An unusual aquatic center inside a suburban Maryland strip mall has five narrow pools and several swimmers of varying abilities, but only one stroke: The dog paddle.
At the edge of the largest pool, a 9-year-old bear of a pooch named Bosley reluctantly inched down a tiled ramp into the 87-degree water, then languidly swam one length with the aid of a yellow life jacket and a human coach who walked alongside him. Bosley had taken a two-week break from his weekly session, and his fatigue showed.
"Oh, he hates it," said his owner, Kandee Zitelman, who watched from a bench. "But he's down from 81 pounds to 70 pounds," which, she added with a smirk, "is his goal weight."
Zitelman credited Bosley's slimmer physique both to a new diet that includes steamed veggies and to this canine-only swimming facility, which opened in 2016 to fill "a need that people were not aware of," according to owner Dominique Darcis. K9 Aquatic Center, wedged near a wine bar and a nail salon in posh Potomac, now has some 900 dog clients regularly booked for 30- or 45-minute sessions of fun, exercise or help with injury recovery.
"When we first heard about this, I thought, 'That's kind of ridiculous,' " said Carol DiPace, the co-owner of Ditto, a former agility competitor who a year earlier blew out three discs in her back and underwent surgery that left 23 staples in her spine and two back legs that did not move. Then the dog's surgeon sent them to this place, DiPace said, and now Ditto "is 90 percent of herself."
This is not the nation's first dog aquatics center, a title that reportedly belonged to a Los Angeles facility that opened in 1985 and later closed. But the concept has taken off in recent years as pet owners treat dogs more as family and veterinarians increasingly undergo training for canine rehabilitation, the dog equivalent of physical therapy. Similar swimming outfits can be found in cities around the country, and some veterinarians now prescribe walks on in-house underwater treadmills or laps in clinic pools.
"It's a relatively new field in veterinary medicine, but it's one of the fastest-growing areas," said Jonathan Block, the veterinary medical director at Water4Dogs in New York City.
Just as with humans, swimming or walking in water can help build muscle in injured dogs or those recovering from orthopedic or neurological surgeries, and it can be a low-impact workout for pooches pained by ailments such as arthritis or the canine version of Lou Gehrig's disease. Block's center provides patients with comprehensive rehabilitation plans that can include this "hydrotherapy," as well as obstacle course work for strengthening and acupuncture or therapeutic laser treatments for pain management. The goal, Block said, is "to help keep pets comfortable, mobile and active for as long as possible."
K9 Aquatic Center cannot legally call itself a hydrotherapy center because it has no veterinarian on staff. Darcis said about half its clients come for health reasons, and about half for recreation — including several energetic puppies whose owners, like the parents of toddlers, hope to tire out their pets.
On a recent afternoon, the swimmers included 2-year-old Daphne, a blind Belgian Malinois whose owner wanted to build her confidence and maybe start competing in dock diving. A few pools down paddled Molly, an arthritic 12-year-old, and her lively 2-year-old sister, Phoebe, who swim in the Chesapeake Bay in summers and needed a place to keep up their water skills. Nick, a handsome 7-month-old German shepherd who is training to become a service dog for a veteran, had just finished his second-ever swim.
"He did great," said his caretaker, Robin Swope of Damascus, Maryland, as Darcis fed Nick treats in the small lobby outside the pool area. "He's a young, active dog, and he needs a lot of exercise. And I'm old."
Darcis, a former antiques dealer, dreamed up her business after tiring of ferrying her own Labrador retrievers to a swimming facility in Virginia that is also used for horses. She'd seen similar storefront pools offer swim lessons for kids and wondered if she could do the same for dogs. There was some red tape but no legal barrier, and a year later, K9 Aquatics was open. Swim sessions start at $30; also on offer are 60-minute "splashing birthday" parties for up to six dogs.
It is particularly gratifying to see how swimming helps ailing or weak dogs, Darcis said. One cancer-stricken Labrador showed up for twice-a-week sessions until her death. "She was keeping all of her energy to swim," Darcis said, tears welling in her eyes.
Dog swimming as rehabilitation can be risky if not supervised by a vet, said Darryl Millis, a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine who helped develop the first underwater treadmill for dogs in 1997. (Goats, a pig and even arthritic cats have since used the treadmills at the vet school's aquatic center; the latter "don't necessarily love it, but some of them do enjoy it," he said.)
"You have to use a lot of caution" to avoid further injuring a dog, Millis said. But the benefits to strength and mobility are real. "It's one of those things that dogs can do without a lot of verbal communication."
Darcis said many clients are referred by their veterinarians, who sometimes provide owners with detailed instructions for pool work. The center's coaches, whose job requirements include a love for both dogs and swimming, get to know the animals and are "very, very careful" not to push them, she said. All the canine clients start with life jackets, which they only shed if they are clearly strong swimmers.
The job, head coach Kelly Coupe said, sometimes feels as therapeutic for her as it is for the dogs. There are certainly lots of dog hugs involved. As Ditto, clad in a turquoise and pink vest, finished her first length of the pool under Coupe's encouraging instruction, she leaped up onto the coach's right shoulder.
"She caught me," Coupe said, laughing.
Watching dotingly from the side were DiPace and Ditto's co-owner, Cookie Backelman, who wore a sweatshirt printed with the dog's image.
"She's a miracle," said Backelman, referring to the mixed-breed dog she jokingly calls a German Dachsweiler. Less than a year after her surgery, Ditto, age 11, now walks at least two miles a day. "We're very lucky to have found this place."