This story starts with a dog named Noriega.
Now, let me start by saying that shelters need to stop naming dogs stupid things. But when Pets Alive took over the old Elmsford Animal Shelter, there were lots of dogs named after stupid things. Alcohol, gangsters, dictators, rappers of ill repute. One of them was Noriega, a chunky American Bulldog mix with some major behavioral issues, and because that is the name I got to know him by that’s how I still think of him, even after the shelter officially renamed him Rafael. So let’s stick with what I actually call him, Nori. He is, of course, named after the edible seaweed frequently used in Japanese sushi.
Noriega had grabbed a kennel worker for unknown reasons in the years prior to Pets Alive taking over. Evidently it was a fairly extreme event, and it was very difficult to get him to release. From that time on, Noriega was rarely handled and had little human contact, although he did live with another dog.
Pets Alive doesn’t believe that dogs should live without human contact, so eventually the focus turned to Nori and we began to try to figure out how to work with him. He didn’t seem to be a mean dog, but he had a deeply-ingrained habit of grabbing things in his mouth and not letting go when he was excited. This applied to leashes, clothing that got near his kennel, and on the occasion of one memorable and quickly-aborted experiment, my butt.
So we started simple, working with him through the kennel door on some very basic obedience, trying to make a connection with him and begin a relationship. Nori showed himself to be a VERY smart and eager pupil who really enjoyed his training sessions, loved tennis balls, and liked it when we scratched his butt through the fencing. Any attempt to enter the kennel, however, still got him so excited that he started to look for something to put in his mouth, which could be very dangerous.
Pets Alive Westchester trainer Misa Martin and I began to brainstorm for ways to help him further and try to get him out of a kennel environment – being in a kennel 24/7 is tough for any dog, and no one wants to see that. We formed a plan. Nori is a very powerful dog, but he’s also big, slow and food motivated. We worked out a way to place a food-baited dog crate in his kennel door and transfer him into it without direct contact. He could then be wheeled out to a fully enclosed outside pen where we could work with him.
Outside in the pen he did great! He was lots of fun. We started by playing games with him from outside of the fence – he loved to play fetch and chase tennis balls. Eventually I was able to suit up with arm shields and enter the pen, but we always had to keep him focused on something and keep him moving – I even carried an “emergency stuffy” tucked into my pocket – he loved stuffed animals above all else, so if I ever needed a distraction I could throw the toy and leave the pen. I was never able to touch Nori without a barrier between us.
Well, eventually Nori was sent up to Pets Alive’s Middletown location to work with Pat Whitacre. Pat had come to visit us and find out what was going on with Nori but I’m not sure he had an exact plan in mind when Nori was sent up to Middletown.
Two weeks ago I was up visiting the Middletown location and Nori came to the office where I was for a visit… and climbed up onto the couch with me where I got to scratch his head and shake his meaty jowls.
He still loves his tennis balls and his stuffed animals, but he loves people too. He always did, but now he doesn’t seem to want to chew on them any more, and he doesn’t grab his leash and yank on it for dear life. Pat had done it again, as he had done with so many dogs. I can now see a day where Nori could be a happy housepet, something I never dared to imagine before.
I wish I could ask Pat how in the world he did this, how he broke it down – as he always did – to the smallest, most minute steps of progress, applied with infinite patience and careful analysis. Although I may never completely understand how, I am overjoyed to see Nori so happy, Pat’s final gift.