By Eric Obernauer New Jersey Herald
Posted: Jul. 31, 2017 12:01 am
MT. OLIVE -- Petra Ford always loved dogs, loved athletic competition, and had an interest in science and medicine.
So after becoming a physical therapist, she decided to pursue a line of work at Aqua Dog Rehabilitation that would allow her to combine all three.
Now approaching their 10th year in business together, she and Dr. Kristine Conway, a veterinarian in Mine Hill, are continuing to blaze new trails in applying the science of physical and rehabilitative medicine to the treatment of canine sports injuries.
"Canine rehabilitation put it all together for me -- the physical therapy, the love of dogs, and the competition aspect of it," said Ford, a bicyclist, runner and yoga enthusiast herself.
As its name suggests, Aqua Dog Rehabilitation specializes in providing aquatherapy to canine patients recovering from injuries or surgery, as well as dogs with arthritic hips and other ailments that can be improved through use of an underwater treadmill and other forms of resistance training.
Ford, a certified canine rehabilitation therapist and author of several articles on canine conditioning and injury prevention, said she also sees a fair amount of dogs that come in for regular conditioning and pain management.
"With senior dogs, we can really improve their quality of life," Ford said. "We also treat dogs with orthopedic and neurological injuries."
Aqua Dog also provides a range of additional treatments that include therapeutic massage, which helps improve circulation while relieving muscular stress and reducing pain.
Other treatments include heat therapy and ultrasound, which can promote deep tissue pain relief while speeding up the healing process; cold laser light therapy, which can decrease inflammation, improve circulation, and increase tissue repair; and electrical stimulation, which can be used for targeted pain relief and preventing muscle atrophy.
Aqua Dog also offers a full program of therapeutic exercise that involves the use of familiar equipment such as exercise balls, balance boards, and land treadmills. In fact, at first glance, the facilities here look not much different from what one might typically expect to find at a physical or occupational therapy center for humans, and many of the treatments are similar.
"It's all physical therapy, so basically anything a human would go and get physical therapy for, a dog would get the same thing," Ford said.
Carolyn Fischer, a certified canine massage therapist and one of three additional staff members who round out the team at Aqua Dog, echoed the point.
"They (dogs) all have the same muscles and the same joints we do, so what's good for us is good for them, too," Fischer said.
Still, as Ford explained, being attuned to the specific needs of each patient plays a vital role in determining the best course of treatment.
"If a dog comes in to us immediately post-surgery, we don't do anything aggressive like throw them in the water tank tight away or pull their leg. We start very carefully, very slowly," she said.
Despite its name, Ford said the staff at Aqua Dog also occasionally works with cats. She even has done work with rabbits, a goat and a pig.
She is particularly proud of having helped rehabilitate a two-year-old cat that suffered a broken pelvis after being hit by a car. The cat, she said, dragged itself by sheer force of will back to its owner's house and has since recovered.
Because of their traditional avergence to water, Ford said she normally treats cats without ever putting them in the water. However, one feline patient proved the exception and actually loved going on the underwater treadmill.
Ford notes that, as with cats, certain breeds of dogs can also be initially hesitant around water. For this reason, she always makes it a point to acclimate them gradually and at their own pace.
"One of us always puts on waders and goes in with them the first time they come in and as many times after that as they need, and we'll assist them so that if they're nervous, we can comfort them -- and the owner is always right there, too," Ford said.
"The owners don't actually go in the water," she explained, "but they're right there and can lean over, pet the dog, and encourage the dog while someone's in there helping the dog."
Ford said she has yet to encounter a patient that did not ultimately become comfortable going on the underwater treadmill.
"We've had lots of people say ‘my dog hates water,' but we've never had a problem getting them acclimated," Ford said.
"The key is we take our time, we don't push or rush them, and we make sure they're really comfortable -- plus the water is nice and warm. Most of them, especially the older dogs, are wise and pick up pretty quickly that you're trying to help them and that it feels good."
The water in the pool, she added, is treated, tested and changed out regularly -- one of a number of best practices she described as part of Aqua Dog's commitment to ensuring a clean, safe and hygienic environment.
Ford said it was while training their dogs together at Top Dog Obedience School in Mount Olive, with which Aqua Dog today shares space, that she and Conway developed a friendship that led to their venture in what was then the new field of canine sports medicine.
For Conway, the experience she had swimming her dogs coupled with the increased number of clients seeking alternative therapies to drugs to improve their pets' quality of life was what motivated her, as a veterinarian, to delve further into the then-nascent field of canine rehabilitation.
After pursuing additional studies in canine rehabilitation at the University of Tennessee, Conway and Ford opened Aqua Dog Rehabilitation.
"Because it's still a fairly new field, I think it takes some people a little time to understand what we do because it's different and it's considered more holistic, but we've been getting more and more referrals the last few years," Ford said.
As knowledge of the field has grown, the practice also has been seeing an increased number of referrals from veterinarians.
Many of their other referrals, Ford said, have come from people like herself whose dogs compete in organized sports and other events. Her own Labrador Retrievers, in fact, have won national championships in obedience and have also earned titles in agility and trained in field and nosework.
Recalling her initial foray into canine physical therapy, Ford admits she and Conway were apprehensive at first about opening their own practice.
"I think it's normal to be nervous when opening your own business because nothing is guaranteed," Ford said. "But we were both convinced there was a niche to be filled and that we could help fill it, and we definitely still feel there's a need for it."
Aqua Dog Rehabilitation is located at 24C Bartley Road, in the Flanders section of Mount Olive, and can be reached at 973-927-0030. Treatments and consultations are by appointment, Monday through Friday. Aqua Dog can also be found on Facebook and at www.aquadog.com.
Photo by Jake West/New Jersey Herald - Petra Ford guides Moe through a series of therapeutic stretches at Aqua Dog Rehabilitation in Flanders. Above left, Zeal works out on the aquatic treadmill.