Canine Rehabilitation: Putting the “Fun” in “Functional”

Kalina, the senior tripod border collie mix dog is in one picture to the right doing therapeutic exercises with front limbs on a Klimb. The picture to the left is of this dog, Kalina, outside with her front paws on a rock. Words= Canine Rehabilitation: Putting the “Fun” in “Functional” and Find out what a "functional diagnosis" is and how it helps dogs like Kalina have more good times!

If you’ve spent any time around medical doctors, chances are you’re familiar with what a medical diagnosis is. Getting the right one is oftentimes the first step in establishing a treatment plan to recover from an injury or illness. But when it comes to canine rehabilitation, the medical diagnosis is only one ingredient that goes into determining the appropriate treatment. In the grand scheme of things, the functional limitations are what matter most to the pet and pet parent. No matter the medical diagnosis, you want your canine companion to be able to engage in the physical activities they love to do. That’s where canine physical rehab therapists step in with a functional diagnosis!

Canine rehab therapists focus on analyzing function and movement, identifying impairments such as weakness, range of motion deficits, and joint stiffness which may be contributing to the functional limitations at hand. Of course, the medical diagnosis is important to keep in mind as rehab therapists may more easily and quickly identify “red flags” as they come up. This would indicate the need for a referral back to the primary care  veterinarian and possibly further testing to ensure the health of the dog is managed from a medical perspective.

As canine rehab therapists, we make it a point to keep the focus on the patient right in front of us. Doing so allows us to provide individualized care, which is what each individual dog needs! We develop a “functional diagnosis” and design a tailored program instead of just following a cookie-cutter protocol that may not be most appropriate for each and every dog with that same medical diagnosis. Simply putting a dog in an underwater treadmill or doing laser therapy without a specific plan of care is not canine rehabilitation and could possibly be doing more harm than good (especially if they are not certified in canine rehabilitation).

Let’s say two dogs have the same medical diagnosis involving a knee injury but have strongly contrasting activity levels they need to get back to. The plan of care for each of them should reflect these differences. For instance, if the first dog mainly stays at home in a house with no stairs, while the second dog lives on a farm outdoors where days are spent roaming around grassy, hilly areas, the farm pooch is going to require a lot more training on inclines and uneven surfaces. The plan of care will include a set of measurable goals unique to each dog that takes into account the dog’s functional limitations as well as what motivates them as an individual. If we also say that one of the dogs has diabetes, which is a condition known to slow healing time, that would also factor into the selection of exercises and how fast they can be progressed and possibly what reinforcing treats, if any, we use in a session.

Each and every canine is different. Yes, there are similarities among dogs of similar demographics, such as size and breed, but there are a number of factors that play a part in determining the course of the rehabilitation journey. Does your dog get bored with the same repetitive exercise unless a ton of treats are involved? Then your rehab therapist should make it a game! Is your dog anxious about new exercise equipment? Your rehab therapist should slow down and take the time to make therapeutic exercise empowering to a nervous pup instead of push through and create worse mental problems for them (look at the whole animal as part of the healing picture).

By keeping the focus on the dog in front of us, we are able to design and develop a plan of care that addresses each dog’s specific needs. Because at the end of the day, it’s being able to do all the fun things you and your pup love to do together that matters most!

While this was written with dogs as the focus. The same principles applies to all animals- whether it be your senior cat with arthritis or a bird with a wing injury. Certified rehab therapists should be keeping it fun and focus on function. Have questions? Reach out to Dr. Emily at!