Dogs may be man's best friend, but we humans generally do a terrible job speaking their language back to them, trainer Colleen Combs says.
"We expect them to understand human culture but we don't make a lot of effort to understand theirs," said Combs, founder of Windsor-based Green Dog Rescue Project. "We expect them to think like humans."
The result is an unfortunately high number of dogs with behavior problems, from stranger anxiety to dangerous aggressive tendencies. And many of those dogs wind up in shelters, and then end up dead because the overcrowded and cash-strapped shelters cannot find suitable adoptive homes and cannot continue to care for them.
Combs, a longtime professional dog trainer, wants to try something different. Rather than housing dogs in small rooms or cages, Combs houses her dogs in their natural environment - just a big pack of dogs with freedom to run around a big indoor room or outdoor runs.
"The pack helps to put dogs back to a natural state because the pack won't tolerate certain behaviors," she said.
There are dozens of dogs at the Windsor facility, a spacious warehouse-like building on Old Redwood Highway. All but a handful live together in as a group, under the supervision of about 60 volunteers and the staff of Combs' for-profit dog training and boarding business, King's Kastle.
Combs has been training dogs professionally for more than a decade, but the idea of extending her methods to a non-profit rescue and shelter came up two years ago, when celebrity chef Douglas Keane got in a dispute with the Healdsburg Animal Shelter over the fate of Cash, a large mastiff-pitbull mix that shelter staff were unwilling to put up for adoption because of its aggressive behavior.
That dispute led Keane, then owner of the celebrated Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg, to sue the shelter to prevent it from euthanizing Cash.
Today, Cash is well behaved and mellow, a change that Keane credits to Combs' intervention. He said Cash is gentle with the visitors he entertains at his homes for personal and fundraising parties, and is well behaved with his other dogs, including a tiny Chihuahua and a huge white lab.
"They all play together, jump on each other, and have a great life," he said.
So impressed was Keane that he proposed forming the non-profit Green Dog Rescue Project. This year, he donated the $120,000 he received from winning the "Top Chef Masters" competition on TV channel Bravo to Green Dog.
When he first saw Combs' pack-based method, he said, "it was like a lightbulb went off in my head .<TH>.<TH>. The dogs teach other dogs how to heal."
Cloverdale resident Madeline Wallace was likewise impressed with the pack method. The border collie Lucky was in danger of being euthanized at the Healdsburg Animal Shelter because of his aggressive behavior when Wallace asked to give the dog a second chance. She has been bringing Lucky to Combs weekly for several years since then; the exposure to the pack calms him and has allowed him to live peacefully with her two other dogs on their small ranch.
In the pack "there is no stress and he's not aggressive," she said. "He just blends in with the other dogs."
Combs claims near-universal success with her method, though she admits that it can take several years for the most severely troubled dogs to calm down and adjust. Several aggression-prone dogs need to wear muzzles as they interact with the pack, though they are not otherwise restrained or isolated.