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The Challenges of Rehabbing Police Service Dogs

31 Aug 2022

By Margaret Kraeling, PT, CCRT



I have been fortunate to assess and treat some police service dogs (PSDs) over the past few months. It has certainly been a challenge in thought processing around the assessment and treatment plan of these high drive, working dogs. 

In order to best approach these dogs we need to understand a little about their training. They are bred, of course, for their health but also their high drive, work ethic as well as their temperament. During training they are taught both to bite the bad guy as hard as they can and then go into a school for meet and greet with a class of children. 

During training for bite work the handlers use a muzzle on the dog to increase their excitement level, then pull the muzzle off and send them to bite the guy in the padded sleeve. If you have a handler bringing a dog into the clinic wearing his muzzle that dog is likely in work mode and looking for someone to bite. I would rather rely on the handler to have good control of his dog and bring him in without a muzzle. I find even the grumbliest dog mellows after the first day when they realize our treatment space is a non-working and non-threatening environment. Due to the distance most of these teams come to see us they usually stay for four or five days of consecutive treatment. By the end of that time the dog’s manner changes considerably as they realize that our clinic is a non-threatening environment and, in fact, they even learn some fun games including play in the Underwater Treadmill.

As a police officer / dog team they are trained to go from 0 to 100 in the blink of an eye. The dog can be relaxed and resting and then suddenly be running top speed on a track or to take down the bad guy. This presents a big challenge as we are usually so focused on warmups to avoid injuries. These dogs don’t have that luxury. It is also a challenge for rehab as we usually need to slow them down to retrain specific functions.

These dogs are also trained to face all situations head on so having us approach them from the rear for part of the assessment is threatening. I have found that the handlers are good at holding the dogs for whatever I have to do from behind like Sacroiliac Joint positional evaluation. Also I have not found one of these dogs that will willingly go into lateral recumbency even for their handlers. This makes it very difficult to carry out sustained muscle stretches. I have found that I am more effective to design functional / dynamic stretching exercises for the handler to work on. 

Fortunately, the handler’s job is to spend their time rehabbing this dog as soon as possible. The canine unit is often the most expensive of any police force so it is important that they return to work as soon as safely possibly. I try to design exercises that relate to some of their job demands. Simple, low level drug searches are often part of the job that the dog can do even as they are rehabbing an injury. One of the most difficult tasks for both dog and handler is slowing the dog down and teaching them control. Any tips we can provide has been eagerly accepted and appreciated by the handlers. At the same time we need to have that discussion about not returning to full duties until the dog is absolutely ready. There is always a push to get them back in the community sooner rather than later.  It is important that we understand the job demands involved and that our end-stage rehab is working toward these goals. 


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