Hydrotherapy, what is actually going on?

Hydrotherapy has become synonymous with ‘swimming’ but your dog engaging with a controlled aquatic environment is far more than that. With the right therapist, and the right equipment, Hydrotherapy should be considered controlled physiotherapeutic exercise.

There’s a complex array of things going on in a hydrotherapy pool that you’re probably not aware is even happening. What is critical is that you understand results are never instantaneous. We are working with the body, which takes time to develop and progress through treatment; it is not like being able to inflate a balloon and seeing the instant result. We are building on the musculoskeletal system, as well as the nervous system which takes time and repetition to achieve the required results.

But here’s a little insight into what rehabilitative treatment looks like from a Hydrotherapist’s perspective.

The Centre

You’ll notice that when your dog enters the centre a warm and friendly greeting is top of our agenda – often laden with treats. This is because right from the very outset we need your dog to trust in the environment and our therapist to get the most out of the sessions. A relaxed dog will benefit to a much greater extent than a tense dog where muscles are contracted and elasticity lost.

The Shower Experience

We always start our hydrotherapy sessions with a shower. There’s a minor and major reason for this:

  • The minor reason is to remove any debris before getting in the pool
  • The major reason is the therapeutic thermal properties of having a warm shower

Our hydrotherapists get to be hands on with your dog, they’ll gently be feeling over your animal for any lumps and bumps you might not have noticed but most importantly the warm water will be helping tight muscles loosen up and dilating the blood vessels which helps ensure Oxygen supply in the body.

Standing in the pool

Your dog won’t swim for 30 minutes constantly, even our most athletic dogs can’t hack that. So they’ll rest regularly on our pods. During that rest we’ll be monitoring their heart and breathing rates to ensure their wellbeing but more than ‘rest’ is happening.


Static aquatic therapy starts from the moment your dog gets in the pool


The water temperature plays a critical role in the aquatic properties affecting your dog. The water itself, when heated to between 28 and 32 degrees celcius, is providing thermal therapy. Just like the pre-session shower. The heat helps the muscles to relax and the blood vessels on the surface of the animal increasing the oxygen in the blood supply and therefore healing.

The buoyant properties of the water also has an immediate effect even if the dog is not submerged fully in the water. A dog with water up to it’s hips is only carrying 35% of its weight on its limbs and the forces are making micro adjustments to your dogs joints by separating and stretching the compression between the bones out.

The pressure of the water on your dogs body is like being wrapped in a big comfort blanket. The blanket, which fills every crack and crevice, helps make the body feel more comfortable by reducing inflammation by pushing swelling away from the affected area and improving the lymphatic drainage.

The flow of the fresh warm water coming back into the pool from our heater is targeted at the pod creating water movement around any animal stood there. This is causing your dog to have to make minor posture adjustments by activating and deactivating muscles on a minute but effective scale. This impacts not only the major ‘power’ muscles but the smaller ‘postural’ muscles.

To get good movement your animal needs good posture so just by your dog standing in our hydrotherapy pool rehabilitative action is already starting to happen.

Movement in the pool

Movement doesn’t have to mean swimming. The motion of swimming is just one of the types of movement we can encourage in the pool.

As well as posture we want to target function and movement of the muscles because with function and movement comes stability and with stability comes pain relief. Ultimately your therapist is not looking to help your dog just move, but move in the right way. We call this ‘natural balance’.

When we are asking the dog to move in the pool, whether that’s walking up and down our under water pods or swimming in the water we are stimulating the sensory system. The pressure of the water, the resistance and forces of the water, and the tension across the surface of the water all play a part in ensuring this sensory system is constantly under input.

Each time we ask the dog to move, we are activating the receptors across the dogs body surface and improving neuromuscular stimulation which helps dogs to understand where their legs are in relation to their body. We call this proprioception.

Dogs move through a combination of proprioception and muscle power so by turning on both the muscles and the sensory stimulation we are helping the dogs rehabilitative journey through hydro-therapeutic activities.

We all know from visiting the seaside that water is harder to walk through than walking on land – infact science has proven that movement in water is 799 times slower than water with the same level of force. It’s this resistance that make the muscles have to work hard through the forces they have to apply to generate movement. They also have to work hard to break the surface tension of the water, so each time a dog removes and re-enters its leg from the water it’s having to work extra hard to break that surface tension.


Still think it’s just swimming? We’ve not even touched on the cardiovascular exercise benefits or the specific targeting of activities to rehabilitate different injuries and conditions yet and all this miraculous treatment is already happening.

Logan learns from Maggie the wonder dog

In August we took the rare opportunity to open our doors to Maggie ‘the wonder dog’ and her human companion Logan to help teach him to swim.

Logan, aged 5, has Sensory Processing Disorder and has been pre-diagnosed with Autism but that doesn’t hold him back from his swimming lessons with his teacher Helen Page at Energique Health Club in Alton. 

Sensory Processing Disorder means Logan processes his senses differently. Sounds, bright lights, sensations etc can overwhelm him so he finds it difficult to hear and follow requests etc. He finds social situations difficult to understand. 

Logan finds the sensation of water particularly calming and is progressing his swimming at each session however he was yet to confidently swim with his head lowered in the water.

Pip Elphee, Logan’s mother, is a Canine Behaviourist who has trained their working cocker spaniel, Maggie, as an assistance dog for Logan. Together with Logan’s swim teacher they devised a plan to encourage Logan to copy Maggie in the pool and approached the Canine Fitness Centre in Froxfield to help.

Tom Worman, Managing Director and Hydrotherapist at the Canine Fitness Centre said:

“Pip approached us with a brilliant plan and we just couldn’t say no. We’ve seen the impact of therapy dogs with a wide spectrum of children and adults through our work at the Canine Fitness Centre and this seemed like a great opportunity to put a theory into practice”

“We don’t normally let owners in the pool, but on this occasion working with Pip and Helen, we were able to create a safe environment for Logan and Maggie to swim together.”

“It was a joyous experience and something I couldn’t be prouder to have been part of”

Helen Page devised a variety of dynamic swimming games that logan could participate in with Maggie under the watchful eye of Tom Worman to ensure Maggie’s wellbeing and safety was also considered.

Logan and Maggie had swimming races, obstacle courses and a bit of safe play time in the shallows. 

Not only did the session start some of the work towards improving Logan’s swimming style Mrs Elphee commented that: 

“Logi found the latter stages of term really hard and has been quite ‘disregulated’, having had his swim with his dog this morning he also seems much calmer”

Shortly after the session Pip took to Facebook to write:

What a fantastic set up Tom has at the Canine Fitness Centre – a truly lovely way with both dog and owner. Maggie had a fare bit to deal with looking after her small person, working for me and being handled by Tom. But she clearly felt safe and happy in Tom’s capable hands. I can’t recommend this centre more highly!

Maggie, the working cocker spaniel, is an owner trained Autism Assistance Dog. Maggie helps him with his anxiety and confidence, helping him to stay calm and signalling to Logan’s mother when he is feeling anxious before she might have noticed. She is registered with Pawsable a company that assesses and then provides assistance with training and insurance for public access.

Hydrotherapy in a Treadmill or Pool

We get asked quite a lot why we have a hydrotherapy pool but don’t have a treadmill at our centre and there are a few simple reasons but as clients and veterinarians become more aware of underwater treadmills we thought it would be a good idea to discuss the benefits of both so that you can come to your own conclusions about what might be best for your dog.

The rise in popularity of treadmill appears to be primarily fed by two areas:

  • An increase in the amount of scientific research being undertaken in them
  • An increase in their availability for vets and therapists due to the smaller size they occupy

However, before diving into some more analysis there’s a couple of things we think you should know:


How therapists see hydrotherapy

A good therapist will understand the biomechanics of your dog. They will know that your dog is designed to move forwards not backwards, that movement is driven by a combination of muscle power and the proprioceptive system (both in a conscious and unconscious state). And, they will understand that it is their role in rehabilitation to provide movement enriching activity in an aquatic environment.

Historically, most people will think of hydrotherapy in two forms – swimming in a pool and walking in a treadmill. Over the last decade the understanding and scientific research in hydrotherapy has advanced considerably and this is no longer the way to think of hydrotherapy. We can increase the water depth to swim a dog in an underwater treadmill and we can use pods to walk a dog in a hydrotherapy pool. So this brings us back to “it’s a facility to aid movement”

Primarily a hydrotherapist uses their tools to:

  • Improve your dogs engagement with their natural balance and stance
  • Shape movement appropriately
  • Align your dog properly
  • Undertake dynamic exercise
  • Undertake static exercises

An Underwater Treadmill

Provides…

  • Ability to quickly control water height
  • The ability to walk and swim dogs
  • Ability to undertake dynamic & static handling
  • Compact space compatible treatment
  • The need for just one therapist

Can be limited in…

  • Therapists access to all areas of the dog
  • Ability to control humidity
  • Ability to control overstretch of the spine
  • The ability to vary rehabilitation techniques

A Hydrotherapy Pool

Provides…

  • A therapist with 360 degree control
  • Better control of humidity and temperature
  • Proprioceptively rich therapies
  • Ability to undertake dynamic & static handling
  • The ability to walk and swim dogs

Can be limited in…

  • Supporting nervous dogs
  • Provision for compact treatment centres
  • Single therapist treatment of paralysis conditions

How do you make the right choice

As you can see from above, both formats provide the ability to undertake extensive portfolios of dynamic and static handling techniques however ultimately the decision should come down to the Behaviour and Breed Standards of your animal – not the marketing ploys of hydrotherapy businesses.

So, in our opinion, choose a hydrotherapy centre with…

A Hydrotherapy Pool

If your dog:

  • Is a brachycephalic breed due to the humidity risks of a treadmill
  • Is nervous of enclosed environments due to the nature of a treadmill
  • Is an amputee as a dog losing balance in a treadmill could be catastrophic
  • Is a large breed that simple won’t comfortably fit in anything other than a pool

An Underwater Treadmill

If your dog:

  • Is nervous of large open environments due to the nature of a hydrotherapy pool
  • Is nervous of water as treadmills can be filled slowly
  • Has significant access issues due to the ability to enter and exit easily* or where second therapists are unavailable

This is of course not an exhaustive list that you as the owner or veterinary care professional might think of but these, in our opinion, are the primary reasons. Otherwise, it comes down to what therapist do you trust and how well do they know their equipment to help your dog.

*We caveat this point with a comment that you must make sure the UWTM has two doors, so that it doesn’t have to turn 180 degrees inside the treadmill to exit


The Canine Fitness Centre Facilities

We want to be clear that this is not a marketing piece around why we have a pool and why it could be seen as superior compared to an underwater treadmill. Hopefully this article has been informative to help you make the right decision for your dog.

At the Canine Fitness Centre we have chosen to have an 18ft by 9ft heated hydrotherapy pool because:

  • Our therapists can have a 360 degree view of your animal swimming, walking and standing
  • Dogs do not overstretch their necks and spine when looking at their owners due to the owners positioning
  • We have a much greater level of ‘up-time’ where the pool is not reliant on underwater mechanics
  • Our skilled therapists can supercharge proprioceptive treatments by combining aquatic walking & swimming
  • We can control the level of humidity in the room particularly in summer months
  • We focus on treating the dog and it’s needs rather than the capabilities and space of our equipment
  • We have access to multiple therapists so can provide support to dogs with access needs
  • Hydrotherapy pools are much better for therapist wellbeing due to the stances required in an UWTM

We will never accept a dog that we believe demonstrates behaviours that are only suitable for an underwater treadmill and will always refer you to one of our partner sites who have this facility if it will be the best thing for your dog.


Think this is biased? Watch the webinar and analysis from Barbara Houlding, a leading Hydrotherapist and Physiotherapist in the field. Barbara is a course leader for at K9HS and discusses many of the same views outlined above in her online webinar found here.