Wyoming didn’t disappoint for Brody and me. We were like little kids together, exploring the vast wilderness of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, naive in every way, every day full of lessons and opportunity. Brody slept in his favorite place -- his crate -- and I slept on a futon on the floor, the wood stove crackling all night long, warming us both through snowstorms and a freezing February. Up before dawn, we’d spend a little time training in the driveway and then go for a long walk in the forest while the sun was coming up. Luckily, while I didn’t know a thing about the wildlife out there, I was smart enough to at least have Brody on a long line -- about 25 feet of rope that dragged behind him and I could grab in case of emergency.
We had a few of those. In Vermont, while there’s always signs on the highway about deer and moose, a moose sighting is rare. Within the first couple weeks out in Wyoming, not only had we encountered them in the forest, we had encountered them sleeping in our yard, and once I found one curled up having a nap in my landlord’s garage. Brody was making progress every day, but our journey wasn’t anything close to a Hollywood movie. It’s not like we went from a psychotic response to flashlights and bearded men to happily ever after in 90 minutes. Moose are a good example. Ohhhhhh, did Brodykins ever hate moose at the beginning. Almost as much as he feared horses, which my landlord had 2 of in a corral about 20 yards away from the trailer. Both proved to be a lot of fun to train around. There were many early mornings, I later found out when my landlord and I became good friends, where she would receive a call from someone driving past her house, letting her know that a woman and a scary-looking dog were standing only a few feet away from her horses, the dog barking incessantly and the woman wielding a large black tube doing who-knows-what.
“Mmmm-hmmm, thanks,” my landlord would say. “That’s just my tenant training her dog.” And she’d go back to her lounge chair with her cup of coffee, not bothered in the least by any of it. Those horses were a great way to improve Brody’s bark (a controlled, deep bark that let out his energy when I gave the “speak” command) and his "celebratory prance" (more on this in a minute). The great thing about those two horses is they loved the attention. Neither of them ever ran away when we came by -- in fact, they came closer, leaning against the fence, waiting for the carrots they knew I had hidden in my coat pockets.
So out in the forest, when we first arrived in Wyoming, that long leash came in handy. Brody definitely had a size complexion, and anything bigger than him was a threat that he was sure he could take on. Sometimes he just wasn’t the brightest bulb on the tree -- such as when he would charge at a 1,200-pound moose standing next to her baby in the middle of the trail when we came around a corner. Every year, multiple dogs are stomped to death by moose in Jackson. I’m thankful Brody wasn’t one of them. That long leash was a lifesaver until we’d improved in our training enough that my recall had a stronger effect on Brody than the presence of an awkward animal the size of a small car that, when challenged, turned into an incredibly fast and protective killing machine.
We did not use the moose for training. I quickly learned that when you come upon a moose, you do not approach it and bring out your phone for a selfie together; you move in the opposite direction and give them as wide a berth as possible. In short, don’t disturb the peace, and never mistake a wild animal for an innocent, adorable house pet.
I couldn’t read his mind, but if I had to guess I would say toys, food, and attention all ranked equally high for the Brodster. Given that he was a dog after my own heart, when one of those three things was offered to him, he put in 120% to get the reward. But the way we approached all of those things before and after Brody Bootcamp were very different.
Before I went to Kevin, Brody ruled the roost. He slept on my bed, I kissed his ears and nose -- to which he responded with obsessive licking of my face, I gave him belly rubs, I talked to him in the same voice I talked to infants, and I let him go wild with his toys for as long as he wanted. In short, I suppose you could say I spoiled him quite a bit. And why shouldn’t I?
Brody in the early days, free ranging with his ball.
Those first couple days I spent at the bootcamp compound were miserable. Kevin was like the Grinch who stole Christmas. I would have demanded my money back and revved up the getaway hooptie the moment I arrived -- except for one thing. Brody was a totally different dog. I had certainly spent a lot of time training Brody before Kevin, but when he got into high drive mode I simply couldn’t keep him under control. His 75-pound body of pure muscle could outrun me (I swear there was cheetah in that bloodline), out-muscle me, and if he determined he or I was in danger, my brain was no match for his instinct to protect. While I wanted to hate the Grinch for not letting me shower my dog with kisses, hugs, and belly rubs, I couldn’t ignore the fact that Brody appeared to be calm and confident in every situation, and that he seemed very satisfied with his more structured rewards. His eyes even looked different -- they were clear as day, while before they had been a little foggy (this is not an exaggeration, and something Kevin talks a lot about in his training).
A quick diversion here about Kevin’s methods. You’re probably thinking alpha-training, negative reward system -- maybe you’re even thinking Kevin used aggression to fight aggression. Nope. Brody continued to get rewarded with his favorite things -- toys, food, and attention. But to get those things, he didn’t simply have to sit down for me or stay -- he had to work his butt off (and he loved every minute of it). He didn’t just get to go hog wild and attack his bite toys -- even that was structured. Getting a strong bite, according to Kevin, is just as important as a strong bark. The best work was when we would be “playing tug” and Brody simply had a deep grip on the object, using his massive strength to pull against me. If he shook his head intensely (as dogs often do) to try to get at that object, my gloved hands would pull even harder, and I would have to run backwards with the object, refocusing him to use his strength to hold on. The ideal was for him to remain focused, jerking his head back with his body, confidently holding on. When he did this, he was allowed to “win” and got the toy, taking us to the next challenge: celebration. When we first started training with Kevin, as soon as Brody got the toy he would immediately lay down and try to rip it to shreds, going into a crazed state, eyes glazing over. The goal was the “celebratory prance” -- where instead of ripping the toy to shreds Brody would hold it tight in his mouth, circling me or prancing away, head held high. This took a lot of work. To encourage him to do this, as soon as I gave him the toy, while praising him I would run away from him, and he would follow, racing to keep up, toy in mouth. I would issue the command to drop it, and then he would get another reward, either in the form of treats or affection, which Kevin called the “rub down.” This is not the same thing as scratching a dog’s belly or kissing their ears or hugging them. Instead, it’s more like a massage that you can give while the dog stands up. Applying a lot of pressure (the more pressure, the more in heaven Brody was), I would dig my fingers into Brody’s silky coat, starting at his neck and going the full length of his body. Sometimes I would just focus around his neck, as I learned that’s very calming to dogs. If I wanted to rub his belly, I would give him a command first, guiding him onto his back, and then using a lot of pressure, apply my flat palm to his belly, under his neck, along his legs. Kevin used this as a way to calm Brody when he was in his highest drive mode -- we would alternate from an extreme tug-of-war session into a massage session. At first, Brody couldn’t relax, wanting to escape my affection because he just wanted to get the toy in my left hand. Over time, he learned that both were equally as rewarding, and that he could let his guard down and refocus his energy into a blissful massage that soothed him, so much so that in later training sessions he could go from giving his bite toy 120% of his effort to closing his eyes, groaning in pleasure while I gave him a rub down, sometimes even falling asleep.
Brody in a training session, "on the box" in front of the trailer.
Eventually, I came to appreciate and enjoy these forms of affection just as much as Brody did. I realized my old ways were conducive to human children, but they weren’t to Brody (and many dogs, but I won’t make any blanket statements here). While I used to think his obsessive licking was sweet, I realized he was doing what he instinctively could to get out anxiety and energy. Brody would never intentionally bite me -- so he licked me uncontrollably instead. When he slept on the bed, I thought it was cute that he wanted to be on top of me. In fact, he wanted to be so close to me that I often ended up on the floor because he’d moved me over so much during the night. But I couldn’t make the connection between that and his increasingly protective behavior around me over the course of our time together.
Brody's love for food once extended to a bag of flour as evidence shown suggests
Lastly, since it’s appeared in so many pictures on this blog, let’s address the choke collar. Perhaps the most widely misunderstood and wrongly used tool on the planet, the choke collar is not designed to cause any harm to a dog. Many dogs don’t need choke collars. And many people don’t know how to use them properly, making them inhumane and a horrible choice for a lot of dog owners. I hate the name of this tool because that alone makes people think its purpose is to choke the dog. This statement could not be more incorrect. A tool that shouldn't be used by anyone not properly trained in it, the choke collar is not designed for your dog to be pulling against it, choking himself, or for you to be dragging your dog backwards, choking him. Nor is it to be used when he does something wrong, pulling your dog up in the air, choking him as he hangs there struggling. Nothing makes me more sad than to see these situations. They shouldn’t be sold in pet stores, nor should the prong or “pinch” collar. These are advanced tools that should not be used by inexperienced dog owners, and that’s what gives them a bad rap. Pitbulls have a bad rap, too, but according to the American Temperament Test Society, where the average overall pass rate is 83.4% and failure is immediately invoked when “a dog shows unprovoked aggression, panic without recovery, or strong avoidance,” the pitbull has an 87.4% pass rate, higher than the golden retriever.
Miseducation about breeds and training tools leads to misrepresentation of both. Getting back to the choke collar, Kevin also taught me how to use this tool correctly. When I arrived for my own bootcamp, I was immediately concerned when Brody walked out next to Kevin wearing a choke collar. I held back from yelling at him for not calling to see if I was OK with him using such a thing. A few hours later, I was thankful I hadn’t said anything. When used properly, the choke collar is loose around a dog’s neck by default and is designed to correct a dog with a brief, upward pull in the shape of a "J", tightening momentarily and then immediately loosening, allowing the dog to understand the correction and causing him no pain or harm. It is not an aggressive correction -- it’s more the equivalent of a parent redirecting a child away from the hot burner on the stove or calling out to stop at a crosswalk. When used incorrectly, the choke collar is tight and providing a constant correction, which ultimately makes it useless and the dog will learn nothing (except perhaps the opposite of what you want).
By the time we left Wyoming that year, Brody and I were in sync, and I could sense his body language before he even exhibited anything. We’d had friends visit the trailer, including many bearded men who Brody sat down next to, soliciting a back massage or using his ridiculously adorable face to make grown men tell me they “needed” to give him a piece of their steak. Always a ladies man, although I didn’t shower him with kisses, he didn’t mind when my girl friends did. But more often than not, he preferred the massage, and when someone was trying to smother him, he would wiggle away and plop down next to the woodstove, his snores filling the spaces of our boisterous conversations.
The best days: hanging out in the sun. Brody would often sleep on the hay.
Brody wasn’t a case of “fixed” -- he was a case of “always improving.” We didn’t ever stop training -- from the day we left Kevin’s we trained 365 days a year, multiple times a day, and always utilized some piece of training in every situation. We never just went “on a walk.” You’d never see me on my cell phone, walking behind Brody, half paying attention. If an electrician came to the house, you’d never catch me without a toy, or a treat, or giving Brody a rub down when the doorbell rang. It was rare to bring out a flashlight before having a good game of tug. This wasn’t only necessary for Brody, it was necessary for me. Just as I could sense Brody’s anxiety, he could sense mine. Looking back, after a few months of training I’m pretty sure Brody was good to go. It was me that needed to be trained, while for Brody training was his job and his reward and his purpose, which he had always needed. The tools and techniques we’d learned dissipated my anxiety as much as Brody’s, even when I thought I didn’t have any. It was always there, subconsciously, and Brody could read it.
One of our many winter training sessions. The nail pouch is where I stored treats.
Three years later, at 8-years-old, Brody started putting on weight. It was odd given nothing in his routine had changed, but he was reaching middle age after all. Except it didn’t stop. For a few weeks, he got fatter and fatter. It didn’t make sense. After a visit to the vet that revealed nothing and blood work that showed the health of a puppy, life continued on, and Brody continued to blow up like a balloon. An ultrasound revealed the impossible -- his insides were full of fast-growing tumors, some the size of tennis balls. It was cancer. The vet said he probably had about three months to live, and offered up treatment options so that he could make it that long.
Three months to live, I thought over and over. Between sobs, I remembered Sierra and one of the many things she’d taught me. A loyal dog will endure anything to be with their human companion through a hard time. Sierra lived a long life, and old age was really what she died of. My attempts to prolong her life artificially let me have more time with her, but I had promised myself I wouldn’t put another dog through that.
What would the next three months be like for Brody? We would probably be unable to train within a few weeks based on how quickly the cancer was progressing. It was quite obvious he was in pain. His breathing was already labored, and while he still wanted to train, he was losing all of his muscle incredibly fast. He couldn't lie in certain positions. It would be a horrible three months for him, if he even lasted that long. And he would most likely die in a crate at the vet during an overnight stay for treatment. We left the vet without any treatment scheduled, and when we got home I made a phone call.
Brody in a celebratory prance on his last walk.
A week later, two women showed up at the house in scrubs. That morning, Brody had chewed up a few large tree limbs, lay in the grass with his bite toys (he couldn’t jump up on me to play tug), and sniffed many a scent with a story to tell, tail wagging. Against the rules, I lay down on the bed and called him up, but I had to pick him up because he couldn't jump with his massive belly. I lay down, and he put his paws and head on my chest, and we drifted off to sleep for a few wonderful hours together. I knew he was ready. I was not.
After our last nap together
When the women came, I had to send them into the kitchen multiple times. Brody was on his bed laying by the fireplace, and I just had to feel his warm body and his silky ears a little longer. He softly licked the tears off my cheeks, laying his head against my shaking shoulders.
Finally, I let them bring out the medical equipment and listened in a fog to what would happen even though I knew it by heart from Sierra and all the dogs I’d held at the shelter so many years ago. Six years later than planned, now I was holding Brody. There wasn’t an opportunity for him to scale a wall this time, so as they stuck the needle in him, my champion chose to let that energy out with a string of loud, strong barks. It was all he had, but it was still 120%. I held on to his soft, warm body as his eyes slowly closed and he drifted away from me. His body began to grow cold, but it was a long time before I could get up. I suppose he had a thing for holidays, because it was St. Patrick’s Day.
This St. Patrick’s Day, it will be three years since I lost Brody. I still think of him every day, and the things we learned together have changed my life forever. In the end, I didn’t save Brody. He saved me. And every time I turn on a flashlight, my eyes glimmer, a huge grin spreading from ear to ear.
One of my favorite memories, sledding with Brody and Jacoby in 2010. Jacoby likes to run away, which is why I repeatedly call her name. No humans or dogs were hurt during this event.