Licorice barks excitedly when she sees the pool at Natural Healing Whole Dog Wellness in West Chicago.
For the next half-hour, the 6-year-old black Labrador swims back and forth retrieving two tennis balls thrown by a wetsuit-clad assistant and pausing only briefly to rest.
"She loves this place," said her owner, Ray Ozgowicz of Oswego. "She starts crying when we get about a mile away. She knows she's coming."
Ozgowicz and his wife, Marilyn, have been bringing Licorice to Whole Dog Wellness for swim therapy for about five years, ever since the Lab lost one hind leg to gangrene after it was broken and not set properly.
"We have to keep that (other hind) leg strong because it's the only one she has," Ozgowicz said. "Not only physically, but mentally I think it's good for her."
Licorice is one of 50 to 90 dogs a week who come to the canine fitness center and spa for an aquatic workout. Owners often travel between 30 and 45 minutes to get there, but some bring their dogs from as far away as Wisconsin and Indiana, owner Lee Deaton said.
The therapy isn't cheap. The cost for a half-hour swim is $55 or $75 for two dogs.
"People love their dogs," Deaton said. "For our clients, their dogs are much like a lot of people's children."
Some owners say the swim therapy literally is what's keeping their beloved companions alive. Many of the dogs are elderly, ranging in age from 11 to 16. They may have arthritis, hip dysplasia or knee surgery. The most common condition is a torn knee ligament that is surgically repaired, Deaton said.
She requires a veterinarian's release before a dog is allowed to swim, and tailors the workouts to the dog's age and physical condition.
Deaton said she discovered the benefit of swim therapy for dogs by accident.
Dog inspired healing
Deaton's beloved black Lab, Barney Bear, had been diagnosed with cancer back in 2002. The dog, an engagement gift from Deaton's husband, Scott, was receiving chemotherapy and had sustained a soft tissue injury to the leg in which he was receiving the cancer-fighting drugs.
The Deatons took Barney Bear with them on a vacation to Kentucky. After two days of swimming in warm lake water, the Lab lost his limp and walked as if he didn't have a care in the world, Deaton said.
Barney Bear lived 13 months more, dying on Deaton's wedding anniversary just short of his ninth birthday. He had given Deaton the idea for a new business.
"Everything I learned, I learned because of him," Deaton said. "I built this because of him."
Deaton started Natural Healing Whole Dog Wellness with an in-ground pool in her backyard nearly nine years ago. She anticipated receiving three or four clients a week. After the numbers grew to 50 or 60 a week, Deaton knew she had to expand.
She opened her new center in a mall on Neltnor Boulevard a year ago, and recently received West Chicago's Small Business of the Year Award. Deaton claims it is the first facility in the Midwest to have pools built specifically for dogs.
A smaller 12-by-16-foot pool accommodates small dogs, while larger canines and enthusiastic swimmers use the 16-by-24-foot pool. Different-sized life vests hang on the wall and Deaton said all the dogs use them, at least initially. The vests are for safety since some dogs may be out-of-shape and some breeds, such as boxers, have to be taught how to swim, Deaton said.
"It (the vest) also helps calm a lot of the dogs down," she said.
Licorice is such an enthusiastic swimmer that owner Ozgowicz puts the vest on her before they leave home.
"She would never stand long enough to get it on," he said.
Although many dogs love swimming, not all are keen about being in the water. Dogs like Licorice thrive on retrieving balls. Other canines work only for treats.
"It depends on what motivates them," Deaton said.
Whatever the motivation, the dogs still reap benefits from swimming, she said.
"Owners report seeing improvement in their dogs in as little as two or three sessions," she said.
Only one dog uses the pool at a time and follows an individualized routine. Dogs are lowered into the water on a hydraulic platform such as would be used to lower wheelchairs during water therapy for humans. Normally, two assistants work with them during their swimming session. Underwater benches running the length of the pool give the dogs a place to rest.
"It's a lot of exercise," Deaton said. "Based on the dog's age and physical condition, I determine how much they'll swim and how much they'll rest."
When their workout is finished, the dogs are ushered into a drying room that contains towels, a blow dryer and a place to lie down for canines that need to rest.
For some dogs, their swim therapy is coupled with massage, acupuncture, laser treatment or weight loss consultations. Whole Dog Wellness includes a store that contains everything from mobility products to grain-free kibble.
"The real big focus of the store is nutrition," Deaton said. "I don't believe dogs need carbohydrates."
Becky Poole of Carol Stream credits the raw food diet that Deaton encourages along with the swim therapy with restoring her dog's ability to walk. Poole started bringing Christy, a 13-year-old yellow Labrador, four or five years ago at the recommendation of a chiropractor. At the time, Christy was overweight, had two bad elbows (front leg joints) and bad hips.
"She didn't have a good leg to stand on so surgery was not an option," Poole said. "Swimming and going to Lee is the only thing that has kept my dog on her feet."
Christy lost 10 to 15 pounds on a raw food diet. At age 13, the Lab still limps but she is far better than she was, Poole said.
"That place is a godsend for me," she said. "Lee is very knowledgeable how to help dogs."
The pools where Christy and the other dogs swim have a copper oxidation treatment system to avoid exposing the canines to chlorine, bromine or other chemicals. Many older dogs are incontinent and Deaton said any waste is removed quickly.
If dogs arrive before their pool time, they and their owners may take a seat in the partitioned waiting room.
"The building is designed so the dogs don't know that there are other dogs in the building," Deaton said.
She may recommend three days a week for dogs starting treatment, but said she works with owners on what they can afford in time and money. Some dogs come once or twice a week for years. Others may have no more than one or two sessions total.
"We're seeing more of that in this economy than we have in the past," she said.
Poole said she brings Christy twice a week. Ozgowicz said he brought Licorice twice a week, until he had to reduce it to once a week for economic reasons.
Deaton said her own three dogs CeeCee, a 15-year-old yellow Lab; Abigail, a 10-year-old chocolate Lab; and Duncan D., a 6-year-old black Lab swim twice a week.
"I think it's why I have a 15-year-old yellow Lab," she said.
• Natural Healing Whole Dog Wellness, 946 N. Neltnor Blvd., West Chicago is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Swimming hours start at noon. For details, call (630) 483-9843.