A dog pads his way through a relatively mild body of water, his tongue lapping ever so slightly at the waves that flow past his fur. He moves at a fairly steady pace, his limbs becoming accustomed to the moving platform beneath his paws. With every step, his muscles increase their strength, slowly but surely restoring him back to health and an improved way of life. For this canine, this is no ordinary swim—this is his weekly therapy session.
The underwater treadmill, which works to improve range of motion, stability, strength and body awareness in dogs, is just one of the rehabilitation devices available at Cutting Edge K-9 Rehab. Offering services onsite at local veterinary offices and veterinary specialty hospitals, this organization treats dogs who are recovering from surgery or injury. They also specialize in canine personal training to work with the dogs on a more individualized level.
Much of the rehabilitation at Cutting Edge K-9 Rehab takes place in the water, where the physical limitations of a dog don’t seem to be an issue.
“Even when they’re totally paralyzed on land, as soon as you put them in the water, they start paddling,” trainer and owner Trish Penick said. “Dogs that have had strokes or blown discs in their back that can’t move at all on land, they do in the water. We don’t see that in the human world, that’s for sure.”
Healing with a physical touch
Water rehabilitation has been shown to produce many different kinds of benefits for dogs. According to the Canine Hydrotherapy Association, using the underwater treadmill or simply swimming in the water is useful in treating osteoarthritis, neurological conditions and muscle and tissue injuries. It is especially beneficial for dogs that are recovering from surgery or those that need to recover muscle tone and improve their cardiovascular stamina.
For the variety of different dogs that Penick sees within a particular day, there is one common goal—to allow the pool to provide an enjoyable workout while being a source of physical comfort.
SLIDESHOW: Dogs at Cutting Edge K-9 Rehab experience the water as a pain-free way to work their muscles.
Treating physical ailments in the water
Many of Penick’s clients have conditions that require the need for hydrotherapy as opposed to different rehabilitation options. A common ailment is arthritis, in which the cartilage that cushions joints in the body deteriorates and produces inflammation. Though statistics reveal that approximately 14 million dogs live with arthritis, Penick explained that they can experience relief while still doing muscle work in the pool that, out of the water, would be too excruciating to attempt.
“You try to exercise them on land and there’s pain associated with arthritis and orthopedic problems,” she said. “ The muscles shut down and atrophy so you get [a] decrease in strength, decrease in function.”
Working in water, which provides resistance from all sides and is non-weight-bearing, allows dogs with arthritic problems to maintain the use of their muscles in a more comfortable state. “In the water, we take all the pressure off, so there’s no impact on the joints, therefore they don’t feel the pain,” Penick said. “What we see is a rapid return of muscle mass because they’re pain-free in the water and able to exercise without that inflammation going on.”
Many of Penick’s older clients continue their hydrotherapy rehab until the end of their lives, leaving their owners with only good memories of the progress that their pets had made. “They swim with us often until the last day that they’re here with us,” Penick said. “That’s always a phone call that I get from the people that are obviously very sad that their dog is gone but they feel really good that they saw them so free and happy in the pool.”
In the end, it is this very accomplishment that makes the work at all the more worthwhile. “It just makes you feel so good that we’ve given them such good quality of life that they would not have otherwise had,” Penick said.
Behavioral rehabilitation for canines
While most rehabilitation needs for dogs are thought to be of a strictly physical nature, many dog owners consider behavioral rehab for their pets as well, especially for those that were rescued. Many dogs that emerge from animal shelters, abusive environments or homelessness hardly come out unscathed, and it often contributes to behavioral issues that become problematic. To meet this need, many groups and organizations specialize in treating dogs for behavioral issues.
At Dogs with Dave, founder and owner Dave Tann conducts what he calls rescue dog rehabilitation, where the real restoration of the animal comes about after they are removed from the unhealthy conditions in which they were found. Tann works with many dogs that were abandoned in Mexico and adopted by San Diegans.
Rescue dogs often develop fears based on their former environment, including anxiety toward people and objects. Tann’s style of training to tackle issue consists of three variables: distance, duration, and distraction. Factoring each into the training, Tann works to physically bring the dogs to a more relaxed state around certain stimuli, partially by using obedience commands to get the dog to perform tasks. In doing so, this distraction allows the dog to focus on the task at hand while being distracted from what bothers him.
This type of counterconditioning allows the dog to draw closer to what causes the fear or anxiety. Tann likens this method to stretching a muscle. “I call it the opposite stretch,” he said. “With a dog, when we’re talking about this duration or distance from a distraction, we actually compress it, but it’s like stretching because it takes time. Part of the rehab is stretching that muscle—by compressing, you can be closer to things that bother you.”
Another training tactic that Tann uses involves giving a dog a job to do, which helps to establish a sense of importance and duty in the dog. He uses this approach to train one of his most unique clients, a three-legged Jack Russell terrier mix named Indy who is a rescue dog from the streets of Mexico.
VIDEO: Indy does his bi-weekly behavioral rehabilitation session with Dave Tann.
Taking a different approach
While Tann said the efforts of those who take in rescue dogs are admirable, the emotional aspects of the rescue often cloud the needs of their newly-homed pet. “Unfortunately, compassion, when it translates to rehabilitating an animal under anxiety, isn’t always the same,” he said. He explained that, especially for fearful dogs, the normal reaction to verbally soothe isn’t the most constructive method.
“With a dog, those kinds of emotional exchanges are interpreted as praise—so the dog is in an anxious, scared state and you’re praising it by sweet-talking like you would a person or a baby and it’s actually making it worse, because anxiety isn’t a natural state for dogs,” Tann said.
Though his clients are primarily ones that walk on all fours, Tann doesn’t overlook their human companions. As a dog is being trained, so is its owner. Part of the work lies within the owners to correct their own behaviors that they might be exhibiting towards their pet that are contributing to existing problems.
“I’m coaching the owner and training the dog,” Tann said. “Sixty percent of the case is typically transforming the owner’s interactions with their dog. Even the nicest of people are making mistakes, especially with rescue dogs.”