Rehabilitation Therapy for Dogs

Christine Hibbard, CTC, CPDT-KA

Dr. Kari Johnson, DVM

Many of the medical treatments that have been available to human patients are more commonly becoming available for our pets. In fact, some research being done at veterinary schools like Purdue and research centers in veterinary oncology are furthering human research and treatments. When I got curious about water therapy and physical rehabilitation, I reached out to my referring veterinarians. I was lucky enough to meet and interview Dr. Kari Johnson, DVM. Dr. Johnson is on her way to becoming Certified as a Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner. I met with her in her office at Animal Surgical Clinic of Seattle and she explained her work while I observed her working with a Boerboel Mastiff client whose owner brought her dog for underwater treadmill rehab post knee surgery but was continuing with the therapy because of the ongoing benefits.

When Dr. Johnson introduced herself to me, I noticed two things: her calm, warm demeanor when she introduced herself and that she was wearing a bait/treat bag. Any of you familiar with our work at Companion Animal Solutions know how much we love seeing positive reinforcement being used with pets! While Dr. Johnson filled the treadmill tank with warm water with her client dog inside the tank, she began educating me about veterinary rehabilitation therapy:

When is veterinary rehabilitation indicated for dogs?

Some of the reasons veterinarians refer to rehabilitation specialists include: recovery from surgery, osteoarthritis, soft tissue injury, intervertebral disk disease or even weight loss and sports conditioning for hunting and agility dogs.

How do you condition dogs to relax around rehab equipment?

The equipment I saw in Dr. Johnson’s therapy room was the same as what you would see in your own physical therapist’s office. I was especially curious about installing a positive conditioned emotional response in a dog to a tank that is slowing filling with warm water. Dr. Johnson explained that when she begins work with a new dog, she gently introduces the dog to the environment and equipment using treats. If she sees the dog shake off, yawn or stop taking treats, she drains the tank and ends the session. The dog I observed during her underwater treadmill session displayed no stress signals: no lip licking, yawning, or stress panting. In fact, the only time the dog displayed any stress signals was when I changed her routine by keeping her in the room while continuing to talk to Dr. Johnson. She was ready to head back out to her owner after her session.

What is post surgical recovery like, how long are sessions and how many sessions are normally required?

After surgery, Dr. Johnson recommends that dogs only take potty walks for the first 10 to 14 days. Though physical rehab exercises can begin immediately after surgery under the guidance of a practitioner, underwater treadmill sessions usually begin 10-14 days after surgery to allow the skin to heal. Sessions are about 30 minutes in duration. Dr. Johnson feels that 8 to 12 weekly sessions are ideal but she can normally accomplish a lot of her goals with a dog in as little as four sessions.

How do you know if the therapy is working?

Dr. Johnson sets quantifiable metrics for her patients’ recovery so how she evaluates success depends on the goals she has for the dog and the goals her owner has for their dog. She measures degree of lameness, assessment of pain, range of motion, humorous growth and muscle density. She tracks each patient’s metrics so that she can adjust her sessions accordingly. In cases of sports conditioning or weight loss, her metrics are the same but also include weight loss, gait evaluation, heart rate, and overall movement.

What about canine aquatic centers?

Dr. Johnson recommended that only dogs that are 100% healthy be taken to non-veterinary canine aquatic centers. She recommends that owners and aquatic center personnel be especially careful of entry and exit into the pool since this is where most injuries occur.

I hope that this article inspires all of those owners out there who want to help their dog’s recovery along with physical therapy but honestly, I see so many bored, under-exercised and over weight dogs in my practice that I fervently hope that upon reading this article, owners with “healthy” dogs will consider a diet and exercise plan with a veterinary professional like Dr. Johnson. I came away from my experience with Dr. Johnson full of respect for her compassionate and scientific approach. Now, if I could just get my own personal trainer to consider that under water treadmill thing!

Have you taken your dog to rehabilitation therapy? What was your experience? If you’ve never heard of this type of therapy, do you have questions? We’ll happily pass them along to Dr. Johnson.


  1. Melody Music says

    I can’t say enough good about the Animal Surgical Clinic of Seattle. We have taken three different dogs there, each experience impressive . Their medical knowledge, skill and compassion is exceptional. They worked with on a home rehab program since coming in wasn’t feasible. As far as their use of positive reinforcement and knowledge of dog behavior, Tyrone has been there for 3 surgeries, several x-rays and follow up visits and had emotionally positive experiences each time. Thanks for the article Christine. There is so much more becoming available to help our dogs (and other non two legged family members).

  2. says

    We have extensive experience using physical therapy for Jasmine, it’s great stuff! Ours included bunch of different things, including hydrotherapy and chiropractic.

    We’re lucky as we never had a problem with Jasmine taking strange to any of the equipment. She loves going to the vets, loves the attention she gets and takes the rest in strides. Ok, I see what we’re doing, let’s get on with it, sort of attitude.

  3. says

    My dog Kelly is going for his 5th water treadmill session today. Kelly is 15 and has pretty bad disc degeneration according to his x-rays. Although this therapy seems to be helping him now, I must warn anyone considering this for their older dog, to make sure they don’t make them go too long on their first session. They had him go 10 minutes on his first visit and he couldn’t even stand for about 3 days! I’m told 3 minutes on the treadmill, then rest for several minutes in the tank (preferably while being massaged), then another 3 minutes tops. Once we reduced his time, he seems to be making progress.

  4. says

    I’ve also heard much more about physical therapy….Its really an effective way. I’ve also shared your content with so many guys they also appreciated it so much…

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