Dr. Debbie Gross Torraca has been involved in the field of animal physical rehabilitation for over seventeen years and has both a masters and a doctorate, as well as other advanced certifications in her field.
She currently owns a small animal rehabilitation practice in Connecticut called Wizard of Paws Physical Rehabilitation for Animals. Over the last 12 years, she has lectured throughout the world on the topic of small animal rehabilitation, and is one of the founders of the Certificate Program in Canine rehabilitation from the University of Tennessee.
She has been widely published, both professionally and in venues for dog enthusiasts.
To be released 7/28/2017, featuring Lori Stevens talking about how animal behavior, movement, learning, fitness, and health interact.
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports broadcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high quality instruction for competitive dog sports, using only the most current and progressive training methods. Today we'll be talking to Debbie Gross Torraca. Dr. Torraca has been involved in the field of animal physical rehabilitation for over 17 years and has both a master's, and a doctorate, as well as other advanced certifications in her field. She currently owns a small animal rehabilitation practice in Connecticut called Wizard of Paws Physical Rehabilitation for Animals. Over the last 12 years, she has lectured throughout the world on the topic of small animal rehabilitation, and as one of the founders of the certificate program in canine rehabilitation from the University of Tennessee, she has been widely published both professionally, and in venues for dog enthusiasts. Hi, Debbie, welcome to the podcast.
Debbie Gross: Hi, Melissa. Thank you so much. I'm excited to be here.
Melissa Breau: I'm excited to chat with you. This is not a topic a I know a lot about, so it's always fun to learn something. Just to start us out, do you mind just telling us a little bit about your own dogs, who they are, and what you’re working on with them?
Debbie Gross: Sure. Yeah. So I currently share my home and my life with two dogs. Bogaurt is a Clumber Spaniel, and so that’s a fairly different breed, and then we also have a nine-year-old Cocker Spaniel that was rescued. He was unfortunately beaten by a gentleman in uniform, that's all we know. So we've had him for about six years and we've had to overcome quite a lot of fear issues, and all that sort of stuff, so he's been my different sort of training in progress, and every day I learn from him, and the Clumber Spaniel does a little bit of everything. He's definitely…I've had Clumbers now for almost 10 years and they're just a joy to work with, and you know, people often will ask, "why don't you do agility or other sports with him?", and that’s where kind of I come in and look at the body frame, and that sort of stuff, even though a lot of Clumbers can do agility, his body is just not meant for that, so sadly, we stick to other things, and he's always my willing demo dog, or sometimes unwilling, so that’s always…yeah, exciting. He seems to know when it's guinea pig time and he'll take off if he doesn’t feel up to it, so.
Melissa Breau: He'll let you know if he's not in the mood, huh?
Debbie Gross: Exactly. I mean, he's like typical Clumber, so sweet, but about 22 hours a day, so.
Melissa Breau: Now, I know in your bio I left out some of the alphabet, you've got a lot of credentials, so I wanted to give you a chance to talk a little bit about how you got into animal rehabilitation. What is it that drew you in that direction?
Debbie Gross: Sure. I've always been drawn to animals and you know, just adored them, and when I went to human physical therapy school there was a lot of hands on, a lot of palpation. Eventually, my roommates got tired of being guinea pigs, and at the time, I had an Alaskan Malamute and he was a more than willing participant, so I started to look at his body and say, oh, you know, if we could do all these things for people, why can't we do these for animals, and this was back in the 1980s, and one of my professors said to me, "don't be silly, this is a dog, no one's ever going to spend money or care about that much on a dog." So I kind of, you know, laughed at that and said, okay, and kind of kept that in the back of my mind, and I graduated. I took my first job in New York City and I was working with a lot of dancers in New York City Ballet, and definitely started to appreciate different types of movement, so if a ballerina or another type of dancer's missing five degrees of motion in their big toe, it's going to be significant. And I think about all those minor things so often today when I work with performance dogs, you know, dogs that are involved in high level competitions, but I stayed with human physical therapy for a while, always kind of thinking about my dream of working with dogs, and I fully just started to do a lot of independent learning, a lot of reading, spending a lot of time with veterinarians, and going to different vet schools, and studying anatomy, and things like that.
And then eventually, it turned into more and more, and I then started teaching at the University of Tennessee. And the CCRP letters are the Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner, so I helped establish that program, and continued to teach with them, and it's really kind of, you know, it can be kind of a common sense thing. Dogs and other animals suffer many of the same injuries that people do. For example, an ACL injury in people is very common in dogs as well, and there are many different breeds that suffer with that, but things like arthritis, and neurological diseases, and sports related issues. I mean, certainly, everything that we know from the human filed we can just benefit, you know, help the dogs, so it's been pretty awesome to start out with this almost 20 years ago and watch it kind of just be an idea, and now it's definitely becoming more and more commonplace.
And I love looking on Facebook or talking to people from all over the world and they're taking their dog for rehab, or they're perusing other options, and they're doing things like that, which is just fantastic. Yeah. So that's been…you know, it is. It's great when, you know, and I laugh at the professor that I…every once in a while, I'll see her at a conference, and I'll say to her, hey, remember that kind of thought or dream I had, I said, that’s kind of what I do now 24-7 about, so. And a lot of people that have gone through rehab can definitely relate, and they understand, and so I'm always thrilled when more and more owners are perusing different options for their pets, and really, the moto of our clinic is every dog deserves the best quality of life for the longest time possible, and no matter if the dog is seven weeks old or 17 years old, you know, so important just to make sure that they're pain free and have the highest level of function. So it's really been this incredible journey and I love it.
Melissa Breau: You started to talk a little bit there about some of the differences and similarities between physical therapy for people and that for dogs. Are there other key differences you can kind of speak to?
Debbie Gross: Yes. So a lot of…you know, besides the obvious, people being biped and dogs being quadruped, I joke to a dog is not…they have no idea that something should make them feel better. You know, they're so truthful, they're…either a treatment's going to work, or it's not going to work, so there's no secondary games, they're not messing with an insurance company, or anything like that, but you know, for the same kind of similarities, whenever there's pain or inflammation there's going to be weakness that evolves. So like I tell my kids, if your body perceives pain it's going to shut off all the muscles in the area, so very similar. A person can say, hey, my knee hurts, I need to do something about it. Very often take an Advil or a Tylenol. A dog can't say that to an owner, so a lot of times that unless the owner is very perceptive and notices a slight change in their behavior, it's hard to determine if they're in pain until it gets pretty bad, you know, so recognizing pain is definitely a big difference.
I encourage all my owners, all my students, to make sure they go over their dogs on a monthly basis just to check for any pain, or soreness, or anything like that, but many of the on-scene treatment modalities that we would use in human medicine, we use in the animal. So like moist heat, or ice, laser or photobiomodulation is commonly used to help reduce pain and inflammation, and a lot of the exercises we do are very similar. Of course, we have to get a little bit more creative with a dog, but pretty much everything used in human medicine we could, you know, transfer over to the dog, so it's pretty cool.
Melissa Breau: Now, I think that veterinarians and the medical field in general isn't always known as the most positive part of dog sports, so I'd love to get your take on that. How do positive training and rehabilitation overlap, and are there places where they just can't?
Debbie Gross: Yeah. And that's a very good question. I belong to an organization, I sit on the board called Fear Free, and their whole goal and mission is to establish fear free veterinarian offices, rehab offices, looking at training facilities, boarding facilities, things like that, so it's all aimed at making sure the experience is positive and fear free. And certainly…you know, we laugh in our clinic because we're not the vet, so dogs come in and they know they're getting copious amounts of cookies, and it's going to be a great place, and they love it, and so I think it's very important to, you know, right off the bat we want to make sure the owner and the dog are very comfortable.
Certainly, dogs often will become fearful or potentially aggressive if they're in pain, so I always tell the trainers that I work with, assume that it's physical before behavioral. Now, I'll hear so many times from owners, "oh, my dog didn’t want to do the A-frame this morning. It's probably because…" You know, they make something up and then get steak for dinner. They swear they don’t think like that. You know, they probably didn’t want to do something because they're in pain. Something like the A-frame puts a lot of stress on the dogs back, and the hips, and stuff like that, so understanding if a dog is fearful, or doesn’t want to do something, looking at the reason why, you know, so is it pain that is prohibiting them from doing something.
And certainly, some dogs are not candidates, like we've turned dogs away because they're either too fearful, or they just can't do…they don’t want to do anything, and rather than forcing them, we won't do that. You know, and that's a little bit different than traditional vet medicine where dogs need to go in. They may need to get an exam, or their vaccinations, or things like that, but this fear free movement is fantastic, and you know, looks at everything from the lighting, their potential pheromones in the air to relax the dogs, and cats also, and other animals, so most the time in rehab dogs love it. They love coming into our office, and it's fun, and it's all positive, and you know, that's the way I want it to be. I mean, I love when the dogs pull their owners into the office, so you know that they're having a great time, so it's great.
Melissa Breau: Now, is there a website that's conceded with the Fear Free Organization just in case you'd want to look it up?
Debbie Gross: Yeah. I believe. I'll look. I think if someone just googled fear free it would pull up, and actually, fear free pets.com. So and their moto is "Taking the Pet out of Petrified," and it is very nice. It's a nice group that…and the number of practitioners getting certified in Fear Free are growing constantly, so you know, that's really great, and I highly encourage owners to seek out one of these facilities because they just are a little bit more in tune with things, and make the experience as positive as they can.
Melissa Breau: I'll make sure to include a link to the site in the show notes for everybody.
Debbie Gross: Perfect. Great. Perfect.
Melissa Breau: So I want to drill just a little bit more into rehab itself, rehabilitation sort of implies this idea that something's gone wrong and now it's time to try and fix it, so I was curious of how much of what you teach is about preventing problems, and how much of it is about really fixing them.
Debbie Gross: Great question. And we probably…I would say half the dogs that I see have an issue that can be fixed. So for example, they've had a torn ligament, they had surgery, and now we're rehabbing them, getting them back to normal. The other half is all about prevention and looking at what the dog does, what the dog needs to do, and how to get them stronger. So for example, we run a program called The Biggest Loser and it's a weight loss program, so we know that so many dogs…the obesity causes so many orthopedic issues, as well as other issues, and you know, helping owners and the dogs to understand how to get going, and just start a weight loss program, a successful weight loss program.
Then we have older dogs that just need some exercise, and they just need to get moving, and we'll start implementing a simple exercise program. And then on the other end of the spectrum are you know, some of your…we see a ton of conformation dogs where they need to get into shape, and for whatever reason, they haven’t been in shape, and they vary from doing something. We have underwater treadmills. They may run in the underwater treadmills for 30 to 45 minutes, just depending on what they're doing, and but you know, helping to build up their strength and conditioning. And that goes too with different athletic dogs, your Shih Tzu dogs, your agility dogs, obedience work, anything like that, so really on both sides of kind of fixing something, but also the goal is definitely preventing injuries from happening. So we do a little bit of both.
Melissa Breau: Now, are there things that dog sports enthusiasts should be doing to keep their dog in top shape, or does that kind of vary based on sport, or based on breed?
Debbie Gross: Yeah. That’s another great question. So I think that if we look at human sports, no matter whether it's on the collegiate level, the professional or Olympic level, any of our human athletes is involved in a conditioning program, so they have a program set for them, and they would never think about not engaging in a conditioning program, but on the canine side that’s not always the case. Now, I hear so often, you know, the dogs are just weekend warriors, so they just go to an agility trial over the weekend, and the owner does nothing with them during the week. And I think every dog, if they're involved in performance sports, whether it's just a couple times a month, or every weekend, they need to be in a conditioning program, and a conditioning program should definitely include core strength.
So working just like you and I would work on our back strength, our abdominals, all the large muscles of the body, working on endurance. So sometimes it's just simple walking or jogging, and then sports specifics, so a dog involved in agility is going to need more power or explosive events like plyometrics, working on their strength going over jumps, but also stopping quickly, and making sure that their shoulders and their hip flexors are strong enough, and of course, that will differ from your conformation breed. That may need more endurance to run around the ring and also more core strength, so it does depend on the sport, and its also going to depend upon the breed. And I often laugh where I love the big, you know, the gentle monsters, your Newfoundland's, and giant mastiffs, and you know, of course, their activity. If they walk 10 minutes in the underwater treadmill they're sleeping for the next 24 hours, where you have a Border Collie that's already active, they're going to need more exercise, so it will vary by breed, or also vary by age. So very young dogs anywhere under 24 months, you want to be respectful of their growth plates, and their psychological ability to exercise. And then on the flip side, your older dogs, you don’t want to overdo it either, so you want to be respectful, but hands down, any dog that competes in any kind of event, or just does it for fun should be doing some sort of core work, and it doesn’t take much to make a big difference.
Melissa Breau: I'd imagine that there are some injuries you see a lot more often in dog sports than others. What are some of the things that do crop up most often and you know, what are some of the things maybe you do when you work with those types of dogs from a conditioning standpoint, or even from a rehabilitation standpoint?
Debbie Gross: Yeah. So I think probably two of the more common injuries that have just been unfortunately gaining more popularity are iliopsoas injuries or injuries to the hip flexor, which is back near the front of the dog's hip, and shoulder issues. And I think the iliopsoas is a soft tissue injury and I've definitely been seeing an increase in these injuries as dogs are not really…they're being trained at a younger age without a lot of adequate core strength, and because they're being pushed a lot further, and they don’t have the strength in their core or their hip flexors, so they start to develop this weakness, and this injury, and it's probably one of the more stubborn injuries to rehab from, and part of it is because most owners…and I'm right up there, are impatient, you know, as soon as the dog starts to look better you want to get them out there and play. It's commonly injured by a dog slipping, or excessive ball playing, and that’s something that so many people love to do, toss the ball, and if the dog doesn’t have enough strength they're going to put a lot of stress on that area, but it's the same thing with the shoulder injury, the shoulders stop the dog from moving forward. So for example, when a dog comes over a jump the shoulders are what stabilize the body so the dog doesn’t fall flat on their face, and if there is a minor injury, weakness will develop and then it will start to become an issue. So really, with both of these cases, again, going back to lots of core strengths, and working on sports specifics, so working on the landing over a jump, and building up the strength, working on a lot of what's called eccentric strength, so you know, really preparing them for that. And the other things are proper warm ups and cool downs, so always making sure that the owners are working on that and doing that.
Melissa Breau: Now I know you're offering the Canine Fitness trainer courses through FDSA. Do you want to talk a little bit about that, kind of what they are what the goal is there?
Debbie Gross: Sure. So the fitness trainer courses are so much fun. They're such a great, dedicated group of people because there's four courses in a row, and the goal really is to educate people to either work more with their dog or go out there and help other dogs. So many of the people that have graduated and successfully completed the course and their exam are out there kind of for, you know, if we equate to people, working as a personal canine trainer, so helping dogs with weight loss, helping dogs with different types of exercises, and they've gone through…it's fairly intense. So the first two sessions focus on functional anatomy, so learning about the different muscles, and how to use them, and different exercises to give for them, tons of safety information, and you know, then kind of putting it all together, so talking about the different sports, and what they need, or just different dogs and what they'll need, and how to set up a program that's safe and effective, you know, for an individual dog. So it's so much fun, and I learn something every time we go through a different group of people because they're just incredible, you know, what they think, and the different types of dogs, and so it really has been fantastic, and it's a lot of work, and I'm so proud of everyone that's completed it because it definitely takes a lot of dedication.
Melissa Breau: At the end of the four classes they can take a test, right, to become certified, is that right?
Debbie Gross: Correct. They submit four case studies, so four dogs that they've been working with, and then there's an exam, yes, and then they become a Certified Professional Canine Fitness Trainer. Had to think of that for a minute.
Melissa Breau: Very cool. I want to talk too about some of the other classes you offer at FDSA. Do you want to just share kind of what they are and kind of what you cover in those classes?
Debbie Gross: Yeah. So I offer a bunch of different ones and one is the basic canine conditioning, which I cannot stress, as I said before, that anybody involved in dogs should…it's such a great course for people to take because it just goes over basic things that anyone can do at home, so it doesn’t have to be with equipment, or anything like that, but just basic exercises that anyone can do, and can make more difficult as demands, you know, for the dog.
And then the second canine conditioning course just gets into a little bit more depth, but we've had dogs that are 14 or 15 years old and the owners have just been working with them to improve their quality of life, and we've had other dogs that are high level competitors in class, and so it's so wonderful to see just the different effects simple canine conditioning can have on the individual dogs.
And I teach a course called The Bum Knees and that's…knee injuries are unfortunately very prevalent in dogs, and we talk about different prevention strategies for knee injuries, what to do if your dog has had a knee injury or does have a knee injury, and talk about, you know, safe exercises to go through. And I think there's a course on the iliopsoas, which as I mentioned before, definitely a muscle in an area that is just a hot topic, and it goes over also injury prevention, what to do, how to recognize an injury, and what to do, what different types of exercises.
And I believe there's a shoulder course does the same thing, but just focuses on shoulders. You know, we're looking at different types of should injuries and that sort of stuff. So off the top of my head, I think that’s it. There could be some more, but I love the other…oh, go ahead, I'm sorry.
Melissa Breau: I was going to say maybe you should do a few more.
Debbie Gross: Yes. You know, there's just so, so many wonderful things that people…people have been asking for a course for senior dogs, so maybe that will be my next project.
Melissa Breau: So I do want to ask you the same questions that I ask everybody who comes on kind of towards the end of the podcast. So what's the dog related accomplishment that you are proudest of?
Debbie Gross: I have to probably involve the dog that I have worked with for quite some time, and she continues to be just an accomplishment that I'm so proud of. A beautiful Irish Setter that I had worked with for a year and she had won, I think 31, best in shows, and it was just amazing to watch her move, and knowing what was kind of lying underneath her, so it was pretty fantastic, and her handler became her owner, and she had been retired, she had 15 puppies, and 14 weeks after the puppies he had come to me and he said, "do you think we can get her ready for Westminster?", and I looked at him and said, are you crazy? You know, this dog has been doing nothing for quite some time, had 15 puppies. And I accepted the challenge, and worked with her, and did so much with her, and I had gone to Westminster that year.
My own dog had won the breed in bullmastiffs, and a Portuguese Water Dog I had bred won the breed. And then I watched this beautiful Irish Setter, and she went on to win the breed, and so I was all done, ready to watch the groups, and I thought, okay, my day is done, I'm just going to kick back and relax, and this dog that’s an Irish Setter won the group, so she was going on to best in show. And it was, you know, just a pretty incredible experience and not only for me, but also for my staff, and then we did it, she went on to win Irish Settler National as a veteran, which was pretty incredible, so even though it wasn’t my dog, it felt pretty incredible to be part of that. So I look back on that and just knowing everything that she had to go through, so it was pretty incredible.
Melissa Breau: That's awesome. Congrats. So even though we didn’t necessarily talk about training today, I did want to ask you what the best piece of training advice you've ever heard is.
Debbie Gross: You know, I think, like I always tell myself, and I always tell people always listen to the dog. From what I do, dogs always tell us what's wrong with them. You just have to open up your eyes and your ears, and watch, and listen, and they'll tell you. So I know that’s not specifically training, but you know, from what I do, listening to the dog they always know what's right for them. If a dog wants to rest, there's a reason, you know, where sometimes we don’t listen to.
Melissa Breau: Right. And then finally, who is somebody else in the dog world that you look up to?
Debbie Gross: There are a lot of people that I look up to. Probably coming from my background with structure and all of that sort of stuff, Pat Hastings is someone that I look up to, just form her knowledge, and I've taught with her a few times, and it's been, you know, pretty incredible. And probably too then, you know, from a dog looking at training and that sort of stuff, I am a big fan of Denise's and watching her calmness, how she works with dogs, and there are a couple people that train in my area, the same thing, you know, there's definitely people that just understand dogs, and dogs understand them, so yeah. It's hard to pinpoint to just one.
Fair enough. Well, thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Debbie.
Oh, thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week with Lori Stevens to discuss supporting our aging dogs. If you haven’t already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes, or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.
Today’s show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called “Buddy.” Audio editing provided by Chris Lang and transcription written by CLK Transcription Services.
Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!