Kirsten Holland was in the laundry room at her home in the Flathead when Bug, her 8-year-old Doberman, collapsed.
It was 2013, and Bug suddenly couldn’t use her legs. A shelter dog rescued in 2007, Bug had become part of Holland’s household, a full-on member of the family. They took Bug to Great Falls to get surgery on what they found was a blown disc in her neck, and while the surgery that Dr. Rick Scherr performed relieved the pain, the dog remained immobile.
“We suspect that she had a spinal stroke as well,” Holland said.
All Bug could do was wag her tail and lift her head. The prognosis was grim, offering little chance of the Doberman regaining her mobility.
“As I was leaving, another vet said, ‘Don’t give up on that dog,’” Holland said. “They said to get her home and upright.”
Holland’s husband built several contraptions to get Bug on her feet, but otherwise, they were at a loss at how to help their canine friend.
That is, until the Whitefish Animal Hospital called with an offer to work with Stacy Upton, a physical therapist who had recently taken her know-how to the dog realm.
Bug was fitted for a custom wheelchair, and, thanks to a Facebook fundraising drive, was soon scooting around in a $1,500 Eddie’s Wheels wheelchair for dogs. Within two or three days in the wheels, Bug could sit up on her own. After four months in the chair and doing physical therapy with Upton, Bug was out of the wheels entirely, walking and jogging on her own.
Sitting in Canine in Motion last week, Upton’s business specializing in physical therapy and fitness for dogs, Holland grew teary at the memory of Bug’s fight to walk again.
“This is a really important thing for me to see happen,” she said of the physical therapy practice. “It saved my dog’s life.”
“She did a ton of work,” Upton said of Bug. “I just kind of guided them.”
Upton is one of the few certified canine rehabilitation practitioners (CCRP) in Montana. She’s worked in human physical therapy for years but always had an interest in canine wellness. When presented with the opportunity to become a CCRP through a program at the University of Tennessee, Upton jumped at the chance.
Four years later, Canine in Motion is up and running, with a workout space for the dogs, including aquatic therapy. The underwater treadmill at her shop is a rarity in the state — it can be filled to any level and allows a pooch to walk or jog with a normal gait pattern while also taking pressure off the dog’s joints.
Buck, Upton’s 6-year-old Labradoodle, is a big fan of the tank, and likes to hold a yellow fish toy in his mouth while he works out. The tank not only helps for rehabbing dogs, but also for fitness, Upton said, because the resistance allows the dog to get in a good workout in half the time.
Otherwise, the facility provides FitPaws exercise balls for dogs, so the canines can work on balance and coordination. The dogs also train on ramps and stairs, and can do an assortment of activities to work on their issues. Upton also offers laser therapy and manual therapy to go along with the therapeutic exercise.
It was a bit of a pipe dream when she first thought of it, Upton said. But now that dogs have become more like family members than pets, more people are searching for ways to improve their dogs’ lives. Common surgeries in dogs, such as ACL tear repairs, need rehabilitation efforts for the dog to regain full use of the injured area as well as keep the rest of the body healthy instead of overcompensating.
At this point, Upton works with canine clients by appointment while she juggles Canine in Motion with her human clientele. Any dog owners seeking rehab need a veterinary referral, but fitness clients don’t, she said.
“It’s so fulfilling working with dogs,” Upton said. “Dogs — they want to get better.”
Bug did get better, adding a whole extra year to her life before she was diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually take her. Holland said the last year with Bug was a gift she’ll always cherish.
“Without Stacy, we wouldn’t have had a whole extra year with Bug,” Holland said.