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. 

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