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Physical rehabilitation: How I transitioned from human to canine patients


A physical therapist shares her story.

When people learn that I am a physical therapist who works exclusively with canine patients, they often ask how I got started in canine rehabilitation. I have been a passionate dog lover since childhood, but my original career plan was to be a teacher.

(Resync/Getty Images)

One week before graduating from the University of South Florida with a bachelor's degree in elementary education, I had a traumatic bicycle accident and shattered my tibial plateau. After undergoing two major surgeries, I was told by my surgeon that I would have to go through physical therapy if I wanted to avoid having a limp for the rest of my life. I did not know much about physical therapy, but I was determined to return to my active lifestyle, so I started rehabilitation right away. For nearly a year, I pushed myself as hard as I could, despite the excruciating pain. My physical therapists encouraged and challenged me. They not only got me through the most difficult physical challenge I had ever faced, but they inspired me to return to college for a degree in physical therapy.

I graduated from Nova Southeastern University with a master's degree in physical therapy in 1998. After graduation, I pursued additional training in manual therapy at the University of Saint Augustine for the Health Sciences. I spent the next nine years working in outpatient clinics, specializing in the areas of orthopedics and sports rehabilitation.

I found working as a physical therapist extremely rewarding. I was routinely challenged by the complexities of the cases I saw and enjoyed the mental challenge involved in making clinical decisions. I felt privileged to be able to use my hands, my head and my heart to help make lives better on a daily basis.

Transitioning from humans to canines

While in college, I adopted a mixed-breed dog named Jesse, and she was my constant companion for 12 years. When she started to show the effects of age, Jesse became my first canine patient. Caring for musculoskeletal problems was second nature to me, and I saw no reason why I couldn't use my knowledge and clinical reasoning skills to help my beloved pet.

Jesse's veterinarian could not believe how well she was doing. Her x-rays showed she should not be able to walk, but she was going up and down the stairs in our three-story townhouse. He speculated that the physical therapy I was providing was a big factor in her remarkable progress. This started me thinking that perhaps Jesse was not the only dog that would benefit from these types of interventions.

Jesse eventually passed away from heart failure, and my husband and I adopted Kaya, a mischievous and precocious puppy. Our obedience instructor suggested agility classes to provide an outlet for her energy and mental acuity, and we became avid agility competitors.

Around the same time, I began researching education and training in canine rehabilitation and made the decision to enroll at the Canine Rehabilitation Institute, Wellington, Fla. I loved the Introduction to Canine Rehabilitation course but was unsure what to do with my newfound knowledge. At an agility competition, I learned that there was a veterinarian in my area who had been doing canine rehabilitation for a couple of years. I met with her to talk about how I could contribute to her practice. The interview went very well, and her parting words were, "When can you start?"

I began working one day a week for Dr. Joyce Loeser at the Animal Recreation and Rehabilitation Center, Davie, Fla., while still continuing my work with human patients. It was a great way for me to decide whether making the switch to veterinary rehabilitation was right for me. I realized that my physical therapy knowledge and manual skills could be easily transferred to canine rehabilitation.

Dr. Loeser was pleasantly surprised at how my knowledge as a physical therapist added to the rehabilitation department and how fast I was able to help the dogs improve. I took great pride in formulating specific treatment plans to address each dog's individual problems. After three months, Dr. Loeser hired me to work full-time to manage the rehabilitation department.

In 2008, while working with Dr. Loeser, I became a certified canine rehabilitation therapist through the Canine Rehabilitation Institute. This certification helped immensely in making the transition from humans to canines. I also gained experience, confidence and understanding of canine rehabilitation during the four years I worked with Dr. Loeser. The practice specialized in neurologic rehabilitation, but I treated dogs with a variety of diagnoses including arthritis, sports injuries, cruciate ruptures, disk disease and fractures.

My experiences with human and canine patients have taught me that there are definite differences. Canine rehabilitation is more similar to pediatric rehabilitation. Dogs usually come with a very worried "parent." They have short attention spans and can bite, scratch or cry at any moment, so they must be treated with care. Dogs cannot verbalize where the pain is or what they like or dislike. I read their body language and watch for signs of what they are trying to communicate. I also make rehabilitation fun and creative to motivate the patient to participate.

In addition, dogs are free from the emotional constraints that people have. They do not worry about their appearance after having a limb amputated or being paralyzed. They only seem to care about being loved. They do not pity themselves and rarely give up. I will always remember a dog named Tiga that was completely paralyzed from coonhound paralysis. She taught me the most valuable lesson when it comes to rehabilitating dogs—never give up on them, especially if the owner is unwilling to give up, too. I was not sure that she would ever walk again, but after three months of hard work, she started to run.

The value of a veterinarian-physical therapist team

Working side-by-side with a veterinarian made me realize how important a team approach is to veterinary rehabilitation. I learned that there are differences in the clinical decision-making process used by a veterinarian and a physical therapist. A veterinarian is trained to approach treatment from a medical and surgical perspective. A physical therapist uses inductive and deductive reasoning to evaluate many factors that could be causing motor impairment. Working together and learning from each other, veterinarians and physical therapists can greatly improve outcomes for ailing and recuperating dogs.

Three years ago, I was asked to join the faculty of the Canine Rehabilitation Institute. It has been so rewarding to be able to combine my training in teaching, my physical therapy skills and my love of dogs. In addition to my teaching responsibilities, I also serve as a mentor for Canine Rehabilitation Institute interns and as clinical coordinator for students pursuing canine rehabilitation assistant certification. I am inspired every day by the growing number of students who come from all over the world to learn about canine rehabilitation.

I am currently managing the rehabilitation department at Coral Springs Animal Hospital, a large specialty practice with highly trained surgeons and primary care veterinarians. It is a state-of-the-art facility with great support staff and an abundance of space for rehabilitation. The hospital strongly supports the team model and has a veterinarian and two veterinary technicians on staff certified in canine rehabilitation through the Canine Rehabilitation Institute.

I think we are just learning what can be possible in the field of canine rehabilitation. I know numerous clients who were told nothing further could be done for their dogs and to either euthanize them or expect them to never walk again. After therapy, most of these dogs not only were able to walk but even run! I look forward to the day when rehabilitation is commonplace in the canine world and hope that all veterinarians will educate their clients about canine rehabilitation, just as they do about preventive medicine and curative treatments.

Shari Sprague is rehabilitation manager at Coral Springs Animal Hospital, Coral Springs, Fla., and a faculty member at Canine Rehabilitation Institute, Wellington, Fla.

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