Physical rehabilitation for pets started around 15 years ago. This has been a game changer for many pets after hip, knee, and back surgeries. At the same time, wheelchairs and other mobility aids have also been developed to help your injured or recovering pet still live a full life.
I conducted physical rehabilitation with dogs for 6 years. All types of equipment may be used to help rehabilitate pets, and with some, your pet will need help getting adjusted to it—equipment such as electrical stimulation, ultrasound, underwater treadmills, and pools.
It can be difficult to transition to using a medical device on a regular basis. Dogs that are exposed to various textures on their skin, like doggie sweaters and coats, and dogs that are groomed regularly find it easier to transition to mobility aids and other support aids. This is because dogs that wear clothing are used to things touching their bodies and putting pressure on different areas. Dogs that are groomed regularly are used to having straps on different parts of their bodies that support them while the groomer does their work.
When you’re introducing new equipment to a dog, such as a wheelchair, let the dog go up to it and investigate it on its own. Once they are comfortable with the aid, then start the training.
Wheelchairs are used to help your dog with its everyday mobility, and mobility harnesses can offer support and assistance, too. For pets who have megaesophagus, a disorder in which the esophagus gets larger and loses its ability to move food into the stomach, there are Bailey’s chairs. These chairs keep pets in an upright position—meaning when they drink and eat they’re completely vertical—which allows food and water to get into their stomach by way of gravity.
My dog Jackson was just diagnosed with megaesophagus, brought on by the autoimmune disease myasthenia gravis. This disease creates muscular weakness that affects the esophagus muscles and the ability to swallow. It causes a pouch to form in the esophagus, keeping the food from moving through naturally. So now I feed Jackson in an upright position using one of these Bailey’s chairs. The chair supports him as he sits on his haunches, and he has to stay in it for 30 minutes after he eats. It was a challenge at first, training him to sit in it, but now he sits there calmly, all by himself, until I let him out.
When you’re introducing new equipment to a dog, such as a wheelchair, let the dog go up to it and investigate it on its own. Once they are comfortable with the aid, then start the training. If it’s a wheelchair, then take it slowly, step by step, and be ready with your dog’s favorite reinforcement, treat, toy, or your praise—whatever is most valuable to your dog. With a wheelchair, start by simply having the dog stand still while you pull the chair up into position, then reward him. Never move to the next step while your dog is still nervous—make sure they are completely comfortable with each step before moving on. Next, attach the chair harness to your dog, and reward him. Repeat until he’s comfortable. Then attach the foot straps, reward, and repeat again until your dog is completely comfortable. Finally, ask your dog to walk while harnessed into his wheelchair. Have him take a couple steps, then reward him, and repeat until the dog is walking with his wheelchair.
When helping your dog transition to using the Bailey’s chair, you cannot use a food reward, because they need to stay seated in the chair for some time after eating. So when you introduce your dog to the chair, use a lot of excited praise or play. For my dog Jackson, I started by putting him in his chair, and I let him chew on his ball for a minute before I let him out and threw the ball for him to fetch. I repeatedly added time to the ball chewing portion until he felt comfortable staying put in the chair. Then when I started feeding him in it, I sat with him and rubbed his ears and chest while talking to him. The next step was to teach him to sit by himself. I would work his “stay” command, adding time gradually until I reached the 30-minute goal. It took about a month from start to finish to teach him to sit, eat, and stay in his chair.
So, in conclusion, when introducing any medical aid, break it into steps and use highvalue reinforcers. Be patient, and keep the training fun!