PACIFICA — It's a dog's life and, in Pacifica, life may improve for injured dogs when their owners finally gain access to a canine aquatic fitness center due to open this spring.

It's not the most conventional business venture, but San Francisco resident Cathy Chen-Rennie has spent enough time in Pacifica to know that locals here love their dogs enough to spend a little money on their rehabilitation. At the Rex Center, due to open in Pacifica's Palmetto Business District in late March or early April, the centerpiece will be an above-ground pool about half the size of a backyard swimming pool — the only such facility in the Bay Area.

Dogs will benefit from the exercise and the warm water in ways traditional physical rehabilitation can't provide.

"I'm hoping to help the dogs with arthritis or who have a hard time managing or who are missing a limb," said Chen-Rennie. "They get an opportunity to be weightless and have the buoyancy of the water support them for long enough that their body can readjust. If they won't swim I'm going to hold them in the water and they're going to get a massage."

The concept of doggie pool fitness was a foreign one to Chen-Rennie, a software engineering manager at a Redwood City firm, until last year when her dog Vaastu's leg gave out.

After an operation, she took him to the nearest rehab center in Menlo Park where she witnessed a form of water therapy that gave her the idea to take Vaastu into the hot tub in her own backyard and do some exercising. His recovery was very fast.

Intrigued, she started taking classes in canine warm water therapy and massage from other practitioners and eventually decided to go into business for herself — not as a certified canine rehabilitation specialist, but as a professional dog trainer and head swim coach. She would support dogs in their recovery using gentle, low-impact exercises rather than the underwater treadmill favored by traditional canine physical therapists.

"In canine rehab it's like, put a life vest on him, stick him in the tank, make him walk," she said.

The Rex Center will also offer a few holistic "extras" in keeping with the tone of the community, including a form of Reiki for its canine customers and aromatherapy.

Pacifica is one of a few California cities with a holistic veterinary practice, and Chen-Rennie is hoping to get referrals from them and several other veterinarians in the area.

She also hopes to spread word-of-mouth as a volunteer with POOCH, a local organization of dog lovers who want to see Pacifica create a dog park.

Pacifica Councilwoman Sue Digre is already a fan of the Rex Center in concept, not least because it will revitalize a corner of Palmetto Avenue best known for industrial landmarks like a recycling transfer station.

"We're all excited. It's foot traffic, it's low controversy. It's not like dogs on the beach or worrying about the environment or trashing an endangered species," she said.

The Rex Center was approved by the Pacifica Planning Commission in early January and awaits a building permit and a use permit from the California Coastal Commission.

Chen-Rennie is pouring her life's savings into her new business. It's a little scary, but as the owner of three dogs, she knows that she has herself spent thousands of dollars on canine surgery and physical therapy.

"I know a lot of people have been willing to spend money on a dog to help it live longer or have a better life. I'm confident that if I can make it a relaxing place to go for dogs, people will come. Because they want to make sure their dog's life will be great."

Staff writer Julia Scott can be reached at 650-348-4340 or at julia.scott@bayareanewsgroup.com.

The Rex Center
The Bay Area's first and only canine aquatic fitness center will open in Pacifica soon.
For details, visit www.rexcenter.com.
Future address: 1040 Palmetto Ave.
Future phone number(s): (650) 224-2183 or (415) 578-5735
Services offered: assisted swimming, dog training, Reiki, canine massage, and aromatherapy