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Exploring Whole Health for Dogs at Any Age

This series is brought to you by our partner, Purina ONE®. These stories share the innovations that are changing how we care for and learn from our pets. Read more about how pets—and the people who love them—can brighten lives and strengthen our communities at the GOOD Pets hub.

When it comes to pets, providing a nutritious diet, taking them for regular checkups at the veterinarian, and taking dogs for walks are all great starts to keeping them healthy and happy. But for pet health researchers, they work every day to learn even more about how people can help their dogs and cats enjoy a rich life. At Purina’s pet care centers, researchers and scientists have been studying and learning new, out-of-the-box ways to provide training and therapy for dogs, including establishing training regimens at an early age and giving water-based therapy for older dogs.

Dr. Kay Dowling, Research and Development Center Head at Nestle Purina, and her team of researchers created “puppy kindergarten” to train puppies to become good citizens. On a daily basis, caretakers and behaviorists teach young puppies basic skills like how to sit, stay, and walk on a leash and help reinforce the lessons through daily tasks. The more advanced training involves helping the puppies adapt to grooming, kenneling, and being approached by strangers, and works to cover a more inclusive (and realistic) range of complex human-dog social interactions than standard obedience training.

The Nestle Purina Pet Care Centers are designed like a home environment and rather than simply teaching that a “good dog” can be quiet and obedient, they’re built around the belief that interacting with different people and places is core to a dog’s life experiences. “From a psychological point of view, the dogs are initially socialized through regular play and indoor walks in varying environments. For example, we expose them to different textures and experiences so they can adjust to new surroundings like elevators, stairs, and carpeted rooms,” Dowling says.

As puppies excel in puppy kindergarten, they eventually go through behavioral evaluations, which then prepare them for Purina’s other programs, including an employee health and wellness program at the Research and Development Center. Employees get to take dogs on daily walks around an outdoor walking trail and pond, so that the dogs get healthy activity and staffers get a chance to enjoy the health benefits of a pet-friendly workplace, which studies have shown improve employee mental health. It’s fun for both, but this also prepares and teaches the dogs valuable social skills. Also, this program provides Purina’s behavior experts with invaluable insight on understanding the dogs’ capability and potential based on how they interact with the employees during these walks.

For the other side of the age spectrum, Dowling’s research team has special programs tailored for more senior dogs. While young puppies need to learn how to behave and interact with the world, Dowling makes sure that older dogs receive physical therapy and relaxation using a special set-up akin to having a slow-moving treadmill in a large tank of warm water. Dowling explains how treadmill exercises through the warm water can help with pain relief, weight management, circulation, and relaxation for aging pets: “When dogs go through our hydrotherapy program it improves not only their muscle strength and range of motion in their limbs, but also their mental health. You see it in their body language. They wag their tails more, they smile, and they interact more with people.”

While most pet owners today can’t stop by the local pet store to pick up a hydrotherapy tank, exploring how pet owners can meet the needs of aging pets is a growing field of interest. And from socializing young puppies just starting out in life to exercising seasoned senior dogs, Dowling and her team are continuing to explore new ways for pets to enjoy whole health at any age.

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