically different way than Western medical traditions.
After two years in animal science, she turned her attention on chiropractic studies, received her degree and returned to Chicago to work alongside her father, Marshall Dickholtz Sr. While her focus was on "two-legged" beings, people eventually started bringing her animals to treat. After 18 years, that gave her pause.
"It was kind of like being guided about why I was in chiropractic," she said. "It was just the right time to get back into my old passion."
She received her certificate in animal chiropractic in 1994 at Options for Animals, a program led by Sharon Willoughby, a veterinarian and chiropractor. Since then, Gaber's focus has been on "four-leggeds."
She is a steady volunteer at Ulla Pedersen's Kindred Spirits sanctuary, and plans to attend Saturday's holiday party. In many ways, Pedersen exemplifies what Gaber strongly believes in: complementary health care.
"Ulla looks at the health care of her animals and wants every option that is available," Gaber said. "People should be aware of all the modalities that are available in this town. There can only be benefits."
It's important to work with an animal's veterinarian, Gaber said, to blend the knowledge of both professions and seek the best treatment outcome She also believes those who work in animal chiropractic should be certified.
Gaber specializes in a brain-stem technique called NUCCA an acronym for National Upper Cervical Chiropractic Association. While designed for humans, she's adapted it for animals.
"What I do is so different from what a veterinarian might do," she said. "That's the magic of what I do, where I can apply the technique specifically to the brain stem."
After an initial assessment and consultation with the animal's primary veterinarian, Gaber checks to see if an animal's head is tilted. Then she'll gently use her hands to align the spine's vertebrae. Once the body is in alignment, the nervous system and internal organs can function more efficiently.
"It allows the brain to communicate to the totality of the body and the body to the brain," she said. "It helps the immune system because our bodies are responding to the environment 100 percent."
While Gaber has worked with specific illnesses, including a pit bull with Bell's palsy, she considers an alignment a good tune-up for the body. It can also mend behavioral issues, helping the animal become more centered.
"People have used me in the past when they are getting another animal and bring them in to make sure nothing is brewing," she said. "They see that their dog is doing better, even if they didn't realize their dog was suffering or slightly off."
All animals can benefit from the treatment, Gaber said, no matter what size. She works a lot with horses, but even a treated a pet buffalo that had run into a pole at Taos Pueblo.
Gaber adjusted the buffalo, Charlie, and helped him walk straight. The account is chronicled in A Buffalo in the House: The True Story of a Man, an Animal, and the American West, by R.D. Rosen.
"A buffalo is just as easy to adjust as a Chihuahua," Gaber said. "In one session, I expect to totally clear the nervous system, which helps increase blood circulation and unless there's some neurological degeneration, the reflexes should improve."
In Juliana's case, follow-up treatment and routine maintenance will be needed, she said.
Juliana has been with the sanctuary a few years, said Pedersen, the nonprofit's founder and director. The dog is about 12 years old but didn't get much exercise as a breeding factory.
"She just sat in a cage, day after day," Pedersen said. "Puppy mill dogs don't get good nutrition, and if they don't receive supplements and they are constantly pregnant, the calcium goes to the babies."
Without that calcium, the dog's bones collapsed under her weight. That's why Juliana's legs are deformed and she suffers from muscle atrophy, Pedersen said.
She doesn't suffer from lack of love. Juliana gets plenty of that from Pedersen, Leonard and other volunteers at the sanctuary.
And that's another secret miracle of Pedersen's safe haven for elderly dogs, horses and poultry.