Harley is wheeled to the front door of Canine Rehabilitation of Orange County in a beach wagon. The only body part exposed is her boxy head leaning on the padded edge of the cart.
The rest of her 65-pound pit bull frame is covered in soft velour blankets that look lovingly placed. Two staff members lift the year-old paralyzed dog out by her harness so they can begin working on her.
Lauryn Harker studied to become a certified canine rehabilitation practitioner, or CCRP, after feeling burned out as a registered veterinary technician.
“I was always meeting people and pets at their absolute worst,” she says about working in emergency medicine. “There was a lot of conflict and anger, and it really got hard when seconds counted.”
It ate away at her that she didn’t have closure.
“What happens when we patch them up and send them home?” she constantly wondered about the animals she cared for. Harker felt she needed a “kinder, more hope-filled” existence.
Her mentor and employer at the time was Tara Haddad, a Lake Forest oncological veterinarian, who offered two pieces of advice: 1) grow a thicker skin and 2) look into rehabilitation therapy.
“I had no idea that was a thing,” Harker says.
This seemed like a natural fit for a woman who has an affinity for fixing things – including her old house in Orange. She got her CCRP license after two years of schooling and is now in her eighth year of repairing canines.
“When you can restore what is lost, it’s just so, so cool,” says Harker, who sees about 20 dogs a day and has a client list of about 1,000. She employs five workers – either licensed or studying to be licensed.
“This isn’t a place you get hired just because you like dogs,” she notes.
Harker likens herself to a nurse and her practice more to a clinic than a gym.
“This isn’t like come and get a massage and feel better,” she says. “Every treatment is slightly different as I adapt therapy to constantly changing abilities and needs.”
She recently expanded her cramped quarters to a sprawling 4,000-square-foot, cinder block industrial building in Santa Ana. The building went through several iterations – including an illegal cannabis warehouse – before it became home to Harker’s practice.
“I fill a void in the community,” she says of her unique but growing area of specialty.
The airy facility is a revolving door of broken creatures who hobble in and out throughout the day, their owners hoping to give them a better quality of life. The staff enthusiastically greets each by name: “Hi Shiny!” “Hi Penny!” “Aw, there’s Rou!”
Ailments range from obesity to paralysis, like in Harley’s case.
During a recent two-hour visit, Harley received underwater treadmill therapy, in which she had to simulate the motion of walking by moving the dog’s limbs. This strengthens muscles while minimizing stress on the joints and bones, Harker explains.
Laser therapy was used to decrease inflammation and pain while stimulating cell repair. And electrical stimulation made the nerves talk to the muscles to get them moving again. Also, lots of coordination and strengthening exercises with various physio equipment were added to the strength exercises.
“She may walk, but with a silly gait,” Harker says.
Harley’s owner, Toshi Hamby, makes the 70-mile roundtrip trek from Riverside three times a week in hopes of getting her puppy back to chasing balls and squirrels, like she did before she was diagnosed with progressive tetraparesis, a neurological condition. Hamby cannot let herself think about what the future holds if her “very sweet and playful” Harley doesn’t recover.
The dog spent a month in the hospital after surgical complications and recently was referred to Harker as an emergency case.
“Tissue and bone have healing timelines,” Harker explains. “Once long-term damage has set in, it’s more difficult, if not impossible, to recover. The longer a case waits for medical interventions, the less likely we’ll be able to get a good return of function.”
Hamby and her husband, Henry, said they have seen incremental improvements after a month of treatment.
“Her stability is increasing by the day, and she develops more muscle mass and strength,” Henry says. “We believe in physical therapy. It’s a solid concept.”
Being in construction, Henry estimates he’s been treated for 100 different injuries. “It only makes sense that animals would benefit too. I’m surprised there aren’t more places like CROC.”
The Hambys have pet insurance, which has helped them afford Harley’s treatments. “It’s still a strain,” Henry concedes, “but not as impactful as if we didn’t have it.”
Although the hope for Harley is to get her running once again with her human pack, the Hambys will settle for the dog to just walk again. “Even if it’s with a John Wayne swagger,” Henry jokes.