Roxy on agility course

When small groups tour the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital (VTH), one of the stops they enjoy the most is the underwater treadmill room in the rehabilitation wing. There is something about a dog happily sloshing through waist-high water that makes people smile. When they find out the dog is successfully recovering from injury or illness, it adds an extra dollop of good feeling.

Although, the VTH runs two underwater treadmills, ten hours a day, they are just a small part of the diverse, and carefully-targeted, therapies taking place in the rehab wing.

Roxy is a high-energy, eight year-old Australian Shepard who lives for agility events. “She needs to be kept busy,” says her owner, Jill Wolfard. “She loves working and learning, and I always joke that she is smarter than me. She doesn’t hesitate to bark at me if she thinks I made a mistake.”

Wolfard has been training Roxy for agility since she was four months old, first in basic obedience, then in dog rally competition. At one year-old, Roxy began agility training. “Once it clicked, we never looked back,” says Wolfard. “She is my go-go girl. She barks the minute you take the leash off, whether it’s training or competition, and she rarely tires. She is over-the-top excited all the time.”

Wolfard met Kim Long and her dog, Swoop, at an agility event. Both dogs ran in the same height class. “They are both big, powerful girls and fun to watch,” says Wolfard. When Swoop was injured, Wolfard was able to follow the dog’s journey to recovery on Long’s Facebook page. Much of that journey took place at the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “Kim raved about Dr. Baltzer, the staff, and the rehab program,” says Wolfard.

In April 2015, Roxy injured herself at an agility event, and wound up lame in her left, hind leg. “It was devastating to consider that she may never be able to run again,” she says. So, despite having to drive several hours from Washington to Corvallis, Wolfard took Roxy to the VTH where she could get expert evaluation, and state-of-the-art treatment and rehabilitation.

Dr. Wendy Baltzer is an orthopedic surgeon, and head of the rehabilitation unit at OSU. She, and resident Dr. Sara Losinski, did Roxy’s initial exam. With the aid of radiographs and a computed tomography scan, they diagnosed mild lumbosacral (disk) disease in her back, mild arthritis in her stifle joints (knees), and a partially torn iliopsoas tendon in her left stifle, the probable cause of her lameness.

Fortunately, partial iliopsoas tears can be successfully treated with non-surgical intervention, but it is time consuming and requires a complex rehabilitation program developed by an expert in the field. Dr. Baltzer recommended this route as the best chance for Roxy to return to an active life.

The first part of Roxy’s program required Wolfard to keep her on strict cage rest for two months, not an easy task. “They gave me medications to calm her, and I kept her occupied with games that required little movement. It was very challenging with a smart, high-energy dog who doesn’t like to be still,” says Wolfard. “I wished I could talk to her and make her understand. Two months was a long time for us.”

On her eight-week recheck, Roxy had improved enough for Dr. Baltzer to start the next phase of her intensive rehabilitation. “The main focus of rehab was first to reduce pain and gain normal function, and then to build muscle and gain body awareness to prevent re-injury,” says Sarah Ostrin, Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner. Ostrin began with laser therapy, massage, and stretching to reduce the inflammation in her back, followed by ultrasound therapy to stop muscle spasms and break up scar tissue that was limiting range of motion in her hips. “Once range of motion was normal,” says Ostrin, “we worked on using her muscles properly to build strength. We did this with balance and resistance exercises, and with hydrotherapy.”

Roxy also had to unlearn her old ways of moving. Ostrin taught Roxy to move correctly by walking her backwards and teaching her to ‘target’ objects with her hind end. Ostrin also asked Roxy to walk forwards and backwards over obstacles. “This helped her be aware and confident with limbs that were previously malfunctioning,” says Ostrin. “Sporting dogs are easy and fun to work with because they are so motivated to do a job, and do it well, regardless of how they feel.”

Dr. Baltzer and her team monitored Roxy’s progress carefully by watching for pain and fatigue, and by measuring her muscle mass with a Gulick tape. They were also careful to prevent her from extending her spine in non-controlled situations, which could irritate her disk disease. At the end of one month, she was pain-free, and had increased strength and muscle mass over her spine and hind end. “Now that her core is stable, she can continue her exercise routine at home, and slowly return to agility with less risk of injury,” says Dr. Baltzer.

Wolfard recently started Roxy in the less-demanding Novice Class of agility where the jumps are lower. She earned her 6thchampionship in October. She also takes Roxy through a regular program of stretching and strength exercises at home. “She starts barking when I get cheese from the refrigerator, and keeps barking until we start the exercises,” says Wolfard.

Although Wolfard still worries about Roxy every time she runs, she can’t deny her best friend her favorite sport. “I didn’t think she would ever run again,” she says. “OSU gave us hope, and now she is back stronger than ever. It is pure joy for both of us.”

Experts in the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital use targeted therapies to heal injured sport dogs without surgery.