Six years ago, Janet Van Dyke, DVM, packed all her surgical tools into a big blue Rubbermaid plastic tub. Best to keep them handy, she thought. This new idea about starting a canine physical rehabilitation business might be the biggest stumble of her career.
“I gave myself six months’ sabbatical to try and make this thing happen,” she says.
She needn’t have worried.
Today the Canine Rehabilitation Institute Dr. Van Dyke founded in Wellington, Fla., is a thriving business with a second facility opening this spring on the campus of Colorado State University in Fort Collins. The institute has certificated about 100 students, attracted an impressive roster of physical therapists and veterinarians to teach its courses and become a model provider of animal rehabilitation certification–even as the veterinary community works to create a governing body to oversee the certification of this emerging specialty. And if there’s one sure sign that a trend is sticking, it’s the arrival of healthy competition in the form of similar certification programs, which Van Dyke welcomes.
“A little competition forces us to stay on our toes and do the best that we can do,” Van Dyke says.
Competition has long been in Van Dyke’s blood and a driving force in her career path.
“I wanted to be a jockey, but I’m 5 foot 8 inches,” she says with a laugh.
Although equine surgery seemed the perfect fit for her interests and athleticism, Van Dyke, 51, says it was unheard of for women of her generation. She chose canine surgery and says she never regretted it.
“I think it’s the problem solving I like. It sounds like I’m being kind of crass, but if you look at surgeons we tend to be a little bit of the ADD [attention deficit disorder] type. You get in, you get your job done and move on to the next one,” she says.
After graduating from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in 1981, Van Dyke completed her internship and surgical residency at the Animal Medical Center in New York City and specialized in surgery, orthopedics and sports medicine for many years in New York and Chicago before moving to Florida.
About six years ago, she considered reducing her practice and perhaps teaching a few anatomy courses while enjoying a semi-retirement. But when she went to observe and work with Laurie McCauley, DVM, founder of TOPS Veterinary Rehabilitation Center near Chicago, it occurred to her that there was a great need for veterinarians and physical therapists to work together in the budding area of animal rehab.
Her business idea was born. Van Dyke would offer comprehensive training programs designed for veterinarians and technicians, distilling the science and technology of human physical therapy and veterinary medicine.
It would be a demanding program, but certification and a new skill set reward the graduates who pass every requirement and complete satisfactory case studies in the field. Not everyone passes.
Today, there are a handful of similar certification programs in the U.S. and a growing number of clinics offering rehab services. As yet, there is no governing body overseeing the education process for animal rehabilitators. The American Veterinary Medical Assn. has formed a committee to work on an oversight plan, Van Dyke says.
“I think it needs to be done,” Van Dyke says. “I applaud that.”
There's so much more science and art to it than just buying a water treadmill and sticking all the dogs in it.
Last year Colorado passed legislation allowing physical therapists to work with veterinarians after completing 80 hours of education that covers a host of specific topics. Van Dyke’s program meets the topic list spelled out by the Colorado legislation and exceeds its instructional time by 20 hours.
Van Dyke predicts that, eventually, board certification for the specialty of animal rehabilitation will follow.
“I see vet schools certainly coming on board with it as far as a clinical offering. They may not have the time or finances to add it to the curriculum yet, but 17 of the vet schools in the United States have clinical rehab services for their patients,” she notes.
For Van Dyke, the venture into professional rehab education has been hugely satisfying as a business and a passion. It combines the surgeon’s craft, the internist’s knowledge and the physical therapist’s skills and mechanical know-how.
“There’s so much more science and art to it than just buying one of those water treadmills and sticking all the dogs in it,” she says.
Best of all, it’s good for clients.
Van Dyke loves telling the happy recovery tale of an 80-pound shepherd mix hit by a car and left with little use of its hind quarters. When she first saw the dog while visiting one of her clients, Van Dyke was not optimistic. It dragged itself across the floor by its front paws and needed manual assistance to void its bladder and move its bowels.
A few months later she visited the same clinic and was baffled by a dog in the play yard that scampered about but often fell down, only to get up and carry on.
“I told them in the office that I thought that dog might be in trouble. And they said, ‘Oh, that’s Cayman. That’s THAT dog. Remember him? Now he comes here to play.’ Those are the sorts of cases that turn heads,” Van Dyke says.
Dramatic and satisfying as they are, such stories are actually a small part of what’s driving consumer demand for animal rehab, Van Dyke says. The biggest push comes from baby boomers discovering the benefits of physical therapy for their own arthritic aches and knee surgeries and wanting the same for their canine companions.
But work and sport are factors, too. Security, military and police dogs are often in need of rehab to treat repetitive-stress injuries. Agility enthusiasts love the competitive edge that comes with the sophisticated fitness training a trained therapist can safely deliver, she says.
“It’s such an incredibly popular sport across the U.S. Last year, there were 872 agility events in the U.S. They’re extremely competitive,” she says.
All of which means that blue tub of tools Van Dyke tucked into her garage didn’t have to be dragged back to work. In fact, most of the tools have found good homes with up and coming surgeons who’ve come through Van Dyke’s programs. And the semi-retirement? That’s been shelved, too. But it’s all good with Van Dyke.
“There’s something to seeing these animals get so engaged in rehab and seeing the clients get so engaged,” she says. “It’s fabulous.”