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5 Ways in Which Canine Physical Therapists are Uniquely Positioned to Help Your Dog

Published April 19th, 2023

The leaves are changing from their various shades of green to fiery reds and golden hues, which can only mean one thing: it’s National Physical Therapy Month!

October is the month we celebrate the wonderful profession of physical therapy and all that it can do for everyone eager to get back to the physical activities they love...and we mean EVERYONE, including your furry best friend. Canine physical therapists in particular are uniquely positioned to provide help for dogs who are struggling with some kind of movement problem, be it from a recent injury, weight gain, arthritis, or a number of other ailments. How exactly? Read on to find out!

1. Manual Therapy

Canine physical therapists are anatomy experts and have in-depth knowledge not only of how muscles are attached and joints move, but also of how to use their hands to improve the way everything works together, from spine to hips to knees to toes. We are trained to look at the body as a whole, analyzing movement patterns and compensations that develop as a result of injury, oftentimes with an injury to one joint having a cascade effect to other body parts. With our advanced training in manual therapy, we use gentle, hands-on techniques that put the dog in a calm, relaxed state while simultaneously helping improve joint mobility and flexibility. Pain relief is a fantastic benefit as well, easing both the physical burden for the dog and the emotional burden for the pet parent. Because no one likes to see their beloved pup in pain.

2. Neurological Facilitation

In clinics that focus solely or primarily on modality-based treatment, dogs with neurological issues are often put on an underwater treadmill as the primary course of treatment for their movement problem. Oftentimes, however, one modality is far from enough, and sometimes not even appropriate, when it comes to providing treatment that will yield the most optimal outcome.

Canine physical therapists know this and understand how the nervous system impacts physical movement; they can provide hands-on treatment that changes that movement for the better. Neuromuscular facilitation is an excellent treatment strategy canine physical therapists have adapted from working with human patients who have suffered a neurological injury, such as stroke or traumatic brain injury. Neurological rehabilitation promotes improvement in dogs’ functional independence, especially with activities like those of daily living such as transitions (e.g., moving from the floor to the couch) and mobility around the house.

3. Home/Community Modification

Also unique to canine physical therapists is their ability to perform a professional assessment of a dog’s home environment. This knowledge comes from our extensive training doing the same for humans, where we take into consideration not only the patients’ ailments when developing our plan of care, but also how they can be affected by community and household environments. Based on the dog’s mobility issue and environmental challenges, canine physical therapists can take a look at your home setup and provide suggestions to improve your dog’s quality of life and independence.

There are plenty of options in the world of adaptive equipment, and canine physical therapists can help you navigate it to reach the best solution to meet your dog’s functional needs. For more details, feel free to check out this post about making changes to the home environment, and this post about improving access to the community.

4. Safety Recommendations

Getting your dog to move more easily and with less pain should certainly not come at the expense of your own health. How can you help your loved ones who are hurting if you’re hurt yourself? Given that physical therapists are experts in human movement, a canine physical therapist can provide sound advice on the best course of action for how to help your pet with everyday tasks while keeping your own body protected. For example, lifting your pup from the floor can put a major strain on your low back if you’re not employing good body mechanics—and especially if your canine is on the heavier side. Canine physical therapists can teach you the right way to lift, helping both you and your pup in the process.

5. Proper Exercise Progression

If you’ve ever had physical therapy, you were likely given some exercises to do. Once those became easy, your physical therapist should have progressed you to more challenging exercises to continue to build strength, improve balance, or whatever it was that you were hoping to achieve. Now, let’s say someone else came into the clinic with your exact same issue, only this person was diagnosed during their course of therapy with a condition that impacts how fast they’re able to heal. Should the physical therapist have progressed that person to the same exercises at the same rate as they did for you? No way!

Cookie-cutter exercise programs found online or provided by a surgeon don’t cut it for humans, and they sure don’t cut it for canines. They will never address the dog’s specific needs and neither will they follow an appropriate progression that would be the most beneficial. Canine physical therapists have the knowledge and skills to take these programs, or create their own, and progress them appropriately. Most importantly, a good canine physical therapist will work to empower you, the pet parent, by teaching you a progressive exercise program that will enable you to keep your pup healthy in the long run. Our goal is never to keep working with your dog for an indefinite period of time (unless your dog’s ailment requires long-term management), but instead to give you the knowledge and tools you need to care for them with our guidance.

Plus, working with a canine physical therapist means you’ll have someone there at every session who can reassess and make adjustments on the go as needed. This differs from many clinics where the assistant is providing the treatment and must receive approval before progressing the program. Sometimes this can take days, thereby hindering the dog's recovery.

Our dogs deserve the best. It pains us as canine physical therapists and pet parents to see them suffer, and getting them the help they need is the least we can do for all the love they give to us. With the extensive training doctors of physical therapy receive nowadays (3 years of a doctorate-level graduate program AFTER a bachelor’s degree), and an additional 200+ hours of learning and training in canine rehabilitation, canine physical therapists are able to provide an exceptional rehab experience specially made for you and your dog to give back the gift of movement and health.

Happy National PT Month!

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