Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Canine Chronicles, Cast of Characters Part 4 or Taming of the Shrew

As I have mentioned in previous parts of the dog stories, Denaya came to us as a ticking time bomb.  She was well cared for of course by the rescue people see link for adoption.  Unfortunately, when we first had Denaya, she was terrified of most everything except us; and our 2 dogs. We of course don't know what happened in terms of the abuse she suffered, except that she was starved almost to the point of death. She was terrified of grass; she would not walk on it and only walked on the perimeter. She was terrified of stairs, inside or outside. She was terrified of LIFE in some respects. If something fell on the floor (as benign as a paper towel roll) to avoid a blow, she would flatten herself on the floor and duck down. She could not play. She also had the widest stubborn streak I have yet to encounter. You could not pull her, prod her, yank her to do what she did not want to do without her going completely beserk, as in screaming like a howler monkey. All of those things sound like something someone else might think to "break" but I decided to do what I had done in training Kodi.  I worked her as much as I could to the point where I realized that I was getting a negative response, meaning she was not doing what I asked. Then I switched tactics to something else, anything else, made sure I got her to do as I asked at least once so I "won", then ended the session. I could always come back to it, which I did, and that always worked. The more I went head to head with Denaya, the less I got from her; but if I just took a break, ended on a positive note and retried a short while later, it was magic.

I also decided to decondition her in terms of food as well since she had been starved; we never knew what could possibly happen in the event that food were an issue. I had to start from scratch because she was so terried of everything, including the crate.  I eventually worked her into getting into the crate for treats, then meals, then going inside for a "rest". The first few times, I actually crawled into the crate myself.  (Bob tried to lock me in but I escaped!) I began then to make her sit patiently before eating with a wait command. Then I began interrupting her feedings by also making her wait.  I took the bowl up or simply made her sit and wait to resume eating. There were times when I wondered if I was truly and genuinely insane doing these things, but I had read enough and asked enough questions to know that a dog who was in a down-under position was going to try no matter what to be the alpha.  When you are dealing with a breed like this, there has to be an alpha but it has to be human.  Bob did not want this job, so I decided I could do it. It was frightening at first as they do have very big teeth!

I eventually trusted her to the point where I called her up onto the bed for playtime and when I first bumped her or told her it was time to go about her business and get down, she growled at me. That worried me not a little bit! I literally jumped off the bed but mid jump I realized the mistake. I had to call it and I had to call it right then, so pretending bravery I did not have, I jumped back on the bed and proceeded to wrestle with her, then repeated the instruction to get down.  The moment ended pleasantly; whew! Gradually, I just worked with her more and more and if she exhibited behaviors that I felt were troubling or could potentially end up having her become aggressive, I gave her a sharp command to knock it off and then encouraged the behavior that I wanted instead.  For the most part, that really works. Occasionally, there are times though when just their raw instincts and their past (at least in Denaya's case) catch up with them. For me, the trick has always been not to put them in that situation so it cannot happen but there are always times when you are not prepared. I do not encourage anyone other than Bob and I to wave food around Denaya.  That to me would be like waving a red flag around a bull. I do not think she would attack anyone for food but it could be a disaster simply because of the size of her teeth if she lunged for it and her size at 85 pounds. It could also potentially be a disaster simply because she is conditioned to not turn down food having been starved.  When feeding her any treats or anything I need to have IN my hand physically, I always go at her with an open hand and with the command "easy". She has been through too much to just assume that she can rationalize that she will always be fed or that she will always get what she was supposed to get. It is just a precautionary measure with her but as well works for any large dog or one that might be of a mind to snap hungrily at something.

As well, we have always proceeded with caution when people want to socialize their dogs with her, especially if the dog is small. She has never done anything but nip anyone else's dogs but the fact remains that again, she has a background that is not good.  I always say I would rather still have a friend or a neighbor that is friendly over having my dog kill or maime someone's pet! That is why we are so adamant now about socializing Griffin the puppy as he will not have all these ghosts of the past hanging over him if he is raised in a healthy environment and is used to the "world". I also proceed with caution when there are dogs off leash that run at us or approach us as I certainly perceive a threat and am never sure what Denaya might interpret this as.  It helps to assume karate poses, too and act VERY tough, and yell a lot. We have a command for our dogs that we use with the running but it applies in general.  We say "leave it", which means no matter what someone or something is doing to you, ignore it and pay attention to me; if it is running, keep on going and ignore the 4 dogs that just came out after us!  If it is something that has just accidentally dropped on the floor, don't touch it! 

It has helped us many times but as Bob found out in the not too distant past, it is invaluable.  He was walking the 2 dogs before Kodi died and a corgi on a leash in someone's front yard lunged for our dogs as they passed.  He never saw the dog coming as the yard was blocked from view by a huge truck in the driveway. The dog's leash snapped and this dog got busy trying to get the better of these 2 very huge dogs who now were ticked at being lunged at. When in doubt, lunge back, which they did.  Bob unfortunately was lying on the sidewalk by this time none to happy since they had yanked him off his feet but he managed to get out "leave it" and they did. I always think that you pretty much can bet on what YOUR dog will do if you know the dog(s) well enough; it is the other person's dog that you can never be completely sure about so best to be prepared.

As to malmutes being watchdogs, another myth there. Malamutes are so social that I believe they would welcome the burglar and show him where everything good is located! We had this proven to us a few years ago when our automatic garage door opener broke and we had to leave the door up all night until the repairman could get there the next morning. By the next morning, several very expensive tools were long gone. Someone had literally walked in and walked off with a pressure washer, a large saw and various other items, all while our dogs looked in the window at them. I imagine they waved as the burglar left and were trying to convey "Can't we come along?" They simply are not by nature guard dogs or anything remotely resembling a watchdog. They usually only bark when they want to catch someone's attention; or they howl. I have only heard ours bark if someone is out in the open land or down the road and they can't understand why they are not coming their way! They may bark at deer, they may bark for food, but whereas a lab or a retriever will be The Protector, the malamute is just a social animal who greets friend or foe exactly the same way. About the only protective factor you may find in a malamute is that people who are not "dog people" tend to stay far, far away especially when they spy the incisors!

Malamutes do sometimes have a terrible reputation though and they are often lumped in with huskies, akitas and other artic breeds who are likewise labeled across the board as biters or aggressive dogs. I have always maintained that as with ANY breed, there are no bad dogs, just bad owners. It is all about how you train your dog whatever the breed, but most especially with malamutes or certain other breeds.  First you have to understand them and then you have to make sure that you train them correctly.  Most importantly though, you have to know their limitations. They will only live up to the expectations that you hold them to.  Like any breed, a malamute definitely wants to please but not in the same way as for instance a Labrador. Malamutes are free thinkers; they are doers.  They are high energy dogs.  They do need the stimulus of being socialized with people and animals.  The need regular HARD exercise and they also need to be expected to succeed in any given situation. But the situations have to be appropriate and more importantly appropriate to the individual dog.  If the dog has been trained and for instance you know that they socialize well with small dogs, then that works.  However, if you have never exposed them to small dogs and they are an adult malamute, I would proceed with extreme caution until it was evident that they could be trusted.  They require a lot of patience and a strong hand, not in terms of muscling them to bend to someone's will, but just in terms of consistency, nonstop training, being aware of their strengths and weaknesses and making sure there is a human alpha who has the last "say".  Unlike other breeds, they can be territorial and they can develop very bad habits; again, that is where thinking outside the box or before there is a problem helps.

I have read many places that it is best if you have an alpha female NOT to introduce or bring in another female for a companion because they will fight over who will be the alpha, but if you introduce the opposite sex dog, they can live more companionably together. With ours, that certainly has seemed to be the case.  Denaya exerted herself as the alpha from the beginning but the 2 dogs were both males.  It will be interesting to see if she retains her crown with Griffin. She even won out over Pele who had been the undisputed alpha forever; Kodi was just never cut out for the role nor did he ever want it.  He was a gentle giant and he had no problem at all being a subject rather than king.  The most important thing I have found with any of our dogs is just not to put them into situations where you are pretty sure they can fail; any situation that you put them in should have at least more of a chance of being a success rather than a failure.  Then you have to work to make sure that they are successful. If you feel confident, they feel confident, and if you are happy, they are happy. Being prepared in case they do seem to be failing is important as well or having a back-up plan.  I have friends who have frowned on me introducing dogs on leashes and keeping mine on a leash until I am 100% certain that it will go well for everyone concerned.  That is my way of assuring that I have a "way out" if something should go wrong. Likewise, knowing that my malamutes do not do the recall command well, if I want to exercise them in a park, I make sure that it is a completely enclosed park so that I am not jogging down the road after them. 

On returning home with Griffin, he was already about half the size of Denaya as she is quite stunted from her abuse.  We had made a special exercise pen so that Denaya could see Griffin and be right next to him but she could not lunge at him right away just in case she was so inclined.  We then introduced her to Griffin with a leash on and let him do his antics with not only a fence between them but also a leash on her just in case she did not take well to this new addition.  She looked absolutely shocked out of her fur and looked from one to the other of us as if to say "I leave for a day or so to go to the kennel and you bring THIS back?"  She was a little indignant that instead of her Kodi coming back, now she had this little upstart to deal with but her goodness won out over any jealousy and it has continued to work well.  She spent the first week with her ears back most of the time but I think in her case, she simply did not understand any of it.  She does not speak "puppy" and I wonder if she ever did know how to relax and play with total abandon.  Gradually as time wore on, she did seem a bit miffed at times that she had this shadow following her everywhere and each and every time she turned around, he was right there.  However, Griffin was wise enough to realize that this was not going to be a replacement for his mama and that this egg was going to be a tough one to crack.  He kept his distance but after about 10 days or so, his puppy exuberance unfortunately got the better of him and he made the mistake of jumping on her back.  She let him know very quickly what she thought of that maneuver and bit him; she even drew blood, a little prick on the nose.  Undaunted, he continued to follow her around though did not attempt the jumping maneuvers again.  Yet he was not intimidated to the point where he ran from her either, so I think this gave her the message that he was going to keep it up until something changed.

Now, 6 weeks or so of their coexisting, she has nipped at him a couple of times but never made a mark again.  He seems to sense quickly when he has gone too far and backs off right away.  She watches him and seems at times just to not know how to let go and play; a paw will come out and bat at him, or she will throw herself down and try to be playful but something holds her back.  We are sure it will come about in time just as it did with Kodi.  It literally took 2 months for them to run and wrestle together and before that time, she made his life a living nightmare with her "attitude".  I have to believe that it will be the same way with Griffin.  Just one day she will decide it is okay and no more worries.  Then they will get down to the business of wholehearted playfulness.  The fact that she tolerates him and walks side by side with him in training, allows him to bump her, get his body ON her body if they are lying down together; these are all encouraging signs that it will get better.  It is a sad thing that she has been so damaged but then again, watching her heal right before your eyes is a wonderful gift.  Love does that and I think Denaya is a testimony to the power of love on so many levels from so many sources.  As we think to the future and carting with them or doing snowshoes or cross country skiing, I am ecstatic that I have my canine pals to share life with.  They are all such treasures and such individual inspirations in their own ways; even though so often we outlive them, I do believe it is better to have loved and lost some of them than not to have loved them at all. 

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