Deb Walker: Certified Pet Trainer, Pet Stylist, Pet Behavioral Specialist – and Master Pet Masseuse

By Tara L. Cale

Having a good time at doggy daycare.

About nine years ago we ran a story on LaBest, Inc. in Edwardsville. The story came because we had just gotten a new Doberman puppy, Cezar, and chose LaBest to help with his training. We were impressed with them.

Our opinion of LaBest has changed – it’s actually been elevated. I will elaborate, but let me give you some background first.
If you are a pet owner who loves their pets as we do, you will be happy to have this information.
Deb Walker, owner of LaBest (daughter Julia is now co-owner) was raised in a family that showed dogs. Deb began training dogs at the early age of nine years old.  That may seem young, but when you have been around it all your life, it comes naturally.
When Deb was 11 they had several Malamutes at a show. Deb had never been in a show ring with the dogs before, but this show had a Junior Showmanship class.  She asked if she could enter. Entry fees are normally quite expensive, so her mother said no – until they found out the junior class was free.
Deb explained, “Mother told me three things before I went into the ring, and that’s all she said. 1) keep two eyes on the judge and one on the dog; 2) never come between the dog and the judge; 3) stack the dog.”
(Stacking is the process of correctly presenting a show dog to its best advantage by the breed standard. The dogs should be trained to stand in the right position, but often they move, so the handler puts their legs back in the proper position.)
Deb’s parents wanted to expand their operation and had a building constructed for a grooming facility, and even paid for a woman to attend grooming school. But at the last moment, she backed out. What were they going to do now? Daughter Deb got the grooming training, and stepped gracefully and naturally into that role, at the age of 14.
With an innate love for animals and years of experience to back her, Deb opened  LaBest, Inc in Edwardsville in 1993. LaBest provides boarding, training, doggy daycare, grooming, tartar removal from teeth without sedation, and  –  the main reason for this updated story – pet massage.
I knew about the services LaBest offered, (except massage) because we took Cezar to training classes at LaBest. Later, when we vacationed, we boarded Cezar and Bella (adopted from IL Doberman Rescue when Cezar was a year old), at LaBest, knowing they would receive the best of care. (We paid for our dogs to have a private suite with cots, a window, and even television – not kidding, they have that!)

LaBest even has a swimming pool for daycare clients that are so inclined!

LaBest boasts that you are not just a client, you are part of their family, and we found this to be true. We started taking the dogs for doggy daycare too. Not because they needed babysitting, but because they got to run and play with other dogs. They loved it. And it was good for them in so many ways. Remember, the original story about LaBest was about 9 years ago. Now, take into consideration that Dobermans have an average life span of 8-10 years, (Bella will be 13 in April though).
Cezar was a pup when I wrote the original story. But over the past year or so, we noticed he was walking funny. Sometimes he would trip and stumble, or even fall. Wobbler’s Syndrome (malformations of the cervical vertebrae that cause an unsteady gait and weakness – most common in large breeds, especially Great Danes and Dobermans) was suspected. There is controversy on treatment, but usually, the prognosis is not good. We tried anti-inflammatory drugs and various other treatments. But Cezar still struggled, and soon had difficulty just getting up. When he did, just walking was exhausting for him. Stairs were out of the question. So he was relegated to just my small office and a huge backyard. But even getting to the yard was a challenge. Just stepping over the threshold of the door was taxing for him. It was very depressing, for him, and us. He wanted to run, chase squirrels…but he just couldn’t. My amazing vets (Animal Doctors, LLC in Staunton) did all they could, but after exhausting their resources, suggested we take him to Horseshoe Animal Clinic in Collinsville, as they had some success stories with acupuncture. We went there, and it seemed to help Cezar. A little, for a while. And then…. he got worse again.
Those of you that follow The Buzz on Facebook may have seen my post early in 2020 that I thought Cezar’s days were numbered. Deb Walker saw the post too. She reached out and asked if I wanted to try and help with massage. I hadn’t considered it.  Didn’t know about it. But if it could make a difference, YES, please!
When we got to LaBest for the first visit, Cezar could not walk more than a few steps without his back legs giving out. Deb examined him and noticed several things immediately. His toenails were too long, hindering his movement, and his back had an arch in it. A dislocated vertebrae. She trimmed his nails, massaged his spine, and removed toxins. Thirty minutes later, he was a different dog! He still had a funny gait, but literally RAN up the hall without even slipping once! I was thrilled! And you could tell he was thrilled as well. All wiggly butt, kissing everyone in sight.
At home he immediately went outside and began barking frantically, running around, chasing squirrels and rabbits…tears rolled down my cheeks in gratitude. Cezar did well for about two weeks and then started deteriorating. Back for another massage, another miracle. We started going in for massages every two weeks. It was working so well that I thought Cezar could probably live happily for at least another year, or two. Happily is key. I will not keep a pet alive for my own selfish reasons. As hard as it is to let them go, when their quality of life ceases to exist, we say goodbye.
My happiness faded the weekend after Thanksgiving. Cezar couldn’t get up. I used a sling to get him standing and hobbling out to go to the bathroom. When we came back in, he just collapsed on his bed. I urgently contacted Deb, and she made an emergency house call. But I think it was liking putting a bandage on a severed limb. Three days later he could not even stand. His back legs were like wet noodles. I hoped for another miracle as I drove to LaBest.
This time, there were no miracles to be had. Deb examined him in the parking lot, as he had absolutely no mobility. She did the massage as well as she could there on the asphalt to try to get some response. There was nothing. She squeezed his paws hard and he didn’t even try to pull away.
We had done the best we could for Cezar, but his quality of life was completely gone.
The reason I provided so many details about my experience with Cezar, and losing him, was for one reason.  I am confident that had we started the massages when Cezar’s spinal issues first presented, he would still be with us today.  But we didn’t know.  And I want YOU to know.
Although Deb is certified in Canine Massage through the ISCC (International Society of Canine Cosmetologists), she said “Truly everything I know about canine massage has come through my day-to-day handling of dogs for the past 50+ years.  From breeding, birthing, showing, training, and loving them.”Deb’s massage techniques have brought happiness to more pets and their families than mine.
One family had a 4-year old dachshund that had previously had back surgery (at the tune of $4,000) which helped the little guy for a few years. Then his back went out again.  He was completely paralyzed. The vet recommended a second surgery, but the family couldn’t afford it.  They contacted Deb.
“This dog had one vertebra stacked on top of the other. We saw a positive change after our first session, so we set up a graduated schedule for treatments,” she explained.
“In just seven weeks he was walking completely on his own again.”
Now the happy fella just comes in only on an “as needed” basis.
 Another dachshund with the bone disease was walking, but his front legs were not working very well. After just two massages, with suggested exercises at home between the sessions, he was fine.
Owners of a Frenchie came home one day to find her paralyzed. The vet said surgery, $1,000. Deb found a pinched nerve. After 3 massage sessions over a 2 week period, the dog was fine.
The owner of an 11-year old Maltese came in crying with her pup, saying the poor girl could no longer control her bladder. Pinched nerve. One massage session and she was good as new.
A Chow had stopped eating. The vet couldn’t find anything. Deb found toxins had built up around his stomach. Massage released them, and one session started eating again.
Am I advocating not taking your dog to the vet? Absolutely not. Neither is Deb. Your vet should always be your first contact if your dog is having an issue. But if you have exhausted other options, or disagree with the doctor’s opinion, get a second opinion (just like humans do). That second opinion could make all the difference.
In addition to the healing benefits of canine massage, it can also correct behavioral issues.
“Animals move, sleep and respond based on their comfortability,” Deb explained. “If they are uncomfortable, they may act differently. They are not being stubborn, they are trying to tell you something in the only way they know how.”
Canine massage combines the knowledge of anatomy, observation of an animal’s movement and demeanor, and health history. It involves a gentle rhythmic motion, targeting specific muscles. The mix of motion is designed to encourage relaxation and enhance healing, providing an overall increased well being of the animal.
A massage is an alternate form of stimulation for the muscles. Each stroke is a very specific technique that employs various pressures to achieve results. The therapist can detect areas of tightness, inflammation, and restricted movement. Canine massage is a recognized and respected alternative health therapy and could be considered as essential as grooming, feeding, and exercising.
Misalignments of the hips and vertebrae can cause several health issues as well as behavioral problems. Spinal issues may be caused by an injury, stress, faults in conformation, excessive crate confinement, improper leash corrections with choke chains, poor diet, rough play, and more. (Did you know feeding your dogs with their dishes on the floor can cause skeletal problems)

Symptoms you may observe in your pet might include:

. Showing signs of lameness
. Refusing a collar or harness
. Doesn’t want to be touched in certain areas
. No longer desire to jump up on furniture
. Stiffness anywhere in their body
. Unable to walk or move
. Dragging back legs when walking
. Favoring one side when walking
. Becomes incontinent (urinary or fecal)
. Develops problem with digestion
. Show poor performance in activities
. Slipping and/or shuffling
Deb Walker owns and operates one of the leading state-of-the-art animal care facilities in the state. She is a Certified Pet Trainer and Pet Behavioral Specialist as well as a Certified Master Pet Stylist Meritus. She gives symposiums all across the country for the animal service industry, rescue groups, and the private sector.
Her knowledge is unquestionable. But that knowledge, without her heart, and love of animals, would be shallow. That’s the difference between Deb and many others with similar credentials.
Deb cares. An example of her golden heart is that she helped save 29 Katrina pets in Mississippi by assisting the staff at Friend Sanctuary in Tylertown in how to deal with the traumas the animals were suffering from. But little closer to home…when it was determined that it was time to say goodbye to Cezar, Deb didn’t just confirm my fears and send me on my way, especially finding out that my vet was not available that day. She helped me locate a nearby vet and stayed with me through it all.
The moral of the story is, LaBest, Inc, in Edwardsville, in my opinion, is simply “the best. For grooming, daycare, training, boarding – and massage. She, and each and every one of her staff,  love your pet as much as you do. If you have an animal (she provides all services for both dogs and cats and boarding is also available for small animals, aviary, and reptiles), that has some issues that have not been alleviated with traditional medical intervention, please reach out to Deb. If she doesn’t believe she can help you, she will tell you. But if she can, she will.
LaBest, Inc is located at 4933 Indian Hills Drive in Edwardsville. They can be reached at 618-692-6399. More information can also be found at or find them on Facebook.