Author: Vicki Youens: Dip.A.Phys, MIAAT. From Passionate About Pets Animal Physiotherapy.
In April 2022, I got an eight-week-old Labrador puppy. I’ve always had dogs, but he was my first young puppy. As a physio, I know how important it is to do everything right and ensure that there are not too many stresses and strains on their developing joints and musculoskeletal system. As a result, I wanted to give him the best possible start, so I made sure that I didn't let him do stairs or jump on and off the sofa or out of the car until he was old enough to do so for his breed. This meant some serious strength for me as he is a large lab, and I live in a flat, so I had to carry him up three flights of stairs!
During the early months, I realised there was a gap in how owners were bringing up their puppies. Everyone immediately signs their puppy up for training classes or socialisation groups, but there was a gap where their physical development wasn't necessarily considered. As a result, I added the puppy massage package to my business, where puppies received a massage and assessment carried out every three mths from the age of 12 weeks so that they get used to being handled by someone other than their owners and any issues could be picked up and monitored before they became a significant issue. I believe that this is essential, especially for the breeds like Labradors and GSDs that are predisposed to conditions such as elbow and hip dysplasia, where it is paramount that they are picked up sooner rather than later so the dog has a better chance of recovery with as little damage to the joint as possible.
Things then snowballed from here, and my physio brain went into overdrive. I then realised there are so many sports now that our dogs partake in, but there's a high level of injury due to the dogs not having the core strength and confirmation they need to carry it out.
On 20th February 2023, I ran a free challenge on Facebook for owners to attend online to learn a couple of exercises that would help build their dog's core strength and indicate if any issues needed to be worked on. The most popular exercise was sitting. We all teach our dogs to sit as part of their basic training, but are we ensuring they do it correctly? Are their forelimbs aligned? Are their hindlimbs aligned? Is their back straight? Do they sit to one side? Is one leg sticking out to the side? These are all questions that we asked and looked for. While putting the challenge together, I got excited about helping owners and their dogs. I also realised how great it was to bond with your dog as you learn new things together. I then went on to launch the 'Strong Dog Programme', which is a 16-week programme showing owners exercises to help them build and develop their dog's core strength helping to prevent any possible injuries but also aiding in prehab should they need to have an operation for conditions such as Hip dysplasia, Elbow Dysplasia or Cruciate Ligament rupture.
As physiotherapists, we are typically called in at the rehab stage, but why can't we be just as beneficial in prehab? I'm not saying that my programme will prevent dogs from ever needing surgeries. Still, I genuinely believe that by them being as strong as possible, we are aiding them with their recovery before they have even had the surgery. The surrounding structures and muscles will be stronger and support any joints, tendons and ligaments affected by the surgery.
All the owners that took part in the challenge said that they took a lot away from it, and the great thing was that some of them were also trainers and dog walkers, so they could utilise the information I gave them to help the dogs they saw too.