Physical therapy helps people of all ages, but did you know dogs can benefit from it too? After all, our canine companions suffer the same effects of aging, injury, and chronic pain that we do. Physical therapy for dogs offers tremendous benefits, as one of my own pets can attest.
Physical Therapy for Dogs: My Pet’s Experience
I have two labrador retrievers. Recently the older one underwent two knee surgeries to repair both of her CCLs—the canine equivalent of an ACL. Happily, both surgeries went well, and she has recovered beautifully.
As a PT, when my dog finished surgery I knew physical therapy would be crucial to her recovery. Earlier in my training, I had worked with a canine PT and had seen firsthand how dog physical therapy can improve both the recovery time and the quality of life for post-op pooches.
My dog soared through her physical therapy sessions, and when she was discharged, we endeavored to continue her rehabilitation at home. Today she can walk, go upstairs, and get up from the floor without a problem.
But dog physical therapy isn’t only for recovering from surgery, as in the case of my dog. Just like PT for humans, dog physical therapy can also help improve mobility and reduce pain in our furry friends as they age.
How does dog physical therapy work?
When you bring your dog in for physical therapy, the PT will conduct an initial evaluation to assess her condition and abilities: functional movement, gait, sit-to-stand transfers, range of motion, balance, joint mobility, and so on.
Based on these measures and your dog’s medical history, the therapist will identify some realistic goals for your dog’s rehabilitation and design a plan of care to help her reach them.
Your dog’s plan of care will include a variety of treatments, exercises, and modalities to help her recover. For instance, the PT may employ manual therapy and massage techniques to mobilize muscle tissue and improve her range of motion.
Exercise therapies may include walking on an underwater treadmill—a low-impact activity that provides progressive resistance while also offloading weak or arthritic joints. Finally, your dog’s plan of care will likely include an array of pain-relief modalities, from cold and heat therapy to dry needling and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS).
Once your dog has reached her goals or completed the PT’s plan of care, she will be discharged from PT. At that point, her continued recovery will be in your hands.
But before you head home, the PT should give you an exercise program to lead your dog through at home, so that she can continue to make progress outside of the clinic. If needed, the PT may also recommend assistive devices, such as carts and slings, that will help smooth the transition back to full health.
5 Pieces of Dog PT Home Equipment
The point of dog physical therapy is to alleviate pain, improve balance and mobility, and strengthen muscles your dog needs to recover from injury and age well. You can continue each of these objectives at home with a few pieces of dog physical therapy home equipment.
Below are five items we used at home to help rehabilitate our dog and replicate the care she received at the clinic. Most of this equipment cost less than a single session of dog physical therapy!
Whether your dog is recovering from surgery or simply having a harder time jumping up and down, a ramp will make it much easier for her to get in and out of the car. For my dog, I also installed a longer ramp in our backyard so that she could bypass our steep deck stairs.
Description: This 5’ long plastic ramp features rubber feet and a replaceable traction tread. It folds in half so you can easily stow it in your car and bring it with you. Weighing just 10 pounds, it can support dogs as heavy as 150 pounds.
Cost: Lists at $105, but sometimes it’s on sale for half that much.
PT Purpose: For eliminating the need to jump up or down for car trips. It will also help prevent further injury, both to your dog and potentially to you, from carrying her repeatedly.
Use: First, measure the height of your trunk or backseat, wherever your dog sits, and ensure the ramp you buy won’t make the angle too steep for your dog. Next, once the ramp arrives, help her get used to it by having her walk on it while it’s on level ground.
Once she leads on and off the ramp without a problem, increase the angle by placing it onto a curb. Be patient; many dogs are leery of heights, even small ones. As she gets comfortable walking across the angled ramp, continue to raise the angle until it’s high enough to reach the car. As always, use lots of treats and praise to encourage her throughout the training process.
Another accommodation to consider is an ambulatory aid, such as a sling for her back legs. Depending on your dog’s surgery or condition, she may struggle to get upstairs or up from the floor without pain. With a comfy sling, you can give her a boost and support her while she walks, reducing arthritic pain and improving her mobility.
Description: A 3’ long fabric sling with handles and a sherpa lining. This particular sling comes with a carrying bag.
PT Purpose: For helping your dog ambulate around the house, upstairs, or on walks by offloading your dog’s back legs and hips. The long handles make it easier for you to support her without bending or stooping over.
Use: When she is ready to move or walk, slide the sling under your dog’s tummy toward her back legs and gently lift her or support her weight as she walks.
Using lasers for pain relief may sound too futuristic to be true, but it’s a common treatment for pets in rehab.
Infrared light is a low-level laser thought to reduce inflammation and relieve pain. Research even suggests infrared therapy may help wounds heal faster. Moreover, infrared technology is quiet, non-invasive, and safe enough to perform at home—a great option for continuing your dog’s therapy after she’s discharged.
Description: A small, handheld wand with two sets of infrared lasers:12 lasers at 650nm diodes and 2 lasers at 808nm diodes. This model includes a helpful display and comes with its own rechargeable lithium battery and a pair of safety goggles.
PT Purpose: For replicating PT pain-relief modalities at home. Helps relax muscles, reduce inflammation, and increase blood flow.
Use: Have your dog lie down or relax while you hover the red light over the areas where she has pain, stiffness, or soreness. This kind of therapy is gentle enough for surgical sites, but check in with your dog to make sure she is comfortable. Never shine the red light in her eyes or your own; you can wear the included goggles as an additional precaution.
Bed rest has a way of weakening one’s proprioception: that sense of spatial awareness you need to keep your balance when pivoting and turning. That’s because resting for a long period of time causes muscles, even the small ones that control proprioception, to atrophy.
If your dog is weak or unsteady on her feet (er, paws), a few simple walking exercises will help her regain balance and endurance.
Description: A set of 20 short cones made of durable, flexible plastic. This set comes with a mesh tote for portability.
Cost: $12 for 20 cones
PT Purpose: For leading and weaving exercises, which will challenge your dog’s balance and help improve coordination, strength, and stamina.
Use: Set cones about 15–20 feet away to start. Using a leash, walk your dog through and around the cones in a figure eight pattern. Start with 5–8 reps in either direction, checking in with your dog for any signs of pain. Always allow her to rest once she begins to fatigue. To increase the difficulty, you can bring the cones closer together, add more reps, or increase the speed of your walking pace.
You can also use the cones for weaving exercises, which are more difficult for your dog than figure eights. Maybe you’ve seen densely clustered weave poles at a dog agility course, through which athletic dogs zig-zag at high speed. The concept is similar with cones—just less intense. Simply lead your dog through and around each cone at a speed and distance that suits her level of fitness. Start with five cones set 4-5 feet apart (for a big dog) or 3 feet apart (for a small dog), and add more or scoot them closer together as she gets stronger.
Description: An inflatable disc made of durable PVC capable of supporting up to 250 pounds of weight. This particular model measures 14 inches in diameter, but they come in a range of sizes.
PT Purpose: For challenging balance, strengthening muscles, and improving dynamic stability and coordination.
Use: To start, inflate the disc so that it’s firm. The firmer it is, the less it will wobble when your dog stands on it. As she improves and grows stronger, you can deflate the disc slightly and challenge her dynamic stability.
Place the disc between you and your dog and have her sit. Next, use a treat to lure her halfway onto the disc. With her front legs on an unstable surface, she’ll have to engage her core and use her back legs to stabilize. Repeat this step-up movement 3 times, for 5-10 seconds each, then let her rest. Increase reps or holds once it’s become easy for her.
As she gains strength, you can challenge her with a pivot motion. With her front paws on the disc, use a treat to lure her to the right or left so that she inches around the disc. This requires substantial core strength and coordination, especially when the disc is less inflated and more wobbly.
For advanced exercises, consider getting a second disc so that she can stand with one disc under each set of paws. This would be the equivalent of a human standing on a balance disk with both feet. Or, if she fits, have her sit squarely on top of the disc.
Dog Physical Therapy at Home: Some Resources
With the right kind of equipment and direction, you can replicate your dog’s experience of physical therapy at home in a way that’s safe, comfortable, and even fun. Just make sure you follow the instructions and home exercise program you received from your dog’s PT.
In addition, if your dog had a certain type of surgery, you might be able to use one of these rehab guides to help continue her progress and add some variety to her routine. When she’s ready for more of a challenge, check out the strengthening exercises in this guide.