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Natural Awakenings Fairfield Cty/Housatonic Valley, CT

Paws & Paddle Canine Conditioning

Jun 01, 2015 01:21AM ● By Nicole Miale

Growing up as a multi-sport athlete in Rhode Island, Gail Henderson always knew she wanted to work in a career related to sports medicine and athletics. When she experienced her first serious injuries in high school, she researched how to get better faster so she could return to playing the sports she loved. That was her introduction to the world of physical therapy, leading her to study sports medicine at Indiana State University and work as an athletic trainer while getting her degree and certification in physical therapy from the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Little did she know that was just the start of a unique path which would lead her to not only work with human athletes, but canines as well.

“I never had any idea that one sentence was going to change my life and the direction of my work,” she says. “I had been looking for a niche, trying to figure out what I wanted my own practice to focus on. I was treating a woman who told me she had to cancel her next set of appointments because her dog was having knee surgery. I half-jokingly asked if there was anything I could do to help. I didn’t expect her to say yes.” The woman’s vet had recommended physical therapy to help her dog recover function after the surgery. “The light bulb went off and I knew I was going to specialize in therapy for people and dogs,” Henderson says. The idea for what would become Paws and Paddle Canine Conditioning was born.

At that point in Henderson’s 20-year career as a physical therapist, there were only 15 clinics in the country doing physical therapy with dogs. In 2001, she began a two-year program in Canine Rehabilitation that had just been approved by the University of Tennessee. Henderson became one of the first 36 practitioners in the world to earn the designation as Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner (CRRP). She is now one of two CRRPs in Fairfield County with about a dozen practicing in other areas of Connecticut. There are currently three programs offering CRRP training for physical therapists, vets and vet techs only.

Henderson says 98-99 percent of the anatomy of the two species is the same if a human gets on their hands and knees. Humans have collarbones while dogs have tails and more vertebrae, but the physiology and its functionality is essentially the same. Thus, the same kind of rehabilitation is needed for optimal recovery post injury or surgery. The goals of therapy include decreased pain and swelling, protection of other limbs from compensatory trauma, controlled early mobilization to limit effects of disuse, restoration of normal movement patterns, and earlier and safer return to fun and function.

Treatment for canines is by veterinarian referral only. While much progress has been made in the years since Henderson started her practice, the development of this emerging field has not been easy. “Even 14 years later, I still face skeptics,” she explains. “More progressive vets get what we’re doing and understand what a difference this makes in an animal’s recovery of function. Most pet owners are relieved because while they might be concerned about cost initially, they quickly realize they can’t do everything they want to at home and need someone to help them and their animal. But some vets still tell people just to walk their dogs after knee surgery. And walking is good, but the first time the dog takes off and runs, they’re likely to injure themselves because they haven’t run in 8 weeks or more. You have to understand the process of healing and function which is not necessarily a vet’s area of expertise.”

Henderson is highly trained in observation of movement and gait analysis; her facility in New Milford is the first clinic in the country to house both human and canine conditioning equipment, which is state-of-the-art in both areas. The two clinics share a building but are completely distinct from each other, with separate entrances. She treats humans on Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays and sees canine patients on Tuesday, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Although her work began as purely physical, Henderson has incorporated various forms of energy healing and bodywork over the years, such as Therapeutic Touch and Reiki. “Injuries and recovery are not just physical experiences,” she explains. “Nothing is just physical. We must address the internal and external factors affecting the body-mind-spirit combination in order to heal faster and achieve the best outcome.”

Henderson enjoys working with both species and plans to continue doing both. She gets a lot more kisses from her clients on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Paws and Paddle Canine Conditioning is located at 350 Litchfield Rd, New Milford. For more information, call 860-355-0209 or visit

Nicole Miale is publisher of Natural Awakenings Fairfield County. Connect with her at [email protected]. She didn’t know dogs had knees until her husky companion Shiloh tore her ACL and required surgery in March.

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