An essential (and often overlooked) component of canine rehabilitation and conditioning

By Mandi Blackwelder DVM CCRP

What is physiotherapy?

Physiotherapy is a term that encompasses any exercises we do with your pet that does not involve something mechanical. Stretching, ball work, strengthening and balancing exercises all fit into this category. While physiotherapy isn’t as flashy looking as the laser, ultrasound or underwater treadmill, it is the backbone of physical therapy and essential to proper conditioning and injury recovery.

The key to physiotherapy is to exercise not only muscles but increase proprioception too.

We all understand the importance of regaining muscle after surgery, or an athlete’s need for superior muscling. But ultimately, what sets a good recovery apart from a moderate one, or a champion agility or disc dog from another, is how far we can stretch their prioprioception.

What is proprioception?

Prioprioception is detected by the thousands of nerve endings we have in each limb or foot. Those nerve endings are communicating to the brain where that limb or foot is in space.

The extreme in lost proprioception is in neurological injury like a slipped disk of the back. If you flip that dog’s foot onto it’s top, the dog won’t flip it back because he doesn’t know it’s in the wrong place – this is a surgical disease.   However, most changes in proprioceptive loss is more subtle – a dog whose knee joint is swollen from injury has stretched the nerve endings around the knee. When he walks he has less ability to move because there is less perception of where the knee is in relation to the rest of the limb. The old arthritic dog trying to cross the kitchen floor is so tense because she knows she has a decreased ability to catch herself if she falls due to decreased proprioception. An agility dog that is knocking bars, may have a subtle injury that has changed that tiny calculator between the foot and the brain of how high the bar is.

How does physiotherapy help?

Exercises for physiotherapy re-establish those nerve pathways to the brain so that awareness of where a limb is in space is restored. Standing on a Bocu ball, a peanut ball or a donut forces the limbs to make microscopic adjustments over and over again as the pet tries to balance. That input is making those nerves sit up and pay attention over and over again with each exercise. Just like any other thing we learn, the more we do it, the more our nerves can remember.   Stretching, too, opens up surface area of the muscle, allowing more nerve endings to the surface and increasing the capacity to “feel” proprioceptive input.

How about athletes?

Watch an agility dog or a fly ball dog navigate a turn. You will see how much information their body processes at one time – landing, turning, slippery grass, watching the handler – each of these requires proprioception to the extreme. So imagine now, if you increase that dog’s proprioceptive awareness by 10%. The result is a faster turn, a safer landing, and much less chance of injury.

What is core strength?

These days we all hear about “core.” As humans we tend to think of it as “abs.” More realistically “core” is just that – it is the core workings of the body — the part that makes all the other parts work together.   If your dog has an injured limb and no core strength, he’s stressing his back to make adjustments for limping as he heals. If your pet has a back injury, without core, she is sagging in the middle and likely to injure again. If your fly ball dog (or your frisbee maniac) has poor core strength but is fast, when he starts to slip on a fast turn, he either will fall, or is more prone to injury.

Can I do this at home?

Absolutely! And we want you to! Teaching proper techniques is our job.   Then YES, we want you doing it at home. For physiotherapy, our role is to help figure out what exercises are appropriate for your dog’s particular sport or injury, to help you figure out how to motivate him to do what we want, how to hone exercises that you and your pet have mastered, or to alter the ones your pet is refusing.

In short, physiotherapy is an essential part of canine conditioning and injury recovery that should not be lost in the fancy machines that canine rehabilitation professionals offer. It is the “backbone,” that protects the backbone (and limbs!)