Study trades canes for dogs to help Saskatchewan kids with cerebral palsy walk

A team at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S) is studying how rehabilitation dogs can help children living with cerebral palsy walk.

Cerebral palsy is a neurological condition that can affect body movement and muscle co-ordination.


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Physiotherapist Sarah Donkers, at U of S’s department of rehabilitation science, has found service dogs can be more effective than walkers or canes in improving gait and mobility for some children.

She said their team has seen immediate improvements in children’s walking patterns by using the Labernese, a mix between a Labrador retriever and a Bernese mountain dog.

“We think this may be something to do with the animal having a natural walking rhythm, but this is what we are going to study,” she said in a press release.

“We want to know how these improvements occur and will be studying many things such as muscle activation patterns. This is an innovative intervention strategy to improve gait, independence, and overall well-being of children living with cerebral palsy.”

The Labernese are trained to steady children’s gait by walking alongside them with a harness, navigate bumps on the sidewalk, and brace if a child becomes unsteady.

“The dogs are designed to replace some of the walking aids and help with balance training, but they also provide other functions and give people more confidence,” Donkers said.

“They can help navigate real-world environments — like going through a door or assisting in case of a fall — and the dogs may make therapy more enjoyable.”

Donkers said the long-term goal is to increase the use of mobility service dogs in physical rehabilitation and ultimately improve access to the canines for people in Saskatchewan.

The holistic study by researchers from U of S’s departments of rehabilitation science, kinesiology, sociology and veterinary medicine was awarded $50,000 by the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation.

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