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It’s been 3.5 weeks since Barley, my border collie, had TPLO surgery. He’s almost 9 years old but he’s extremely active, so I knew that recovery would be hard on him. Just two days before he tore his CCL, Barley worked a full day as a conservation detection dog on a wind farm, running miles and miles in search of bats that had been killed by the turbines. He’s used to spending 8+ hours per day with me outdoors before returning home for bed.
Even if your dog is not as active as Barley, the first two weeks after such a big surgery are bound to be hard. Your dog is going to be in pain, bored, cooped up, and frustrated.
Aside from preventing any injuries or complications after surgery, one of your biggest challenges is going to be trying to keep your dog feeling fulfilled and happy while on crate rest.
Here’s what I did to help Barley through.
- Ask the vets for pharmaceutical help. We ended up giving Barley Gabapentin 3 times per day as well as Trazodone as needed. I’ve written quite a bit about behavioral medications to help my clients out, but this was the first time my own dog has been on meds. WOW they helped a lot! With Gabapentin, I noticed that he seemed a bit more relaxed and less antsy. This was nice. But the Trazodone really made a difference. I only gave it to him 4-6 times, but each time I noticed a marked decrease in vigilance. He slept soundly in the sun as if he’d hiked all morning. I didn’t notice any adverse side effects or outright sedation, but the meds really helped relax him and soothe anxiety and frustration. This was especially helpful as we transitioned from week 1 (where he was painful enough to not want to move) to week 2 (where he started feeling better but still wasn’t supposed to be going on walks or exercising). We paired all of this with his pain meds and antibiotics.
- Made his physical therapy fun. For the first two weeks post-op, Barley’s main exercise was range-of-motion. He did NOT like this at first; even when I was being gentle and slow, it seemed like I overstretched him at times. I got a bottle of squeeze cheese so I could draw a big “B” on the wall, then let him lick it off while I stretched him.
- Kept the other animals away from him as needed. Barley was definitely quite painful after his TPLO surgery – of course he was! This meant he was pretty irritable with Niffler (my other border collie) and Norbert (our new cat). I ensured that if he was resting, the other animals gave him space. If he lifted his head to stare at them or growled at them, I moved them away. He was in pain and deserved space. I never scolded him for growling at the other animals. He was just communicating his need for space and comfort.
- Played ultra-tiny scent work games. Barley is a working detection dog, so normally scent work is a very exciting game for him that he’ll play for HOURS every day. If he looked like he was having a low-pain day, I’d set a tiny scent work puzzle up for him. I used a tiny fragment of a dead bat (his target odor), but you could use treats, essential oils, or whatever else your dog knows how to sniff out. I mostly focused on vehicle searches and I always kept him on-leash. I never set the hides high up and always ensured I kept him well-controlled. I rewarded with food instead of with his normal toys. If your dog isn’t trained to do scent work, this is a great time to start! Consider playing with hidden food first – just hide it around the house! You can also follow along with my detection puppy training playlist to see how I took Niffler from a 9 week old baby to a full detection dog.
- Give plenty of massages. Barley’s shoulders, neck, back, and hips were quite sore from hopping around. As a way to bond and kill some time, I massaged him for 5-10 minutes 2-3 times per day. We did some light rubbing, then skin rolls, then worked on any knots I found. I use much lighter pressure with dogs than I do with people and I am very responsive to what he leans into or pulls away from.
- Micro-Sniffaris. In the first two weeks, I wasn’t really supposed to walk Barley aside from his potty breaks. We walked less than a block a day at first, but built up to 1/4 mile by about week two. I only walked him as far as he could hobble; if he started to hop on the injured leg I went too far! I kept him on leash and encouraged LOTS of sniffing, never rushing him along. Sometimes we just drove to a park and sat in the grass with him on-leash, taking in the sights and sounds.
- Micro-games. Barley LOVE LOVE LOVES fetch and tug. Obviously right after his TPLO surgery he couldn’t play those games, but we made a tiny compromise. If he laid down, I could play extremely gentle tug with him. His eyes sparkled; he loves this game! Even though it was on a tiny level compared to his usual game, it brightened his day and we built the same suspense and joy into the stationary game as he normally gets from flying into a tug toy at top speed. We played a similar game with fetch, where he laid down and I’d toss a toy into his mouth for him to catch. Do not try these games if your dog will jump or twist even if you keep the game small; I am lucky that Barley will match my energy and the “size” of my game.
- Puzzle toys and shaping games as needed. I suspect many of you have already considered puzzle toys and training games – the trouble is, your dog isn’t burning many calories and gaining weight post-op isn’t a great idea. We ended up not doing much with puzzle toys or shaping games because I was so worried about weight gain. Barley did get some bully sticks, but training games were almost universally out of the question because he’s such an active trainer that I was sure he’d overdo it. Your mileage may vary; this might work for you and your dog.
I hope this helps you keep your pup entertained after their TPLO surgery!
Kayla founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.