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InFocus

Helping to train canine athletes with hydrotherapy

JOHN BONNER talks to Barbara Houlding about her work with dogs in rehabilitation and hydrotherapy – and the expanding role in improving fitness in healthy dogs

THERE is one group of international class athletes that won’t be giving their full attention this month to preparations for next year’s Olympic Games in London. That is because they are the fourlegged competitors that are already primed for their ultimate sporting challenge, which takes place from 7th to 9th October at the World Agility Dog Championships in Lievin, Northern France. Britain has an impressive record in this particular branch of canine sporting endeavour, winning one gold and one silver medal at last year’s meeting in Germany. Team GB’s prospect for at least matching that haul have been strengthened by the appointment of two veterinary physiotherapists who will ensure that the dogs are in peak condition for the event.

Passionate advocate

They are Barbara Houlding and Maria Johnston from K9 Hydro Services near Ipswich, one of a growing number of centres providing canine rehabilitation and hydrotherapy. Barbara is a passionate advocate for using water-based exercise to improve fitness and function in healthy dogs, as well as for rehabilitation work in injured animals, the role in which these techniques are most familiar to veterinary staff. Barbara also insists, however, that inappropriate use of exercise pools will not only be ineffective but can potentially damage the dog’s health, both exacerbating existing problems
and creating new ones. She says there have been a number of incidents where dogs have suffered sickness or injury, including one notorious case of three hyper-fit agility dogs requiring emergency veterinary treatment after becoming ill during a group exercise session at a private centre in southern England. The details of that particular case are sketchy, but the information that Barbara received suggests that the operators had broken several of the
rules observed by more safety conscious organisations. Firstly, she says that it is questionable to allow more than one dog in the pool at the same time.
“If you are going to do that, then you should not be calling it hydrotherapy, because it isn’t, it is social swimming.” She also insists that there is a
qualified hydrotherapist in with the dog at all times. This is necessary to
keep the dog calm and prevent the accidental ingestion of chlorinated water, which may have been the likely reason why that trio of agility dogs were vomiting as they emerged from the pool. A chartered physiotherapist who qualified in 1982, Barbara worked exclusively on human patients until 12 years ago when she retrained as a veterinary physiotherapist. She gained an MSc in the subject from the Royal Veterinary College in 2002 and lectures both to veterinary students and trainee therapists. Most of her time is spent
administering land-based physiotherapy techniques but the demand for waterbased therapy and hence the number of providers has grown considerably over the past decade. “Lots of people are finding that it is such an effective way to rehab the dogs that they want to come on board. They may be doing only one aspect of veterinary physiotherapy – that is fine, but it has to be delivered safely and competently and that is the issue.” The term “veterinary physiotherapist” is not a legally protected title and so there is no requirement for those offering hydrotherapy services to have earned the qualifications that Barbara needed to become a member of the
Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy (ACPAT), or indeed for them to have taken other relevant training as veterinary surgeons or VNs. “Many had learned their skills through a form of apprenticeship
under a more senior colleague and that tends to restrict the knowledge base available to them. That is why we set up this centre two years ago, mainly to provide training for people who want to be small animal therapists. We care very much about education and want to use it to improve standards of clinical practice.”

Eight modules

Barbara and her colleagues set up a diploma course in veterinary hydrotherapy, which eight students completed last year and another 10 are
working on this year’s course. The course is in eight modules, each requiring
approximately 25 hours to complete. The students spend two days for each
monthly module working at the training centre in the village of Earl Soham for their practical training, while the theoretical aspects of the course are now delivered and completed online. Through better training, Barbara
hopes that she will be able to eliminate some of the techniques which were used in the early days but are now regarded as unacceptable by the responsible organisation – CHA, the Canine Hydrotherapy Association. She maintains that coercive methods such as swimming dogs while directing their movements with a rigid pole attached to their collar is still used: “It is an abhorrent practice,” she says.

No hoists

Except under exceptional circumstances, she would also like to see an end to the practice of hoisting
dogs into the pool, preferring to allow the dogs to enter at their own pace through a system of ramps. Also at her centre, Barbara will only use flotation devices under very specific circumstances to ensure that the patient uses appropriate combinations of muscles. She believes that these devices may force the dog into postures that may cause active harm to the
rehabilitation process. “Lumbosacral conditions are very common in dogs. Forcing a dog to arch its back is not going to help this sort of problem. “It is like forcing poor swimmers to do the breaststroke as they try to keep their heads above the water surface. Instead of helping the dog, it will be hobbling by the time it gets out of the pool.” Barbara’s course also highlights the importance of proper management of the pool environment in keeping dogs healthy. In contrast to horses, dogs are unlikely to vacate their bowels or bladder when in the water, but the hair and bacteria released from their coat does present a serious hygiene problem. “Putting five or six large dogs through the pool over the course of the day is like having nearly 200 people in the water,” she notes. The aim of good pool quality management is to have 1-3ppm of free chlorine in the water, anything much below that will not control bacterial growth and a much higher concentration will be uncomfortable for both the dog and the hydrotherapist who is always in there when the pool is in use. At her centre, Barbara insists on testing samples from the pool at regular intervals during the day and netting to remove any loose hair after each and every therapy session. Even those dogs that approach their first session in the water with a marked lack of enthusiasm should obtain clear benefits from the experience. “They are a bit like us – no one likes taking off their clothes and getting into a swimming pool on a cold winter morning, but the endorphin rush that you get at the end makes it all worthwhile.”

Lasting improvements

The other benefits of controlled exercise in improving proprioception (awareness of body position) and muscle tone can produce lasting improvements in the quality of life for dogs with a wide range of conditions, including common diseases of old age like osteoarthritis. Hydrotherapy is also a neglected weapon in the fight against the growing problem of obesity in dogs and its manifold adverse effects, she points out. But working on dogs with no obvious physical defects is the main focus of Barbara’s efforts this month. The animals in the national agility team are just as much elite athletes as their human counterparts in next year’s Olympics. “We will be using hydrotherapy along with other land-based techniques to improve and maintain their performance. Exercising in water is great for enhancing balance, proprioception and cardiovascular fitness. With almost any sport, the difference between winning and losing can be measured in hundredths of a second and so we hope that what we can contribute will help make a difference.”

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