Craig Ashley Foster’s young Doberman, Diesel, was an active and lively show dog, competing in agility and obedience trials across the Front Range.
But, time and time again, Ashley found him limping on one of his front legs from a sore shoulder.
That’s when Ashley’s dog training education and her older sister Sasha’s background in physical therapy collided in one moment, when Ashley rounded a corner in their Fort Collins home to see Sasha doing physical therapy stretching on a thoroughly relaxed Diesel.
It was an idea charged with the motivation and business savvy of the two Moffat County High School graduates: Apply the theories and practices of research-based human physical therapy to dogs.
In about two years, the sisters, who grew up in Craig, wrote and illustrated “The Healthy Way to Stretch Your Dog: A Physical Therapy Approach,” which Ashley said is one of the first publications to apply research-based physical therapy methodology to promoting the comfort and health of pets and sporting dogs.
Published in 2009, the book was honored at the Dog Writers Association of America with the 2009 Maxwell Award for Best Care and Health Book and the 2009 Dogwise Book of the Year.
The dog stretching method, dubbed “The Foster Canine Stretch Method,” also is patent pending.
Although Ashley, 35, was showing her Dobermans in Denver the weekend of the awards, she said the honors were a validation of her and her sister’s efforts.
“It was kind of the big part where it all kind of came to fruition,” Ashley said. “Writing a book takes so much effort. I did most of the illustrations and hand drew them and the collaboration of me and Sasha having to combine the two worlds. It takes a lot of effort, and to win a national award, you finally go, ‘Yes, someone noticed.’”
Sasha, 38, said the road to a polished, complete book was long and rocky but that winning the awards showed that hard work, tenacity and a dash of luck can ultimately pay off.
“We fought for it, and we fought really hard for it,” Sasha said. “When we got the award, it was tremendous validation. It’s fantastic, digging your heels in and just going for it.”
The two sisters, who have a made-up language they share with each other, are different in their personalities and backgrounds, but both agree their approaches complement each other.
Ashley runs a dog day care and training facility in a veterinary hospital and holds a bachelor’s degree in zoology while Sasha went to physical therapy school and is a certified canine rehabilitation therapist.
“I come to it as a physical therapist, as a scientist, and looking at it from biomechanics standpoint,” Sasha said. “But Ashley will say, ‘No, think like a dog,’ and, ‘You’re going to make him uncomfortable if you do it that way.’
“I am much more interested in the research and biomechanics. I love movement and to understand how the bones and muscle work together. It’s fascinating. It’s fun to take the research that I know of plus 10 years of experience as a physical therapist and apply it to a brand new model. It’s like brain candy.”
Ashley is a self-proclaimed “animal nut” and is warmed by the idea that she and her sister have helped other pet owners and improved the comfort and wellbeing of their animals.
“That’s the thing that’s so exciting about it all,” she said. “It’s truly beneficial. Everyone that has done it and learned about it really seems to enjoy doing it.”
While helping dog owners and pet-human relationships is an important impact of the sisters’ work, the collaborative process also transformed their relationship.
Ashely and Sasha’s mother, Pam Foster, who owns Pam Designs in downtown Craig, said both of her daughters are “independent, professional women,” but their stark differences caused their mother to be surprised and thrilled with the book’s March 2009 release and subsequent national recognition.
“They’re siblings, so they fight,” she said. “Ashley was always the animal person. She never varied from that. Growing up, they had snakes, rabbits, ducks, horses. … Sasha likes animals, too, but more in combination with the physical therapy. I think it’s great, the fact that they did this by themselves. They took all their own photos, and Ashley did all the drawings.
“I am definitely proud.”
Ashley said the book changed their lives and was a gift to their relationship.
“It’s a gift not only for what it became but that we became best friends out of it,” she said.
“The book was really landscape on which we could transform our relationship as sisters,” Sasha said. “You learn to work with each other by learning to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Diesel the Doberman also benefited from the process.
Although he is retired from his show career, he is still going strong at age 7.
Sasha said the stretching method has managed his pain and prevented him from having shoulder surgery.
“He still chases squirrels, and he’s still strong,” Ashley said.