When Buco arrived at the Military Working Dog Veterinary Service hospital at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Lackland, Texas, the Belgian Malinois, who had worked as an explosives-detection dog, was in rough shape.
He had suffered a fibrocartilaginous embolism, which is much like a stroke in the spinal column, leaving him nonambulatory and unable to defecate and urinate on his own. But after a year of rehabilitation, include canine massage, all systems were go, thanks to the dedication and hard work of hospital staff.
Restoring Health with Canine Massage
A worldwide referral hospital for military working dogs, the hospital at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland has medical and surgical capabilities and also provides rehabilitation services.
The hospital routinely sees more than 100 patients a day; the physical therapy and rehab section treats up to 20 dogs at any given time, most post-surgery and some undergoing rehab prior to retirement.
According to multiple sources, the U.S. military employs up to 2,500 canines at any given time, largely in a bomb-sniffing capacity. In 2016, four U.S. military dogs were honored for valor by the American Humane Society.
In 2013 Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland became the site of the first national monument dedicated to U.S. military working dog teams, and features the U.S. military’s four prominent working dog breeds since World War II: Doberman pinscher, German shepherd, Labrador retriever and Belgian Malinois.
Certified canine rehabilitation practitioner and licensed veterinary technician Kelley Meyer, A.A.S., L.V.T., L.A.T.G., C.C.R.P., works to restore health to working dogs and prepares those about to retire for adoption.
The facility uses canine massage therapy, underwater treadmills, extracorporeal shock wave treatments, low level lasers, electrical stimulation, therapeutic ultrasound, hot and cold packs and physioballs.
Meyer chooses the most appropriate tool, depending on need and where the dog is in the recovery stage. “The two biggest injuries I treat are backs and knees,” she said.
Hard Work With a Purpose
During a session, Meyer assesses the animal for pain and may perform cryotherapy and canine massage. To reduce edema, she may use a laser and do passive range-of-motion exercises.
“The massage helps with pain relief, fluid buildup and muscle soreness,” she said. Once the dog has been cleared and any incisions have healed—typically between 10 and 14 days—he is ready for the underwater treadmill.
The dog enters a holding tank and warm, chlorinated water is pumped in until it reaches the desired level, usually high hip level at the beginning of treatment to provide buoyancy. Meyer then sets the speed on the treadmill.
“The water therapy helps not only limb injuries, but also the rest of the body,” she said. “The dogs are stoic, and could have had an injury for a while. The water evens their stance and works the whole body.”
The four-legged patients stay for eight to 16 weeks. Many are successfully returned to duty.
As for Buco, when he arrived, he was ready to retire, but required significant rehabilitation before he’d be a good adoption candidate.
Meyer was granted a year to help him regain his health. Four times a day she used various modalities to restore his ability to walk and improve function, quality of movement, muscle strength and range of motion.
Meyer emphasizes that the treatments at the hospital are all based on medicine. “This is not spa day for the animals,” she explained. “We use physioballs and rollers and work on building core strength, which is very important in dogs, [as] in people.”
Although animal rehabilitation is a relatively new therapy, humans are learning it’s valid—especially for the animals, like Buco, who have spent much of their lives working.
“It’s hard work with a purpose,” said Meyer. “We want to help our four-legged athletes reach a comfort level.”
About the Author
Phyllis Hanlon has written nonfiction articles and book reviews as well as human-interest stories, profiles and award-winning essays. Her specialty areas include health and medicine, religion, education and business. She regularly delights in the joys of massage. She has written many articles for MASSAGE Magazine.
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