It all began with a friend's swimming pool and a paralyzed German Shepherd named Sophie.
When Leslie Gallagher McMahon started Two Hands Four Paws, a canine rehabilitation facility, out of her backyard 17 years ago, she had just wrapped a successful decade as the director of international affairs for a Spanish media mogul and was considering her next move after his passing. Fluent in Spanish and savvy in global dealmaking, she had myriad options on the table, including a lucrative offer from a major media company.
Instead, McMahon found herself coaxing her late boss's aging German Shepherd, severely injured after being dropped at the groomers, back to mobility—by swimming with her every day for a few weeks.
“I dragged her to surgeons, chiropractors, homeopaths—no one could help her," McMahon recalls. “If somebody would have said to me, you need to stand on your head and stick garlic up your nose and chant in Hebrew, I would have done it because I was so desperate to help this dog. Then my brother's wife suggested 'swimming' her. Within four weeks, I had her walking again."
Two Hands Four Paws founder Leslie McMahon.
The experience left McMahon both exhilarated and frustrated. “I was so angry that there was nobody in Los Angeles who knew anything about doing physical therapy on dogs," she says. “I thought, 'This is crazy.'"
So at 35, the California native embarked on a second career, going back to school for degrees in canine and human massage therapy and canine rehabilitation. “It was so uncomfortable being back in a classroom, but I did it," McMahon, now 51, says. At the same time, she volunteered in the office of a board-certified veterinary surgeon to get a feel for the cases she might be taking on in her future career.
Soon, with savings she had accumulated from her previous job, she launched her own animal rehabilitation business out of her garage with a pop-up pool and a treadmill.
Just as she suspected, she had discovered a huge untapped market. “I hung up my shingle and started getting dog after dog after dog," she recalls. Today, animal rehabilitation is one of the fastest-growing areas in veterinary medicine, according to DVM360, an online trade magazine for the industry.
In 2008, McMahon funneled more of her savings into expanding to a 6,000-square-foot facility with a state-of-the-art pool, customized underwater and land treadmills, and acupuncture and laser-therapy programs. She now oversees a team of 25 veterinarians, acupuncturists, and certified therapists who treat about 40 dogs a day.
Many of the dogs McMahon treats enter the clinic on stretchers, unable to walk due to disc diseases, torn ligaments or arthritis. McMahon and her staff use water treadmills, swim sessions and massage therapy to strengthen limbs and loosen muscles. One of her most challenging cases was an abandoned Doberman named Kenny, paralyzed after a metal door was dropped on his neck. Even McMahon wasn't sure she could help the pooch, but she worked out a rigorous program that included swimming, massage, laser therapy, acupuncture and assisted standing and walking. Kenny now runs, jumps, and plays like any other dog, and his against-all-odds recovery was picked up by media outlets around the world.
While McMahon's official role is founder and president, she wears multiple hats on any given day, moving easily from psychologist and human resources specialist to a Zen expert who creates a peaceful spa-like environment for worried owners. She also often boards one or two disabled dogs in her own home, getting up every couple of hours to express bladders or turn them over so they don't get pressure sores.
“There are days when I leave here exhausted and my back is killing me because I lifted eight paralyzed dogs in and out of a pool all day long, but it's very rewarding," she says. "I absolutely love what I do."
Surrounding herself with a caring, compassionate staff is an important key to the company's success, McMahon says. She also goes out of her way to thank veterinarians who refer dog owners to her clinic.
"I think the most important thing for me is to realize that my client isn't my client, but their veterinarian is my client," she says. "If I don't keep their veterinarian happy, I don't get their business." She regularly visits animal hospitals, delivering baskets of fruit and other goodies along with brochures and business cards.
"We've grown every year that we've been in business, and I think a lot of that has to do with building relationships," McMahon says.
Even with such a full plate and a desire to keep the "mom and pop" vibe she champions, McMahon has bigger dreams for her business. She would like to advise others on how to set up "small and friendly" animal rehab clinics in other cities and start a consulting business that educates more veterinarians on how physical therapy can help disabled animals.
"I truly think the wave of the future is that every hospital is going to have rehab," McMahon says. "I have had requests from Hawaii to Mexico to Great Britain to come there and set up a canine physical therapy unit."
In the meantime, she revels in the fact that she gets to come to work every day and essentially play with pups.
"It's all about how is your dog doing today and how can we help you help your dog," McMahon says. "That's who I am, and that's my philosophy."
Photos: TWO HANDS FOUR PAWS / LESLIE MCMAHON / MEMBER SINCE 13