RUDY the French Mastiff is solid as a rock, a droopy expression beneath folds of flesh that, of course, can only be described as ‘hangdog’, and slippery trails of saliva dripping from powerful jaws and heavy, bloodshot, suspicious eyes.
Still just 14 months old, he’s the kind of beast that anyone slightly nervous of dogs will cross the road to avoid. And when he turns on trainer Marco Del Valle, rearing up with a deep throated growl, teeth bared perhaps with a view to removing Marco’s fingers from his hands, he is a frightening force of nature.
Marco steps back, gives a firm tug on Rudy’s leash, delivers a strong word of command and the dog crouches to the ground. A second later – incredibly – Marco waves his hand in front of Rudy’s snarling face and around 150lb of pumped up canine is rolling playfully on the grass of Inch Park, showing his trainer his soft underbelly, submissive and contrite.
“This dog, he is so powerful he could kill,” nods Marco, hand still firmly positioned so Rudy, panting as if he might still be tempted to pounce once more, reconsiders and decides his best bet is to stay lying down.
“Aggression to humans,” he adds, “he has been pampered so much as a puppy and is now so conscious of his own strength that he can tell people what to do.
“Every time this dog growls, people back off. That makes him confident. He gets away with murder.”
It’s a chilling thought particularly in light of the horrifying bulldog attack in Leicester last month which claimed the life of waif-like slip of a child Lexi Hudson.
And yet soon, insists Marco, Rudy will be thoroughly transformed, so calm and settled that he plans to put him on a leash and stroll along Edinburgh’s busiest shopping street without concern.
“This is his last chance though,” nods Marco, the former Mexican police dog trainer whose skills at taming unruly, aggressive, boisterous and domineering dogs has earned him a reputation as one of Scotland’s top canine experts. “He has to learn once and for all who is boss.
“Only then will I take him to crowded areas like Princes Street. I’ll ask people – strangers – to give him treats and that will change the image he has in his mind about humans. He will see them as nice, no threat.”
Rudy retains a sullen, angry air but then perhaps he’s not yet terribly familiar with Marco’s tried and tested methods. Certainly the other dogs at his training session at the park near Cameron Toll shopping centre are all impeccably behaved, sitting on command, rolling to order, barely a bark to be heard, know that when it comes to determining who is the leader of the pack, it’s obviously the man dubbed the Mexican Dog Whisperer.
Marco’s services have rarely been more in demand from owners desperate to gain control over their four-legged friend. In some cases, they’ve realised the cute puppy they fell in love with has evolved into a snarling – and frightening – lump of muscle in others, it’s because the placid rescue dog they chose from a rehoming centre, turned out to be an overwhelming ball of rage. Indeed, it was a rehomed bulldog that turned on four-year-old Lexi.
Marco, 63, who in Mexico City used to train police and army dogs, believes aggressive dogs are a quite unique UK problem. “We have far too many,” he complains. “Why? It’s partly the owners, because here dogs live inside the house so their behaviour is more complicated – the dog doesn’t know if it’s human or a dog, it gets confused. Some owners are very ignorant of how to treat a dog.
“They say how cute they are and, yes, dogs can be cute. But they are dogs. They sometimes choose dogs which are wrong for them. Small women, tiny pensioners, have this huge dog. And if you are not active and you choose a dog that is active, it will have all this pent up energy and start destroying things.”
Marco, who is soon to start writing a regular column for the Evening News sharing some of his secrets, adds: “People tend to pick something that looks pretty instead of saying ‘that dog suits me’.”
He slips a muzzle on Rudy and sends him to sit in a cordoned off area specially for particularly troublesome dogs. Prevented from baring his teeth, Rudy now looks a sad shadow of the snarling hound that earlier tried to pounce.
Marco, who in eight years of dog behaviour classes has dealt with at least 2000 dogs, is confident he can transform Rudy. However some animals, he says, arrive with years of vicious behaviour ingrained in their psyche, posing an uphill battle.
One issue is generations of close breeding. Another, he argues, are well-intentioned rehoming centres. “Rescue centres are often full of aggressive dogs,” he claims. “The dogs are in a cage, they behave differently. Most dogs in rescue centres have issues but don’t display them. The dog doesn’t show its true colours until people get the dogs home and two or three weeks later problems start.
“Most dogs I deal with are dogs that are rescue dogs and most have fear aggression.” Not that the dogs undergoing training today have necessarily come to Marco via another owner or have had major aggression issues.
Most, it turns out, are good family pets but just need – like all dogs – to know who’s boss, such as Billie, a four-month-old Labrador brought by Anja Schiefler, 48, and daughter Ivy, 11, for basic obedience training. “She’s going to be big,” nods Anja, “we need her to be obedient. She’s already very confident and a bit dominant, so it’s best to train her now.”
Owner Gill McDonald has brought her four-year-old Maremma Sheepdog, once a small bundle of fluff, she evolved into a giant handful. “She was like a furry snowball,” nods Gill, recalling Tess as a pup.
“She got bigger we had real issues with her, she was very dominant and aggressive with other dogs. The breed is used as a guard dog, she was just doing that.
“By the time she was one, she was already big and strong and there were times she’d nearly pull me off my feet.”
Gill tried other trainers, but Marco’s unique skills – patiently teaching dogs social skills, to respect her owners’ commands, plus his secret weapon, a nifty ‘pressure point’ technique which applied to the right spot leaves an aggressive hound almost purring like a kitten – helped transform Tess into a calm family pet.
Across the park Ann Holmes, 69, from Craiglockhart, has brought her eight-month-old Alaskan Malamute, Roxy, to heel, having initially feared her new dog was slowly killing her other dog, Barney, a six-year-old Cavalier Spaniel.
“She was insidiously trying to kill my spaniel,” says Ann. “I still feel bad about it. Roxy was stopping him eating and drinking.
“Marco explained Roxy had bonded strongly to me, and didn’t want any other dog around.”
Marco put the pair together in a pen, and encouraged Roxy to accept Ann’s other dog. Now, she says, they are perfect companions: “I’d say to anyone who has problems with their dog to bring them to Marco, he seems to understand them better than anyone.”
‘Devil dog’ scared of tail
ROTTWEILERS have a reputation as the original “devil dogs” but, according to owner Deborah Wilson, Brutus is actually more like 120lbs of chicken.
“He’s scared of his own tail,” she explains. “He was scared to go for a walk, but fear came out as aggression.”
Deborah, 24, of Mayfield Road, has had Brutus since he was a puppy, but he arrived just as she went through a period of anxiety herself.
“I had a job which meant I was only able to walk him in the evening or morning — quite unsociable hours when there was no-one else around, so he wasn’t getting used to other people or dogs. Then I suffered anxiety and stopped going out much. He seemed to pick that up and became anxious too.
“When we did go out, I had to put a muzzle on him, he’d get so scared.”
Marco encouraged Brutus to socialise. Now, says Deborah, she can walk him without any worries. “It takes time and a lot of repetition, but it’s been worth it.”
Attacks a daily occurrence
THERE are an estimated three dog attacks every day in Scotland.
In the past five years, nearly 6000 incidents have been recorded, with 1012 in the past year alone.
Most recorded incidents involved owners failing to keep dogs under control and contraventions of orders made under the Dangerous Dogs Act.
There has been a string of recent dog attacks in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK. In October eight-year-old Broagan McCuaig was attacked by two American bulldogs in Garthamlock, Glasgow.
Often it is other dogs which are the victims of attacks — the Guide Dog for the Blind Association says there is an average of ten attacks a month on its working dogs.