Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast
My niece walking my 110 pound Rottweiler, Mickey, many years ago. Mickey would normally drag anyone walking her, but she just knew to be gentle with my niece.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Who's the Alpha?

There are people out there who have a mark on their forehead that is only visible to dogs, at least this is what I’ve heard.  Some say the mark says ‘Sucker’ or ‘Gives Treats’.  For my mom, I’m certain she has such a mark that says ‘Big heart, lots of love.’ This is evident from my childhood on the ranch, watching her struggle to care for a new born calf abandoned by its mother, as well as seeing how she still grieves over the passing of a grand puppy years after the fact. Yes, my mom has a soft spot for animals.  Anyone who has met her knows how sweet she is, but few realize that this same woman raised four boys on a ranch and could bring the wrath of God on any disobedient child when required.  As for the dogs, well, she was and still is a little more understanding when naughtiness occurs.

A classic example of this was when she met Belle for the first time.  Belle was a Rottweiler whose owner was killed in a car wreck in Wyoming.  For two years Belle was kept in a kennel by the woman’s mother, never having been let out because the elderly woman couldn’t handle her.  Having been in rescue since 1997, I know that such situations are more common than you might believe.  What made Belle unique was that she had been protection trained.  What this meant is that this beautiful ninety five pound dog was not only fearless but she had a middle finger the size of Wyoming with teeth to back it up.  If you looked up the term ‘Alpha Bitch’, Belle’s picture would certainly be there as an example.

After my girl Mickey died, I arranged to have Belle transported up to the shelter in Bozeman so I could start working with her and hopefully integrate her into my home.  I clearly remember the day she arrived.  A good friend and dog trainer, Angie, was there with her husband John as Belle was unloaded.  Jumping out of the crate that was in the back of the pickup truck that transported her, Belle landed on the ground as if she owned everything she saw, head high, dominant stare, with a body that looked as if she had been a former member of the East German Woman’s track team.  The girl was a beast. 

“Dear God Troy, she’s built like a brick sh*t house!” Angie exclaimed.

I just nodded in agreement. Now, Belle was smaller than my last female but the confidence that this dog exuded easily added another twenty pounds. Unlike many dogs, Belle made no effort to greet people, instead focusing on exploring her surroundings and giving everyone an investigatory gaze for a moment, sizing us up I suppose.  So began our introduction and the process of working with Belle.

After a couple months of getting to know Belle at the shelter and learning, purely by accident, that all her commands were in German, my mom informed me that she wanted to come to the shelter and meet Belle.  I wasn’t sure about this because by that time Belle had a powerful reputation at the shelter.  Either she liked someone or she hated them.  The common factor for those she hated was that they were afraid of her even before meeting her or they were people that could be described as having a more passive nature.  My concern was that Belle was a dominant dog, so much so that she would challenge you on a regular basis simply to see if you were the alpha dog that day.  If you were she was a great dog to work with.  If you weren’t, well, let’s just say that she could be a temperamental challenge whose bite was just as bad as her bark.

Relenting to my mom’s request, I had her come to the shelter and brought Belle out to the ‘Get to know you zone’, a large pen with benches and toys that allowed people to interact with a prospective pet without the distractions of all the activity in the shelter.  As usual, Belle explored the area, lifting her leg to mark in multiple spots instead of using the typical female squat.  At one point Belle walked over to my mom who was sitting on a bench.  Leaning against my mom’s leg in typical Rottweiler fashion, Belle looked up at her with pitiful brown eyes.  Mom started petting her and commented, “I don’t know what your concern is Troy, she just needs some love.”

I shook my head, knowing that Belle had read mom like a cheap paperback and knew she could work this human well.  I didn’t bother to explain how Belle had already tried to eat two of the staff members. Seeing how much mom was enjoying petting Belle I knew it wouldn’t have mattered.

Though I had planned on adopting Belle, another person fell in love with her and adopted her, knowing, full-well, her issues.  About a year later, through a series of events, I ended up taking ownership of Belle and it was then that the adventure really started.  Once in my home, Belle was a mischievous, intelligent opponent but also a loving, loyal protector. During that time I focused on honing her obedience training so I could control her aggressive drives.  She really was a joy to train when she was in work mode, and over the two years I had her she was a regular demonstration dog at classes I taught.  When she wasn’t in work mode, she was a bit of a test.  If she jumped up on the bed and didn’t want to get down or if she got in the truck wanting a ride she wouldn’t budge.  Any attempt at moving her unleashed a barrage of aggressive barks and snapping teeth.  These were the alpha tests.  Having worked with a lot of psychotic dogs over the years, I know the difference between an alpha challenge and full blown intent to kill.  Belle was all about the challenge.  It was a assessment to see if I would cower and retreat as a submissive pack member or if I would be willing to take the alpha position. I picked my battles and always won but had to be smart about it.  Sometimes it involved a catch pole and other times it required grabbing a pillow and knocking her off the bed or the couch when she got aggressive after refusing to get down when commanded.  For the record, of all the dogs I've worked with over the years, Belle was the only one that required such drastic methods.

I know, I can hear some people screaming now.  Some saying that she should have been euthanized and others that I should never hit a dog with anything.  In my defense, nothing I ever did hurt Belle, other than her pride, so can keep the condemnation to yourself.  These incidents were few, with the majority of her challenges being that of giving me the bird and ignoring a command when she was in a pissy mood.

Not long after I had Belle I needed to leave her at my mom’s house for a few hours.  Belle had been there many times, but this would be the first time she would be alone with my mom and step-dad. As I was leaving I felt I should give mom a warning.

“Mom, Belle will likely challenge you.  If she does, don’t reach for her.” I added, half-joking, “Just grab something and hit her with it.  Preferably something soft.”

“Oh we’ll be fine.” Mom insisted as she petted Belle and my other dog, Griz.

Before you freak out about me leaving a dog like Belle with my mom let me explain something.  Belle never charged when being defiant. I knew her challenges were about holding ground and not attacking anyone.  The risk was always if you reached for her or infringed in the area she was guarding. I knew Belle, and more importantly, I knew my mom and step-dad.  They had been around me and my various rescues over the years and had become rather dog savvy, so I had confidence that they could take care of themselves.

Sure enough, not five minutes after I had left, Belle jumped up onto my step-dad’s living room chair. The height gave her the dominance she was wanting.  Mom told her to get down and, to my mom’s surprise, Belle barked and lunged at her with a snap of her teeth.  The sweet, animal-loving woman who raised me quickly reverted back to the woman who survived raising four boys on a ranch, a mighty feat if you ever get to know us boys.

Once more the command was given and Belle responded with the same defiance.  Mom, heeding my advice, didn’t dare reach for the beast on the hassock, instead she grabbed a hefty throw pillow from the couch and gave Belle one more chance to obey.  With a big middle finger and a few angry barks, Belle replied.  The first hit was by no means hard and Belle didn’t budge but again challenged.  The second hit with the command was with more authority. Belle stood defiantly, teeth bared.  Apparently, with a hyper dominant, protection-trained Rottweiler, the third time is the charm.  The impact of the pillow motivated Belle to obey and jump down.  From that day on, Belle never challenged my mom again and, for the record, Belle came to adore my mom, the woman who Belle, after that day, truly felt was alpha. 
My mom and Belle

I only had Belle for a couple years before bone cancer took her.  During that time she traveled all over the state helping me teach animal control and law enforcement officers how to safely deal with dogs. To this day, she ranks up there as one of my favorite dogs.  Perhaps it was because her loyalty was not freely given but had to be earned and maintained.  I know that my mom, too, achieved dominance with Belle and held it till Belle’s final day.

 For a touching fictional story about the human/canine relationship, be sure to check out my novel, Stranger’s Dance.  Also, I will be holding an author event and book signing at Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana on February 10, 2016 at 7pm. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Real Men Do Cry

The original version of this article was my first published work and appeared in Dog & Kennel Magazine in June 2003.

Real Mean Do Cry
I was raised on a small ranch and spent most of my teen years working on larger ranches around the region. Between that and hunting I was very familiar with death, where the slaughter of livestock was common, and pets were tools to help with chores such as herding cattle, rather than family members to be loved.  Crying over the loss of animals was not welcome and often garnered the ridicule of one’s father or older brothers.  Because of this I learned to keep my emotions in check as a “young man” was supposed to do.  Yet, I realized quickly that feelings existed and, though repressed, they came out on occasion, regardless of how “strong” the man was. 

On many occasions I watched my dad deal with horses who had to be put down for a variety of reasons.  I was never allowed to be there when the vet showed up and they, subsequently, walked the horse to a quiet place in the trees.  When my dad returned, he showed no signs of emotion, acting as if nothing had happened.  It was only in my teenage years that I saw how much a man can care for an animal and grieve for it when it died.  One of our horses broke its leg while on a back country ride.  Getting a vet there to euthenize the animal was not an option given the time it would take.  The horse was in great pain and, sadly, my dad made the decision to shoot the horse.  It was the first and last time I have ever witnessed such an event.  I had grown up hunting, so shooting an animal for food was part of my life and didn’t bother me.  Yet to see a valued horse, a creature that I had spent countless hours with in the mountains, shot, was traumatic to say the least. 

What influenced me more was seeing how my dad reacted. As a big, proud man, emotion was not something he showed often.  He was a doctor, rancher and hunter, so he saw death constantly and handled it as he was required to, calm and restrained, never letting others see him cry.  Yet that day I saw this man, my dad, cry for hours over the loss of this horse.  That moment in my life demonstrated to me that my emotions were normal, even for a man. 

Some say that women and men handle emotions differently.  Women tending to be more open and forthcoming with their feelings, a blessing really.  Men on the other hand, be it a result of society or genetic code, tend to keep their emotions to themselves and often show them only to those within their circle of trust.  I learned that these emotions are very intense and need to be released, and, most importantly, that to do so was not an indication of weakness. 

It was this acceptance of emotions that allowed me to become involved with Rottweiler Rescue and to start Big Sky Rottweiler Rescue.  It was while doing rescue and working with the local shelter that I saw how the loss of pets affected those that loved them.  Seeing people come to the local shelter with their family pets who had died had great influence on me.  Since the shelter had the only crematorium for animals in the county the number of such visits was high.  Usually it is the veterinarians or their assistants who brought the animals to be cremated after they have been euthanized.  The owners are often too distraught to come with them.  Still, on occasion, the owners themselves would bring their pet on their final ride.  You can see it the moment they walk in; the look of loss on their faces, the tear stains on their cheeks.  Often the shelter staff helps them carry the pet back to the crematorium when the grief and heartache are too strong for the owner to do it alone.  It was one of these moments that confirmed my belief that real men do cry, and that there is no shame in doing so.

It was winter, and I had just finished working with the Rottweilers at the shelter.  I was walking out of the lobby when I saw the man come in.  He was easily over six feet tall and two hundred pounds in weight.  Though it was barely ten degrees outside, he wore only jeans and a thick flannel shirt.  His clothing was work-worn, and his rough hands and weathered skin told me his occupation was a hard one.  He seemed a strong man, both physically and emotionally, yet his face was solemn and fixed and you could see the pain clearly in his eyes.  His words to the staff member at the front desk were typical of a man, particularly one from Montana.

“My dog died.”  No quiver in his voice, and his face hardened with the three words exiting his mouth.  

The staff member handed him the paper work as I ventured outside to head back to work.  I shivered against the cold as I zipped up my jacket, not thinking much about the man who had come in.  Walking to my vehicle I saw the truck that the man had driven up in.  I could see into the back but saw no dog.  I wondered if he had driven there with the dog up front.  I started my truck, and as I sat there letting it warm up I saw the man come out, a shelter employee walking behind him. 

I watched as they spoke and I knew what was being said.  The employee pointed towards the back of the building where the man would need to drive his truck in order to unload the dog.  The man shook his head and opened the passenger door.  I caught a glimpse of the shape of a medium-sized dog on the seat.  The employee moved to help retrieve the dog but the man stopped her.  It was his task to do.  She nodded and waited for the man to pull the dog out.   The limp body hung in the big man’s arms.  The dog weighed perhaps fifty pounds, but the man showed no strain as he straightened up.  Slowly, the stone features of his face began to weaken.  The employee walked along the outside of the shelter toward the back door at the crematorium.  The man followed. 

I found myself fixated on this event playing out before me.  The man’s steps were slow and deliberate.  Each time his foot broke through the six inches of snow his face grew more pained.  This man could have easily let the employee carry the dog, as so many people do, thus avoiding the heartache he was enduring.  Instead, out of honor and love, he chose the task.  If I had seen this man on the street I would have never imagined him having such devotion and love for a dog.  Yet here he was, doing perhaps the most painful thing he had ever done.  The reason was evident.  This dog was his companion, his friend, and his actions were a final act of loyalty. 

The man and his dog disappeared inside the crematorium.  I thought of leaving, but instead waited to see him return.  In a minute the employee and the man came out of the door.  The man’s face was hard again, but he was cordial to the employee as they spoke.  I saw him nod his head and walk back to his truck.  It was after he climbed in the truck that I saw him wipe a tear from his cheek.  He drove away and I left soon afterwards; however, the scene was etched into my mind and soul. 

While I never knew if the man wept more than I had seen, it didn’t matter.  The grief and devotion I saw that day spoke more of what a real man is than perhaps anything else.  Since that day I have had to take that same walk eight times after being with my dogs in that final moment.  It was the least I can do for them, given the unlimited love and devotion they have given me.  And on that last walk, I, a man, unapologetically cried.  It is, after all, the manly thing to do.

If you love the bond and devotion between dogs and humans, check out my novels.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Great Vets and The Next Generation

On November 18, 2015, my dogs and I had the honor of giving a presentation to the Montana State University Pre-Vet Club. When I was asked to do this I wasn’t hesitant, but I will admit I was a little concerned as to how to keep the students young, over-worked, and stressed minds attentive. Teaching has always been natural for me, and I’ve presented to groups both large and small around the nation, so that wasn’t the issue.  Instead, it was recognizing that I had an opportunity to pass along over 20 years’ experience on dog handling and behavior assessment. In a way I would be passing the torch to these future veterinarians. 

In all my years of working with dogs, I’ve learned that there are good veterinarians and great veterinarians.  The good ones know their stuff and can care for the animal well enough; however, you can just tell that they really don’t connect with the dog.  The great veterinarians are the ones that do connect, often better than they do with the human owners. 

While giving my presentation, I was pleased to see that one of the professors was a longtime friend, Dr. Mattix, who was the one who had spayed my first two Rottweilers, Taz and Mickey. I remember that day well.  I had already brought the dogs in for some shots or other medical work and I had seen the other veterinarian of the practice. She was a ‘great’ vet but I didn’t know it at the time.  When my dogs were over six months old I decided to get them spayed, having no desire to deal with more puppies or fend off the neighborhood hounds when my girls were in heat.  I scheduled the appointment without a care which vet did the work.  While waiting in the exam room, Dr. Mattix entered, wearing her standard white doctor’s coat and files in hand.  I had never met her and she paused at the door looking at the files, then looking at my six month old Rottweilers who were sitting near me, and then back to the files before looking at me. 

“Do these dogs need muzzles?”, she inquired with a confused look on her face.

“I don’t think so, why?”

“Well, there is a warning on their file.”  Dr. Mattix set the file down and leaned over with a big smile. “We don’t need no muzzles do we puppies?” Her voice was playful and friendly and it elicited a fur ball of loving Rottweiler bounding across the room to say hi to the welcoming lady. 

I never did learn why the other vet had put a warning in my dogs’ file.  They were puppies and had never shown any sign of aggression.  In hindsight, I now realize that the other vet had a bias against Rottweilers and she likely wasn’t a dog person.  The practice was, after all, aimed at exotic and small pets, and I switched not long after I learned that they had let Dr. Mattix go. 

Dr. Mattix is just one of many great veterinarians I’ve worked with and I’m honored to call her a friend.  She is one of those who doesn’t hold a bias against a breed and even if the dog is aggressive, they don’t take it personally.  My current veterinarian is one of those great ones as well, having served in the U.S. Army and having cared for the Military Working Dogs in Iraq. His calm, cool demeanor has helped him in many situations. Being in rescue, I tend to adopt the dogs that no one else wants or can handle.  It comforts me that when I do have such a dog, taking them to the vet will not be a major ordeal for any involved. 

Picking a good veterinarian can be hard though.  Over the years I have learned to not only trust my gut but also trust my dogs.  Perhaps that was the biggest leap for me, trusting my dogs.  If they are properly trained and socialized and yet give a warning sign about a person or situation, I now know that I had better pay attention.  That trust has helped me find great veterinarians and has also reinforce the beautiful bond that has existed between humans and dogs for over 30,000 years. 

Oh, and regarding that presentation I did for the pre-vet club, well, I picked the one topic that I knew a couple dozen college students would relate too. Stress.  Specifically, the effects of stress on both human and canine behavior and how to reduce or eliminate those effects.  When I began teaching I wasn’t sure how well the topic would be received, but the attentive stares and thoughtful questions told me I was doing something right.  The only downside was Bradum.  Yes, my 122 pound love bug of a Rottweiler was a bit of a distraction and I had four girls ask if they could take him home with them.  After explaining the consequences of any such attempt they relinquished his leash back to me. Funny though, no one made such an offer for Carly. She is my current problem dog and was nervous in the large group.  This was a good thing though because I started the class, right after I entered the room and even before introducing myself, by asking which dog was most likely to bite.  One student was astute enough to observe that Carly was showing nervous warning signs. 

Having that hands on observation and explaining the impacts of stress on dogs was critical for those students to becoming great veterinarians.  By understanding how stress limits the dog’s ability to recall imprinted behaviors, those learned through training and socialization, the students saw the importance of not only controlling their stress and fear but also changing the environment so that the dog’s stress was reduced.  If that wasn’t possible I then covered the basics of eliminating the fight and flight options of the dog so that the only option for the animal was to submit. The goal is to do this without being harsh or cruel.  If these students walked out of the presentation with that knowledge then I feel I did my job of passing my knowledge onto the next generation.

The confirmation of this success was the enthusiastic call for me to return next semester to teach about approaching and handling nervous or aggressive dogs.  Though I don’t get paid for this I feel it is a worthwhile effort.  The goal being that of equipping the next generation of veterinarians with knowledge and experience so that they aren’t just good but great.