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Aqua Therapy - A Healthy Way to Keep Your Pooch Fit

By Kathy Edstrom

In March 2003, my German shepherd, Banjo, was diagnosed with a debilitating disease known as Degenerative myelopathy. Sadly, there is no cure for this disease and there is no true treatment to stop it from progressing.

I researched many holistic modalities and utilized the ones I felt would benefit Banjo the most. I learned about aqua therapy in January 2005 from a friend who was using this form of fitness for one of her dogs. I decided to sign up Banjo for eight sessions.

By January,my husband and I knew we were only buying time with our beloved boy. Being that Banjo adored water we decided to take him for aqua therapy even if it were purely for emotional enjoyment. For Banjo, there was nothing more delightful than going for a dip on a summer's day. We knew Banjo would not make it to summer, so we decided to bring summer time activities to him.

Out of the eight sessions that we pre-purchased for Banjo, he was able to enjoy six of them beforethe Degenerative myelopathy took his life. Banjo crossed over to the Rainbow Bridge on April 4, 2005.

We saw a wonderful change in Banjo's emotional state after every session. He had more energy and that twinkle in his eyes just sparkled. I witnessed the benefits from this therapy with my animal companion. I believe after you read my interview with Karen Stapleton of Canine Campus Pet Resort, Fido Fitness/Aqua Paws Program, you just might consider this form of therapy for your canine friend.

Paws-A-Tive Choice (PC): How long have you provided aqua therapy?

Karen Stapleton (KS): The boarding facility has been open for four years. We have been offering Aqua Paws for 1 1/2 years.

PC: What type of training did you go through to be qualified to work with canines in an “aquatic care” capacity?

KS: The company that makes the Aqua Paws unit provides basic training in the use of the equipment. The owners and staffhave many years of experience with dogs: training, showing, competing and boarding. We basically are providing water exercise/conditioning.We are not a physical therapy service and thus are not trained as vets or physical therapists.

PC: What made you decide to offer aqua therapy for dogs?

KS: The owners of Canine Campus decided to offer the Fido Fitness/Aqua Paws water exercise, as they felt the service would be desirable to a large cross-section of dog owners. Water exercise is a wonderful way for dogs to "workout". It is easy on joints and yet provides excellent cardiovascular and muscle exercise.

While swimming is excellent exercise, many people do not have access to swimming. Weather prevents swimming much of the year. Many dogs are fearful of swimming and many have negative reactions to lakeor pond water. The Aqua Paws unit enables dogs to exercise in a safe, clean environment year around. Dogs do not have to be able to swim. They don't even have to enjoy water.

PC: What are the benefits of this therapy?

KS: From a physical standpoint, dogs will benefit in a wide variety of ways: weight loss, building muscle mass, improving muscle tone, improving strength and improving general fitness. We often see dogs that have lost much muscle mass, especially in rear legs. The water exercise is a super way to rebuild muscle. We have seen dogs gain inches in their thighs in a short period of time due to the water work. Dogs build up pretty quickly and old and young alike will see improvements. It will often increase energy for a dog that has become a couch potato. As the dog works he/she feels better and feels more like playing, walking, exercising. Dogs who are not using a limb will often begin using it again in the water exercise and this can lead to use in it's everyday life.

We have seen so many dogs who couldn't/wouldn't walk, play, use all four legs, do stairs, jump in/out of a vehicle, etc. and water exercise has helped them get back those activities.

From an emotional standpoint I think owners are the best judges of that. I do have people report their dog being 'happier" having more energy and more interest in activities. From my observation I have seen many dogs simply "enjoy" doing the water work. A wagging tail, a happy bark (like my friend, Banjo), banging on the door to get into the treadmill tells me they are having a good time.

There is also the old saying, "a tired dog is a good dog". For people with young, high-energy dogs, this type of exercise can be a great help. So tired, happy and fit would be a really good thing, I guess!

PC: What are the most common cases you work with?

KS: Dogs recovering from hip, knee, anterior cruciate ligament and elbow surgeries; conditioning for show or working dogs; older dogs; dogs with hip dysplasia or arthritis; weight loss, general exercise for high-energy dogs.

 PC: What type of responses are you getting from animal caretakers and veterinarians regarding your services?

KS: Very positive. This type of service is hard to find so it is pretty new to many dog owners. For people who have had dogs do Aqua Paws the response has been great. The dogs make gains that improve or enhance the quality of their lives and that is what owners are looking for. For show or working dogs having a dog look and function at its best makes their sport more enjoyable.

We are gradually becoming known to vets in the area. We have had many referrals from vets and the outcomes have been very positive. We have criteria in our intake process, which helps ensure that a dog's vet is involved in approving the water exercise in certain circumstances.

PC: How do you keep the system (tank, etc.) sanitary?

KS: The tank is cleaned regularly and is very lightly chlorinated.

PC: When should a dog not utilize aqua therapy?

KS: Any time a vet would recommend against it due to age, illness, etc. If a dog has severe heart or respiratory problems they likely would not be appropriate. Any dogs with open wounds and incontinent dogs are not accepted.

PC: What is the average amount of time/number of sessions a dog has to go through in order to see physical improvement?

KS: That is really dependent on the dog's individual situation and the goals of the owner. Some dogs will work for 8 or 12 sessions and will have accomplished the owner's goals. Other dogsthat areworking as a maintenance program may work on an ongoing basis. What I can say is that most owners see some level of improvement in just a couple of sessions. Regular sessions are most productive. Most work 1 or 2 times/week to start.

PC: What would you like people to know about this form of therapy?

KS: The treadmill is housed in a clear chamber with a tank of water next to it. The dog enters the treadmill chamber through a door. After the door is closed the water is then pumped in to the chamber to the desired height. The treadmill is then started and the dog begins to walk. The dog can see out of the chamber at all times. The water level is fully adjustable. The speed is also adjustable and can go from .2 mph to over 5 mph. The dog does not swim. He/she has their feet on the treadmill at all times. The water is comfortable at 80-85 degrees. Working in water in this manner affords buoyancy, which reduces the weight on joints and muscles while providing resistance to build strength and stamina. This same technology is used in human rehabilitation and in work with horses.

PC: How affordable is this therapy for dog owners?

KS: That's difficult to answer as everyone might have their own definition. The value of avoiding the expense of surgery, having a dog who can physically function and seeing a dog with better quality of lifewill be decided by an individual owner.

The initial visit is $30 and subsequent visits range from $21 to $25. We do offer different packages (numbers of sessions), which provide a discount over individual sessions. We also offer a separate rate for boarding dogs.

PC: What are your requirements for accepting dogs for aqua therapy?

KS: The owner completes an application, which includes a medical history. The medical history includes things that would indicate the need to have a vet approval before working. For example, any dog that has had surgery other than a spay/neuter would need vet approval. The dog must be current on rabies vaccination. The dog cannot have open wounds or be incontinent.

PC: What if a dog doesn’t like water?

KS: This is a very common question. Many dogs do not like to swim or may not like baths. Neither of these seem to contraindicate doing water exercise. First of all the dog is never asked to swim. Their feet are always on the treadmill. The water itself seems to have a bit of a calming effect and the dog must also concentrate on walking because the treadmill is moving. We have worked with many "non water lovers" and they do just fine. We provide a friendly and hopefully fun environment for the dogs. Treats and toys are a part of the workout. I'm sure some come just for the treats.

PC: I can attest to this. Our German shepherd, Virgo has never been a swimmer. I didn't think he'd be able to do aqua therapy, but seeing as we had two sessions left on Banjo's package, I thought I'd take Virgo. I was amazed that Virgo was not stressed and actually appeared to be enjoying his time in the water and on the treadmill.

PC: How much time does the dog spend in the tank and how much of that time is the dog actually walking on the treadmill?

KS: Filling and emptying the tank takes just a few minutes. Dogs will work anywhere from a couple of minutes up to 20 minutes. Our standard sessions are up to 20 minutes. Additional minutes can be purchased. We start dogs out with up to 10 minutes during their initial visit. Most dogs start out at a few minutes and work their way up. It is important not to overdue the exercise and make the dog sore like a "weekend warrior". If a dog needs to rest during the session we will do that as needed. The dogs are towel dried after the session.

PC: How do you manage small dogs versus large dogs? Large dogs you can actually handle in the tank. How do you manage small breeds?

KS: We are able to go into the exercise chamber with most dogs if it is necessary. Most large dogs do better going in alone. We have a variety of harnesses or leashes we can use to help guide the dog. With very small dogs or dogs who may have trouble working without assistance we will go in with them as long as needed. Most small dogs can quickly get working alone once they get the hang of it. In some cases it is a matter of building up some strength and confidence.We have worked dogs as small as a Miniature Dachshund and as large as a Great Dane.

PC: Do you consider aqua therapy a form of physical therapy? And if so, are you required to be supervised by veterinarians?

KS: Not in our setting. We provide water exercise/conditioning only. We do not provide physical therapy services. There are clinics around the country that use underwater treadmills as part of a physical therapy program. Those are run by or supervised by veterinarians.

PC: What is the most dramatic case you’ve worked with to date?

KS: I could go on for hours on the great results we have seen with so many dogs. We have had numerous dogs who have had very atrophied back legs following an injury or surgery, some of whom were not using the leg at all or very little. One dog that comes to mind is a veteran obedience, tracking and agility dog. He suffered a badly broken hip in a fall. It looked like his career as a couch potato was looming just ahead. Following surgery he started working in Aqua Paws. His injured leg was about an inch smaller than the other side when he started working. (We often see more dramatic differences between legs, but this dog was pretty fit just before the surgery). He was using the injured leg, but just barely. He did about 20 sessions in Aqua Paws and gained 4" on the surgery leg and 3" on the "good" leg. He was able to return to obedience work in open class and work in agility. He recently earned two additional obedience titles.

A less dramatic, but still very important case for dog and owner was a 7-year-old Standard Poodle who was overweight and was beginning to have hip problems. He was in pain and had quit participating in family activities. He would refuse to go on a walk and no longer played with the other family dog. His vet recommended a diet (lose 10 pounds)and do water exercise. His owner did a great job with the diet and he did about 8 sessions in Aqua Paws. Before he finished he was walking a couple of miles a day, playing with the other dog and was back to his frisky self. The owners were pleased to say the least.

We have many senior dogs that work just to maintain strength and flexibilityenough to get around. That is no small matter with many senior dogs. Being able to get up and walk is a huge quality of life issue with seniors.

PC: Please share any other information that will help dog owners make an educated decision as to if this form of care would be right for their animal companion.

KS: I would suggest a couple of things: One, visit our website: and look at the Aqua Paws section. That will give people a picture to see what it looks like which makes the whole concept easier to understand. It also will explain the application process and pricing.Two, review the medical history questionnaire on the web site to determine if they need to get vet clearance before working.Three, even if vet consent is not required they may want to discuss water exercise with their dog's health care providers. Four, call and talk to us. We can be reached at 262-965-5971. We are always willing to have visitors watch dogs work. We also will be happy to give you references from other owners who have worked their dogs in Aqua Paws and lastly, decide if you can commit to doing sessions regularly for a period of time. Regular sessions are the best way for your dog to make gains. We can talk with people to help them decide on frequency of visits.

About Karen Stapleton:

I have past careers in social services and as a small business owner. Dogs have been my hobby for most of my adult life. I have participated in showing dogs in conformation and working dogs in obedience, agility and tracking. I have taught puppy socialization classes for 10 years. I also foster for Golden Retriever Rescue of Wisconsin (GRRoW). I specialize in "special needs" dogs (health or behavior) in my fostering.

When I sold my business I started working part time at Canine Campus working in the boarding facility. When the owners decided to bring in the Aqua Paws unit I was selected to run the program. I currently have three golden retrievers and a foster dog.

For more information on the Aqua Paws program, contact:

Canine Campus Pet Resort

38322 Delafield Road

Oconomowoc, WI 53066


Published May 2005