When Yoda the Great Dane took a slide on the ice, his owner Heather Bauman started to see some limping and worried he had injured himself.

After bringing him to his regular vet and being unable to determine the source of injury on X-rays and failing to see improvement after medications and rest, she brought him to VCA Northwest Veterinary Specialists for another opinion.

Bauman adopted Yoda from an animal rescue believing he was between 2- and 4-years-old a couple years ago. He has since been DNA-tested and she found out he is a little older at 7-years-old.

“He’s been a perfect addition to our home,” Bauman says. “Our other pets love him, he loves them, and he's just become a therapy dog. I've always wanted to have a therapy animal to take into places like hospitals and such. He's just been a complete gem.”

Not only was Bauman worried about Yoda’s injury and the impact on his health, but also on his ability to continue as a therapy dog. As his owner and handler, it is important that Bauman can read his physical cues to know when he is comfortable or uncomfortable and when his visits as a therapy dog may need to be shortened or rescheduled. Since therapy dogs are dealing with the public in a service role it is imperative, they are gentle with those they visit which is why Bauman needs to be on top of any pain and discomfort.

Just like in people when they are not feeling well, they may not be themselves. In dogs, this could translate into unusual behaviors that a therapy dog doesn't typically exhibit like growling or other behaviors.

“Understanding his body language, understanding what his signs of stress are, is really, really important,” Bauman says.

Bauman brought Yoda to see Certified Veterinary Technician and Rehabilitation Veterinary Nurse Julie Burk and Dr. Karen Kline, board certified Veterinary Neurologist , to treat his condition and to make sure he was in the best possible place to continue as a therapy dog. Bauman and Yoda have already visited spaces like high schools and nursing homes, and in the future, she would like him to be available to victims of crimes who have to go to court.

Dr. Kline saw Yoda and after an MRI discovered a significant intervertebral disc protrusion causing compression of the nerves to the lower lumbar area. It could be equated to sciatica in a human, she says.

Yoda has physical therapy with Burk and weekly 20-minute acupuncture appointments with Kline.

“We're inserting needles into specific acupoints along the spine. We'll do local points, but also distal points. We put one up on the top of his head to relax him. He's a very good boy, loves his treats when he's getting his treatments,” she says. “It's not going to take the compression away, but it's definitely helping with his discomfort.”

“Our job is to keep him functioning at that level where he is comfortable enough to go out and do what he wants to do, which is to play and say hi and comfort humans, as a therapy dog” says Burke.”

Yoda’s physical therapy with Burk was to help with the back pain and lameness he experienced after his slide on the ice.

“Due to his injury, Yoda has shifted all of his weight to the front of his body, and so his front legs, neck and torso can get really tight compensating for what's going on in his back,” Burk says. “My job is to stretch him. We do things called cookie bends, bending his nose to shoulder and his nose to ribs. We also utilize the underwater treadmill, where the warm water helps to relax muscles and joints without adding more strain. The underwater treadmill makes stretching easier, minimizes injury, and the water provides resistance to help further our efforts to release tension and strengthen targeted muscles. I conduct the first session, when they're all warmed up and the water is 90 degrees. I take their legs through range of motion so I can stretch legs and joints and get everything moving and more comfortable for Yoda.”

The underwater treadmill is used to help reduce the weight on Yoda while he is receiving treatment. If he was not in pain, it could be used at a lower level to create greater resistance, Burk said.

“Water depth doesn't really matter, except for how it pertains to what is wrong with the animal. So I increase water depth for how much weight I need to take off the dog, or cat. For Yoda, he was working in 23 inches of water. It's pretty high because he's a big dog with back issues. I need to lighten his load. He's still getting a great workout because of all the water resistance, but it makes it easier for him to move, taking his weight off his body. If he was a perfectly healthy dog, the water would be lower to make it harder. More weight with resistance on his body. So, we look at what are we treating the dog for? How symptomatic are they? And then we adjust their water levels according to what they need, and if we see them struggling, I can go up or down and help them,” she says.

Because VCA Northwest Veterinary Specialists is a full specialty hospital, they have a neurologist, surgeons, ophthalmologists, radiation and more. This means once surgeons determine that a pet doesn’t need surgery or the circumstance dictates surgery could be avoided with rehabilitation, Burk steps in as a Certified Rehabilitation Nurse.

“Some of these dogs are paralyzed. They are not walking when they arrive to see me, and my job is to get them up and walking,” she says. “Many dogs get to walk again, others don’t, but we try to work with them nine months to a year to know how much function they are going to have after we're done.”

Burk says Yoda is now comfortable, which is important.

“Our job is to keep him functioning at that level where he is comfortable enough to go out and do what he wants to do, which is to play and say hi and comfort humans, as a therapy dog” she says.

Kline said she believes Yoda’s prognosis is good and that his lameness has subsided with treatment, and he is not demonstrating other symptoms associated with this injury such as incontinence. She agreed that as a therapy dog, it is important that Yoda is not in pain.

“The hope is that longer term, we can avoid surgery if we need to. Hopefully it won't come to that because that would be a huge undertaking. But if we have to, we will. But right now, he's doing well with his alternative care,” Kline says.

Bauman says she is grateful for the care Kline and Burk give to Yoda. Helping him with his limitations, which can be difficult for giant breeds, is also appreciated.

“Thank you for all that you do for not only Yoda, but for every other animal, because you don't get told it enough,” says Bauman.

After his initial therapy, Yoda continues to do rehab every other week, working on his core strength and stability. "Keeping him happy and healthy is his owner’s priority, and ours too," Burk says.