Hydro-therapy for exercise, massage, weight loss & fun...

In any action sport, whether it involves humans or animals, it is a well-known fact that the fitter the participants are the less likely it is for injuries to occur. Since our canine friends are unable to tell us how well they are feeling, it is beholden on us to monitor them carefully and keep them fit and trim. However, due to the foot and mouth crisis, many agility dogs are losing their fitness from lack of off-lead running, regular training and competitions. This will result in both dogs and humans sustaining pulled muscles and other injuries when we can finally return to training/competing. With this in mind, Sally Hopkins recommends a dip in the pool.

Each fortnight for the past three years - and now twice a week since the onset of FMD - I have kept our dogs fit by taking our dogs to the local equine pool for a session of controlled swimming in conjunction with walks on the Malvern Hills, street walks and training.
Good exercise
All four of our Border Collies have benefited from this excellent exercise. It invigorates and tones muscles (some of which are not used when walking/running) without putting a strain on their bone structure, stimulating their nervous system and has enabled them to develop their muscle strength and stamina so that they don’t sustain injuries when training or competing.
Both my vet and our local animal chiropractor strongly approve of this form of exercise, especially for dogs who regularly exert themselves in such sports as agility; for dogs recovering their fitness after operations and injuries; and for many other medical conditions - e.g. dogs suffering with hip dysplasia, where swimming strengthens the muscles around the hip joint painlessly because the joint does not having to bear the dog’s weight.
Controlled swimming
This kind of swimming is very different to that of a dog swimming in a pond, lake or river where it swims in short sharp bursts chasing after a ball and then pulls itself out of the water to return the toy to its master. Instead, the dog is fitted with a body harness with a long line attached to it and is led down a long sloping ramp into the water where it can swim to the center of the pool. The equine pool that I use is housed in an out-building of the horseracing yard. It is circular with a small island in the center, with a removable plank for the owner and handler to cross to the island before the dog swims first in one direction, then the other.  The pool itself is 12 foot deep, is unheated (as all natural water sources are that dogs come into contact with) which dogs find invigorating, and has chlorine in it to stop cross-infection and germs – unlike lakes, ponds etc.
Jim Wilson, the owner of the yard and pool, has over twenty years experience of swimming horses and dogs. He is a great believer in starting a dog off on just a few circuits each way, asking the owner to monitor the dog’s tiredness both later in the day and the following day too. One of his favorite sayings is “It is better to do less and do more later than to do too much and do harm” which gives you a good indication of how much importance he puts on the dog’s well-being. Over a period of weeks, as the dog becomes fitter, Jim increases the time the dog swims to eight to ten minutes, depending on whether the dog swims calmly and steadily (which is best) or whether the dog swims faster.


One of the benefits of controlled swimming is that we are able to monitor how the dog swims as he swims in first a clockwise and then anticlockwise direction – is he favoring one side to the other and could this be due to injury? This situation occurred to my two-year-old Jet some time ago – he struggled as he swam in a clockwise direction around the pool and kept trying to swim the other way.
Jim Wilson, who has great empathy, vast experience and knowledge of the animals he swims, suggested I get Jet checked over by an animal chiropractor. She verified that Jet had painful areas on the right side of his neck, which was causing him pain as he swam with his head turning to the right. This also explained why he consistently turned left on agility courses rather than right, and why he did not look at me when doing heelwork on my left hand side – it hurt to turn his neck to the right.  Over the years Jim’s keen observational skills have diagnosed many problems when dogs have suddenly started to swim differently, which have been verified and treated by vets and chiropractors before the problem has gone too far.
Some dogs take to this type of swimming straight away while others try different strategies to find out if they can get out of the situation, only to be foiled by the control we have due to the long line attached to its body. In these circumstances it is recommended that you trust Jim’s advice and you will soon see an improvement in the dog’s attitude to swimming – another of his sayings is 'There is more than one way to skin a cat' i.e. he sometimes has to try different ways of swimming the dog to find one that suits it.
All but our youngest dog now swims without a line and happily run into the pool whatever the weather. They enjoy the calm quiet exercise which relaxes them, steadily burning off excess energy, and seem to have a great sense of achievement when they leave the pool.  Bobby, who is seven and a half, is a real exhibitionist and swims all over the pool with sheer enjoyment – what better recommendation of a dog enjoying its exercise!
Sean Hopkins with BBOnce the dog has finished its quota of laps Jim undoes the line so that the dog can swim out of the pool and walk out via the ramp.  Remember to stand well back as the dog gives himself a good shake! Once the harness has been removed I play a game of ball with our dogs on Jim’s nearby lawn, to encourage them to shake off more of the water before I towel them down and put them in the car.
Jim has swum all types and sizes of dogs over the years – from St. Bernards, Newfoundlands, Dalmatians and Collies to Jack Russell Terriers, reinforcing the fact that almost all dogs benefit from this form of exercise. He charges a standard fee of £5 for a single dog (discount for multi-dog households) irrespective of how long the dog swims for. This is good value for money compared to some specialised dog pools that charge as much as £12 each, where dogs swim in a tank against a strong current.
So why not ring round and find an equine pool near you, or give Jim a ring if you live nearby. Some of his customers have come as far away as Wales! Afterwards why not go for a swim yourself at your local swimming pool so that you can keep up with your super fit dog when training restarts!
Please send Agilitynet details of any equine pools that you know of that take dogs, so that a database of recommended pools can be set up for others to refer to. In the meantime, if you live in the Gloucestershire area, you can contact Jim Wilson at:-

Equine & Canine Therapy
Glenfall Stables
Charlton Kings
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL52 6NH

Tel. 01242-244713

About the author
Sally Hopkins
lives in Malvern with her husband Sean and her 14-year-old son William, who all compete in agility competitions throughout the country. She started agility in 1995 with her rescue Working Sheepdog, Wedderburn’s Bobby, and is now bringing on her two year-old Border Collie, Wedderburn’s Jump Jet (son of Sharon Rowe’s Storme Storm and Rosemary Tappin’s Bluealloy Phoebe) in both agility and flyball.
She is currently halfway through a 2-year course on dog behaviour and training, run by Scallywags Canine Education Centre, Rugeley.


From Sam Watts
We swim our four dogs weekly. It all started when our Tiegan suffered an injury to her hip (probably when still with her mother) We noted a problem when she was about five months old, fearing the worst, Hip Dysplasia. Our vets agreed to x-ray her immediately rather than 'wait and see.' She wasn't clinically lame, only squeaked occasionally whilst drying.

The x-rays showed a unilateral deficit in muscle and poor socket formation to the one side. Our vet gave me three options:-

  1. Wait and see.
  2. Surgery at a year old, either excision arthroplasty, removing the hip joint, or a triple pelvic osteotomy to reposition the acetabulum (cup joint of the hip)
  3. Swimming.


Guess which we chose. Our vet had no idea where! and suggested a friendly house owner with a pool. I rang around and finally rang the Royal Veterinary College. They had only two swimming pools on their records one in Cambridge and Stokenchurch. Stokenchurch is a little under a hour's journey but all the late nights and driving, not to mention the cost, has been worth every penny.

Tiegan swam twice a week for 30 minutes. Happily her follow-up x-rays at 12 months showed a normal hip joint formation and an incredibly fit dog! During the time we visited an osteopath monthly to ensure we were not doing any damage upon the advise of our vet.

We are now swimming all our dogs who not only thoroughly enjoy it (all manners are lost and the last 10 minutes of the journey are hell on our ear drums!) and are so much fitter without hammering their joints. I would recommend swimming to all owners of working dogs and more and more veterinary surgeons are recommending swimming as a physiotherapy treatment for post-skeletal surgery and fitness regime for returning to work, not to mention older dogs with conditions such as hip dysplasia.

We were lucky to have noted a potential problem early enough to do something and to have a veterinary surgeon who agreed to x-ray and suggest an alternative treatment. He knows how mad our family is about agility and would do anything possible for our dogs.

We believe that swimming has benefited all our dogs. We find their fitness levels are superb and touching wood have had no skeletal or lameness problems. I am convinced a large number of lameness and joint problems in agility dogs are due to lack of fitness and weight.

As for Tiegan, she competed in her first show at Ribble last year and had a five fault round in the Chum!! The whole family were on such a high for the journey home the three hours flew by! She went on to Senior in her first year and is now enjoying continued success in that group. No one believes Tiegan ever had a problem. We obviously had her spayed as soon as it became clear that she had a potential problem. The vet is thrilled with her and does not foresee any problems in the future. (12/06/01)