Herbie, the helpful Guinea pig

Herbie the Guinea pig may be small, but he plays a big role in the recovery of animals at the K9H20 pool facility in Abbotsford.

By Nicolle Hodges, Contributor

Two little pigs

Owner Kendall De Menech created the aqua therapy program in 2001, as a tribute to the passing of her loyal yellow Lab, Sandy.

She wanted to introduce the program to the local veterinarian community as a new option for animal recovery, recreational swimming, and weight management.

The 16×32-foot pool is used to assist creatures dealing with post-surgical recovery, osteoarthritis, amputation and other ailments, by engaging their muscles in pain-free cardio exercises, and helping to regain confidence.

The buoyancy of the water alleviates stress on the bones and joints, and reduces the shock on limbs affected by disabilities.

When a dog experiences a drastic change in its lifestyle, such as immobility, it can become repressed and unmotivated. Suddenly, chasing after a ball no longer has the same appeal.

That’s where Herbie comes in.

Lucy, an 11-year-old chocolate Lab, recently lost her left leg to cancer and has extreme difficulty walking.

De Menech decided to use a live motivator to entice Lucy to swim.

After numerous failed experiments with other animals, that were either too messy or aggressive, Herbie proved to be the perfect candidate.

“The Abbotsford SPCA sent Herbie my way after he was abandoned at the shelter. Animals will often come to stay for a week, and are still here three years later,” said De Menech.

“It’s a good thing I don’t live on a farm or else I would adopt every three-legged sheep and two headed chicken.”

Driven by curiosity, Lucy instinctively follows Herbie around the pool, even with just three legs.

The four-year-old Abyssinian long-haired guinea pig loves to swim, and has been helping canines in the therapy program for a year.

At times, Herbie sits on a float board, while on other occasions he swims in front of the “patients,” with De Menech controlling and guiding the activity.

Fraser is an 11-year-old beagle/basset hound cross that suffered a stroke, leaving him with limited movement in his back legs.

However, once in the pool with Herbie, there’s no indication that Fraser has a disability.

“I think the water serves as mental therapy for the owners as well. They want to see their pet happy, regardless of their disability,” said De Menech, who graduated from UBC in 1974 with a bachelor of arts in psychology-ethology (ethology is the scientific study of animal behaviour)

Fraser sometimes needs help finding his way back to the exit ramp. Herbie is there to lead Fraser out of the pool after their 30-minute swim session.

Herbie’s newest trainee, Maggie the six-week-old mini-pig, has recently joined the team.

Maggie will grow to just 12 inches, and will weigh no more than 25 pounds.

The average lifespan of a mini pig is 15 to 20 years.

They are intelligent animals that can be trained to use a litter box and perform tricks.

A pig never forgets the source of harm or distress, which is why training Maggie is a delicate process.

The hope is to eventually introduce her to nursing homes as a “therapy pig.” Her role will be to interact with seniors, stimulating their senses.

Maggie first needs to practise her socializing skills by learning to trust strangers and adapt to new situations.

The therapy pool exposes Maggie to a non-threatening environment that will help her gain confidence in unfamiliar situations.

Due to the similarity in size, Herbie is a calming presence for Maggie, and serves as an added interactive tool.

She watches Herbie swimming around the pool and sees that it isn’t dangerous.

It will take months of trust building and interaction before Maggie will confidently submerge herself in the pool.

It’s just another day on the job for Herbie the helpful guinea pig, who will be there alongside De Menech to lead the way – one hoof or woof at a time.