Originally printed in Grosse Pointe News, Vo. 70 No. 31

Mama & Boris

Pointers, likely more so than others, will remember the 2007 Christmas saga of a young mother and her pup, befriended in Baghdad by Army Sgt. Peter Neesley. Peter relocated Mama, who was less than a year old, and her 4 month old pup from war ravaged urban Iraqi streets to the outskirts of a military camp and into a red, white, and blue dog house he built for them. Sgt. Neesley, with the encouragement and support of fellow soldiers, cared for Mama and Boris, sharing trials and tribulations of his wards with his sister, Carey, and nephew, Patrick (age 10), back home in Grosse Pointe Farms. Stories told through cell phone, email and pictures created a special familial bond between Peter, Carey, and Patrick, around the two innocent dogs.

Tragically, the extended human-canine family lost Peter to a non-combet environment death on Christmas Day. In addition to the loss of Peter, Carey and Patrick now faced a very unknown future for Mama and Boris; yet, they knew they would have to do everything possible to bring their dogs home.

And so began the successful 4 week campaign to get Mama and Boris out of Baghdad and into the loving arms of Carey and Patrick. With the help of friends, corporations, elected officials, animal welfare groups, and many in the media, they became united on February 8, 2008.

At first, Carey’s plans were simply to love Mama and Boris, potty train them, and let them settle into their new life. Celebrity dog trainers and pet industry representatives offered advice and encouragement as the media hailed a rela victory to come out of this war.

But gradually Carey and Patrick began to realize that the dogs were not adjusting well. Initially, Carey thought that Mama was growling around the food dish because of her hungry feral past. Too, who wouldn’t excuse a mother for protecting her new home and only surviving offspring from unknown outsiders? Next, Mama began going after the family’s two middle-aged Golden Retrievers. Soon, Boris joined in on the bullying and was quickly surpassing his mother’s aggressive behavior.

Carey went back to the people and groups that had initially offered advice. Recommendations to address the now well-established aggressive behavior included: clicker training, a positive reinforcement strategy; low protein dog food; an electric fence system to keep them contained; and psychotropic drugs. An animal communicator weighed in saying that Mama and Boris told her that they were being labeled as foreigners and terrorists by the dogs here in this country. She recommended that they wear American Flag bandanas and encouraged Carey to explain to the Golden Retrievers that Mama and Boris had come as peace envoys. Carey knew she needed something more exacting.

No stranger to a challenge and driven by the continued desire to keep this family together Carey was again on a mission to help her brother’s canine refugees. A referral from Gross Pointe Park veterinarian, Nancy Pillsbury, led to James F. Lessenberry, owner of Animal Learning Systems.

An extensive evaluation of Mama and Boris led Lessenberry to conclude that the dog’s ill mannered and dangerous behavior arose from the complex intersection of genetic predispositions and asocial environmental experiences. Ironically, Lessenberry explained that the problems were just as likely to have occurred had the dogs been born right here.

Lessenberry found Mama to be a very dominant female as biologically “wired” to protect her valued resources (food and family) as she is “wired” to be first to respond to a threat to her status in the group. On top of that, Mama did not process emotions in a normal manner. To Mama, everything she experienced was bigger than life. “Combine these traits with an animal that has sustained protracted threats to her safety and status and you have a learned problem,” said Lessenberry. Since she was just a puppy herself (barely 18 months old) maturity was certain to intensify the seriousness of her ill behavior.

Boris, 9 months old then, is what Lessenberry called, “not the sharpest tool in the shed.” Sweet, less emotional than his mother, Boris didn’t think for himself, instead relying almost completely on his mother for guidance on how to behavior towards other dogs. As a bad role model as Mama was, she at least picked her battles. Separated from Mama, Boris was terrified of animals, attacking indiscriminately. He would grow to be a big powerful dog and was fast learning how to wield an aggressive attitude.

Treatment was extensive. Mama and Boris lived with Lessenberry and his staff for several weeks learning to trust their caregivers to keep them safe, instead of worrying about defending themselves or each other. They learned to be happy and safe independent of each other. They also learned a whole vocabulary of words to control their attitude and behavior. They learned to play with other dogs, ignore cats and wildlife, and to love people.

One year after being treated by Lessenberry and his staff at Animal Learning Systems, Carey reports that Mama and Boris are delightful companions, well adjusted and deserving of being in the spotlight.