Canine rehabilitation serves many functions. As with humans, we often think of it as an intervention for post-operative care, especially after orthopedic or spinal surgeries or for management of injuries. In actuality, it can serve several roles in healthy pets as well. 

The canine athlete is a category all by itself. Athletes of any species need to train not only to prepare for their competitions but to help prevent injury during their rigorous activities. Just watch a dog doing Flyball and you will instantly see the risk of injury with the explosive starts and concussive impact on the flyball box (if you’ve never seen this, catch a quick You Tube video – it’s pretty amazing). There are a wide variety of competitive sports for dogs now from the traditional Disc Dog and Field trial competitions, to the very popular Agility, Dock Jumping/Diving, Herding Trials, Lure Coursing and Freestyle events. There are also competitions in Conformation, Rally Obedience, Barn Hunting, Fast CAT, Scent Work and an ever-expanding list of sporting events for dogs and their owners to enjoy. While they all require a fair degree of athleticism, some push dogs to the very limits of their athletic ability. Rehabilitation can be very helpful with training these dogs as a complement to their sport-specific training routine. Often the rehab is a combination of exercises designed to improve strength and flexibility along with work to reduce the risk of injury by proper preparation for the sport. Rehabilitation typically works synergistically with the other training being carried out by the handler or owner. Hydrotherapy is an impressive tool for building stamina for those dogs that need endurance as well as for general strengthening and conditioning.

While fewer in numbers, working dogs face many challenges as well. For service dogs, many have specific tasks they need to perform, some of which require a good bit of strength. Law enforcement dogs often need a good bit of exercise to stay in top condition as they often get very little during a normal work shift as they ride with their handler, ready for action, but often not required to work. If they aren’t kept in top condition, they may easily injure themselves when they do face challenges during their work, which is quite vigorous. Chasing down and/or capturing fleeing suspects is not for the weak! Search and rescue dogs are thankfully not needed often, but when they are, they may put in long hours and often for several days after a major catastrophe like a building collapse. They must be in peak condition before it happens.

Dogs can suffer from “weekend warrior” syndrome just like people. In a perfect world, consistent exercise can help prevent injury related to over-extending themselves. Again, rehabilitation can help provide the conditioning they need to prevent this. In the dead of summer, most dogs cannot safely run long distances with their owners due to their greater risk of heat stroke. Rehabilitation can provide a means to help keep these dogs in peak condition until the weather cools enough to permit outdoor distance running again.

The last category is the healthy non-athlete that needs help to improve their overall physical condition – which will often be accompanied by a longer lifespan. The two most common groups include healthy but overweight dogs that are having difficulty getting the weight off with diet restriction alone. Conditioning exercises performed in a controlled environment can facilitate muscle conditioning to strengthen as well as improve metabolism. Some care is required in doing this safely in obese pets, the ones who truly need it the most. The other group is sadly common, the young, healthy dogs with hip dysplasia. Many are not severe enough to require surgery, or hip replacement surgery is financially out of reach, but they are weakened by the muscle atrophy due to the abnormal hip conformation. While pain medications and joint supplements can help, strengthening the muscles over the hindquarters as well as the core can improve not only strength and condition, but help provide support for the joints and ultimately decrease pain as well as improving mobility.

The more we explore rehabilitation, the more uses we find for strengthening and conditioning to prevent injury and improve performance and it goes far beyond post-injury or post-operative intervention.

Elizabeth F. Baird, DVM, CVPP, CCRT, cVMA
Steele Pain Management & Rehabilitation Center

Call Us Text Us
Skip to content