January 10, 2011

Mondays with Morgan OR How I Came To Be the Alpha Bitch

Morgan is a good boy. He is excellent company, he is loving, he is very motivated to please, and he makes me laugh my ass off. 
 But Morgan hasn't always been this wonderful. Holyoke Home isn't  a 'Dog Blog'. This is a home and garden improvement blog. But since I've started featuring pictures of Morgan now and then, I want to share the story of how Morgan came to be a gentler version of himself, because one of you might be in the same situation.

I rescued Morgan when he was about 4 years old. Morgan is what folks call a 'Dixie Dog'. He was found in a grocery store parking lot in rural Arkansas...... or was it Oklahoma? (my brain cannot process the fact that Arkansas and Oklahoma are NEIGHBORS.)

I learned too late that rescue organizations are marketing wizards who put the thinnest veil over the truth. Certain words and phrases are code for something else. We deal with this all the time in our regular lives. For example, if a real estate agent describes a house as "cozy," she obviously means "smaller than you'd like, but probably all you can afford, so why not make the best of it? Insert smiley face." 

Rescue organizations have their own euphemisms. For example, 'Morgan prefers women' is probably a nice, if confusing, way of saying 'Morgan bites men.' I chose Morgan from a well-intentioned rescue organization that did not tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help them Dog. 
My boy was a big old mess when I rescued him. He was not house-broken, was heart-worm positive, did not like being touched behind his rib cage, didn't know what a toy was, had a huge crusty scar on his face, and he bit me. Seven times. On the day I 'rescued' him.

I like to think that I am semi-smart about dogs. I've trained a couple, and I think I understand how their little brains work, probably because mine works largely the same way. Even so, I sought professional advice and I did everything they told me with religious fervor: I made him work for food, I got the right kind of lead, I went through doorways first, I kept him off the furniture and bed, trained him to do tricks, made sure he got LOTS of exercise daily, etc. 

Nothing stopped the biting. 

Sometimes, he would just bite me. If a finger wasn't handy, he would bite my foot.
I know I'm going to piss someone off when I say this, but having a dog that bites is not an option for me. I couldn't live with that kind of anxiety. My trainer was sympathetic but not helpful. When I asked what to do, she said, "All you can do is make sure he is never in a position to bite anyone." Seriously. That's what she told me.

I forget who I was crying to, but someone told me to watch the Dog Whisperer. On the show, I watched Cesar teach humans how to communicate with their dogs. Speaking to your dog involves your mental state, your attitude, your body language, your voice and, when there's nothing else, a physical correction. A physical correction could include a snap of the lead, a poke in the ribs, or rolling your dog onto his back and staring him in the eye until he looks away. I started with the first two: snapping the lead and a surprise poke. Snapping the lead made Morgan cower and cry-out, as if I had cut off his tiny toe. A surprise poke in the ribs at the right moment, and Morgan would bite the poker. Which was me.

Emboldened by Cesar, when Morgan went to bite me one time, I somehow found the nerve to do the dominance roll. Using his collar, I flipped him onto his back and got really close to his eyes. Morgan went crazy. Like a real life Wild Kingdom episode, he snarled, foamed at the mouth, and peed all over me. But I held my ground and waited until he looked away before letting him up. It took a year for my heart rate to return to normal.

Morgan continued to go crazy the next two times I rolled him. Then he stopped. He stopped trying to bite me, he stopped fighting me, he just stopped. It was as if he finally understood, "Oh! You're in charge. Okay." I still have to roll him very occasionally, but he usually senses it coming and beats me to it.
I feel like I did something good by adopting Morgan, and I hate to say anything negative about rescue organizations because their hearts are SO in the right place and they work so hard, but I urge you to be very cautious before you adopt an animal. Speak directly to the foster person if you can't meet the dog. Do all sorts of temperament tests if you can, and, if worse comes to worse, don't be afraid to be the Alpha Bitch.


  1. I never knew that about Morgan. I really admire how hard you worked with him to make him the absolute doll he is now!

    Also, do you think that trick will work on teen children?

  2. Awwwwww! Now I love Morgan even more! He's come through hard times. He's a survivor!!....I'm growing a real fondness for you too! :-)

  3. Mags you totally did the right thing & Morgan is a sweetie! The important thing is that you spent the time to work with him to change his behavior - owning a dog is a big commitment and so many people just don't step up and make the time or effort.

  4. Wow. For some reason I'm tearing up over here. You've done an amazing thing.

  5. So cool to hear Morgan's story, and I love that Dog Whisperer trick!

  6. Thanks for sharing Morgan's story. We have similar issues with Pilot at times too so it is nice to hear that you are going through the same thing.

    Btw, we just got 101 Dog Tricks by Kyra Sundance and it works well for a dog that likes tasks. We got Pilot to learn "play dead" in a few hours...which is hilarious.

  7. Oh I'm so glad you saved him. That whole story just made my heart happy. Thanks!

  8. I had to do that with my last dog. She was a Doberman and a rescue and she was a complete disaster when I got her and she bit. Now, a biting Doberman has too great a chance of being put down by the courts. (Besides not wanting her to hurt anyone, obviously.)

    I did the roll thing, and the I go through the door first thing, and she did get it. Because I am totally the alpha bitch. ;)

  9. No pissing off here....two thumbs up!!!when an Alpha Roll is the last resort then an Alpha Roll is what one must do. You waited him out, you actually get it, awesome!

    Most people would have given up on him. This is a great piece about the difference between training and behavior mod.

    The calm assertive energy aspect is just so much easier and this dog is still alive because of all the things you did for him and yourself.

  10. Aw, good boy Morgan! It's a good tip for any time a dog is tying to dominate. I had to do this a couple of times to my Newf when she was a pup. She wasn't her full size, but she was a good 130 pounds back then. Now that was a workout!

  11. You know, I've never had a dog before. And I'm so happy that Morgan found such a wonderful happy home, and a family that weren't going to give up on him. But it seems so wonderful and rewarding, despite the hard times! Yay for cutie Morgan and his funny thoughts! :)

  12. So glad Morgan ended up with you! Unfourtunetly, there are many rescue groups who need to wake up. Mincing words does not make a successful adoption, and during my time in rescue we only adopted out dogs to people who knew EXACTLY what they were getting. If a dog was biting, it wouldn't be adopted out until it was sorted.

    As for Cesar, I've been in some very, VERY heated online debates. People either love him or hate him. And when they hate him they REALLY hate him. On the list of most hated is the alpha roll...

    I personally LOVE him. We were lucky enough to have 8th row seats to see him back in October, and I was so freaking excited! People need to realize that when you deal with an animal like this, the reality is he is rehabilitated (for lack of a better term) or would/could easily face euthanasia. Telling someone to make sure he isn't in the position to bite is terrible advice, and does NOTHING to help the dog. What a horrible way to live!

    And yet, many "trainers" complain about Cesar...I could go on and on but I'll stop here. Thanks for posting this!

  13. That was some great writing there, on a good theme. Thanks.

  14. It's ok to write about your dog on a home improvement blog..most people feel that a pet enhances a home or atleast their lives in a home. I'm glad Morgan was adopted by someone who stayed the course and helped to make him a loved pet. He's a cutie for sure...and darn lucky!

  15. Thank you all SO MUCH for all your comments! I really appreciate knowing I'm not alone in getting a slightly crazy dog with a good heart underneath.

  16. i love crazy dogs the most. i have to admit, the dog whisperer philosophy makes me very, very nervous, but i'm so happy it worked for you and M. i bet he's so much less anxious now, understanding what's what and who's who.
    have you ever looked at the book Culture Clash by Jean Dolandson. I HIGHLY recommend it, for a good understanding of dog learning and behavior. i am about 3/4 of the way through and can hardly put it down.
    by the way- i am obsessed with that photo of morgan in front of the table and chairs. obsessed.

    follow our foster: loveandaleash.wordpress.com

  17. I have read and watched Caesar in the past and he is outstanding. However he possesses a sense of timing that most of us don't have, and when correcting timing is everything. It's anticipating the bad behavior and correcting it before it happens, really.

    Bless you for persevering with Morgan. There are A LOT of unscrupulous rescues out there. They do nothing but harm with stunts like that.

  18. DarcC - I TOTALLY agree with you about timing. It has to be an absolutely immediate thing or the correction is utterly useless. Somehow, I got the timing thing.

  19. I'm so happy to hear that you stuck with Morgan. I have a terrible, no good, very bad cat. She has ruined thousands of dollars in rugs and couches, but for better or worse, we adopted her and promised to love her and care for her. Here we are going on 12 years later and even though I still have to watch where I walk in the middle of the night I wouldn't trade her for anything. I feel so much better when I hear about people who stuck with problem animals because too often they'd just end up dumped at a shelter and put down. Congrats to both you and Morgan!

  20. Excellent article and writing! This is why I don't have an animal. I really do love them and don't want one until I can truly devote the time necessary to training them- and I don't have that time.

    I almost want to try this on my mom's unruly and untrained small dogs and see the chaos unfold! They'd writhe like worms on a hook, they would!

  21. Such a great looking pup!


  22. Obviously I'm caetching up on my blog reading... but I like this post. The Humane Society did wrong by us, several times over, in their non-truths about the health of out beloved pup, and his age. Regardless, I immediately loved him ridiculous amounts. It's a bummer that rescues and folks helping animals find homes aren't always doing right by the people they work with.

  23. AnonymousMay 04, 2011

    Rolling a dog to establish dominance is not a new thing nor was it invented by ceasar. It does not hurt the dog ( done right, with care obviously), in fact it helps the dog to understand the world in which it finds itself. I have trained sled dogs, you must have dominance with an animal ( and pet) that weighs over 100 pounds and is taught to pull. The roll is the way.
    I applaud your dedication!

  24. i'm definitely going to have to give this a try. my rescue dog and i have been to months of obedience training and he's absolutely loveable but he does nip at me if i'm not doing what he wants me to do.

  25. I'm so glad to hear that I'm not the only one. We adopted our dog from the Humane Society, she never bit, but she sure did destroy a lot of our things and tried our patience ... CONSIDERABLY. I'm so glad we stuck with her though, and it all changed once I started watching the Dog Whisperer and made an attitude change on our end (my husband, daughter and myself).

  26. AnonymousJuly 17, 2011

    I have a female boston (Lily) who is 4 years in October ....and Morgans twin! Totally....the spots on the white chest, the white crest that wraps the neck...the face !! Wow. Even the tail...which is "there" but bent and tucked inside the cavity, and the tip returns to the outside like a little nub. This is a type of "problem" with cork screw tails, when they are "innies" and can be a bacterial (and smelly)irratant for the pup... and a little extra effort for the owner to keep it clean....I do this once or twice a week, to keep her comfortable. I met another boston on a walk one day and noticed the tiny tip of it's tail, and the person had no idea her dog's tail went inside and back out...although she knew it was a corkscrew. She was happy to be informed because she witnesses her dog sitting and rocking on her rear end as if trying to find comfort for an itch!!!


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