Michael Phelps may be able to swim 100 meters in 48 seconds. But for Bella the dog, finishing 0.7 miles on the underwater treadmill in 20 minutes – at a rate of one mile per hour – set a personal record, scoring something worth more to her than an Olympic gold medal.
Up until Sunday, the 5-year-old St. Bernard-Rottweiler mix participated on theOregon Humane Society’s Canine Swim Team. The lucky dogs selected for the program receive free weekly hydrotherapy sessions donated by two area businesses.
The enrichment program was developed by shelter staff to help older or stressed dogs, or those struggling with weight issues, hip dysplasia or arthritis.
“To the best of our knowledge we are the only shelter that offers this kind of enrichment,” says Karl J. Willard, an animal care technician at OHS and the shelter’s canine hydrotherapy coordinator.
The purpose is to get the dogs in better shape and out of the kennels, making them healthier, happier and ultimately more adoptable.
“If a dog gets in better shape physically, it’s obviously going to have a better chance at getting adopted,” says Julie Thomas, owner of Doggie Paddle LLC. “We’re all trying in our own way to really support these animals getting homes.”
Thomas has been donating swim sessions valued at about $150 to $200 each week for nearly two years now at her therapy pool on Southwest Macadam Avenue in Portland. She volunteers her time with dogs in the enrichment program as well as with dogs in the shelter’s Westside adoption center at LexiDog Boutique & Social Club.
Dogs that swim in Doggie Paddle’s therapy pool typically suffer from obesity or mobility issues; some have had limbs amputated or are recovering from surgery. Swimming in the pool gives them a low-impact workout that’s equivalent to a vigorous walk.
“It’s really keeping the joints moving and the blood flowing,” she says,
In Bella’s case, the 104-pound dog had been suffering from hip dysplasia, which causes her left rear leg to shake, and arthritis in her knees. She was also stressed and fearful from her confinement in a kennel on the shelter’s adoption floor – so much so that she was placed in foster care. She’d been seeking a home since March.
Because of Bella’s size, Willard arranged for her to seek treatment at Cascade Park Animal Hospital Animal Rehabilitation and Fitness in Vancouver. The clinic, which has been donating $40 sessions for OHS dogs since May, maintains an underwater treadmill and therapy pool. Another OHS dog named Marvin goes there on Wednesdays to lose weight.
Upon arriving at the Vancouver rehabilitation center for her sixth session, Bella let herself be guided into the underwater treadmill tank without so much as a bark. She waited patiently as Certified Veterinary Technician Kristin Finstad pushed the “fill” button and water heated to about 80 degrees rose slowly over her legs.
When the water reached Bella’s shoulders and the treadmill started moving, she gracefully lifted her paws in an instinctive motion and pranced in sync with the treadmill, lips pulled back in a wide doggie grin. She fixed her warm brown eyes on OHS volunteer Quimby Lombardozzi, who doled out treats.
“The buoyancy of the water is supporting her weight,” Finstad explains of the underwater treadmill, which was originally developed to help horses. “Therefore, it’s taking the weight off the joints so that she can walk properly and strengthen the proper muscles that may have atrophied due to compensating.”
Walking on the treadmill doesn’t allow Bella to limp, forcing her to use all four limbs equally. The goal is to build back the muscle that supports her joints, hopefully avoiding an expensive surgery.
After Bella’s first 16.5-minute session, Finstad gave her a short break and then brought her on for another four minutes.
She began Bella’s therapy sessions with three sets of two-minute sessions, and has gradually increased her time and speed.
“I already feel she seems more confident in her back end,” Finstad says. “Her weight bearing is better, and I can tell she gained muscle mass in her leg. And I think she enjoys coming. She enjoys the outing.”
After the session, Bella gained her footing in a wide stance on the treadmill platform and then bounded over to Lombardozzi, darting back and forth and rolling around happily.
“Bella is particularly frisky after her sessions,” says Lombardozzi, who transports her to and from the weekly workouts.
The behavioral improvement, likely triggered from increased endorphins and the welcome break from the kennel doldrums, can be a key factor in appealing to potential adopters.
After two or three hydrotherapy sessions, Willard says the swim team dogs tend to be more alert in their kennels and more active when they’re let out of them.
“I do wholeheartedly believe that they show a lot better once they’ve been on the swim team,” he says. “When clients come in, they’re a little happier, more responsive. They may not be as stiff.”
They also lose weight. Bella’s foster mom, Amy Dielschneider, notes that Bella has lost about five pounds from her sessions.
The shelter doesn’t yet have data compiled on the adoption rate for the 16 swim team dogs that have participated so far. But anecdotally, Willard is confident the program is helping them find homes.
As for Bella? She was adopted this past Sunday, just two days after her last session.
Benefits of hydrotherapy
Water therapy can benefit dogs regardless of age or size. The water provides a low-impact workout that can be helpful for older or overweight dogs, those recovering from injury or surgery, or those suffering from arthritis or joint issues.
If your dog regularly licks his wrists, toes, or other joints, or you notice discoloration of the fur over his joints as a result of saliva stains, he may have arthritis in those joints.