Have you ever heard of canine water therapy? I first heard about the beneficial practice when I was digitally introduced to Vonni Goetting, a professional canine water therapist, certified animal massage therapist and owner of Washington State’s Doggone Day Spaw. I’m very excited to share this Ask The Experts Q&A with you. I definitely learned a lot and hope you do too!
Q: What Is Canine Water Therapy & How Can It Benefit My Dog?
A: Canine Water Therapy is the use of water to support the body during massage, stretching, and range-of-motion exercises. Just simple walking through the water can help to build greater strength than walking on land, as well as providing important aerobic benefits to dogs who may no longer have their normal exercise outlet.
In a typical session, a thorough health history is taken on the animal. Plus, owners will explain their ultimate goals. That may include:
- Pain reduction
- Mobility improvement
- Weight reduction
- Improved longevity
- Enhanced overall quality of life
Sometimes, a goal might be as simple as, “I’d like to be able to take my dog for walks like we used to” or “I want my dog to be able to go up the stairs again, without stumbling.” Sometimes goals can be more complicated, especially those involving neurological or severe orthopedic deficits. Either way, water therapy can help in most cases.
Performance animals (i.e. agility dogs, obedience trials, sled-pulling) also benefit greatly from water therapy. It can help keep them in shape between competitions, or in their offseason.
Additionally, water therapy can give an anxious dog an outlet for some of that nervous energy. Or a therapy or service dog an outlet from their stressful occupational situation.
Q: What Tools Are Involved In Water Therapy?
A: Swimming pools and underwater treadmills are frequently used in water therapy. The treadmills tend to be in veterinary facilities and are usually run by veterinarians or registered veterinary technicians, while the swimming pools tend to be privately owned.
Other “tools” that I use include any type of dog toy that will float for long periods of time (balls, Wubbas, Chuckit toys, etc.). We go through toys rather quickly, as you can imagine.
We also use canine float coats, harnesses, and sometimes the blow-up e-collars (for dogs who have a hard time keeping their head or ears out of the water).
Q: Is The Water Warm or Cold (& Why)?
A: Warm! I work in a 4’6″ water depth saline pool that is heated to between 89 and 91 degrees. The warmth of the water assists in improving circulation, increasing flexibility, and promoting relaxation. The heat opens the capillaries, enhancing blood flow, and improving oxygen levels.
Additionally, salt water provides enhanced buoyancy, as opposed to fresh water. It’s also easier on the dogs’ skin and coats (as well as my own skin). Natural chlorine is produced in a salt water pool, so fewer chemicals are required than a traditional chlorine or bromine one.
Q: What Is A Typical Session Like?
A: When a dog first enters water therapy, a thorough health history is taken on the animal. Next, I take time getting to know the animal, making sure that they are comfortable with me. I try to introduce each dog to the pool on their own terms, often making a game of it. My main goal with the initial water therapy session is to make it a positive experience so that they will want to come back (both the dog and the parent).
Once the animal is in the pool, we work on getting them accustomed to being handled by me. While on the stairs, I will provide massage, stretching, and range-of-motion exercises to assess where problems are in the body.
Learning where the stairs are, and that it’s the only way out of the pool, is also important. So the first few laps of swimming may be very short, taking the dog out just a few feet, and allowing them to “find the stairs.” (Lots of praise when they get it right! I’m a strong advocate of positive reinforcement).
Usually, by the second session, a dog will enter the pool on his own.
For rehabilitative purposes, most dogs do very well in 8-10 sessions, with noticeable improvement after just 2 or 3. That being said, I have many clients who come weekly, and have for years. Some are “just for fun” and some are for maintenance or performance enhancement.
Q: What Type Of Dogs Do You Typically See In Your Practice?
A: I see all different conditions and pathologies in my practice, but the highest percentage of my clientele is geriatric. A lot of my patients suffer from Osteoarthritis, Hip and Elbow Dysplasia, and other degenerative joint or neurological disorders.
Many pet parents have never heard of Canine Water Therapy and happen to come across it while researching ways to help improve the quality of life for their aging canine companion. Frequently, animals are brought to me when the parents are contemplating euthanasia because they feel their animal now needs more help than they are able to give.
Just to share a short story with you: I had a wonderful couple bring their 12y/o German Shepherd, Maya, to me several years ago. At the time, it was thought that she had become incontinent and they were just seeking a way to help support her aging arthritic body. After just three sessions of water therapy, we discovered that Maya was not incontinent at all. She had stopped letting her parents know when she needed to go potty because it was too difficult or painful for her to get up quickly enough. Regaining some strength and mobility, she began to “notify” Mom and Dad to go out when she needed to. This family ended up having almost an extra year with Maya before it was time to let her go. (One of my favorite stories to share!)
I also see a large number of surgical cases, especially TPLO (Tibial Plateau-Leveling Osteotomy) and FHO (Femoral Head Osteotomy or Ostectomy). Lots of knee and hip surgeries, and sometimes I see the same animal for multiple surgeries (as it is common if one knee “blows” the other one will eventually too).
Weight loss is another common aspect of water therapy. In today’s world, humans don’t get enough exercise and neither do our pets. An overweight dog will typically develop joint and mobility problems much younger than one of healthy weight.
Q: Does A Dog Need To Know How To Swim Before Attending A Water Therapy Session?
A: No. Most dogs actually do know how to swim, instinctually, but they may not be “efficient” swimmers. For example, people think of Labradors and Golden Retrievers as “water dogs”. Pretty much everything about these breeds is water-friendly (dual coats, hollow fur, otter tails, fat layer for buoyancy, webbed feet, etc.). Most people tend not to think of Rhodesian Ridgebacks or Boxers as “water dogs”. Their high muscle density and thin coats don’t really provide much buoyancy or insulation in what might be a cold environment. They are very muscular in the front, especially across the chest and shoulders, but are narrow in the back. Both breeds tend to “drive” from the front, rather than from the rear. (The rear end sinks, and the front end comes up out of the water with kind of a pogo-stick effect.) But yes, these too can swim! They just need a little extra patience and time given in order to gain the confidence. I always start them in life jackets!
Q: What If My Dog Is Afraid Of Water?
A: It’s all about working within the comfort level of the individual dog. It’s possible for a dog to get past this fear, even if it comes from a traumatic experience. *Please don’t just throw your dog in the water, hoping they will know what to do. Sometimes, you need to work incrementally to get the best results. Faster is not always better!
Vonni Goetting, LMT, SAMT, is the owner and sole proprietor of Doggone Day Spaw. In practice since May of 2007, Vonni is a Licensed Massage Therapist and Small Animal Massage Therapist. Additionally, she is trained in CranioSacral Therapy, Reiki, and Watsu. She has a special affinity for geriatric and mobility-impaired animals and those with special needs. Over the last 10+ years, Vonni has had the privilege of helping hundreds of animals reach their highest potential (heal from injuries, recover from surgery, improve performance, gain confidence, enhance general overall quality of life).