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Training program goes to the dogs


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.

Of more than 170 dogs she has housed at Green Dog Rescue over the last year years, she said only two have been euthanized - one for persistent medical problems and one for unpredictable aggression possibly linked to genetic medical problems.

"We don't believe that euthanasia is off the table," she said, "but we want to be very careful to see that as a (last) resort."

Her method comes down to trying to see the world through a dog's eyes. Dogs are highly social and keenly attentive to the cues given off by other dogs, particularly signs of firm leadership from the proverbial "alpha dog."

"Dogs are strictly social; they're not a solitary animal," she said. "Above all else is a desire to fit into a social structure."

Many human owners lavish dogs with love, but fail to provide the rules and guidance a pack leader would normally do, leaving the dog confused and leaderless - or else thrust unwillingly into the leader role. Humans also tend to fail to realize that human habits - such as eye-to-eye contact, teeth-baring smiles and even speech itself - can be unsettling for dogs, even provoking fear and aggression in some cases.

Dogs in many shelters and kennels have it even worse, she said, since they are confined in cages or small rooms in a noisy environment with little positive social contact. Like humans confined in prison, the dogs can begin to exhibit anxiety and mental and physical problems, making an already lost and troubled animal even harder to farm out to a new human home.

"Our approach to animal health and welfare is one of trying to do it from the perspective of the animal," rather than from the perspective of, or convenience of, humans, she said.

The idea of rehabbing damaged dogs led to the odd "Green Dog" name, she said; it represents a form of recycling, giving dogs a second chance when others have given up.

Combs said she has always been drawn to animals and had a flair for understanding the subtle, non-verbal forms of communication that make up the social structure of a dog's world.

But she didn't get serious about caring for dogs until a terrible night 22 years ago when an armed intruder broke into her Central Valley home and threatened her with a gun.

Before the confrontation escalated to violence, her husky-wolf hybrid named Kyshka came crashing through a window and attacked the man, allowing Combs time to subdue him. But the man's gun discharged in the struggle with the dog, killing Kyshka.

"She sacrificed her life for me," she said, her eyes welling up with tears.

The work with dogs, first with King's Kastle and now with Green Dog Rescue, have been in Kyshka's memory, she said.

Combs is hoping to separate her business and non-profit ventures. Green Dog Rescue is one of the bidders to take over the Healdsburg Animal Shelter, which collapsed earlier this year amid financial problems and internal strife; the City Council is expected to decide the shelter's fate late in November.

Should the city award Green Dog Rescue the contract, the money donated by Keane will go to rehabilitate the old building, Combs said.

If not, the money will go to finding the organization another new home, preferably in the Healdsburg area.

Either way, the organization estimates it will need around $500,000 to move into a new facility; it has perhaps $250,000 in the bank, including Keane's money.

"It's time for Green Dog to move," Combs said. "We need to be adopted."

You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.