Saving The Secret Dog of the Appalachian Mountains
I meet a lot of interesting people while living full-time in a 5th wheel RV. But I think Willow the marine and her pack of enormous dogs take the cake as the most obviously colorful. I met Willow in the desert of Quartzite, Arizona, where I spent the winter. Quartzite is a hotspot for snowbirds and other types of nomadic RVers. Willow was living in a trailer with her husband and 9 huge dogs, 7 of them puppies.
When I approached Willow, I was simply curious about why and how she was raising a litter of such large dogs out in the desert. What I discovered when I started talking to her was an incredible passion for everything canine and a mysterious story about a breed of dog that had been kept secret in the Appalachian mountains.
You see, Willow wasn't just raising large dogs. She was raising River Walkers. This breed is a mix of Great Dane, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Weimaraner, Staffordshire Terrier, and Boxer. Besides their extraordinary size, they are natural pheromone detectors, which makes them ideal service dogs. Their name comes from the webbed skin between their toes that allows them to swim with unusual ease.
Willow discovered River Walkers when she was injured, resulting in a problem with her adrenal glands that causes seizures. She is a master canine specialist who trains dogs for the military. This was the first time she had encountered a dog that did not need nose training to detect pheromones. When Max bonded with her, he wanted to save her life without any training. He has been warning her about her seizures for 11 years.
When Willow found out that Max was the only River Walker left that could be bred (find out why in the video), she realized she had to do something. So she bred Max with a 3-year-old European Great Dane named Eva, resulting in 7 beautiful puppies.
That’s when I came in. The puppies were 7 months old when this video was filmed. When I asked Willow if I could interview her, she told me that River Walkers take time to get to know new humans. Her puppies got used to people after about 3 visits.
So I came to visit several times in the week before bringing my camera. I learned about the agility course Willow and her husband, Paco, had built for the puppies. It has a jumping section and one where the puppies need to wind back and forth around stakes in the ground. Next year, Willow confided, they want to expand the course and provide training for other dogs in the community.
She showed me the buggy that the dogs pull in a harness. It had blown a tire, otherwise she would have hooked Max up to demonstrate in the video. If you watch carefully, there’s a shot where Willow is holding a harness and talking and Max is wagging his tail. He was extremely disappointed not to get to run with the buggy! The buggy is fun, she told me, but River Walkers can also be trained to pull a wheelchair.
I got to know some of the puppies. A couple of the females were naturally very friendly and let me pet them even the first time I stopped by. Willow told me how one, the smartest of the litter, had learned how to open the trailer door and coordinated multi-puppy escapes from their pen!
More than anything, Willow talked about the dogs and how special they are. River Walkers are narrow chested, with shoulder blades that are very close together. This means that they can carry weight better than a dog with a wide chest. So when Willow falls in one of her seizures, Max is able to catch her safely.
But the most extraordinary feature of the River Walkers is their devotion. River Walkers do best with one handler, who they get so close to that they naturally sense pheromones shifting in their body. One dog, Sargent, mourned himself to death within a month of his handler’s death. This is the depth of devotion that these dogs show towards the humans that they bond with.
Willow is on a mission to find the people that need these extraordinary dogs. While she has already found homes for all of the puppies in the video, she is planning another litter this fall. To find out more, contact Willow at [email protected]