How this 41-pound Chihuahua who was 'going to die' transformed into a 'completely different dog'

Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy
Contributing Writer
A before and after of one of the dogs featured on the show. (Photo: Animal Planet)

Travis Brorsen, the host, trainer, and star of the new Animal Planet series My Big Fat Pet Makeover, which premiered Saturday, Sept. 30, at 10 p.m. EDT, is in the business of saving lives.

“There are 41 million dogs in America who are overweight or obese,” Brorsen tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “And the only people who have control over that are the owners.”

One of the dogs featured on the show who found herself in a life-threatening situation is Gracie, a Chihuahua who weighed in at a whopping 41.5 pounds when she and her owner, Lisa, first met Brorsen. A Chihuahua should weigh, at most, 8 pounds.

Lisa and her daughter, Hope, would feed their dogs all day long, letting them lie down to eat while watching TV. Exercise was basically a nonexistent part of the canine family members’ lives, Lisa says.

“I knew she was overweight, but seeing her on a daily basis, I just saw some cute, cuddly fluffy dog,” Lisa tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “But to see her from someone else’s perspective was really hard — and really right.”

After all, Lisa notes that it wasn’t until Brorsen told her that Gracie was “going to die” if they didn’t start making some immediate changes to her lifestyle that things “really hit home for us.”

Likewise, Lisa said it was Brorsen who made clear to her that this didn’t have to be — and there were some relatively simple fixes.

“She was not going to die if I just took her for a walk,” Lisa says.

Brorsen explains that Gracie and Lisa’s situation is far from unique — and that pet owners don’t have obese pets because they don’t love them, but because they’re often just in denial that there’s any kind of problem with what’s going on with their animals. And likewise, with their relationship to them.

“One of the things that got me into training in general was just the drive to help people build that bond with their pets that makes having pets so wonderful, that can change our lives for the better,” Brorsen says. “Pet obesity is a huge problem, and one of the ways I help people grow these bonds and relationships is by spending more time with their pets, loving on their pets, enriching their lives. People with overweight pets clearly have a missing link — they’re spending time with their pets, but the pets are overeating, or they are not spending enough time with them. Most have some kind of obedience problem too.”

The work he does on the show, then, is “not just about health and wellness” but also about “finding a way to help owners find new ways to connect with their pets and add years onto their lives and help them get healthy.”

 

Which is why the work Brorsen does on My Big Fat Pet Makeover focuses so heavily on family systems.

“The more family members I can get in the room, the better,” he says. “Rarely is everyone on the same page” when it comes to what’s going on with their pets’ behavior — and how the humans in the household are contributing to that behavior.

“My goal is to really break through, to break down barriers and walls, so they feel they can trust me when it gets to the point when I’m telling them that they’re going to be the cause of their pet’s early death if they don’t make some big changes,” he says. “If you hear that from someone you don’t trust and respect, you can’t get the same results.”

And because this is reality television, Brorsen also notes with a laugh that “family members always love spilling on each other.”

Once Brorsen starts working with a family, he says, the trick to pet weight loss is not only sticking to the basics, but doing so with lots of specificity.

“It’s no secret that pets need to exercise,” he says. “But to tell someone to increase exercise is too vague to see results. Increase by what? An extra minute? An extra 30 minutes? An extra two to three hours? What does that even really mean?”

 

For example, Brorsen gave Lisa and Hope a tightly structured plan to increase Gracie’s physical activity structured around achievable goals. When he met Gracie, she couldn’t even walk halfway down the block, so the goal for Week 1 was just to walk down the block. In Week 2, Lisa was to walk Gracie two blocks.

Before losing weight, Gracie could barely make it down the block on a walk. (Photo: Animal Planet)

“I broke it down by day and by week to identify specific goals so Lisa had something visual to work toward — she could see what one block looked like, what two blocks looked like — versus just telling her to cut down on Gracie’s food and get her to start exercising.”

And having realistic goals made for long-lasting change.

Now, Lisa says, “Every one of my dogs, we take turns walking. Everyone goes outside once a day for a walk. And Travis taught us that if the dog doesn’t eat in five minutes after the food goes down, you take the food away; it doesn’t just sit there. And all the dogs learned — you eat when the food is here and we get to go for a walk and we get to go swimming. Before then, everyone was just laying on the couch and watching TV and eating kibble.”

“I always say this, but I can’t help the pet if I can’t get through to the owner. What I truly love is helping the owner grow their bond and relationship to their pet through this process. As a trainer in general, I get to do that through basic obedience skills. But this is another avenue in a sense — it’s saving a dog’s life through health and wellness,” Brorsen says. ”I didn’t understand until I went through the process of being a trainer what it means to really spend time with your dog, what having a pet is really all about. And now, for me, it’s all about how I can find ways to help other owners have better relationships with their dogs too.”

But Travis also offers the following tips on how anyone can immediately start helping a pet struggling with obesity.

“No. 1, measure the food,” Brorsen says. “Know exactly how much food you are giving your pet. I have so many owners who says, ‘I give about two cups a day.’ And then they show me this giant cup that’s the equivalent of 2.5 measuring cups. You have to know exactly how much food you are really giving your pet.’

Second, Brorsen emphasizes that it is essential to “feed your dog based on what your dog should be weighing.” That is, the amount a dog is fed should be based on what an ideal weight is for that breed, and not based on the weight a dog is at presently. In other words — if your dog is overweight, then they’re definitely going to need less food a day than you’re currently giving them.

Third, Brorsen says, is centralizing food distribution.

“If you have a lot of family members who all are involved with feeding the pets, it’s good to actually take the portion of food and the amount of food your dog should be getting in one day and put it in a container for the day so everyone can see that’s the amount of food the dog will eat for the day,” he explains. “So if multiple family members are all coming in to feed the dog, they are all doing so out of one container. And that includes treats. So you all are working out of that one container, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. There’s no feeding the dog more than you all know he should be getting.”

And lastly, of course, is exercise.

“Find out what motivates your pet and get them moving,” Brorsen says, adding that it’s essential for owners not to mistake “potty breaks for an exercise walk.”

“If you walk to the corner so your dog can go to the bathroom, that’s not a walk. There were zero calories burned.”

While these steps may seem simple — and practical — they can really lead to huge results.

“She’s a completely different dog,” Lisa says of Gracie today. “She is happy. She runs. She plays. It’s a different dog. I never would have believed this was Gracie, and I never would have done this myself. I know how we all are when we get in a routine. If not for Travis and being held accountable, this never would have happened.”

Today Gracie is a completely different dog. (Photo: Discovery)

As Brorsen adds about his experience of working with owners like Lisa, “Honestly, what surprised me the most is it’s not that the owners on this show don’t love their pets, but that they love them so much and didn’t understand how dire the situation was with their animals.”

Because of that love, Brorsen says, he wasn’t surprised at all to see how willing owners were “to put the work in right away, straight out of the gate. Some owners fall into that denial category, but everyone who simply needed to be educated and motivated knocked it out of the park.”

For her part, Lisa says she hopes Gracie’s story will help inspire dog owners everywhere.

“I hope people really take a look at what they’re doing with their own dogs and see how happy Gracie is now. It wasn’t torture, and it was for her own good. I just hope everyone sees that we’re the only ones who can help her. She can’t help herself. It was not her fault. You can’t blame it on the dog,” Lisa says.

Likewise, Brorsen adds, “I hope owners watch this show and have something they can take away from it and make these kinds of changes at home themselves. The only people who have control over their dogs’ health are the owners. I want people to feel educated and empowered by this show to literally add years onto their pets’ lives.”

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