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Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast

For the last 2 years, FDSA has been working to provide high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports online, using only the most current and progressive training methods. And now we’re bringing that same focus to you in a new way. Each episode of the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast will feature an interview with a leading name in the competitive dog sports training world, talking in depth about issues that often get overlooked by traditional training methods. We'll release a new episode every other Friday, so stay tuned--and happy training!
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Mar 16, 2018

Summary:

Dr. Debbie Torraca has been involved in the field of animal physical rehabilitation for over 17 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.

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Next Episode: 

To be released 3/23/2018, featuring Nancy Tucker to talk about desensitization and counter conditioning.

TRANSCRIPTION:

Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast 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 Dr. Debbie Gross Torraca.

Dr. Torraca has been involved in the field of animal physical rehabilitation for over 17 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.

Hi Debbie, welcome to the podcast!

Debbie Torraca: Hi Melissa. Thank you so much.

Melissa Breau: I’m excited to have you back today. To get things started, do you mind reminding listeners who the various furry members of your household are, and what you’re working on with them?

Debbie Torraca: Yes. I live with two dogs. I share my life with two dogs, but I probably see over a hundred dogs a week at my office. I’m fortunate to have wonderful owners that trust me with their wonderful animals and throw in occasional cat, horse, and who knows what else sometimes, duck. It’s wonderful. My Clumber Spaniel, Bogart, is my little best buddy, and then we have a Cocker Spaniel named Hendricks, and he is my little buddy too. They’re currently staring at me right now, wondering why I’m talking into the computer.

Melissa Breau: I know we planned today to talk about puppies and exercise, and I think that’s one of those topics that I see discussed over and over again. It comes up in the alumni group and pretty much anywhere else that people gather on the Internet to talk about dogs. There is this idea of what is and what isn’t appropriate for puppies, and whenever the topic comes up, people to start talking about growth plates closing and physical development. I was curious if you could explain a little bit about what the growth plates closing bit means and your take.

Debbie Torraca: Absolutely, because I think this is a topic that is always so pertinent and always so important. I’ve spent so much time with puppies from early on, even as early as 2 weeks of age, and watching their development, and have been following right now probably over 110 litters with starting them out on gentle exercise and then following them through.

When we look at puppies, I think sometimes we forget that they’re not just little dogs. They’re growing dogs. The same way that we would look at a child, we would not expect a 3- or 4-year-old child to be able to pick up a golf club and hit a ball a hundred yards, or pick up a baseball bat and fire away. Yet we do that with puppies so often.

I always use the example, getting back to kids just for a minute, that we know the American College of Sports Medicine has been so focused on human athletes but also the growth of human athletes, and together with the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Little League Association, it’s probably one of the oldest rules, but it makes the most sense, and I think it’s something that we can apply to animals.

A child up to the age of 18 is limited on how many pitches he can throw, if he’s a pitcher in baseball. So most of the time we would look at an 18-year-old male or female and think, Oh, they’re grown. But then when we look at them when they’re 24 or 25, and look back at 18, they really weren’t grown. There was so much more physical and mental maturity that took place. And the reason being with throwing is it places a lot of stress on the growth plates, in particular the growth plates in the elbow and the shoulder.

When we think about dogs, and people often ask, “What are growth plates?” I like to use the analogy that they’re little factories that are located at the end of each bone, and these factories are constantly producing more bone and more growth, so they’re working to get the dog to the size it’s supposed to be. At different stages these factories will close down, and certain ones close at different times in a dog’s body.

The way to know they’re completely closed is to do an X-ray. Some people say, “Oh, I can feel their growth plates are closed,” but that’s not true at all. In some dogs, all the growth plates may close up when the puppy is between 10 and 12 months. Some puppies do not have growth plate closure until 40 months — that’s over 3 years of age.

These growth plates are so important because, again, those factories are constantly pushing out, making the bones longer, stronger, more substantial, and if they’re injured in any way, they’re going to break down and they’re going to stop. Injuries can occur certainly by trauma — if a puppy is hit by a car or anything like that — but it can be also injured with too much activity, like for example, too much jumping, too much running, sometimes slipping and sliding. In agility I see it a lot with weave poles — too many weave poles too early on. So there are a lot of things.

It sounds like common sense, yet you have this little ball of energy you want to do things with. People often ask, “I just want to tire my puppy out.” I’ve seen puppies that have different venues. They’ll run their puppies six miles at 6 months of age, which I just cringe.

I also get very concerned when, in agility, dogs can compete so much earlier, between 15 and 18 months, depending upon the organization. But it’s not so much the competing. It’s when do they start practicing. That is certainly a concern. And definitely the medium, large, and extra-large dogs. That’s not to say the smaller dogs you shouldn’t be careful with, but everyone wants to push their pup and make them the super pup that turns into the super dog, but again, getting back to that child, there’s only so much you can push them and only so much you can do. So think about those little growth plates as little machines.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned that it can vary anywhere from 10 to 12 months to 40 months. Is there … larger dogs are at one end, smaller dogs at the other end? Is that how that works?

Debbie Torraca: Absolutely. The larger dogs take the longest to close up. For example, I just saw a 3-and-a-half-year-old Leonberger the other day. His owner had his hips X-rayed, and his growth plates are still open in the pelvic area. You think 3-and-a-half, and the life expectancy is not that long, but his growth plates are still … he’s still going, so he’s still got some growth to go. I think that’s so amazing that some of these large dogs still keep growing. Smaller dogs will definitely tend to close up earlier, so your toy breeds and your small breeds will close up earlier. The growth plates that tend to close the latest are the ones in the lower back or the pelvic area and then also in the shoulder. Those are the ones that take so much stress with running and jumping and stuff like that.

Melissa Breau: Interesting, which obviously is what a lot of our sports require of our dogs is those particular areas. Growth plate closing is the stage that comes up most often when we’re talking about puppies and exercise. But I’m really curious -- are there other stages that maybe are less well known that people should be aware of when it comes to puppy development that impact exercise and what you should and shouldn’t do?

Debbie Torraca: Absolutely. I really like to educate owners to look at your puppies, and not only physical, because you definitely have to pay attention to that growth plate, but I call it “the common sense puppy thing.”

Your puppies will go through stages. They’ll wake up one day and have forgotten everything you’ve taught them. They don’t know the command “sit,” “stay,” or anything like that. They’re most likely going through both a physical and maybe a mental growth spurt, so I always have owners take a look at that.

The other thing is their maturity. Some dogs, when you look at puppies and they’re so mature for their age, just like some children are, and they’re in control of their body, while others are not.

The other thing is body awareness. Again, some dogs have it all together right from the get-go. They’re great, they can stand, they’re aware, they don’t slam into furniture in your house and knock it all over, while other puppies are major klutzes, so they’re all over the place. This may definitely vary because they’re going to go through these growth phases, typically at 4 months, 6 months, and maybe again at 10 and 14 months, depending upon the breed. During this time, often owners will get frustrated and say, “He did sit, he did have good body awareness, and then he woke up and I’m not sure what happened.”

Then I always throw in, too, the owner capability, because I’ve owned … I think the smallest dog I’ve owned is actually my Cocker Spaniel. But I’ve had large breeds, and in hindsight — and they say hindsight’s always 20/20 — did I do stupid things with my dogs? Yeah. I thought my Bull Mastiff was all done at 18 months, and went on a long hike and made him sore because he wasn’t physically ready for that. Always tuning in, like owner common sense with things, and making sure we look at puppies and their growth, and making sure everyone’s aware of it, of what they’re going through.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned the hike. There’s so much differing advice out there, I’d really love to get your take: how do you decide how much is appropriate and what’s too much for a puppy when it comes to exercise?

Debbie Torraca: First, look at your breed, because certainly a Border Collie is going to be much different than, let’s say, a Basset Hound, with their ability and their endurance. So you’re looking at their breed. A large breed is not going to be able to do as much as a smaller breed.

With that said, and if you can factor that in, I like to look at 5 minutes of activity per month. For example, a 2-month-old puppy can get 10 minutes of activity a day. This sounds a little bit off, but forced physical activities, meaning taking them on a leash and walking them. No more than 10 minutes.

Forced versus unforced, if they’re running around the back yard and they’re having fun, most puppies — and I say this: most — are fairly self-regulatory, so if they’re tired, they’ll take a nap. Whereas if they’re on a leash or we’re asking them to do an activity, they don’t always have that option.

So looking again at that 5 minutes, a 6-month-old pup should be able to handle 30 minutes of activity. Again, a Cocker Spaniel’s going to differ from a Saint Bernard, so that Saint Bernard may need less activity, and that can be just used as a guideline.

I always like to look at, certainly if the dog doesn’t want to do something, then not to do it. That puppy could be going through a growth phase and not feel like going on a walk that day, and that’s OK.

If there’s any lameness, because certainly puppies, there’s a lot of conditions in puppies — panosteitis, which is inflammation of the long bones that’s caused by over-activity, some dogs are prone to that, and there’s a lot of other juvenile issues such as OCD lesions and HOD and a few other things that we need to be careful with — if you’re looking at never causing any lameness, and that is during the activity and certainly after.

I always like to look at puppies, whatever you do with them, take a look at them two to six hours after. If they sleep for two hours after the activity, that’s OK, but if they’re comatose for the next day, you’ve definitely overdone it. It may seem like a great idea, the puppies are tired and this is great, but that’s not always a good thing in the long run because you can definitely cause some damage.

My current Clumber Spaniel is just about to turn 8, and I have his hips X-rayed or radiographed usually every year. The first time I had it done, I was embarrassed, because when the orthopedist was reading it, he said, “Look.” He had a case of panosteitis when he was a pup, so you could see that damage in the bone. He said, “Did you overdo it with him?” And I thought, Oh my gosh, I preach this all the time. Did I overdo it with him? It’s something to think about because different breeds and different activity, so whatever we do with them is going to stay with them the rest of their life, both good and bad, and certainly from a physical standpoint and from a training standpoint.

Melissa Breau: Are there things that are absolutely NOT appropriate or never appropriate? Are there things that people should try to avoid beyond just tuckering a puppy out too much?

Debbie Torraca: Every puppy has to endure certain things, meaning they’re going to walk on a slippery floor. It’s almost impossible to not have them walk over something slippery or do stairs or functional activities. You can’t always carry a 4-month-old Saint Bernard puppy up three flights of stairs.

Some things are definitely not to do. You want to avoid extremes of movement until those growth plates are closed up. I’m a huge advocate of not doing a lot of twisting motions, for example, weave poles. Wait until you know those growth plates are closed, and then start with weaving activity.

The same thing with jumping. I hear a lot of times my agility clients will say, “But I really want them to get the foundation down.” Well, there’s so many different ways to learn the foundations. You can use small bump jumps and start working with them that way, but not jumping their full height until they’re completely mature.

Also something that seems fairly benign that can cause a lot of issues is heeling. We don’t often think about it. It seems like, “Oh, that’s a simple exercise,” but when the dog is heeling, their head is up in extension and their neck is rotated, and that is going to place a lot more stress onto the left front leg and the left back leg, and if they don’t have that core strength or the balance, we can see issues come down the pike later on. For example, one of the common things I see in obedience dogs is pelvic asymmetry. The dogs have odd issues with their pelvic area, they haven’t been strengthened well, and they lead to chronic pain and sometimes iliopsoas injuries, so that’s something to think about.

And extreme running or hiking. I always see people out jogging with their puppies. If you go back to that just 5 minutes of activity and working with that, you shouldn’t be out running with your dog or jogging that much until they start to mature. The same thing with hiking and that sort of stuff.

And definitely rough play. I’ve seen some puppies play together and they look like they’re going to kill each other. So getting in and moderating there and slowing it down.

Of course other things like jumping, excessive jumping on and off the bed or the furniture, or in and out of the car, because, again, that jump down could damage those growth plates. So really being cognizant and watching what the pups do.

It’s hard. There’s a lot going into it. I find, too, that so many people are so awesome about their training and every movement they do. I had a client come in two weeks ago that just retired and has a Golden Retriever, and she’s been doing everything with her pup, from dock diving to obedience to flyball. The dog is almost 2 years now, and the dog has really bad hip pain. It can’t hold a sit because it’s so weak. Yet the owner’s been doing all these things, and she was almost in tears when I told her, because she thought she was doing all these great things keeping her dog so active. But the dog never had the strength to do all these things. She never let her pup be a pup. She got right into jumping and all of that other stuff, so it definitely has caused some issues. Fortunately we’ll be able to turn them around, but it’s setting a lot of things back in her life with regard to competing.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned running with a puppy, and I want to ask you about that. Are there general guidelines for when and how much is too much when it comes to running — and you mentioned hiking too — with a young dog?

Debbie Torraca: When you’re putting a dog on a leash and asking them to keep up with you on a jog or a run, you’re not really giving them the option to stop, sniff, or take a break. So I ask owners to hold off on any kind of jogging or running until the dog is at least 18 months old. My preference would be later, so anywhere from 24 to 30 months old to let them mature.

Hiking, if they’re off-leash and they’re able to kind of self-regulate, you can start earlier, maybe anywhere from 10 to 18 months, but again taking it easy. You don’t want to take your 10-month-old pup and go for an 8-mile hike. Again, we wouldn’t do that with a 10-year-old child and not expect ramifications. So there would be issues. Then there would be a lot of whining.

Melissa Breau: I was thinking that. I was thinking you’d get a lot more whining than you would with a dog.

Debbie Torraca: Whenever I take my almost-12-year-old daughter hiking, she’s like, “Really? Are we done yet?” We’re only half a mile in and she’s like, “This is too much!” So I definitely empathize with that.

Melissa Breau: The other thing you mentioned was training. I know we’ve got a lot of training junkies in our audience, but I wanted to ask about differentiating between “training” and “exercise” -- especially the good exercise that we’ve been talking about. Is there too much training? Where’s the crossover there, and where’s the line?

Debbie Torraca: I think certainly with, again, training that there is so much mental stimulation with training. People often do ask, “How do I tire my puppy out?” Well, every trainer and everyone listening probably already knows the answer: make them think. Because when they have to think, that is going to fatigue them more.

As far as starting conditioning with pups, I actually like to start conditioning with pups, if I can get my hands on them, as early as 2 weeks of age, and just starting with little things.

There was a study done that demonstrated pups growing up on a stable surface, starting to do a little balance and essentially core work, had a lower incidence of hip and elbow dysplasia. That’s huge. You think about, for any breeder out there, doing stuff, and you want to start introducing little things to them. For example, just climbing, using their core to climb up to their mom. When they’re comfortable, just walking on and off unstable objects.

I’m huge about any objects that are used. We now, in the past probably three or four years, we know the dangers of phthalates with children, and certainly there are more and more studies coming out linking phthalates to canine cancer and reproductive issues, so anything that the puppies are utilizing has to be phthalate-free because they’re chewing on it, they’re absorbing things through their feet, that sort of stuff. So I go wild about that.

And then just simple things. I remember when my Clumber pup, one of the first things we worked on when he was 8 weeks was just sitting on an unstable surface. We sat him on a disc, and he would sit for a couple of seconds and just go to his tolerance and then take a break and we would do it again. That started to work on his body awareness. When he was comfortable he stood on it for periods of time. Again, just up to his tolerance.

I would not do more than a few minutes a couple of times a day with a growing puppy, so up to 6 months of age I like to keep it at maybe 5 minutes twice a day with this physical conditioning. That’s not including walking outside. This is more like body-awareness exercises such as walking backwards, or even sit and give paw, and that sort of stuff.

Then, after 6 months of age, with the exception of a large-breed puppy, start doing a little bit more. Gradually start increasing it to 10 minutes a couple of times a day and working again on body awareness. I always try to think, What is this puppy going to encounter in their life? We think about it from a psychological training point, like we try to stimulate, get them used to kids’ noises, and loud noises, and bells and whistles, and all that sort of stuff.

And I think about it from the other end, like, OK, they’re going to have to go upstairs. They’re going to have to go downstairs, which is so much more difficult. They’re going to walk on a tile floor or a wood floor. What can we do to start to incorporate that? I love working very slowly and gradually on unstable surfaces and always to their tolerance. So whenever they start to get tired, we take a break. I’m huge over quality over quantity.

Melissa Breau: We talked a little about this already, but having a 10-month-old myself, I know it can be very tempting to over-exercise simply to tucker them out. Puppies can definitely be absolute terrors until they’ve developed -- or maybe are taught, depending on the breed – to have an off switch. I know you mentioned mental stimulation. Any other thoughts or suggestions for how puppy owners can manage that crazy energy level that sometimes comes with a puppy?

Debbie Torraca: Certainly. That’s a great opportunity to work on some stability and some body awareness and core work. One of the things I like to do is start off maybe with ten sit-to-stands on something unstable. It could be a disc, it could be a sofa cushion, something unstable, a dog bed, and then walk them for a couple of minutes, then stop.

Teach them to walk backwards, and while they’re walking backwards they’re thinking, What am I doing here? They’re so excited. Incorporate more sit and stands, because now you’re working on body awareness, you’re getting some strength through their forelimbs, their hind limbs.

If the dog has mastered down, at that stage you can do puppy pushups on different things, and if you’re out walking, you can use different surfaces. Grass is always my favorite, but if you come across sand or anything like that.

Teaching them to put their forelimbs up on something and hold for a few seconds, their hind limbs up on something low and hold for a few seconds, but incorporating a lot of physical and mental activity.

I’ve also found that working their core, working their balance, it’s very hard for a puppy to stand still. They want to keep going. Working on that standing still not only helps them with patience, but also helps them with that physical strength. For example, and we see this a lot in confirmation, owners and handlers want their pups to stand still. We work on it on land or on the flat, and then on something unstable, and start to build gradually, so 10, 15, 20, 30 seconds. It sounds so simple but wears them down. It makes them tired. When my dogs were young, and whenever they were driving me bats or I was having company over, I would make sure I worked their core and did a lot of these activities right before I had company coming over, so they would go and sleep.

Melissa Breau: We’ve talked a lot about exercise specifically, but I also want to talk a little more about the conditioning piece. It’s a blurry line for a lot of people, and I’d love to hear your take on what the difference is between what constitutes conditioning versus what just constitutes exercise.

Debbie Torraca: Great question. I think every dog needs a little bit of both in their life every day. I consider exercise a lot of our walking activities, stuff that a lot of dogs do, except I always find people that have back yards tend to not exercise their dog. Dogs that are just let out in the back yard, owners always get upset when I say, “That’s not really exercise.” Because you don’t know what they’re doing. A puppy can go tear up your back yard, or they can just go lay and sleep. Exercise should be a part of every dog’s life, that sort of stuff.

Conditioning really targets specific areas, and it could be balance, it could be proprioception while a puppy is growing, and their forelimbs are higher than their hind limbs or vice versa. You can work on conditioning, targeting specific areas. For example, forelimbs up on an unstable surface are going to target the hind limbs by putting more weight onto it, but also work the forelimbs and their stability a little bit. These may be more specific exercises, depending upon what’s going on.

Another example is if you have a large-breed dog that’s prone to hip dysplasia, you definitely want to take proactive steps and strengthen up their hips. Simple things to do, conditioning exercises would be sit-to-stand on an unstable surface. Because as they’re sitting and standing, they’re working their butt muscles, their hip flexors, and their pelvic area. The same thing if a dog is prone to elbow dysplasia. There are certain breeds that are prone to it. We can do a lot of stability conditioning for the forelimb to help with stabilizing or strengthening as much as possible.

Ideally, every dog, like how we say to people, ideally everybody should be out walking once a day, and everybody should do some sort of conditioning for their body, for their posture, or whatever, so the same thing.

Melissa Breau: You’ve mentioned a bunch of things as we’ve gone through, like having your front paws up on something, trying to get your back paws up on something, backing up. Just to condense all those into one question, what are some of the things puppy owners can do to help ensure their puppy grows into a well-formed, physically healthy adult? Do you mind running through some of those things in one list for folks?

Debbie Torraca: Usually, probably five key things that I tell puppy owners to work on. One is try to get them to stand still. This can start as early as 8 weeks of age. That is a lot for them. It tells us a lot too. If a puppy can’t stand still for 10 seconds, they’re usually uncomfortable in their body. So even at 8 weeks of age you can sometimes tell if something is off. So standing still and then building up. That could be initiated on land or on the floor, and then worked up to something unstable, like a phthalate-free disc, or a bed, or a sofa cushion, that sort of stuff. That’s the first one.

The second one is simple sit-to-stands. Anybody that’s had a puppy that is in that medium to large breed or giant breed, we know that the puppies go through every funky sit. They’ll sit with their legs out, they’re not sitting very ladylike, or that sort of stuff. But working on a nice, controlled sit. I usually try to incorporate that with mealtimes. Try a set of ten before each meal. They’re good and hungry, they’re usually a little bit crazy, so you can use a few food kibble, you can do that, and then you can progress to them sitting and standing on something unstable. As they are working on something unstable, they’re starting to work those large core muscles, balance, and proprioception.

The third thing is walking backwards. Just learning body awareness and to use their hind limb to move backwards is a key exercise. We could increase that as the dogs become stronger by stepping over things, by stepping onto different things.

The fourth thing is a down, because again, we could turn that into make it more difficult. So going from a stand to a sit to a down, slowly and controlled, and it’s both a down and an up. Again starting this on land and then doing it on something unstable, so the unstable activity will make it more difficult.

The other thing, the fifth thing, is a little bit more difficult. It involves the dog standing still and just leaning forward and leaning back. This would be kind of analogous to you and I standing on our feet and leaning forward and leaning backward. It requires balance and body awareness, but also a lot of strength. I usually start with puppies with this on a platform and ask them to lean forward just a smidge, maybe half an inch or a centimeter, and then have them return. This is fairly difficult to do, so it may not be until they’re 5 or 6 months old. Some of the larger-breed dogs have even a tougher time pulling this together.

Those are the five things that just about every puppy can start on. Once they have those down, then we could add different things and make them more difficult, or that sort of stuff, depending upon what the dog is going to do in their professional career.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned you do some stuff with puppies as young as 2 weeks. What age are we talking about for the stuff you just mentioned, for those beginning?

Debbie Torraca: For the most part, starting at 8 weeks of age, and just keep in mind you want to do it to their tolerance, so no more than 5 minutes. But if they can’t handle more than … they can’t do that, then you just wait. Also remembering that there are days that they’re not going to be able to mentally or physically pull it together, and that’s OK. So something you can work on every day, but if they’re growing and just want to sleep or chew on things or something, give them the day off, because it sounds so simple, but it’s a lot for them.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much. I think that’s all the questions I had, so I really appreciate you coming back on the podcast. It was awesome to chat through this stuff.

Debbie Torraca: Thank you so much, Melissa, for having me, and I look forward to speaking with you in the future.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in!

We’ll be back next week with Nancy Tucker to talk about Desensitization and Counter-conditioning.

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.

Credits:

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.