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Educating Riley (the greyhound) and his master

November 19, 2008 |  3:23 pm

Riley_mug_shotLos Angeles Times Entertainment Editor Betsy Sharkey has adopted a greyhound, Riley, at right, that used to race at the Caliente Racing Track in Tijuana. She will periodically post updates on his assimilation into her family here on L.A. Unleashed. Today she writes about dog training.

It all started when I began Tivoing NatGeo’s “Dog Whisper With Cesar Millan” and Animal Planet’s “It’s Me or the Dog,” with British trainer-star Victoria Stilwell. The more I watched, the more I realized that I was definitely not the leader of my pack.

If you know anything about dog behavior, making sure you’re the pack leader is critical if you want to enjoy having dogs in your life. The chaos, or the unbalanced pack at my place starts with Max, my English Setter. He spends many hours a day in frenzied activity -- endlessly chasing butterflies and birds in the backyard -- and jumps with boundless energy on anyone who tries to come into the house. And with him at 14 months now, I can no longer blame his bad behavior on puppyhood. Diagnosis: He thinks he’s the pack leader, but is constantly anxious that he hasn’t got everything covered.

Then there is Riley, my greyhound rescue. In the midst of the chaos Max kicks up each day, Riley remains the calm center. But as I’ve watched Riley in the months since I adopted him, I’ve found a few rough edges that -- as I’ve learned from Cesar, who like Cher really only needs one name, and Victoria -- I should quickly get under control.

While Riley is consistently lovely with people, big or small, and eager to snuggle up against all comers, he has started taking serious issue with any dog who barks at him. I discovered this during a recent trip to the dog park after a very nervous daschund went ballistic in his direction and Riley responded in kind.

Thankfully no one was bitten, but the flurry of barks and growls all delivered from a lunging attack stance was frightening. Riley is nearly waist high and 85 pounds of muscle and sinew, which isn’t all that easy to redirect. Diagnosis: Riley thinks pack leader status is up for grabs and that makes him nervous in some situations.

Additionally, with greyhounds, you have to make sure that their prey instinct is always under control. Since he spent the first four years of his life either racing or training to race -- with a fake, fast white rabbit as prime target -- small things that move kick in those juices. A passing squirrel, though they are silent types, will have him tugging like a locomotive. Small (or large) barking dogs up the ante.

First I tried all the techniques offered up by Cesar and Victoria, which only confused Riley and sent me into panic attacks. My attempts to become a “calm assertive” pack leader more often devolved into “frustrated crazy.” I felt like a failure. But then Cesar’s show comes with a disclaimer that says you should not attempt any of these techniques without the help of a professional.

I decided to follow his advice. I dialed my therapist. Amazing how you can pour out your soul for years at $125 an hour and not know you’re talking to a “cat person” until something like this happens. I love cats too, but there are many cat lovers who simply can’t abide dogs. My therapist was one of them. She suggested I get in touch with Cesar.

Connecting with Cesar wasn’t that easy. I checked out the website, which sells his books and videos lessons, but there was no phone number for in person sessions. Besides I was bleary from “watching” how to tame the beasts without and within. I needed actual human involvement.

Then I remembered that Cesar had once handed off an aggressive dog and its owners to OJ Knighten, who’s known as the K9 Coach. I called, we talked, I felt better. Like me, OJ is a Texan, which always counts for a little bit extra in my book. And he owned greyhounds when he was growing up in Amarillo to boot. He was to meet the boys, do an assessment and we’d go from there.

On a Friday, OJ showed up, and it felt like one of those scenes out of a movie. He has a low rumble of a voice and a presence that’s a lot like what I’d expect of a Buddha. Within just a few minutes he had both dogs completely focused on everything he said or did -- and they seemed to be absolutely content to listen to him as long as he felt like keeping the conversation going.

In short order they would leave temptations in the form of bits of beef untouched, they would stay put gladly, and they were starting to understand what to do when OJ sent them to their respective dog beds. Peace and prosperity reigned across the land!

Ahh, but could I whisper to my dogs too? In time, OJ assured me, in time. He left me with homework --15 minutes a day working on specific commands with each dog -- and a promise to return in a week to see how things were going. And so for at least some part of every day I try to tap into my inner Zen (assuming I have one…) while we work on an anxiety-free, under-control, well-behaved pack life.

I hope beyond hope that somehow we will be much improved before OJ comes back to put Riley, Max and me to the test. Especially since I know from all my reading, watching, training, that if Riley and Max have issues, it’s me, not the dogs… And I thought it was tough raising kids!

Can't get enough of Riley?  Read earlier installments of his story.

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