Pit bull in rehabilatation


Physical therapist Petra Ford tends to Champ, a pit bull mix who was found abandoned in a box, unable to stand or walk. Ford took him in during his rehabilitation and later adopted him.

John Emerson

The clients of physical therapist Petra Ford will jump through hoops for her. They run on underwater treadmills and exercise on therapy balls. Using massage and stretching, Ford helps them recover from ailments such as arthritis, fractures, soft tissue injuries, ACL tears, and neurological disorders. Perfectly healthy clients also come to see her as they would a personal trainer—for fitness and conditioning, for weight loss, or to improve balance.

What makes Ford’s work so unusual is that her clients are dogs. A graduate of the Rutgers School of Health Related Professions (SHRP) physical therapy (PT) program, she pursued training to learn to apply her knowledge of human PT to canines. “Anatomically, dogs and people have something in common,” says Ford SHRP’98. “Their bone structure and muscle groups are similar.”

Ford’s practice, Aqua Dog Rehabilitation, located in bucolic Flanders, New Jersey, shares a parking lot and outdoor space with Top Dog Obedience School, where Ford and her business partner, veterinarian Kris Conway, met while training their dogs. There they learned about canine rehabilitation therapy, a new and growing field. They went for training and gained certification (only given to vets and physical therapists) and opened a practice that is divided into two components: rehab for injured, ailing, or elderly dogs, and conditioning for performance dogs. Partnering with a vet has advantages: Conway provides medical care, reads X-rays, and prescribes medicines as needed.

Ford found PT through a circuitous route. Following high school, she worked as a secretary, but her employers, seeing her potential, pushed her to attend college. After earning an undergraduate degree in PT in a joint program with SHRP and Kean University, she worked at Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation and the Matheny School before becoming a freelance physical therapist. She got one dog as a pet. She later got a second dog, which she trained for competitions.

Performance dogs participate in events that are akin to the Ironman and other human-fitness tests. So, only the strongest, best-conditioned dogs need apply. In 2012 Ford and her black Lab, Tyler, competed in the ultimate canine competition: the Obedience World Cup. Tyler won it—the first American dog to do so. Ford likes high performance herself: she runs, has cycled competitively, and practices yoga.

Performance dogs come to Aqua Dog for intensive training and exercise, much like a gym workout. “The dogs train in agility, obedience, and protection, which includes tracking and herding, going back to what dogs were bred to do,” says Ford, who has two performance dogs of her own, Zaiden and Zeal. 

She also uses PT to rehabilitate dogs with arthritis; injuries of the spinal cord, spine, and joints; fractures; congenital disorders; and the ravages of old age. PT makes the dogs stronger and improves muscle mass. Aqua Dog takes its name from hydrotherapy, a potent weapon in the PT arsenal. The dogs work out on underwater treadmills to rehab and improve conditioning. The water absorbs the impact to the joints, with the depth and treadmill speed adjusted for each dog.

Most dogs come for an initial evaluation without a specific diagnosis. “We hear, ‘My dog is limping; I don’t know why,’” says Ford. “We make a diagnosis and develop a rehab plan.” Most dogs come a few times a week; some even have insurance. There’s no limit to how far Americans will go to keep their pets happy and healthy. In 2013, they spent $55.7 billion on them, including $4.4 billion on grooming, boarding, pet-sitting, and training.

Ford understands the thinking: “People love their dogs so much that they’ll do anything for them. I have to agree. You just can’t have a bad day working with dogs.”