I took a lovely, scenic route from New York to Vermont; the Saw Mill River Parkway.

And even with all the natural green beauty of the Saw Mill River Parkway, I was still blown away when I got into Vermont. Besides Washington, I think Vermont is probably the greenest state. In fact, Vermont reminded me a lot of the Puget Sound area, with the weather (almost always about to rain) and the lush green covering everything. The one difference is the large number of bugs found in Vermont. Western Washington is fairly bug-free.

I arrived on Friday night and got a quick tour of the farm and then I got to watch Kevin take River for a walk and do some exercises with him. He confirmed my belief that we are dealing with a lot of fear, which is manifesting as aggression toward other dogs and (on rare occasions) certain people. He told me that if I were to totally allow him to release his aggression on dogs, it would solve the issue of people. But since I’m not allowing either, he’s frustrated and sometimes will make the mistake of lunging at either.

My head was already full and I was already a bit confused and dealing with my feelings of guilt for all the training I’ve been doing that is contributing to his problem. All of the pushing and tugging and wrestling games we’ve been playing are reinforcing his fear because of the way I’m playing. Kevin tells me that the growling sounds he makes when playing are a sign of tension that isn’t being released. It’s being held and causing him stress.

The dominance and obedience training don’t make any sense to River and serve to put me at odds with him, rather than allied with him. Kevin’s system, called Natural Dog Training, is the opposite; it says that everything the dog does is exactly right and it is up to us to learn how to work with it. Sometimes that means channeling his response (bite) into the proper venue (rope toy). And it sometimes involves teaching the dog to bark and/or bite when asked, so that it gives an outlet for the behavior and an alternative behavior to the ones that don’t end up feeling good.

Another thing I was doing that wasn’t helpful to River was letting him sleep on the bed with me and letting him up on chairs with me or on my lap. Kevin’s experience was that this usually leads to dominant behavior because they feel ‘on the same level’ with the human. He suggested I have River sleep through the night in his crate and to avoid inviting him up on the furniture.

It was a lot to think about as I climbed into the big feather bed. I had River’s crate set up on the floor at the foot of the bed, but as soon  as I turned out the light, I could hear him leave the crate and begin circling around the bed, looking for a good launching point to jump up. Before he got there I told him “Go Home” and the next thing I heard was the sound he makes when he brushes against the crate as he’s climbing in.

At another point, early in the morning, I felt him jump up on the bed and immediately told him to get off and go home, which he did. Other than that, he seemed to be OK with the sleeping in the crate rule. He does it when we’re at home. It’s just when we’re traveling in motel rooms and staying at people’s homes that I let him get in bed with me, but I guess I’ll stop that now.

The next morning started with a lecture as Kevin taught me his theories on how dogs operate on an energetic level. He described a see-saw with one side being “prey’ drive and the other side being “predator” drive and all action is nothing more than seeking a balance between those two drives. Another way to think of it as always balancing between being hungry and being grounded.

It was all pretty intellectual and, frankly, scared me a little bit because while it made sense to me, I didn’t feel like I could turn around and explain it to someone else. And I surely didn’t see how it related to River and me and what we can do differently.

He then demonstrated “giving River a bite”. This was also a bit scary because he would hurl a giant burlap pillow at River and really clock him good on the side of his body. He did this a few times until River finally lost it and started growling, barking and biting at the pillow. At that point, Kevin started walking in a circle and River followed along with the pillow in his mouth. It didn’t look like much more than a guy playing a bit rough with a dog. But Kevin described how it was an important exercise to give the dog a place to put his desire to bite.  He gets rewarded for doing it and at the same time it satisfied the latent urge. After playing this game with Kevin, a dog is less likely to use biting as a means to get out of a highly charged situation.

He not only demonstrated it with River, but I saw him do it with three other dogs, and saw how it changed the choices they make every time.

Kevin described how dogs ‘collapse’. They’ll be in a face-off with each other and all is tension until finally one of them drops a bit and that sets off the whole chain of events that will eventually become playing or fighting.

He also talks about ‘collecting’. This is similar to a human grounding. Kevin observed how much River is pitched forward, putting most of his weight in his forelegs. He described it as being disconnected from his enteric nervous system and out of touch with his body. By putting River on a large flat rock and teasing him with food, but only giving it to him when River wasn’t reaching for it, he taught River that good things happen (he gets food) when he relaxes and sits on his hind legs.

Even as I describe this to you, I can describe it, and I have the experience of seeing it work, but I can’t explain it, and I’m not sure I can even recreate it. Kevin assures me that this stuff is so natural, and so basic, that all you have to do is get a taste of it and you will never go back to the old way. And that applies to both River and me. I was glad to hear that, so that I could let go of a rising panic that I was doing to drive away from this experience with nothing more than a memory of how cool it was to watch Kevin get these behaviors out of River. But if I wasn’t able to understand and repeat them, I’ll have wasted all this time and money.

Throughout the day, Kevin was introducing River to other dogs. On leash and under our strict control, we were able to shape their experience so that they’d all have a positive outcome. I wasn’t surprised when River was cool around the Schnauzer and the Corgie, because he’s never felt threatened by small dogs. Even terribly ill-mannered small dogs never phased him. He just tolerated them or avoided them.

But when Kevin brought out the black Lab, then I thought we were in for it. But again, River was so cool that I almost didn’t recognize him. In the past, it wouldn’t have mattered that this black dog was very polite and knew how to absorb River’s frenetic energy and stay out of harm’s way. River would have lunged after just a few sniffs. But today, River was curious and friendly and it was such a joy to watch the two play. I could see the see-saw of prey-predator that Kevin was describing. It helped that Kevin was narrating the interaction as it unfolded.

After a bit more work, Kevin went to get one of his worst problems; a Doberman with over-the-top aggression issues against people and dogs. She was a bit shy at first, but River was displaying a kind of calm, centeredness that I have never seen on him. He patiently let her work out her stuff as she slowly approached him. He reacted appropriately-- if she became aggressive, he moved away-- if she softened, he mirrored her-- he actually stood still and let her sniff his butt, which is something he was never comfortable or relaxed enough to do in the past.

Kevin was encouraged and decided to take them down to the watering hole. He said water is like a bonding element. It was something they could each connect to and through that connection, connect to each other. I was so delighted to see how they played together!  Just like a real dog. River showed zero signs of aggression and was instead playing very nicely. Even when she lost herself momentarily and would panic and bite at him, he just let it roll off his back. He gave her space when she needed it, but also was ready to engage when she was.

At one point, she started digging in the mud at the edge of the water, and River joined in with her. I’ve been with River for over two years and I’ve never seen him dig, but today he was digging with all he had because it was a way of connecting to his new ‘friend’.

By the time we were walking back from the watering hole, Kevin was impressed. Not only with River, but in what River brought out in the Doberman (I’m sorry I don’t remember her name). He suggested that because River has a very strong temperament that he will take to this stuff really well and is a perfect candidate to become a ‘therapy dog’ helping other dogs learn this work.

By the evening I was beaming with pride, albeit still a little bit baffled and worried that I wasn’t grasping this work well enough to take it home.

Right now, River’s asleep on his blanket and covered in mud.
He had an incredible day, as did I. I hope we can both remember and recreate the events of today.  Tomorrow, morning, Kevin wants to do a bit more work with River and me on the five core exercises:



He swears that just using these five exercises will give River all he needs to correct his behavior all on his own. And after seeing River play with the ‘problem Dobie’ today, I believe him.

He’s also planning to introduce River to another pit bull with problems. I have faith in Kevin and his techniques and confidence in River’s ability to heal.


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