E112: Debbie Torraca - "Long Backed Dogs"

 Today Dr. Debbie Gross Torraca joins me to talk about owning, training, and competing in sports with long-backed dogs — including some breeds that you may not consider as being long-backed breeds!


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 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.

Hi Debbie, welcome back to the podcast!

Debbie Torraca: Thank you Melissa. So glad to be here.

Melissa Breau: So, to start us out, can you just remind listeners who the various furry members of our household are, and what you're working on with them?

Debbie Torraca: Yes. I have a unique Clumber Spaniel, and I say "unique" because a lot of people don't always know what they are. Bogart is my Clumber Spaniel's name, and he fits perfectly into my new class coming up, because he has a long back. Things that we're working on with him — actually, at the age of 9, we just started some field work with him, so that's exciting. And he's always involved in fitness stuff. I'm all about functional fitness, so I'm probably a bad dog trainer, because when he jumps on the counter and steals a piece of bacon, I look at it that his hip extensors are strong!

And then I have my 11-year-old rescue Cocker Spaniel, who is always game to do anything. So we work a lot on fitness and his own levels of tricks and things like that.

So those are my two furry guys in my household.

Melissa Breau: I wanted to talk to you today about your new class. You kind of teased it a little bit in the first one, but you've got this class specifically for dogs with long backs coming up. Looking over the description, I was a bit surprised by some of the breeds you had listed: you mentioned Border Collies, German Shepherds, and spaniels. So what do you really mean when you say dogs with long backs?

Debbie Torraca: That's a good question, because I think most of us think dogs with long backs are like your classic … your dachshunds, your corgis, and they certainly have long backs. But I think we sometimes miss that a "regular breed" — quote/unquote, of course, breeds are all regular — or mixed breeds may have a long back in relation to their body.

All dogs have the same number of spinous processes and things like that, so the actual length of the back is the same. However, it could be, in proportion to their limbs, a longer back. For example, years ago, many people were breeding Border Collies with longer backs to go through weave poles faster. So with the longer backs we have the positive, but then we also have the negative, so not always a great thing.

I wanted to teach this class because in my field of rehabilitation, longer-backed dogs are definitely at more risk for injury, if a lot of proactive things are not taken into account. We don't really think, This German Shepherd has a long back, but when you look at their legs in proportion to their back and their body, any breed can have a long back, even a Chihuahua or dogs that we may not characteristically think about. I keep adding more and more dogs to the list with long backs, and I'm learning a lot about different breeds throughout the world, too, so it's pretty amazing as I keep working on the class and keep adding more and more.

Melissa Breau: If somebody is trying to figure out if their dog qualifies, you mentioned in proportion to the legs and things like that. Is there a way to judge that, or is it a matter of going by your own gut feel if the dog is just a little longer?

Debbie Torraca: There's definitely by looking, and there's ways we'll get into in class of measuring and determining if your dog really does have a long back. But I think in general looking at, if we, in our minds, took the lower limb and upper limb and put them together, is their back longer than that, if that makes sense. The length of their upper leg and the length of their lower leg, and then took that measurement and laid it on the dog's back, is their back longer? That's not a hard and fast rule, either.

You can definitely look at your breed description, so if your dog is longer in the loin than maybe the average, or according to the breed description, your dog probably has a long back. A lot of people know their breed and will recognize that their dog has a longer back.

Sometimes it could be a weight distribution. Thinner dogs may also look like they have longer backs because there's not as much surface area there. I see a lot of them, definitely.

Melissa Breau: It certainly seems like there are a lot more of them than I would have thought, looking at it initially. What kind of injuries are these dogs more susceptible to or more likely to have?

Debbie Torraca: First and foremost, back injuries. The middle of the back, the thoracolumbar area, is one of the most mobile areas in the dog's back. This is kind of in the middle of the dog's back, and that is one of the areas that is more susceptible.

Dogs with longer backs may have problems with intervertebral disc disease; they are definitely at a higher risk.

Also a lot of soft tissue injuries, not only to their back, but also to their limbs. For example, iliopsoas injuries are more common in dogs with longer backs because the iliopsoas has to control the area. That's a muscle in the dog's groin area that's very powerful and really needs to control a lot of the dog's movement.

The same thing with the forelimbs. If you think about a long caboose, and if the dog is running and the forelimbs or the front legs are trying to stop the caboose, the front legs take a lot of stress.

So they are definitely susceptible, I would say first and foremost, to spinal injuries and then soft tissue injuries in both the back legs and the front legs.

Melissa Breau: Are there things that can be done to help keep them healthier despite having that longer back, longer spine?

Debbie Torraca: Absolutely. Weight is such a key factor — keeping a good weight on the dogs, not letting them become overweight or fat, because that places a lot of stress onto their backs.

Watching what they're doing, choosing the appropriate activities. A dachshund that was bred to do what a dachshund does — they're doing earth dog stuff, digging holes, and that sort of thing — they're not really meant to do a lot of jumping activities, so choosing your activities wisely with these longer-backed dogs.

And of course strengthening — strengthening range of motion and proper core is paramount.

I always think about the long-backed dogs, educating clients in potential injuries, in proper weight management, and then also in the proper exercises. This class will go through all of that, everything that someone needs to know for their long-backed dog.

Melissa Breau: Does that differ at all if we're talking about a small or short long-backed dog, like a dachshund, versus a bigger dog with a long back? You mentioned German Shepherds, for example.

Debbie Torraca: I think a lot of times we think of little dogs in general that they can jump on and off furniture, and not realizing the ramifications of not so much the jump up but the jump down.

A lot of the smaller dogs, with long-backed dogs, jumping down, whether it be from a couch or a bed or out of the car, puts a lot of stress on their backs. There's a lot of concussive force that goes through their spine, and unfortunately, this is when many of them become injured. It's more so in the smaller dogs just because of the pure difference in height from a larger dog. Certainly larger dogs, there's more weight and that sort of stuff, but the heights that they're jumping in proportion to the smaller dogs is different. And smaller dogs tend to get under things. They do their own little limbo exercises when going under chairs and coffee tables and stuff like that, that another dog may not do.

Little dogs, too, we spend a lot of time picking them up, and there's ways to pick dogs up without placing stress on them. We would never pick up a Great Dane, but we would scoop up a dachshund in a heartbeat. So looking at the proper ways of handling them.

Melissa Breau: You talked a little bit about jumping up and down. Other than that, how does it impact what a dog should or shouldn't do?

Debbie Torraca: It's a lot of, one, making sure that the dog can actually handle an activity, when looking at sports and things like that.

Everyday activities with the longer-back dogs — try to eliminate jumping as much as possible. I always realize, especially when I'm talking to clients, that they're dogs, they want to do fun things, and we can't always control their actions, but if we can limit their jumping down from things by at least 50 percent.

The other thing is running downstairs. Again, it's a part of function — dogs have to go up and down stairs, and that's fine. But if we could at least lower or slow down the speed in which they travel down the stairs. Sometimes there are training tricks to helping slow down the mobility, with maybe putting a treat on every other step as they're coming down, so you can start to slow the movement down, that sort of stuff, and this goes for stairs inside and outside the house.

Ramps are always a good idea for getting the dogs in and out of the car. With so many people having SUVs right now, not allowing the longer-backed dogs to jump down, but rather having them either step or use the ramp to move down.

Most of their activities should stay parallel with the ground, so running and that sort of stuff is great, but try to reduce the perpendicular movement to the ground as much as possible, because that will place a lot of stress on their spine. But there's no reason that they can't go for walks and hikes, and even if they could run, that's absolutely fine.

There are so many activities that they could do safely, and even the activities that you may normally not think — we don't see a lot of dachshunds in agility, but we see a lot of corgis certainly — again, keeping them in shape and keeping their body composed and in good condition is all beneficial.

Melissa Breau: Is there health testing that can be done or should be done, if somebody wants to do sports?

Debbie Torraca: I think if you do have a long-backed dog and you do want to do sports, I always recommend having a sporting assessment done. A lot of places do this throughout the country and throughout the world. It consists of just a baseline of the dog's health.

For example, we do them at our clinic, and we do a gait analysis initially to determine how much weight is being put on each limb. We do a simple "put the dog on a scale" to determine if their body mass index is appropriate for their breed, because that's something very important.

We also do digital thermal imaging, which picks up on the different temperatures in the dog's body. It will help determine if there's inflammation, which can relate to pain in a certain area, or maybe even reduced temperature, which may be indicative of a neurological condition or something like that.

And then a flexibility test. A longer-backed dog may have a little bit tougher time reaching their nose to their butt, or doing stretches like that, and they're going to need to maintain their flexibility and keep their flexibility.

So I think starting with a baseline and getting a professional's opinion if the dog is appropriate for the different levels of exercise. We see a lot of these dogs, and the owner may … I always ask them to give me their three wish list things, what would they love to do with their dogs, and we break it down from there. It may be well that they can do everything, but just at a modified level. For example, if it's agility, you may recommend that they jump preferred instead of a higher height in their jumps.

Melissa Breau: That makes sense. That leads to my next question: Are there some sports that are going to be safer than others for these dogs? Or some sports that are definitely on the unsafe list?

Debbie Torraca: It's always looking at the longer backs and especially the shorter legs. I like to stay away from high-level jumping activities. And again, that does not mean that a long-backed dog cannot do agility. It just means that they're going to need more attention. Flyball — there's a lot of compressive forces on the spine, so maybe just making adaptations, and again making sure the dog is in good shape and maintaining their range of motion and their weight and their strength. And of course I always look at does the dog really want to do an activity or are they doing it for another reason? Are they doing it because their owner really loves it?

And I like to, no matter what, when we work out with dogs, when I'm looking at dog sports, are the dogs adequately rested six hours after an activity. If a dog is out on a hike, and they come back and they rest for six hours, they get up and they're fine, that activity is most likely fine for them. If they're sore or they're having trouble walking, or any lameness or limping, then that activity was too much and should be reexamined.

Melissa Breau: That's a nice rule of thumb, to give it six hours and see how the dog's doing. I like that.

Debbie Torraca: Absolutely. I use that in rehab and I use it with setting up conditioning programs, so that allows a lot of feedback for the owners and for me to determine what's going on with them.

Melissa Breau: If the dog does wind up getting hurt, is rehab different or more difficult than it might be for a dog without a long back? If so, how so?

Debbie Torraca: Good question. I think with the longer-backed dogs it's going to take a little bit more focus on their rehab because the muscles in the long backs are going to atrophy and we have more surface area, and either movement from the front legs or the back legs is going to affect their back, so anywhere they move, it's going to have an impact on them.

We definitely see a little bit slower progression with a longer-backed dog, but because there's usually secondary and tertiary issues going on. For example, if a dog hurts their mid-back, they're going to compensate maybe with their lower back or maybe their hips. So a lot of times we see a lot of things going on; it's not just the one injury.

I always use the example, if we can't lift our arm to get a cup of coffee on the top shelf, or a cup for our coffee — and I'm a coffee fanatic, so I can definitely relate to this — if I can't raise my arm, I'm going to arch my back backward, and over time my arm may not bother me, but my back is going to start.

So throw in a longer-backed dog with movements like this, if a dog injures its shoulder, doesn't have enough shoulder range of motion, but is asked to go over a jump, whether it be a formal training jump or just a log in the back yard, they're going to start to put a lot of stress on their backs, and if it's a longer-backed dog, there's more implications there. Then it becomes a matter of treating the initial problem and also making sure that the long back is taken care of.

Melissa Breau: Is there anything else you can think of that folks should know, if they're considering the class or want to take the class, that they should know signing up to maybe to help them decide or help them decide what level they should take it at?

Debbie Torraca: I'm really excited about the class because it's something I've been thinking about for so long, and I'm so glad to offer this.

I think people should really take a look at their activity level with their dog. It doesn't matter if they're doing … the dog could be a professional couch-surfer, but if you do have a longer back, and by my estimate, I would say half the dogs out there have longer backs.

So just from what I see on a regular basis, whether they're your characteristic dogs that I mentioned or just different breeds, to really look at improving their quality of life. We all want our dogs to have the best quality of life for the longest time possible — I always say that about all the dogs I work with. But really looking at what level you'd like to work your dog.

If you want a lot of input, definitely look at a Gold or Silver spot, so I can see what's going on with your dog. Or if there's a problem that you've been trying to work through, or even if you do have a dog that may necessarily not have a back issue, but they do have a longer back and you've been having a stubborn behavioral issue, like they're having trouble with jumps, or they're having trouble with their stays or their downs, it may be related to their longer back, so it may be something to look at.

Melissa Breau: I think that's helpful. I've got one last question for you, and it's the question I've taken to asking folks at the end who have been on before. It's my new last question here. What's something that you've learned recently or been reminded of when it comes to dogs or dog training?

Debbie Torraca: I think I'm constantly reminded of this, and I don't know why I forget it, but I think dogs are much smarter with regard to their bodies than we give them credit for. Especially the line of work that I'm in, with rehab and fitness, if a dog does not want to do something, or can't do it, they'll either look for a compensation or they won't do it.

For example, we just got over the flu season, and how many of us didn't feel well, but we still went to work? If a dog doesn't feel well, they're going to rest. I don't think we, as their human counterpart partners, always realize that. Dogs always tell us if they can't do something or if they're too tired, and it's really up to us to pay more attention to that or be more in tune with that.

I always try, when I'm speaking with my owners of the dogs that I work with, to "Let's get into it a little bit more," because if a dog doesn't want to do something, there's always a good reason. They don't think, I ate steak last night, so I'm going to refuse to jump in the car. There's a reason. I always catch myself and think, Of course, because they're much smarter than we give them credit for, or than we think they are. I always like to look at the physical before behavioral to make sure that there's not a physical reason for them not doing something.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. That way you never have regrets. It's never, I spent all this time trying to fix a behavioral problem, and that wasn't even the root of the cause.

Debbie Torraca: Absolutely, yes.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Debbie. This has been great.

Debbie Torraca: Thank you so much.

Melissa Breau: And thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week with Kamal Fernandez to talk about his new book, Pathway to Positivity. 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.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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