It's a Dog's Life (River's)

River recently had his sixth birthday, so here is a brief look back at his life.

The first 8 months or so of his existence are not known to me exactly, but I've put together a picture, based on his behavior and idiosyncrasies.

Born in January and mostly likely separated from his mother at an early age, he was encouraged to fight with other dogs. Due to a genetic knee deformity, he experienced a great deal of pain in the rear legs. Sitting and lying down properly were too uncomfortable and running for any length of time resulted in days of limping afterwards. He was probably, therefore, not a good fighter. He was smacked on the head by a big man who drank; sometimes using his hands and sometimes a broomstick. In August, he was tied to a stairwell in a park near the waterfront and abandoned. By the time he was discovered there and taken into the animal shelter, he was gaunt and his ribs, hips and vertebrae were visible under his skin.

I found him in the shelter almost immediately after they brought him in; before they were even able to register him and give him his temperament tests. I fell instantly for him so they let me take him home as long as I first waited five days to give the original owner time to claim him. Once those five days passed, I had to pay for him to be neutered before they'd let me take him home.

Right away, his behavior was off the hook. He would snarl and attempt to attack anyone who would engage with him, but we'd laugh it off as being 'cute, puppy behavior'.  At the same time, using techniques learned from carefully studying Cesar Milan (The Dog Whisperer) I attempted to tame him to no avail. My hands and fingers were constantly bleeding and my arms were all scratched up from our daily skirmishes outside as I tried to walk with him.

Inside, when we played, his version of playing looked to me like fighting. I let him be in charge of when and how we'd play, thinking he instinctively knew what was best. I found out later that this sort of playing with him was only exacerbating his nervous anxiety.

I relentlessly worked at calming the pooch. The Alpha Dog technique of Cesar Milan was not working. It only seemed to anger River further and certainly wasn't making his issues any more manageable. So I switched gears and found a positive reinforcement model of training.

DogWorks is a local puppy training school that we enrolled him in.  The idea was to only acknowledge and reward the positive behavior. However, we were not at a place where there was ANY positive behavior to latch onto. He was wild, fearful and reactive to everything and everyone so the large majority of this technique was unusable for us.

River did well at the obedience part, when food was a reward, but wouldn't give me the time of day if I wasn't promising a treat. To solve this, I never went anywhere without some food in a satchel to bribe him and/or distract him with.

We spent several months this way and River became expert at following my commands. He would be extremely excited, but would SIT, SPIN, SHAKE, STAY, etc. like a champ. Basically, I'd tell him Good Boy when he did what I asked and admonish him with "No!" when he didn't. It was a very high energy, highly verbal exchange. But we labeled it as 'fun, excited dog' in our naivety.

And the food and obedience only held him until such a time that he was derailed by meeting a person or dog out in the real world. He was terrified and lashed out with what looked like aggression, but I later came to learn it was his defense mechanism from fear.

By this time he has bitten several people. I was OK with him biting me, as I was getting in his face and trying to train him, so I could forgive him for lashing out at me.  But when he bit strangers who only wanted to pet him or play with him, or that were ignoring him altogether but just "didn't smell right", that was definitely not OK and indicated to me that what we were doing wasn't working well enough.

River was so anti-social, that we were eventually forbidden to return to the Dog Day Care center. It was unsafe to have anyone over, even when we were home, so having someone come and sit with River while we were gone was out of the question. And he would howl and dig ferociously when I left him alone in the house, so I became bound to the home.

I all but gave up on having a social life and I designed my working life so that I could take River with me wherever I went. This arrangement was not ideal for anyone, as no one really needs a dog to be present at the gym in an exercise class, and driving from place to place, meeting a new roomful of excited women each day increased the anxiety of an already highly volatile creature.  But all I could do was take him along with me and do my best to keep him safe.

Eventually it would get to the point where I had to ask everyone we met to completely ignore him, just so he could be calm and make it through life.

Things were staying at this level of danger. I was starting to think that our entire life together was going to be spent on Orange Alert! Determined to break through the fear into the sweet dog I hoped was lurking underneath, I switched tactics once again.

I Googled "Help, my pit bull is aggressive!" and I found our third trainer. This time I hired a guy who specialized in troubled pit bulls and worked with police dogs. His technique was known as European Training, in some circles. It was a controversial method, but I was already convinced, after failing at both Dog Whispering and Good Boy methods, that River needed something more.

The K-9 Nitro technique introduced us to yet another piece of equipment.  We had already had him in a flat collar, a chest harness and a nose lead. None of those afforded me much control over him, nor did any of the associated techniques afford him any modicum of control over himself. So we now ventured into the prong collar.

The theory was that if a puppy misbehaved, its mother might nip it in the neck as a form of discipline. And the specific type of tug we were taught to give on the leash would make the prongs in the collar nip at his neck in the same way.

At first, I was amazed at how well it worked on River. When trainer used the technique, it looked a bit like bullying at first, but once River settled down and accepted what was going on, it grounded him so well. He was actually walking at my side for the first time in our lives, so I was forced to accept the training technique, warts and all.

Working with this technique, I eventually got River to walk alongside me and to stop when I stopped. It seemed to reach down deeper than any of the techniques we'd tried to date. He could, on occasion, be led right by a potential trigger and not react. And furthermore, if he did react, the prongs were such a strong statement on his neck that it would distract him from the source of his ire long enough to calm him and get him out of harms way. We got to the point where our trainer introduced us to the cinch collar. This was basically a rope doubled on itself. It sat loosely on his neck unless he pulled on it, which caused it to tighten and grasp his neck.  He also showed me a method for getting the dog to follow me without pulling on his neck. It required a lot of changing directions and getting in front of the dog.

So far none of the techniques we had explored allowed us to walk pleasantly and normally down the street. He required constant undivided attention. I could never look at my phone, enjoy the flowers or trees, or even get lost in my own head while we were out on a walk. Not only did he require direct hands on attention at all times, but it required full use of both hands and an attitude of alertness to predict any dangers around us for 360 degrees. I became a ninja out of necessity.

It wasn't easy, but it seemed to be working... for a while. Gradually, though, he seemed to grow tolerant to the technique. I started to need to 'remind' him more and more often, and use more and more force in the reminders. Eventually we got to the place where I'd be violently correcting him several times each block. My arms would get tired from all the corrections every few steps, so I can't imagine how awful it must have been for his neck.

And then, like all other techniques we had used so far, River eventually stopped responding to it, and our trainer told us he didn't know what else he could do.

It was also at this time that I decided we couldn't go on with his poor, defective knees. So River went under the knife (laser, actually) and had both of his knees properly aligned. After the short recovery period, he was like a brand new dog and could run and play at the beach all day with no ill effects.

I was at my wit's end. I was ready to give up and surrender the dog as a hopeless aggressive case. He has bitten at least half a dozen people by now, or maybe even ten or more by this point.  Fortunately, none of the bites were very bad. And interestingly, all of them were in the hands. He's never bitten any other body part. And were it not for my lightning fast reflexes, pulling him out of a lunge time and time again, the number of casualties would have been much higher.

I was searching for help on the Internet again and I found an online obedience program that promised to be different than all others because it claimed to be based on communicating to the dog in the way that dogs communicate with each other. So I signed up for that online course called "How To Speak So Your Dog Will Listen."

That course gave me a whole new perspective on what a dog's world view is like and how to get responses out of them by acting like they'd act with each other. Rather than commanding him, I learned how to make him WANT to come to me and to stick by me.  I learned how to become attractive to him, and I also learned healthy, effective ways for me to help him release some of his pent up emotions.

River responded immediately to this method and we were very happy for several months.  But gradually, he adapted to it and I found him pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior once again.

Despondent and desperate, I was in a bookstore one day, in the Pets section and I happened on a book called Your Dog Is Your Mirror. I noticed that the author of the book was credited as the creator of the Natural Dog Training technique that 'How To Speak So Your Dog Will Listen' was based on, so I picked up the book and perused it.

Kevin Behan helped me understand even more about River and his behavior. It was at this time that I first learned that River was a 'sensitive' dog and that his terrible behavior was a manifestation of his fear and confusion. I devoured the book and also got his first book, called Natural Dog Training. I loved what I was learning. I also went to a weekend seminar on the technique and visited Kevin at his farm in Vermont for a weekend of training.

Kevin and the people who studied his work helped River and I break through many barriers. I was educated on a whole new paradigm. I was taught how dogs "think" (or more accurately, how they process the world around them, emotionally) and given a specific regimen of training that would help River settle into being whole again. I was taught that most of the obedience training I was doing only served to excite him further but offered no sense of satisfaction for him.

I worked for several months to train River to do the five basic core exercises, BARK, PUSH, STAY, COLLECT and TUG. The theory was that all other actions are based on those basic canine behaviors. River had a heck of a time releasing whatever pent up emotions had prevented him from barking, but eventually I got it out of him, and now he can warn me with a bark whenever he's upset by something, and I can help him to avoid the situation.

All of the other exercises have real life applications, as well, and they all helped to calm and ground him.

He is improving and is more manageable than he's ever been.  And yet there are still leaks; places where the training doesn't quite cover him and his bad behaviors sneak out. I'm still on high alert around every corner. I still have no options for boarding him and have to be extremely cautious anytime anyone comes over to the house or wants to pet and/or approach him out in public.  He's a gorgeous dog, so he gets lots of attention and people always want to pet him, which he hates.

It took me this long to finally come to terms with the reality that I need to tell people, "You can't pet him. He's aggressive. He bites."  I was letting my pride get in the way of reality until recently. I wanted River to be an ambassador to the breed, but as it turns out, he's more accurately an example of why people are and should be cautious around pit bulls.

At the end of 2016, we returned home after an epic five-month long adventure on the road. It took a while for River to get settled back into home life in Seattle, but once he did, I started to notice the aggressive behavior popping up more and more and with more vigor and power. He seemed to be especially excitable right in front of our house. I figured it was territorial behavior.

I found myself at my wits end again and really exhausted from five years of struggling with this. Finally, I didn't know what else to do and made arrangements for his euthanasia. I couldn't live with myself knowing I had allowed such a beast to continue to live, considering the undeniable, strong evidence that he was a dangerous animal. I lived my life in fear every day; fear of him biting the face off of a child on the sidewalk or fear of him snapping at a litigious attorney who would end up owning my house. It has been my experience, throughout River's life, that everyone gives him the benefit of the doubt to a fault. So, it was for this reason that I wasn't comfortable surrendering him to another family. Not only would River have been doubly miserable and terrified to be living with someone besides me, but they wouldn't know how careful one needs to be around him and may find themselves on the business end of a serious dog attack.

Tearfully, I surrendered him to the vet, who was supportive of my decision. They coached me on how it was sometimes the best, most humane thing to do, and sometimes it's the only responsible thing to do. Probably because I was such an obvious blubbering mess, they suggested I first board him for three days before taking the plunge. I agreed.

I cried all night the first night he was away. I struggled with the feelings that I was a murderer, that I was being selfish, that I didn't try hard enough, or that I was actually responsible for creating his predicament. Nothing could console me.

I weakened and went back to visit him at the vet the next day. I asked them if I could take him for what I thought was going to be our last walk together. We went to a favorite park and I didn't try to get him to do anything. I just enjoyed his company. He didn't seem to get himself into any trouble and our walk was as pleasant as could be. It almost as if he knew he was being scrutinized within an inch of his life and was on his best behavior.

When I returned him to his cage at the vet, I expressed my conflict to the technician, who suggested I put him on anxiety medication. I was hesitant to go back, now that I had come to terms with the painful reality of his being gone. I was afraid that if I did, and it didn't work out, I'd have to go through the pain of mourning all over again. But I figured it would at least allow me to say I honestly tried everything before giving up, so I agreed to get him started on Trazodone and took him home again.

We started him on 100mg, and as he grew tolerant, kept increasing it. Now, River has been on 200mg of Trazodone daily for a couple of months. As with everything we've ever tried for him, it did wonders in the beginning and then he slowly adjusts and builds a tolerance to it, which brings his undesirable behavior back. We have permission to eventually up his daily dosage as high as 300mg, but have yet to go there.

These days I'm working very closely with the vet on River, his attitude and behavior and his future. I do find that he's generally a lot more calm. He's able to spend time alone now, which is something he'd never been able to do before. Even right now, as I type this, I'm on the third floor and he's in his crate on the second floor.

He still gets riled up at the sight of most other dogs, and occasionally to a certain energy in people. But now his reaction is a lot more normal. He will bark at them, but stay put near me and eventually respond when told to stop acting like a fool. Whereas in the past, he would be inconsolable and be lunging toward the offending party, looking to do some damage, now he's able to shake it right off and turn around and sniff a bush.

So now the euthanasia is on the back burner while we see what develops with the new drugged down version of River. I'm encouraged that he's a lot more grounded, even if he's not the happy-go-lucky dog I would have loved him to be. But he's able to recover from his upsets now and that's all that really matters in life, right?  No one can expect to go through life without being upset, but what makes the difference in our quality of life is how quickly we are able to return to our center after being knocked off base.

We are hoping for a good 2017 as River looks forward to his seventh year.
Some ways in which River needs to be treated differently than most dogs:

No Talking.  -  Hearing your voice only excited him unnecessarily. Dogs don't speak English and aren't accustomed to using vocalizations to communicate. They use body language.

Don't Touch -  For whatever reason, River doesn't enjoy being pet. Especially by someone he doesn't know. Even I, whom he trusts completely, am not allowed to touch his head. He tolerates it, but he flinches.  When I am truly in tune with his needs and not only concerned with my own, I can clearly see that he'd rather I didn't pet him.  Since being on Trazodone, he has calmed to the point where he can enjoy being scratched, but only VERY lightly and only on the rear aspect of his body. Never on  his head.

No Eye Contact -  Contrary to popular belief, it is bad manners to look into a dog's eyes. Many people say, "I do it to my dog all the time and she's fine." But that doesn't mean it isn't polite. It means that your dog is tolerating your inappropriate behavior because you feed her every day. In the world of a dog, if another being locks eye contact, it is a challenge. The dog can choose how she accepts the challenge, and could simply walk away, but River is so heightened and nervous that his response to eye contact is to panic.

No Eating Indoors - I have to take River outside for his dinner. And I don't put his food in a bowl and let him devour it, but I give him each bite directly by hand. Every day at dinnertime we reinforce his five core exercises. He earns every morsel.

No You Can't Say Hi -  Please don't approach or engage River. He can't handle it. You can admire him from afar. By the way, the way dogs enjoy each other is not by touching each other and cooing and telling each other that they're so handsome.  Dogs enjoy each other by running after something together. or pulling it apart in a tug of war. They spend quality time by standing near each other, breathing at the same rate, smelling each other's pee.... etc.  But they don't face each other unless they're in conflict.

Don't Say His Name - I'm training River to come to me when I call his name. I do this by being consistent with a food reward every time I say "River" and he comes to me. There is a problem when people are meeting us and they ask 'What's his name?" and I answer "River." He hears that, but it doesn't result in food, so it weakens the power of the word. And then, they always repeat his name to him, "River! You're so handsome," further diffusing the power.  SO I came up with a new idea.  Anytime someone asks me his name, I'll answer "Easy". EASY is a command I've used to encourage River to relax, ground and collect himself. He might respond by sitting or lying down, or maybe just by relaxing the tension he was holding. But it's a very useful tool for us to have. When a stranger is engaging with us is the perfect time for me to tell him 'Easy'.  And then, the stranger will also remind him to take it "easy" when they repeat his 'name' to him.  I think the results will be much more pleasant for River in this experience then it is when we're using his name, and no stranger needs to know his real name.

JAGs POV: This whole experience with River has taught me a lot about myself and human nature as well as about what really makes dogs tick. Most of us can go through our entire lives without coming to terms with how dogs really are because they fit so nicely into our own assumption about them. (unless they're severely damaged and need special treatment.)

I've learned that people think they know about things that they don't know anything about. I have gotten so much unsolicited advice from people who have never worked a single day with River. Sometimes, someone who's only seen River for less than five minutes will have the gaul to tell me that what I'm doing is inappropriate. This upsets me incredibly, as they have no idea how much I love and care for the dog and how much work I've done for and with him.  And while I recognize that some of the methods we have used over the years don't look so pleasant, I'm not an asshole for doing them. It's what the dog needs.  So please, people, keep your opinions to yourself when you feel like you need to correct what I'm doing with my dog. You have no idea!

I've also learned to cultivate my own levels of patience and understanding. I tend to do things quickly and with full steam ahead, and River's needs have helped me move more slowly and relaxed.

I've also learned a lot about the pain of having expectations. River is nowhere near the dog I wanted, but he's the dog I have. I can be miserable when I try to make him the dog I wanted, or I can be happy and enjoy the dog I have.


Popular posts from this blog

Skin Cancer

Food Purist

JAG & River: Road Trip 2019