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Avondale Spa Restores Pets and People Alike

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Imagine a spa without the facials, where bags and wrinkles aren’t treated with peels and salves, but where invisible scars are healed. 

This is White Feather Farm, nestled in the gently rolling countryside of Avondale, Pa., a spa based on the principles of naturopathy, a method of restoring health based on the elements of nature: water, air, diet, herbs and sunshine. With roots in 19th-century Europe, naturopathic cures were once popular in the United States before antibiotics revolutionized medicine.

But there’s an added element at White Feather Farm—dogs. This unique spa provides “holistic healing for people and dogs” and strives to improve “the mental, emotional, and spiritual health of both,” according to its website.

 

Jill Vernon, a licensed veterinary
technician, holds Sheamus in the
spa’s heated pool.

Founder Diane Mayer is an unabashed animal lover, certified in natural canine rearing and canine and human massage therapy. The relationship between healthy pets and healthy owners is not difficult to understand, she says. “We need our animals. They come into our lives to fill the emotional holes.” The bond is so strong, she contends, that changes in our lives can affect our animals’ health, and, in turn, our own wellbeing. “My goal is to be an advocate for the dog and to help the humans see the larger field of health for the relationship between them and their dogs.”

Among the most basic of her services is an off-leash run. It’s one way a dog can reconnect with its wild roots. For a dog confined to an apartment and walked twice a day, this is the equivalent of a human’s weeklong getaway to the Caribbean.

Off-leash, the dog is free to follow its natural instincts and uncover clues to its surroundings that human senses miss. “There’s an enormous amount of enrichment here,” Mayer says. The working farm encompasses 12 fenced acres of woods, hills, streams, gardens, wide-open lawns and tall shade trees, organic gardens, a flock of chickens, rabbits, cats and the usual assortment of wildlife. “Especially all dogs when they can run free and use their noses, it’s healthy medicine—it literally changes the profile of the physiology. Sometimes people come just to have a nice off-leash hike with their dog, which is so curative.” 

Spa founder Diane Mayer says an
off-leash run is one way for a dog to
reconnect with its wild roots.

Mayer treats animals with behavior issues or with symptoms that have not responded to traditional medicine. She deals with dogs with terminal illnesses and puppies just getting their first human family. She uses nutrition, water therapy, massage, and Reiki, which utilize the body’s energy fields. She also offers behavior training and detoxification, as well as end-of-life sessions. She and her husband, Rob, own Delaware Pet Cremations. A dog’s passing can be the final moment in a beautiful day together, with all the subsequent arrangements seamlessly taken care of.

Mayer was introduced to non-traditional healing through a series of events in her own life. While working in the corporate world, she sustained an injury that was treated successfully with massage. That inspired a change in careers, and for more than 10 years she worked as a massage therapist. One evening after work she broke a jar of spaghetti sauce she was opening, injuring the tendons in her right hand. Doctors warned she would have to find another occupation. That’s when a friend, who is an animal communicator, invited her to spend time at her farm outside Wilmington. Observing Mayer with one of the farm’s mares, she suggested that Mayer’s hand was not beyond hope. “I spent time with her dogs and horses, and then I signed up for canine massage, which was in its infancy then,” Mayer says. She studied in Ohio with Jonathan Rudinger, a pioneer in the field.

At first, Mayer worked only with dogs, but she noticed that as her four-legged clients improved, good things were also happening to their owners. She is not a veterinarian or licensed therapist, but she works closely with professionals in both fields.

“Diane is extraordinary,” says Andrea Largent, a family therapist in Kennett Square, Pa. “She is wonderfully understanding in working with people.” Largent was introduced to the role of the animal/human bond in therapy while attending workshops in Canada some time ago. One of the attendees was a veterinarian who had seen firsthand the connection between the health of his animal patients and their owners’. It was a few years later that she met Mayer and they began collaborating.

A sign at the gate states that “animals, human and
nature reside here in mutual respect.”

The concept of therapy that incorporates pets into the treatment program has taken hold among a few practitioners in Canada and the United States, Largent says. “To the modern world, it may appear new, but in ancient cultures there was an understanding between individuals and their animals. The animals were an integrated part of the family.” 

Dr. Rob Teti, a veterinarian who founded Chenoa Manor, an animal sanctuary in Avondale, contends that many of our pets’ problems stem from our own poor habits. “Our companion animals, by being forced to adapt to our lifestyles, are suffering from and mirroring many of the same conditions that their human counterparts experience,” he says. “All too often there are anxious dogs living in anxious households, overweight animals with overweight caretakers, and the list goes on.” Teti does not practice naturopathy, but has seen positive results of Mayer’s work, and he refers to her when clients are open to adding another approach to treating a problem.

Besides poor lifestyle, grief, a change in health, job, or school, or past trauma, even if the person is not conscious of it, creates human stress that dogs sense. “Dogs are so receptive to what’s going on with us emotionally,” explains Mayer. Research shows that the area of emotional activity in a canine brain is slightly larger than that of a human’s, Mayer says. “Why wouldn’t they have the same emotional complexities inside them?” she asks.

“Most of the time I get a call because the dog is biting. Usually dogs bite because they are confused and afraid, not because they are aggressive. It takes a lot for a dog to bite.” A dog that becomes aggressive or hyperactive is signaling that something is happening in the family.

Anouk, a mixed breed of Great Pyrenees and border collie, surveys the grounds at White Feather Farm.

Mayer’s first step is to observe the interaction of dogs and their owners; she searches for the source of the problem through gentle questioning. Sometimes she will consult in a client’s home, where she gets immediate sensory feedback. As a child, Mayer says, she was “an avid and creative sleepwalker—in native societies, they say you are walking in another world.” She has studied with ethnic healers and worked with an animal communicator. She also credits her maternal grandmother, who had Bedouin gypsy ancestry, with giving her a special connection with and respect for nature. “For nomadic people, animals were their family. It was about partnership. They helped them survive.” All this has given her the tools needed to decode a dog’s reaction.

Her connection with animals was witnessed by the youths at Chenoa Manor, notes Teti, the day she helped them calm an acutely injured ewe that was having difficulty walking. It was “one instance our teens still recall fondly,” he says.

If the initial consultation is at the spa, Mayer observes how the canine behaves on an off-leash walk. How far away and for how long does the dog wander before returning to “check in” with the owner, and how comfortable is the human without the control mechanism of a leash? 

She encourages quiet on these walks. In the wild, Mayer explains, dogs learn all the skills needed to survive in the pack through observation. And, whether we know it or not, our dogs are observing us with the same keen perception. “I try to engage my clients in nonverbal language as much as possible. There’s a vast, untapped field that has a massive amount of potential if people engage nonverbally with their animals. I find that it’s a richer experience—some clients have used the word ‘magical.’” Mayer doesn’t advocate complete silence, of course.

Besides quiet walks and free runs, depending on the situation, Mayer’s treatment may include water therapy, natural diet, or using native and non-traditional techniques that tap into the body’s energy, or etheric, fields. “Every dog is different. Just like humans, they are so individual,” she says.

Sessions at White Feather Farm last between an hour and 90 minutes. There is no waiting room. Each client gets Mayer’s undivided attention. She has a few human clients without pets, who find that warm water work helps release tension and restore a sense of calm. You don’t have to own a dog to schedule a session. 

Mayer demonstrates water shiatsu on Sheamus in the
spa’s shallow, heated pool as Jill Vernon looks on. 

One of the water techniques Mayer uses is water shiatsu, called Watsu, which she studied intensively, first working with people, then with dogs. The spa has a shallow indoor pool specially designed with water heated to 96 degrees or less. Subtle jets move the water, which is purified with UV light and oxygen, rather than chemicals. As the body floats, Mayer provides gentle support, allowing the spine to decompress and release tension. Some manipulation may be involved to help stretch and restore flexibility. Sometimes dogs are hesitant to get into the water, Mayer says, but they enjoy it once they feel the effects.

“Being in warm water and having someone support and facilitate you is pretty profound,” Mayer says. “The warmth of the water and the quality of the water have the ability to magnify emotions. Everything relaxes, and it all feels really good.“ She has had clients participate in a session with their dogs and then come back alone for an individual session. People can experience emotional relief, personal insights, or a return of past memories. It helps to ease grief and the effects of personal trauma bottled up inside, and this can be the first step back into a balanced state of mind and body. 

Mayer had always loved animals and spent considerable time in outdoor activities, so working with animals was a positive experience. For six years, she and her husband operated Happy Dog, Healthy Dog in Wilmington’s Trolley Square neighborhood, a store that offered healthy natural food for dogs. “We had a full kitchen and made fresh food,” she says. Mayer studied the effects of different foods in accordance with Chinese traditions and native dietary habits. ”Native peoples don’t separate medicine from food. Food is medicine,” she says. She can develop a diet based on the needs of her canine clients that includes raw, cooked and commercial products. 

Mayer researched warm water therapy after seeing the positive effects on her father following his stroke. It not only helped with mobility but also elevated his mood and level of engagement. In 2005 she traveled to Edmonds, Wash., to study with Cindy Horsefall, an innovator in canine warm water therapy. “I had never done anything like that before or seen results like that in my life,” Mayer says. She returned in 2011 for further certification.

Reiki, a Japanese form of stress reduction using the facilitator’s hands, is based on the idea that energy fields surrounding the body can be employed in healing. Mayer studied Reiki as part of her massage therapy training and achieved the level of Master. It’s another one of the non-traditional tools that she can use in conjunction with diet, exercise and water work. 

The spa’s human clients are overwhelmingly female, Mayer says, because they are more in touch with emotions. She works with all ages, particularly if a family is involved. 

Sheamus takes a stroll at White Feather Farm.

Her belief in the beauty and integrity of the naturally wild side of our dogs guides her in raising her own two multi-breed rescue dogs, which she adopted five years ago. “It’s been an extraordinary process. They are two fully emoting animals, as wild as domestic dogs can be—happy wild dogs. We have an agreement and we have a partnership; they work and we work together.” A third dog, a Rottweiler, is a trained show dog. Mayer said she wanted to be able to compare firsthand the different results of traditional and natural rearing.

If Mayer could change human habits for the better in ways that could make humans—and their pets—healthier, she would advocate exercise and establishing daily rituals. Mayer’s morning ritual is “checking in with nature—is the moon out, are the stars out; I check in with the weather. I check in with the different directions. These are things I learned working with the animals. Then when I come in, I light my altars, sometimes for a special client I’m working with. If I’m in a hurry I may light only one candle.” Rituals, she says, help to rebalance our lives.

Sometimes doing nothing can be a path to equilibrium in a chaotic world. “If there is one communication I could give people via the dogs, it would be ‘stop’—dogs will make you do it. Stop and be still—I’m a firm believer in silence,” Mayer says. Surrounded by nature’s beauty in this idyllic setting, silence is definitely excellent medicine. 


White Feather Farm
321 Bucktoe Road, Avondale
(302) 428-0809

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