Most of what I’ve learned over the years has been a direct result of Riley’s crazy. Riley is a perfectly healthy Jack Russell Terrier…..and I hate to be cliché, but when I say terrier, I mean it. He is a bit of a terror child. I like to think of him as my punishment for the torment I caused my parents growing up. I redeemed myself with Woody because he is so so so sweet. JRTs are a hyper, high strung, and intense breed. They have a napoleon complex. When they fixate on something you need to have great control to redirect their attention. However, I think many people could describe their dogs this way. Jacks may take it to a different level, but all dogs have their own little quirks.
My purpose today is to describe how we have been able to get Riley to a state where he is comfortable functioning in our pack. He still has his moments but without his medications he would not be as successful as he is now. I am by no means an expert. I ask so many different people advice and am constantly learning. This is just my experience that I hope can help someone else struggling with pack dynamics.
We would have the normal dog arguments once a year. One dog would get pissed for something or another and we would end up with a cut here or there. We knew the trigger for Woody was balls and for Riley it was coming into his personal space. For example if he was under a blanket and another dog jumped up he would (what we termed) “jack-in-the-box” them—pun intended.
But seriously? Do you even bed though?
Riley is an alpha at heart despite his inability to ever win a fight. But seriously, his record is 0-20+. I am by no means bragging, but figuring out a pack sometimes takes trial and error, and some ER vet visits. Woody is a push over. He grew up with a bully-brother and pretty much gave into anything Riley wanted. I didn’t help the situation either. I would personally take things from Woody and give them to Riley if Riley showed interest. I THOUGHT I was diffusing the situation, but really I fed into Riley’s ego. I helped create the monster at the expense of my sweet baby(Of course I would give something else to Woody, I’m not the monster here!).
When Woody turned 3 and Riley was 6, Riley began to feel threatened by Woody. Benny was too young to worry about at this point and Peter seemed to not be a threat at all to Riley. It appeared to us that Woody really wanted nothing to do with being alpha but Riley didn’t seem to think the same. Riley developed what I call aggressive anxiety. Aggressive anxiety is kind of like when a guy at a bar punches someone from behind. He tends to be that guy screaming “hold me back bro hold me back” and everyone rolls their eyes and thinks “okay tough guy”. Most times we would have zero idea what Riley got pissed about. After seeking advice from a local trainer (Columbus K9), who came to our house to assess our actual situation, we learned that that trigger we were uncertain about was typically….me. Great, now what?
I had to learn to adjust my attention to reading body language. I couldn’t give in to Riley anymore. I also had to accept that Woody was not quite the angel that I thought he was. He did his fair share of dirty looks as well. I had to teach Riley to respect me and realize that I do not belong to him. Actually, nothing really belonged to him, especially the bed.
I also had to create a bond between the jacks. I took an activity that was traditionally a Riley and mom thing and made it a jacks and mom thing—running. The cool thing about running was you could visualize a pack. We literally could not move forward without all of us being a cohesive unit. Riley really couldn’t be ahead of Woody and vice versa. They had to work together to move forward. They had to be in each other’s space constantly. It was really a great visualization of progress.They even share water bowl time now. Jack-share is my favorite kind!
However, without the addition of Prozac in Riley’s life I don’t think that any calmness would have been possible. When a dog reaches a state of fight or flight there is no place for him to understand and learn. In order to show Riley things were okay and he did not have to choose fight we had to get him at a comfortable level where he could absorb and learn. After doing a full bloodwork, Riley was able to get on Prozac. I get generic human Prozac from my local pharmacy. It took about two months but we began to see a different dog. You could see the level of stress diminish from his eyes. His body was looser and he genuinely seemed more tolerant and comfortable. We continued to work with our trainer and learned more about body language. After adding this to his life and a bit more structure, we saw a positive change, a happier dog, and a fuller bank account due to less ER visits!
Our forth dog, Benny, really pushed Riley over the edge five years later. A Basenji by nature is a dominant breed. He is tough and strong minded—a natural born leader. However, if we left Ben in charge, I have no doubt that it would turn into a similar scenario when Scar ran the kingdom in The Lion King—everything is his and everyone else gets the minimal left overs. Needless to say this is not ideal either. For us, there was a fine line where we should force the pecking order and where we shouldn’t.
I have become so in tune with my dogs (or so i think) that I could see this struggle progressing. Riley became less tolerant of Ben. Ben continued to push Riley’s buttons, but seemed to be conscious of the tipping point. Ben would nip at Riley but because he is so fast Riley couldn’t ever “get him back”. I knew that we were approaching a point where fights were likely to occur again so I contacted our vet to see if we could up Riley’s dosage. Unfortunately, he was on the highest dose so we went back to the drawing board.
What Riley was experiencing is what I like to describe as fear-based anxiety. Riley would stand there and physically back into a corner. It was like he was saying “don’t make me do this. No seriously, please don’t make me”. Ben stood tall and strong and didn’t push but gave the “don’t make me laugh. I would kill you in a fight” look (what? You don’t know that look??) I know at the end of the day Riley would choose fight, he would always choose fight, but he started contemplating flight. I saw this change in him and you could tell he was always on edge and frightened. Personally I would never want to be that way so I knew that another medication could help relax him. I want to mention though that nothing I put Riley on has seemed to alter his personality. I feel like the medications he is on only helped to make him feel comfortable and confident.
What we ended up doing is medication and training. The jacks still run together but Benny and Riley now walk together daily. Same concept—they are a pack. I am okay with Benny taking over alpha with me as a supervisor, so I even let Ben correct (to an extent) Riley on the walks when Riley is out of control.
We added a blood pressure medicine called clonidine. This drug can be given every 8 hours at his dosage. However, we try to always start at the lowest and watch for a change. Within about 2 weeks I could see Riley feel more comfortable. And if you don’t believe me, Riley and Ben started playing more often. This NEVER happened prior (not the best picture, but this terrifies me typically).
If you want to watch this video from three years ago you can see the style of play is very unpredictable. But in this video you can see it is much more controlled.
The cool thing was that you could see Ben reading Riley and letting up at the right times. However, Ben really doesn’t like Riley to be done playing so we do have to step in to let Ben know that play has ended. I think sometimes happy playful dogs forget to read when their partner has had enough play and it turns into something it shouldn’t. Learning to read my boys’ body language was so helpful in understanding what they all need.
At any rate, a lot of things I plan on talking about came from learning the needs of Riley. Learning to balance personalities and relationships were crucial to keep the boys and my bank account safe. Also having amazing friends to talk me out of going to the vet when it may not be necessary is a bonus as well. Medication in my opinion, allowed for Riley to become stable enough to open up and learn. It has reduced the level of anxiety in different situations so he can enjoy life. I know some medicines can cause dogs to act “doped” up but the combination I have found for Riley does not do that. He is still a bratty little spit fire but he is perfect:)!