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A Golden Retriever Makes a Remarkable Recovery

How physical therapy gave a dog a fighting chance at mobility
By Karen Atlas PT, MPT, CCRT, May 2018, Updated June 2021
First we supported the dog in a standing position over a balance ball and used an electrical muscle stimulation device

Fig 1

Neuromuscular electrical stimulation was employed to artificially activate the dog's muscles

Fig 2

Fig 3 - Fig 5

The Golden Retriever’s name was Rocky 3, and he proved to be as much of a fighter as the big-screen Rocky. The first time Steve Peterson’s much-loved canine companion came to me for physical rehabilitation, he was carried in on a stretcher. He’d been hit by a car and left quadriplegic from a severe spinal contusion. Fortunately, after his veterinarians determined that he was not a candidate for surgery, they knew exactly what to do: get him under the care of a licensed physical therapist certified in canine rehabilitation.

It was an emotional time. Neurological recovery is difficult to predict, so while I couldn’t promise Steve how much function his best buddy would recover, I could promise him that I’d give it my all.

Pain management is step one in the healing process, and qualified rehabilitation therapists are trained in alternative ways to handle it. As an adjunct to medication, we used alpha-stimulation (a micro-current delivered to the brain to release pain-relieving neurotransmitters) and cold laser therapy (light energy delivered at a very specific wavelength to decrease pain and inflammation and increase the rate of healing).

While Rocky 3 was immobile, neuromuscular electrical stimulation was employed (fig. 2) to artificially activate his muscles, helping to prevent atrophy and
re-educate muscle firing. In addition to these passive treatments, I used specialized manual therapy techniques to alleviate muscle spasms, and gentle traction to help relieve pressure on his spinal cord.


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Once the Golden’s pain had been adequately addressed, it was time for focused and functional therapeutic exercises. At first, we supported him (fig. 1) in a standing position over a balance ball and used an electrical muscle stimulation device. As he progressed, we worked with him on transitioning from lying down to sitting, and from sitting to standing.

Next up, the underwater treadmill (fig. 3). Here, he relearned how to walk in a low-impact and gravity-reduced environment. As his therapist, I was in the treadmill tank with him, helping him get a sense of what a normal gait pattern felt like; this also worked to re-establish relevant neurological pathways. As he became stronger, we put a float-coat on him for safety and filled the treadmill tank all the way up so he could paddle in place. This was another way to increase his endurance and to achieve more targeted strengthening of his front legs.

Along with water work, we created exercises that would build upon his improving strength on land. We set up cavaletti poles in various configurations (fig. 4) so he could learn where his feet were in space (known as proprioception). We also had him crouch-walk underneath the poles. To help him regain core strength and balance, we challenged him with more advanced exercises using inflatable peanut balls, discs and a Bosu ball (fig. 5).

We made it a point to be creative with his exercises so he would enjoy his program and stay engaged with his treatment. Fortunately, Rocky 3 is highly motivated by toys and treats, and these rewards promoted his willing participation in everything that was asked of him.

After four months of intense physical rehabilitation, Rocky 3 was back, chasing his toys at the park and on the beach and delighting all who crossed his path.

Those of us who worked with Rocky 3 were inspired by his recovery, and by his efforts to cooperate in his rehabilitation. The day we let go of his support harness and he stood on his own four paws was an extremely rewarding day for everyone— and ultimately, the reason we are passionate about rehab and love what we do.

Watch a short video documenting Rocky 3’s recovery

Karen Atlas is a licensed physical therapist certified in canine rehabilitation in Santa Barbara, Calif. She is the founder of Atlas Rehabilitation for Canines (ARC). She is dedicated to serving her community with compassionate rehab services and providing educational opportunities to fellow rehab specialists.