Paws Aquatics

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Gets dogs in the swim

Max, an 11½-year-old Lab mix born with hip dysplasia, just knows when they pull up.  “It’s our special bonding time.” says Viki Bisby of Damascus, OR.  Maddie, a 13-year-old yellow Lab, is out the door like a shot when she hears the phrase, “Let’s go swimming!” says Peter Williams of Portland. 

These lucky dogs (and their people) have discovered the healing power of swim therapy at Paws Aquatics Canine Swim Center in Milwaukie, OR.  Bisby found the warm 88 degree water worked wonders for Max’s hips.  And Maddie?  Williams says she runs around like a teenager after doing her laps.

Diane Kunkle, owner of Paws Aquatics, sees the therapeutic and rejuvenating properties of canine water therapy every day.  Literally.  “Swimming works all of a dog’s muscles without impact.” says Kunkle. This is what makes exercising in water safe and effective, even (or perhaps especially) for the frail, elderly or injured.

“A half-hour of swimming translates to about five miles of walking on a leash,” says Kunkle. 

Whatever the breed, age or size of the dog, swimming offers these benefits:

  • A fountain of youth of sorts for the arthritic and creaky.
  • Faster, easier recovery from surgery or injury.
  • Helps reach and maintain a healthy weight — in a fun way.
  • Calms high-strung dogs and relaxes the shy and timid.
  • Nurtures the animal/human bond.
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The atmosphere at Kunkle’s in-home pool is at once spa-like and unassuming — a combination that’s proven pleasing to most.  Music plays softly in the climate-controlled space, a mosaic mermaid shimmers from the bottom of the 40 by 10 foot expanse of blue, and windows, skylights, benches and plants all create a feeling of a tropical escape.  The bubbling hot tub awaits anyone who’d like to relax while watching their pooch enjoy their assisted swim.

A vet tech of 24 years, Kunkle spent most of her career working with dogs recovering from orthopedic surgery at an emergency/critical care animal hospital in the Bay area.  She and her husband moved to Oregon two years ago when he professionally relocated.

They wanted a home with an indoor pool so their water-loving, dock-diving Labrador, Porterhouse, could swim year-round.  While canine water therapy facilities were beginning to appear on the landscape at that time, Kunkle found that most in her area were inside doggie daycares or rehabilitation clinics. 

With her experience in vet care and appreciation for the power of water exercise, Kunkle decided the pool they found (they did indeed find their perfect home) would ultimately be used by more than just Porterhouse.  She took a course on swimming dogs for rehabilitation (open only to vets and CVTs) at the Canine Rehabilitation Institute in Maryland, and opened Paws Aquatics in late 2009.

In the beginning things grew slowly but steadily.  Kunkle says at that time, “A good week was seeing 20 dogs.”  Then an article appeared in the daily paper, and things got busy. 

The business has grown to see an average 80-90 different dogs each week, or about 15 per day (almost what she’d seen in a month in the beginning).

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While that many dogs may conjure images of murky waters and chaos, the opposite is true. Kunkle did her homework before choosing the pool’s all-natural cleaning system.  While a bit complicated, the gist is that rather than sanitize with chlorine, the system uses ultra-violet light and ozone gas, which are far better for dogs and people.  Kunkle says it’s the same system used for the San Diego Zoo’s polar bear exhibit.      

New clients typically begin with an assisted swim, during which they are assessed.  Depending on swimming ability and confidence in the water, some dogs are fitted with a harness or float coat, while others might get a little extra training on the specially designed ramp.  Assessments also include heart and lung checks to ensure there are no concerns such as heart murmur or respiratory issue, which could make swimming potentially harmful. 

Sessions typically run a half-hour (an hour when canine friends join in) and owners are welcome to choose from a vast selection of toys.  Max prefers his all-time favorite, the tennis ball, while Maddie loves fetching a little rubber chicken.

People are welcome to get in the pool with their dogs for one on one bonding.  “Sixty percent of clients come for the fun, fitness and play with their dogs,” says Kunkle.  “The other 40 percent does it for the therapeutic aspect.”  

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After each session, pups are treated to a towel rub-down complete with coat conditioner and ear cleaning.  People can spiff up themselves in the spacious shower/dressing room just for them.

Whether they come for health or fun, Paws Aquatics now has a full roster of regulars, many of whom have been with her from the beginning. 

“It’s a wonderful experience to share with your best friend.” says Bisby. 

“Thank you Diane, for giving us our old Maddie back,” Williams says.

Paws Aquatics • 971-244-2227 •


Vonnie Harris is a freelance writer, and operator of BowWows & Meows Pet Services of SW WA. She and her brood, Jake and Jessie, both yellow Labs, and parrots Pedro (Yellow-Nape Amazon) and Lorali (African Grey) reside in Vancouver. Vonnie also is “the face of Spot” at many Portland-area pet-related events. Contact her at