Becoming a Pack Leader of Dogs and Donkeys

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Becoming a Pack Leader of Dogs and Donkeys

Running With Sherman

In the weeks after Sherman joined our family, we were doing our best to heal his body, but his mind needed care as well.

Sherman was the rescue donkey we’d adopted, with horribly overgrown hooves and fur stiff with caked manure after being kept for years in a small stall.

Neglected animals are prone to despair, and people who know donkeys told us the only thing likely to lift Sherman’s drooping head and really bring him back to life was a job. We found one —- a long shot almost too crazy to take seriously. What if we trained him for the World Championship Pack Burro Race in Fairplay, Colo.?

It’s tough nursing a sick donkey into shape, but persuading it that really wants to run side-by-side with you for marathon distances is a challenge of an entirely higher magnitude. The trick, I was told, is to make him think it’s his idea. How you pull that off, however, I had no clue.

Then one afternoon I got a call from Luis Escobar, who was facing a similar problem, but with shelter dogs. Luis is a highly accomplished ultrarunner in his own right, with victories in several 100-mile races to his credit. I first met him 10 years ago, when he was a member of the “Dream Team” that journeyed into the Copper Canyon in Mexico for the adventure I wrote about in “Born to Run.”

But many people know Luis from a video he posted of teenagers running with shelter dogs, which went viral. Luis is the cross-country coach at Saint Joseph High School in Santa Maria, Calif. And he’s exactly the kind of person you want coaching your child. He’s tough enough to be nicknamed “Sheriff,” yet kind enough to take a boy with autism who had been cut from football under his wing.

Even for the Sheriff, motivating teens to tackle hill repeats under the August sun isn’t easy, so instead of practice one morning, Luis took the team to a Santa Barbara animal shelter to run with the dogs. Only later did he realize that might have been a big mistake.

St. Joseph High School Cross Country Team Shelter Dog Run
Video by Luis Escobar

“I wasn’t sure who was more excited, the kids or the dogs,” Luis told me. His runners had a blast, trotting alongside a yipping crew of Chihuahuas, mutts and pit bulls. One pup named Fred was too tired to keep up, so a 16-year-old junior named Josh Menusa scooped him up in his arms. Luis caught that moment in a short video he posted online, and was shocked when it attracted more than 20 million views on sites around the world and made Fred a sensation.

“He was just this little dog shivering in a metal cage and a few days later he’s like an international cult figure,” Luis would say. Josh took his mother to the shelter, and Fred has been a member of the Menusa family ever since. Luis heard from dozens of coaches who wanted to follow his lead, and Rachael Ray even flew him to New York to appear on her show.

Then came the backlash.

This is a blood bath waiting to happen, Facebook commenters warned. These animals are traumatized and unpredictable. What if one of them erupts? Or a kid trips and triggers a pile-on? In a flash, kids and dogs alike can be in serious trouble. Luis could have brushed aside these cranks, since thousands of other people and a celebrity chef were calling him a hero, except in the pit of his stomach, he suspected the cranks were right. “I’ve got 15 crazy kids and 14 crazy dogs,” he thought. “That’s a lot of crazy.”

When I heard what Luis was up against, I realized that in some ways we were in the same boat: We both had to figure out a way to make damaged animals our willing partners. In Luis’s case, the risks were even greater: He was working with abandoned pit bulls.

Someone else agreed that Luis needed help — the Dog Whisperer himself, Cesar Millan. When Cesar saw Luis’s video, he was both enchanted and horrified.

“Coach, you have a fantastic idea but you have no strategy,” Cesar told Luis and me after we arrived at his Dog Psychology Center in Santa Clarita, Calif. We’d come for two reasons: Luis loved the idea of spreading his teen-dog running program to shelters around the country, but could it be done safely? And I was hoping that whatever Luis learned about troublesome dogs could also apply to a damaged donkey.

“So my run is potentially dangerous?” Luis asked.

Super dangerous,” Cesar said. “If two little Chihuahuas begin to fight, every dog will respond. And they won’t be coming to help the weaker one. It will be a pack attack.”

Cesar continued ticking off worst-case scenarios, recalling the video in remarkable detail. The group was too bunched, he said, which could make a dog feel threatened. The kids were letting the dogs strain ahead instead of following, and the “energies” were all over the place: Eager and cautious teenagers were randomly mixed and matched with anxious or assertive dogs.

By the time Cesar was done, it seemed a miracle that the run hadn’t ended in a ball of fangs and flying fur. That kind of analysis, he explained, is the real secret of his success.

It’s been that way ever since he was a youngster in Mexico, where he was known as El Perrero — the Dog Boy — for his knack at taming neighborhood strays. After he crawled through a hole in the border fence and sneaked into the United States as a 21-year-old, Cesar stayed alive in Los Angeles by knocking on doors and asking to walk dogs. “I walked from 8 in the morning till 9 at night, and since I had no papers I charged very little money, just $10 each,” he told us. Desperately poor, he’d string together a pack of up to 10 dogs, which caught the eye of a roving photographer who made the penniless Perrero a star. “The L.A. Times ran a story about me on Sunday,” Cesar said. “By Monday, TV producers were lining up to meet me.” Since then, he’s become famous for teaching celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra, Jerry Seinfeld and even John Grogan of “Marley and Me why they can command the respect and adoration of millions yet not the hearts and minds of their own pets.

Perhaps our worst sin as pet owners, Cesar believes, is turning naturally communal canines into solitary creatures. We pluck them from litters, then raise them alone in a houseful of humans with no one to teach them how to be dogs. Often the first step for changing dangerous behavior, Cesar believes, is to simply pair dogs so one learns how to act from the other.

“Come on, Coach!” Cesar invited Luis. “Time for me to coach you.”

He asked an assistant to assemble his own pack, and handed Luis the leashes of eight dogs of varying breeds and sizes. But after we’d walked only a few yards, Cesar took the dogs back. “You’re too anxious,” he said.

Cesar handed the leashes to my 12-year-old daughter Sophie, who’s never owned a dog. He gave her a few pointers (head up, arms relaxed, stay in front, walk with purpose), and we began climbing a steep dirt trail. The dogs followed quietly until Sophie glanced back and pulled the leashes a little tauter. Immediately, the dogs began scattering. “Align yourself, sweetheart,” Cesar said. Sophie straightened her back and lowered her arms. The dogs snapped back into formation. “You saw how a little girl did it better than you?” Cesar said. “They’re following the pack leader”

We sat in the shade near a little waterfall Cesar built for his deceased beloved pit bull, named Daddy, while he sketched a plan for turning “crazy kids” into pack leaders. First, he suggested, reboot with just a few teenagers. Pick the quietly confident ones and match them with dogs that are not too shy, not too eager. Start with a brisk walk, eyes forward, and keep a good distance apart. Before long, Cesar promised, Luis could blend in all the other kids and dogs. “What you’re doing is really important,” he concluded. “You just have to do it right.”

By that afternoon, I’d absorbed a batch of tips to try on Sherman: Never use fear; dominant isn’t the same as dominate. Get your own mood in order, because whatever you’re feeling travels down the leash. Lead with purpose and leave the bush-sniffing for later; the walk should feel like work, not a wander.

“There’s only one language in the animal kingdom and that’s energy,” Cesar likes to say. Just before we left, I was surprised to spot a familiar long face on Cesar’s land. Cesar has a few donkeys on the property from its days as a working ranch, and it gave me the chance to teach the Whisperer a little something. I scratched inside the donkey’s ears, and when its neck arched with pleasure, Cesar burst out laughing.

“Ha ha! Now I know your secret!” Cesar shouted, which made me feel great until I realized he wasn’t talking to me.