"I love all animals," says Varen Chapman. "I just happen to have found a niche working with dogs." That niche is Montana Water Dogs, her 15-year-old canine aquatic therapy facility.
Montana Water Dogs – her Original Endless Pool in a garage bay attached to her house – treats mostly "older dogs or dogs coming out of surgery." For these dogs, Chapman reports, "Water therapy can help so much. It works just as well with dogs as humans."
Why Aquatic Therapy for Dogs?
Chapman sometimes works with paralyzed dogs. "They can barely even turn their heads," she says. "Seeing them months later walking out – it's amazing!
"Just give them non-weight bearing activity – they can build that muscle and help correct muscle memory."
For dogs with limited mobility, aquatic therapy delivers other benefits, from the mental ("So many dogs have pent up energy!") to weight loss. Chapman sees that for "dogs that are overweight, it changes their metabolism. They start to lose fat and gain muscle."
Why Endless Pools?
"I did about five months of research," Chapman recalls, "and I kept coming back to Endless Pools. You have an amazing product.
"The benches on the sides of the pool are really beneficial for taller dogs. I get them to touch the bench so they have something to feel safe on."
"And the water quality system – I don't know who could beat it. With dog hair, that's constantly an issue." For Chapman, it isn't just for the dogs either. "I'm in there also! I want to make sure it's safe for all of us."
Endless Pools' customer service has also earned her praise. "Every time I called with some little thing, you guys are so good about helping me troubleshoot."
Case Study: Gus Gets Going Again
"Gus is a 9-year-old male boxer. He had never swum before. In September, he had a stroke, and he became paralyzed," Chapman recalls.
Gus's owner brought him to Montana Water Dogs for rehab. His first visit, "Two people carried him in. That day we just got him in the water." That would soon change.
"This dog went from not being able to do anything – now he's walking in! He runs around his car to come in. Now, we're just working on good coordination and balance.
"He was coming in three times a week, now he's coming in once a week. And no more pain medication! I haven't seen [signs of] pain in months."
Canine Aquatic Therapy Begins at Home
Chapman found her calling after her own dog, Maui, had knee surgery. That gave her occasion to meet Dr. Patti Prato, of Four Paws Veterinary Clinic. Prato prescribed aquatic therapy for Maui, and in the process, became Chapman's canine aquatic therapy mentor.
Chapman now has two rescue dogs: Zelda, a 12-year-old pit bull/boxer mix, and Sai Sai, a 4-year-old chocolate lab. "An hour a week, they swim with the current," Chapman reports. And that's particularly helpful for Sai Sai.
"When I got her, I didn't know" that Sai Sai had any ailments. X-rays soon revealed arthritis and hip dysplasia. "I can help her," Chapman recalls thinking. "The three days a week, hardcore with the current, all year round, have kept her muscles so strong.
"She has not had to be on any pain medication. We go running. We go hiking." Thanks to regular aquatic therapy, Sai Sai stays as active as a healthy dog her age!
A Canine Aquatic Therapy Pioneer
When Maui first needed aquatic therapy, the closest canine facility to their Missoula home was in Seattle, about 475 miles away! By the time Chapman began planning Montana Water Dogs, "There were only nine places that were doing water therapy with dogs" in the U.S.
Chapman trained at the North Carolina Canine Center and opened her Endless Pool facility to ailing dogs in July 2003. She's been a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals ever since.
For being a canine aquatic therapy pioneer, Chapman has earned our respect and gratitude … as well as a tail-wag and a big lick on the face.