This week marks three years since Brutus moved in with us. He was sent to me through a local rescue for being very very forward with his body, mind and mouth.
He was not afraid to stand his ground. He was not afraid to corner you. He was not afraid to bite you.
He arrived here with an attitude rooted in survival. Fight or flight. Brutus was ready to get it on.
When he was dropped off, I was in the shower. My husband Rob attempted to put Brutus in a kennel. His finger was nearly broken in two for that attempt. Kennels were destroyed along the way. This Lab Weimaraner mix was a bull in a china shop.
He pushed me and I pushed back. Mine was always with love. Always with confidence. Always with kindness. Always fair. Sometimes with curse words but that’s my personal flaw that he showed me I needed to work on. My biggest lesson was to learn to truly be neutral.
My training sometimes is so simple that it’s ridiculous. In some ways, I use human psychology with dogs I train. There’s no need to be a jerk but if you are one, you lose privileges, you receive consequences and I don’t allow bullies on my playground. In real life, if you’re a mean girl or boy, you lose the privilege of being my friend. No loud consequences. I quietly remove you from my pack if the lessons repeatedly fall on deaf ears. Or you’re simply asked to leave the playground. Or you don’t like the rules and you leave on your own. The whole goal is to remain neutral. If I treat you with respect, I expect it in return. It’s a pretty simple life lesson and a simple way to live. I have your back and you have mine.
Speaking of the pack and removing dogs, my Sammy recently challenged me on our family trip to Sedona. I asked him to get off the bed at our vrbo as we do not allow dogs on other people’s furniture. He challenged me with a growl. His consequence was to be removed from the pack for the rest of the night. I put him outside of the bedroom and closed the door. Then pondered. Why in the world would he challenge me after all this time?
I mentioned it to my friend and animal communicator Erica Tibbetts over lunch the following week in San Diego. Her gut feeling even though she wasn’t actually on the clock was that Sammy feels insecure in the pack.
Then it hit me. Brutus has made such huge strides (and I mean huge) that Sammy has been gently pushed down a notch in the pack as Brutus bypasses him into the position as a calm pack leader. Yes, re-read that! Brutus is a calm pack leader!
That alone makes me smile and glow. I honestly never thought Brutus would come this far. He’s been here three years. He has redirected his mouth on me which means it was a bite without the intention of being a bite, he actually bit Rob a year ago with intention and grumbled at every dog who so much as tried to smile at him. He was a real ass in the way we humans perceive people as asses. But the secret to my work is to look beyond that which is the exterior and dig deeper. Get to the root. Find the why. Why does he do what he does? Not just me saying “knock it off” but I really find out why and then go to work repairing it.
My feeling has always been that Brutus was like a foster child who had been kicked to the curb too many times. Erica confirmed in our reading last fall that we were home #5. I always had the sense that he was thinking “yeah, you talk a good piece but when are you gonna let me push you far enough that you kick me out for good”. How sad is that? But I know I was right about him. I talked the talk. Now I was being tested to walk the walk.
He would put his mouth on my forearm some days and give me a look dead in my eyes. It was a challenge. Sort of an F-U. A reminder of the damage he could do in that moment. Did I really trust him? Was I gonna beat him up? Was I gonna throw him out? Never. That behavior comes from a place of survival and emotional pain.
However, I did tell him either out loud or telepathically that he is writing the end of his own story. I will always love him until he dies of old age and I will always give him a home. However, he is writing the ending. If he chooses to bite me in that moment with intention, I can choose to end his life with a needle in a mere hour at the vet’s office. I always always always made him decide how to complete the sentence. I didn’t remove my arm. I didn’t pull away. I didn’t punish. I waited for him to decide what the last sentence of that paragraph was going to be. That takes immense trust between an animal and a human. And I’m no spring chicken at 58. Skin is torn easily nowadays. Infections can be more difficult to fight.
As he came to realize I was his mama dawg, he also came to realize he has a pack behind him. One of the biggest and best choices I made was to let him run outside to bark at noises longer than I normally allow a dog to bark. My normal routine is to get right up, see what’s up, acknowledge the dog and thank him for doing his job and come back inside.
My intuition for this dog was opposite. I let him take the lead position and run out barking like a madman. Then I waited a beat or four while the rest of the pack ran to his aid to back him up. He called upon his posse without realizing he had a posse!
This went on practically every day until he realized he had the ability to alert his pack. I saw the lightbulb moments. “Wow mama, I have a pack. I have a family. I’m not fighting the world alone”. And then the bigger lessons came as he realized he’s not fighting anything.
His brothers Sammy and Jojo and his sister Petunia would always come running if he barked. Then his mama dawg would come to his aid. Every.Single.Time.
You’ve heard our stories every step of the way and have seen us succeed and fail. I’ve been so frustrated and disgusted that I couldn’t see straight. I have said some very unsavory things. However, feeling what we feel is mandatory but sharing those negative feelings with the dog is to be avoided. They only serve to destroy what you’ve built. There’s no room for anger in the relationship.
Share your feelings in writing. With your spouse. With your friends. With your shrink. It’s good to feel what you feel. There’s no shame in it. But you must find a way to be neutral as the leader no matter what happens.
We had a situation here last week which I’ll write about later as I don’t want to take the shine away from Brutus right now. There was a fight in our pack that left all of us a bit hurt emotionally and a bit fractured. You can see in this photo that Brutus positioned himself between the emotionally and physically injured Jojo and muzzled Petunia. My boy went in to help repair the situation.
As we came back together yesterday through a telephone healing session with Erica, I captured this moment of my pack coming back to neutral. There’s good ol’ Brutus in the lead again!
Brutus was always meant to be mine even though we tried getting him adopted out. Both adoptions failed within 24 hours and he was returned. In hindsight, I realize he was meant to land here forever. While I went to work to rehabilitate him, he went to work to help me. To make me a better trainer. A better teacher. A better mama. A better person all around.
Thank you, my boy. Growth can sometimes be painful and we both made it to the other side! I’m so proud of you!
With love from your mama dawg forever 💕