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Neighborhoods: Burghers and their dogs share stories of hope 

When Alda Walker brought Phoenix home for the first time, she had to give the 140-pound shepherd-Rottweiler mix his own room. "He hated cats," Walker says. That was a problem, because she had four at the time.

So she developed a plan: "We had one bedroom that was for Phoenix," she says. "He had his own apartment. And twice a day, I would put all the cats away, and then Phoenix would come out for several hours."

Giving a dog a private bedroom might sound strange, but for Walker, it was more than a fair trade. "He was a remarkable dog," she says. "He was and continues to be the love of my life."

Walker is one of at least two Pittsburghers sharing her pet story on a national charitable Web site. Created through a partnership that includes local shelter and animal resource center Animal Friends, Power of Paws (http://powerofpaws.com) asks visitors to post an inspirational written story or video.

For each posting (or free registration to the site), Del Monte Foods will donate $1 to either The Animal Medical Center (in New York) or the Bergin University of Canine Studies, in Santa Rosa, Calif. Since April 28, the site has raised a little more than $4,300.

Walker, a Pittsburgh business trainer, met Phoenix while volunteering as a dog-walker with Animal Friends -- which was then located in the Strip District -- about five years ago.

"One day everyone said, 'You have to see this big dog,'" Walker says in her video. Surprisingly, "he was the easiest and gentlest dog I'd ever met. I decided to make it my mission to get him a good home."

Walker started taking Phoenix out for a daily stroll and to off-site visits for prospective adopters. On one of those trips, Walker -- who had been diagnosed with diabetes -- learned that her love for the dog was a shared affection.

"I passed out," Walker says. "When I came to, they said, 'Lady that is some dog you have. ... He covered you, he protected you. That is your dog.'"

They lived together for two years, until fluid started collecting around the big dog's heart. Walker says his death was "devastating." He's still the photo on her cell phone.

Phoenix helped her realize that she had "been fighting the diabetic diagnosis," she says. "In order for me to take care of him, I had to take care of myself. He got me walking and focusing on positive things."

The Power of Paws site promotes animal-human relationships as therapeutic and mutually beneficial. In another video, Pittsburgh nurse Sue Ezzo talks about visiting sick children with her dog Greta.

Ezzo says Greta's patience and temperament suited her as a hospital guest. "She's very mellow for a Siberian husky," Ezzo says. And "when I'm sick and I have a fever, she never leaves my side."

Ezzo and Greta first met when Greta was a puppy. Ezzo was laid off at the time and already owned another dog. She saw a neighbor walking Greta down the street and stopped to say, "Oh, what a cute puppy." Little did she know, the owner was looking to unload the dog, and just like that, there were two canines in the Ezzo household.

"We've always had a really special connection," Ezzo says. "Huskies are usually very stubborn, independent animals. [But] she's far from independent."

A similarly chance suggestion got Greta into the hospital-appearance circuit. One day at the dog park, an onlooker noticed how calm Greta seemed and proposed to Ezzo that she look into hospital visits.

Ezzo says they started visiting children on a monthly basis. In the video, Ezzo talks about their very first visit -- during which Greta serenaded a girl in the epilepsy center by howling on command.

"There's so many times when the child is sick and you hear the parents say, 'That's the first time my child has smiled since surgery," Ezzo says. "Sometimes, too, kids that don't talk, they will talk to the dog."

In an interview, Ezzo gets choked up when she recalls one story about a blind boy she visited with Greta. "I said, 'Greta's blind in one of her eyes,'" Ezzo recalls, "which is true. And he seemed to connect to that, and reached down to pet her. ... I remember how he lit up knowing that the dog that was visiting was half-blind."

Ezzo now has six dogs: Greta, a chocolate Labrador named Charlie, three mixed breeds, and Zip, a border collie who has taken over for Greta in visiting children.

She was referred to the Power of Paws site by a friend of hers who volunteers at Animal Friends. "It's a great Web site and a great cause," Ezzo says. "There's so much nastiness in the world. And just to bring some good to people is very comforting and rewarding."

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