Understanding River

IN THE BEGINNING (Setting the Stage)

From what I’ve been able to ascertain, River’s life started out rough. I believe that he was trained to be either a guard dog or a fight dog. I believe that as part of that training, he was hit in the head by hand and with a stick-like object (perhaps a broom) by a large white man.
My instinct also tells me that because of the dog’s inherited poorly-aligned knees, he experienced a lot of pain when he fully bent them to sit or lie down or even to use his weight equally on all fours. So he was probably considered a ‘bad’ dog for being hesitant to sit and lie down. In an effort to relieve himself of the pain in his back end, he pitched his body weight forward, which resulted in a constant forward momentum which made him seem like a ‘hyperactive’ dog because he couldn’t sit or be still.

He was finally abandoned at about eight months of age. He was tied to an outdoor staircase railing near the waterfront in Seattle in the middle of August. No one knows how long he was there before someone finally called, but by the time the local animal shelter picked him up, his ribs, hipbones and vertebrae were clearly visible.

He was in the stressful environment of being locked up in the animal shelter for about five days, during which time he simultaneously caught a respiratory infection and was discovered by me. 

When I saw him, he stared at me and those beautiful eyes won me over. He was exotically striped like a Bengal tiger and was one of the more beautiful dogs I had seen; especially amongst the ones available from the shelter.

I approached him and he growled at me, but I trusted that I could win him over with patience. 
I had been reading a lot of Cesar Milan so I knew how to approach and to be patient, quiet and calm. Since he had been picked up rather than surrendered, the shelter’s policy was to hold him for five days to give the original owner the opportunity to claim him. Each of those days, I came back to see the dog I had named River. They wouldn’t let me take him out of the cage, but I went to his cage and squatted down so we could socialize through the bars. His feeding toy had rolled under the gate, out of his reach, so I made sure he saw me pick it up and toss it back inside. He cautiously came over to chew on it some more but it slipped out of his mouth and rolled under the cage door again. This happened about four or five times during my visit with him, and I think that was the beginning of his trust for me.


Having gone into this with the utmost confidence that Cesar had taught me how to “Be the Pack Leader”,  I was quickly disavowed of that notion. River didn’t like being told to “Shht!” and would bite the finger that I held up as a sign of my disapproval. For all the reasons I’ve previously stated, I soon discovered that I had what I’d call a hyperactive, or ‘exuberant’ dog. He wasn’t keen on being submissive to a pack leader and immediately tore holes in Cesar Milan’s philosophies, much to my chagrin. The impression I got was that my dog was different than most and couldn’t be helped by Cesar’s Way. It was a difficult thing to accept, but was the only way I could explain River’s non-compliance.

So I sought out help through a different avenue. I found a school that used only Positive Reinforcement and food. I learned from them about drives and was advised that his hyperactivity was due to his boredom. So my task was to stimulate his mind with obedience ‘party tricks’. In all fairness, most of the tricks had practical purposes; for example, I taught River to “Spin” on command, which he took to with gusto. Now, if he gets tangled up in his leash or the seatbelt in the car, I’m grateful for his knowing what I mean by “spin”.
In order to address the dog’s other drives, I was advised to make him work for all of his food and to give up the notion of a ‘food bowl’. So I got him lots of puzzle toys that I could hide food in and make him work to get it out. I also made sure that he had plenty of expensive toys for chewing on, tugging on and tearing apart. I believed that making sure the dog’s drives were satisfied was the key to our happiness. It didn’t really do much to address River’s growing tendency to lunge at dogs in a way that wasn’t conducive to healthy play and to express fear for that certain profile of man I described above.  The trainers couldn’t really offer me any real solutions to those problems but just kept insisting that the more I satisfied his drive, the better he would be. It wasn’t working.  I was playing all the right games, but again, the impression I was left with by this system was that River was broken.

I tried outfitting him with a nose-lead harness to keep him at bay while we went on our walks. And like the other methods, it worked to a degree and didn’t really seem to be changing the problem, but more keeping it under control. There was never a time during any of these training sessions, or in my experiments with different walking protocols and apparatuses, that I felt like River was getting better. They offered a certain level of distraction and/or a harnessing him in, but nothing felt transformative.  I knew as soon as I let go of him, he’d revert to his old self.

I finally searched specifically for help for aggressive dogs and found a guy who specialized in the “killer breeds” and especially in curbing aggressive behavior. I was intrigued and desperate so I adopted a third philosophy that I later learned to call the European Method. This was a very heavy-handed approach using strict commands and lots of severe corrections. We switched River’s neckwear once again and this time he was in metal prongs. The trainer assured me that when River was walking calmly that the collar felt like a neck massage, but that when he walked out of formation, the correction I gave him mimicked a bite-like correction he’d get from his own mother.

River took to this regime remarkably quickly and it seemed to be straightening him out. I thought I had finally found the answer. Part of me felt bad that it had to be such a violent solution, but by this time, I was happy just to have my desired outcome; a dog that wasn’t dangerous.

In retrospect, I can see that much of my fear was imagined. I was worried a great deal about what could possibly happen, even though the reality was that 90% of the time, he was a perfect (albeit high-strung and exuberant) dog.

While initially, it seemed like this European technique was going to work on River, it was clear that he was still not transformed. His interest in other dogs was still as intense and maybe even growing. But I had the tools to keep everything under control. All I had to do was repeatedly ‘bite’ him on the neck and reprimand him until he obeyed me by ignoring his impulses. Sounds really healthy, right?

Even his desire to walk calmly at my side wasn’t growing. This technique became a constant battle including at least four corrections on every city block. It was no kind of relationship for us, even if it was effective. It didn’t feel like a good long-term solution, so I was still searching for another answer.

I hired more experts. I read book after book and talked to so many people. But it never seemed like anyone’s advice worked for us. It felt like all of the dog books were talking about normal dogs and my River was a special case. I was feeling more and more isolated and desperate because I had a feeling that River wasn’t broken even though all evidence pointed to that.

Many times, I reached the end of my rope and wanted to give up, but my pride and a nagging feeling that there was nothing wrong with River kept me going, despite bleak prospects.

In the meantime, River and I had developed some games together. He would growl and snarl and make horrible guttural sounds while wrestling with me and simultaneously tugging, pushing and chewing on a rope. We’d also tear apart stuffed animals and he’d pull all the insides out. I usually played these games in my studio, often before I exercised so he’d be worn out and leave me alone, or sometimes on rainy days when I didn’t feel like going on a walk. And then, there were days that were perfectly sunny and nice but that I didn’t feel like girding myself for the battle of wills that our walks had become.

One day, after some particularly vexing River moment inspired a new search for help, I came across an online course called “How to Speak So Your Dog Will Listen”. This intrigued me and eventually led to introducing me to our fourth regime; Natural Dog Training (NDT).

I went through the course and read some books by Kevin Behan, the creator of NDT, and was brought to tears over and over again as it finally felt like someone was talking about River! This new technique fully explains every quirky behavior that River exhibited and offers a way to address not only his frenetic energy, but his aggressiveness. He wasn’t broken or crazy at all. He was perfectly normal and responding to his lifelong imprinting as any dog would do.

River responded immediately to the techniques employed and I loved them too. Every one of them seemed clearly satisfying to River. I didn’t have to tell him to do anything once I showed him what I was after; he was eager to do everything because it was based on understanding his basic animal instinct and learning how to channel it.

The NDT protocols required a shift in my understanding of dogs. So it took me quite a number of months to fully step into it. But once I let go of my old beliefs and fully embraced the new, it felt so right. Not only was every nuance of River’s behavior suddenly perfectly normal and explainable, but there was a simple way of helping him make better choices.

Simple is not always easy. The hardest part of the technique for me was to wrap my head around what a dog really does and doesn’t need. Most of what we’re taught in America about loving our dogs is not actually good for the dog, but only designed to satisfy the human. Dogs are emotional, which is why we connect to them, but unlike humans, dogs are not intellectual. Since they are so intellectually blank it is very easy for us to project all manner of human-like qualities upon them. But, as I had discovered, any time we apply human thinking processes to the behavior of a dog, we’ll run into problems and inconsistencies. 

I stepped into loving the animal in my dog with NDT about a month ago and have already been delighted to see not only immediate shifts in his general demeanor and some positive meetings with other dogs and strange men, but I can also finally actually see that this is having a positive effect on the dog. For the first time, I feel like we’re getting to the problem at its source and not just sloppily going after behaviors and hoping for the best.

And a large part of the problem is from me. River has been stimulated and challenged his whole life. Most dogs would be able to handle it, but I feel like in his case, until recently, he was never allowed to just “be” a dog. He was always being ‘trained’ for one thing or another, and when he wasn’t being trained, was being stimulated by excited humans drawn to what we could easily project as an exuberant life expression. The games that I had developed with him were clearly frying him out, and he was never, ever left alone. In short, I took a nervous, fearful dog and piled three years of stimulation and stress on top of that. 

Had we continued on the path, his behavior would have gotten worse and worse until … Well luckily, we don’t have to go there.

I have put River on a rehabilitation program that includes a refiguring of what sort of games we play, and a lot of quiet down time in his crate. Locking him in his crate for long periods of the day will teach him that he can remain motionless and that he doesn’t have to react to every shift in the room. We can be together through the bars. Both of us have to come to terms with that in the next several months. I envision that at some point, I won’t need to lock him in, but by that time he will be choosing to remain in the crate as it is the most relaxing way to enjoy the happenings of the family. Letting him roam free is effectively increasing his energetic charge, which is the opposite of what I want. I want him less charged, more relaxed, grounded and in touch with his body. 

His anxiety is evidenced by the sounds he makes and the way he attempts to push himself out of the crate. It may seem to be cruel, or it may resemble punishment, but it is out of my love for him that I give him the opportunity to finally face those demons and express them, rather than continue to thrust reflexively, escaping and not dealing with them. He’ll eventually express all of that bottled up emotion and come to terms with the reality that it is a much better choice to be calm in the crate.

Simply the act of crating him most of the day had a far-reaching effect. Within 48 hours, I was walking him and was surprised to pass right by another dog with barely a reaction from River. Usually, I’d brace for a battle or have to call all of my high-tech training techniques into action, but never before had the issue just not presented itself in this way.

We’ve also adjusted our ‘game time’ to incorporate skills that he lacks. He has never had the opportunity to learn to absorb and soften his energy. So my games now all involve rewarding him for choosing to stay put, to lie down and collect himself, and to roll over and present his belly to me. And not in a submissive fearful way but in a confident, sensual, receptive way. Once he’s comfortable enough with these new games (better stated, once these new games have forged a neurological groove deeper than the old games) he’ll be able to use these skills in his interactions with other dogs and humans.

Any rehab program is going to require a bit of discomfort. And this is no exception. I’m asking my friends to ignore him until I can better articulate the intricacies of how to best interact with him. And the longer we remain on our new spartan regime, the better he’ll be able to handle the energy people bring to him.

Kevin seems to think that River will respond quickly and within six to nine months, I’ll forget I ever even had the problems with him I thought I was having. And for the first time since I’ve started working with River, I actually believe it. 

Things to keep in mind regarding River (and all dogs):

—Nothing is thought. Everything is an emotional reaction.

—Prolonged eye contact is a direct challenge and not polite. 

—Touching and affection is how humans show love; not dogs. Dogs socialize by doing work together, not by making each other the center of attention.

—Be quiet. Imagine if you were trying to pet a dog and it was continually barking at you. Wouldn’t it put you on edge a little bit?  This is what it’s like when you talk to your animal. The animal kingdom is largely silent. Dogs communicate more by gesture and body language than by sound.

—A wagging tail means excited stimulation. It is not correct to assume it means ‘happy’.

—Growling means “I’m unsure!” It is not a threat; it is a request to stop what you’re doing.

—If you want to express affection to a dog, then stand side-by-side with it and let it smell you. If the tail wags, or if they press their side against you, they’ve invited a bit of petting, but a few strokes is good. After that, it becomes more than casual affection and can be confusing to a dog.

—If you are afraid of a dog, do not run away; that will attract it to you. Fear and motion are like magnets to an animal’s natural predatory instincts. Instead ignore the dog, stand still and tall or try to appear confident as you walk away. If you need the dog to run away, stare into its eyes as you stomp your feet, raise your arms up and yell “BOO!” Your appearing big and menacing will trigger their prey instinct and they will scurry away.


Popular posts from this blog

Skin Cancer

Where the Heck Are JAG & River? Aug - Oct 2017

My Motel 6 Experiences