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Tips for preparing your dog for post-surgery rehabilitation

17 Jan, 2021

2021 may be the year you schedule your dog for surgery for a condition such as cruciate ligament damage, luxating patella, hip dysplasia, vertebral disc disorder or the like. After planned surgery, your vet will ask you to undertake some form of rehabilitation. This may range from restricted exercise for a short period or a longer term programme involving different therapeutic modalities.

Regardless of the nature of the programme, having a clear rehabilitation plan before your dog undergoes surgery allows you to be prepared. More importantly, it gives you time to adequately prepare your dog for their post-surgery routine. Without a clear rehab plan, you are risking your dog re-injuring themselves, losing muscle strength and tone, experiencing prolonged period of pain, and potentially not returning to full function.

Post-surgery your dog will experience pain, inflammation and loss of function, particularly for surgery relating to musculoskeletal structures. When a dog is in pain or discomfort and unable to move normally, they are less able to learn. So, introducing new places, experiences or routines to your dog, particularly in the early stages of healing, adds unnecessary pressure. Here are some tips many of my clients have used to prepare their dogs for successful post-surgery rehabilitation.

Pre-surgery fitness

Prior to surgery, work on improving the “health” of your dog’s muscles and joints (as much as possible within the constraints of their condition). In my practice, dogs with adequate muscle tone, joints that have good range of motion, and good body awareness before their surgery, typically can weight bear within days of surgery and do not experience significant muscle atrophy.

When a client is planning surgery, we work on their dog’s joint function (for the unaffected limbs), build muscle tone, and address muscle strains, particularly, in the contralateral limb where most load will be taken during initial recovery phase for surgery. This preparation work is undertaken within the limitations of the dog’s condition.

Set up recovery area at home

For most rehabilitation plans, you will be asked to restrict your dog’s movement post-surgery. Depending on the type of surgery, this phase may be a couple of days or even weeks, so take the opportunity to set up your dog’s rehab area well in advance.

Considerations for this rehab area may include:

  • This area needs to be a place where the dog can rest comfortably and not move around. So how will you contain your dog and ensure other pets and family members do not disturb them and entice them to move. Ideas for containment may be a crate or an exercise pen. You could perhaps use a small room and install a baby gate.
  • If this area will be up stairs, how you will get your dog out to toilet.
  • The surface in this area needs to provide sufficient traction and be easily cleaned – rubber matting like yoga mats are ideal.
  • When transporting your dog to go to the toilet or to undertake rehab exercises, how will you prevent them running or jumping – consider having additional leads, head halters, or harnesses for extra support readily available near their dog’s rehab area.

Set up the rehab area well in advance of your dog’s surgery, this allows everyone in the household to be familiar with it and give your recovering dog plenty of space post-surgery.

Before surgery, accustom your dog to area by asking them to go into this place and rest for 15 -30 minutes at a time. Initially, stay in the room with them to give them some support. If you are planning to feed the dog in this area post – surgery then start this practice a week or two before the surgery.

If you are planning to use a crate for containment, ensure the dog is very comfortable sleeping in their crate during the day. If your dog is not comfortable in a crate before their surgery, then seriously consider crate training because your dog will be in a crate at the vet’s prior to and post- surgery.

Handling practices

Another pre-surgery training activity is to accustom your dog to all the different ways you may need to handle them after their surgery. Here are some ideas for handling scenarios you may encounter after your dog’s surgery:

  • Lifting the dog into and out of the car – this may be required for several months depending on the nature of the surgery.
  • Carrying the dog up or down stairs
  • Home exercises – If you vet has given you home exercises to perform post-surgery, start training the dog to perform these exercises beforehand. Check with your vet what is safe to do before the surgery.

For example, if you have been asked to do some passive range of motion exercises post-surgery, get your dog used to lying down for you and then praise and reward them for allowing you to hold their limbs firmly, as you will need to do post-op.

  • Cryotherapy – You may be asked to apply cool packs to your dog after their surgery or following a rehab exercise session. Work with your dog beforehand to accept the application of a cool pack.

Equipment / Gear

Depending on the size of your dog and their level of training, you may consider introducing different equipment such as a harness, brace or head halter to achieve your rehab goals. Work with your dog before their operation to be comfortable with these items.

When introducing your dog to new gear, consider any limitations with putting the equipment on the dog post-surgery. For instance, if the dog needs to step into a harness and they are not expected to be weight bearing on one leg after their operation, train the dog to get the harness on a different way beforehand.

Many dogs will need to wear a head cone to prevent them licking their stitches. Pre-purchase a cone and accustom your dog to wearing it and resting in before surgery.

Rehab exercises

Check with your vet about the type of exercises you will be required to perform to help rehabilitate your dog. Use the time before the surgery to gather your supplies and accustom the dog to these exercises in advance. Examples of rehab exercises.

  • Lead walking – In the early stages post-surgery, dogs must be toileted on lead and take their initial exercise on lead. Lead walking is just what the name says “walking” not trotting, dragging, jumping etc on lead. If you dog cannot walk slowly on lead without trotting then consider using a head halter or train the dog to walk on lead.
  • Cavalettis – Depending on the surgery, dogs may be asked to walk over low rails after the acute stage of healing has passed. Gather your supplies and get the dog used to this exercise. Based on your vet’s advice, pre-surgery set up the equipment and allow your dog to investigate and walk over the rails on the ground only.
  • Hydrotherapy – If hydrotherapy is part of your rehab plan, then book a visit or two before the surgery to introduce your dog to the facility, practitioner and even the equipment.
  • Massage / Acupuncture or any body work – Book a session before the surgery so your dog can meet the practitioner, be familiar with the surroundings and the characteristics of the treatment. From personal experience when massage and remedial exercise has been prescribed, the dogs who are familiar with a massage treatment including passive range of motion and other techniques before the surgery progress more quickly as they are familiar with me and the treatment, so they can relax immediately.


Depending on the nature of the surgery, some dogs will not be able to resume their normal exercise or training regime for several weeks, at least. They will also not be able to play as normal with other animals in the household or family members. You, therefore need to plan how you are going to enrich the dog’s life during rehab.

Here are some ideas to consider:

  • Feed meals from Kongs or other “stuffable” toys. You can split the dog’s daily energy intake across several Kongs / toys. “Snuffle” rugs are another great idea. These are particular good solutions during the initial stages of healing when the dog needs to be relatively still. As they are able to be more mobile, you could try treat scatters in their rehab area or on the grass in the yard.
  • Nose games – Train your dog to find your scent, a novel odour, like a tea bag or a treat, or an object, like their ball. Initially, reward the dog for touching their nose or paw on the object or the vessel containing the target odour. You can start playing this game in the dog’s rehab area while they are lying down. As they become more mobile, you can increase the size and complexity of the search area. You an even take this game on the road in lieu of a visit to the dog park as it can be performed on lead.
  • Tricks – Teach your dog tricks during their rehab. There is a myriad of tricks for each stage of the dog’s healing – some of the rehab exercises may even be tricks! In the early stages of healing ideas for tricks may include:
    • Targeting – ask the dog to touch a part of their body (e.g. nose, paw, chin, muzzle, shoulder) to your hand, knee, foot, or an object.
    • Speak – ask the dog to bark on cue
    • Take – hold an object in your mouth – this trick can progress to a retrieve, or tidy (put your toys away)

As the dog becomes more mobile, you can extend the types of tricks you teach them.

Before surgery, plan the dog’s enrichment activities for all stage of their healing and gather your equipment in advance.

  • New places – Take your dog to new places and let them take in new sights, sounds, and smells. Initially, you can simply take the dog for a drive and stay in the car. As they become more mobile, you can add an exercise session or plan to do some rehab exercises while you are out and about. Check out the parks and green places in your local area as possible places to explore during rehab.
  • Exercise alternatives – For dogs having surgery for ACL, hip dysplasia and other joint related conditions, it is likely they will not be able to free run with other dogs or gallop for many weeks even months post-surgery, so plan the type of exercise they can do to maintain the cardiovascular, muscle and mental health. Here are some ideas:
    • Swimming – in a pool or beach. Keep the dog on lead to reduce the risk of re-injury.
    • Enrichment walks – It is recommended to use a comfortable harness and long line for these walks.
    • Brisk lead walks – If you have a social butterfly, you could perhaps invite some of their doggy friends to join them, as long as you prevent any jumping, lunging or quick movements.

Like with all other aspects of your dog’s rehabilitation programme, plan their enrichment activities well in advance, do your research and gather your supplies.

When planning your dog’s surgery, speak to your vet or surgeon about the expected stages of rehab, the goals of each stage and the type of activity your dog can perform in each stage. By being prepared for the stages of rehabilitation, you are well positioned to support your dog to a full recovery.

Full Stride provides remedial massage treatments to keep dogs pain free and active. I regularly work with dogs recovering from surgery to address pain, muscle tension and aid in restoring normal joint and limb function.

Until next time, enjoy your dogs.

Image by J C from Pixabay