There are dog owners everywhere whose dogs have behavioral problems, or have unknown or questionable backgrounds. This is cause for concern for the owner, whose responsibility it is to make sure that their pet poses no threat to their family, other pets, the public, or itself. When asking for advice, these people are often told to hire a professional trainer or behaviorist for an in-home consultation. Some roll their eyes at the idea of hiring "an expensive trainer", thinking that they can handle the dog on their own, or maybe worse, through advice given to them by people who claim to be experts but aren't. Others put off having their dog evaluated because they fear being told that their dog is hopeless and may even be a danger to society. While there are cases where that is what they would be told, there are many more where there is good news or at least hope. I can attest to that, and have the peace of mind to prove it.
My name is Jennifer, and I was, up until the summer of last year, living a carefree and relatively unfettered life with no responsibilities beyond those involving the care of two cats, my job as an office manager, and having fun with my fiance on the weekends. Then, one summer day, my life changed in the time it took me to drive down the street. There, on the side of the road, lay a dog. I assumed it had been struck dead by a car, but as I drove closer, I saw its sides heaving. I stopped the car and stared. The dog was a female. Her eyes were swollen with infection and her skin was raw from a bad case of mange. Weak, obviously sick, and possibly injured, she lay panting on the hot asphalt. I hesitated because I knew deep down inside that if I decided to help this dog, and if she survived, that I would most likely be taking on a huge responsibility that I was not prepared for. Dog ownership. And not just any kind of dog ownership. Pit bull ownership. Yes, the little girl laying there helplessly was quite unmistakably a pit bull. I got out of the car and approached her with caution. As I came near, her tail, ever so slightly, began to tap the pavement. I took it as a friendly gesture and grabbed a rope from my trunk, slipped it around her neck, and off to the vet we went.
Two days later, I picked the dog up. She had a long road ahead, but with proper treatment would make a full recovery. Her physical ailments were varied, but all were treatable. Her emotional problems were worse. She seemed eager to please, but was very wary of people and would cower at my feet at any loud noise or fast movement. I took her home and got her settled in. Within days, she started to overcome her fear and began to trust me, becoming my shadow. Her kisses on my cheek were so soft and gentle, she made my heart melt. Although I was trying to find a rescue group to take her, I was starting to fall in love with her and the idea of adding her to my little family.
After a month of unsuccessfully trying to find her a home, I realized she was mine for good and named her Babe. Although I loved Babe very much, I was very concerned about keeping her. I worried about the safety of my two cats, even though Babe appeared to get along well with them. Concern also stemmed from the negative input I was receiving from various people who thought I was crazy for bringing a "vicious" pit bull into my life. I was repeatedly told that one day she would turn on me. Or that she would kill my beloved cats. Or that she would escape and harm little children and I would be sued. My fiance had similar opinions. He wasn't trying to be unreasonable or unkind, but he had read and seen news reports about many pit bull attacks and was urging me to get rid of Babe. And although I grew up around large dogs and this little pit bull didn't look very threatening to me, the constant flow of media reports and negative opinions did spark a bit of doubt in my own mind. While Babe seemed a good dog, I couldn't deny the fact that she was a bit unstable. She apparently had suffered abuse at the hands of humans and that fact could not be changed. She still shied away from quick hand movements and would dive for cover if I carried an object in my hand while approaching her. She also, on occasion, would hide behind my legs and bark at people who approached me while she was on leash. She never showed any real sign of aggression, just fear. But what if one day I did the wrong thing and "set her off" like everyone was warning me about? Even though she appeared to like my cats and never chased them, what if one day she "snapped" and decided to rip one of them apart? What if she got loose and attacked someone out of the blue? I couldn't imagine her doing any of these things, but I couldn't know for sure.
I decided the only thing to do was to have a professional come to my house for a behavior consultation. I called local groomers and talked to people at the local dog park. I also called the animal shelter. I got some names, and finally chose a trainer that was recommended by more than one person, who also happened to be local. He is a trainer for a guide dogs school and performs temperament testing on the dogs there as well as on potential therapy dogs. He also trains on a freelance basis, and is often consulted for behavior evaluation and modification for dogs with aggression problems. He has had over 30 years of experience dealing with all types of dogs. I called and scheduled an appointment for later in the week. The trainer instructed me to have Babe inside with me when he came to the door, so he could see her initial reaction towards a stranger invading her territory and coming near me. He told me that he would then put her through a number of different situations to observe her reaction (such as walking her in areas that would get her in contact with different people and animals). He sounded kind, but also very direct and to-the-point.
In the days prior to our appointment, I found myself worrying about what this trainer might find. What if he was able to unveil some mean streak in Babe that had gone untapped so far? What if he deemed her unstable and untrustworthy because of her fear of people? What if he said she was a potential fear-biter? Could I handle living with a dog like that? I knew my fiance would insist I get rid of her if the trainer felt she was a danger to have around. I had to wait for those answers, so in the meantime, I snuggled with Babe in front of the T.V., took her for walks, and enjoyed her company.
When the day finally arrived, the trainer spent 1.5 hours total with us. He started the session off just coming to the door and entering the house in a very confident way, pretty much ignoring Babe, to see what her reaction would be. She didn't show much of a reaction at all, just gave a little woof. She looked at him and then me with a worried expression, seeming a little confused by this stranger who walked right in. He then introduced himself to her. Babe pathetically crept over to him with ears flattened, eyes averted, and tail tucked, but eager to be petted. He sat with us in the house and chatted for awhile, and Babe eventually warmed up to him, rolling over onto her back wanting a belly rub. I went over my concerns about Babe's behavior, encompassing everything from her head shyness to her barking at people while hiding behind me. I also asked his opinion on pit bulls in general, given their horrible reputation. He just laughed and said that he had worked with many and found no more "bad" pit bulls than any other breed.
He proceeded to interact with Babe in various ways. Among some of things he did were waiting for her to lie down on her bed and allowing her to nod off, and then quickly walking over to her and bending down over her to see how she'd react to being surprised. Instead of a response such as fear-biting, she jumped up and sniffed his hand. Another thing he did was give her a rawhide bone to start chewing on. A few minutes later, he walked up to her and took the bone out of her mouth. Again, no aggressive response at all, just a wagging tail.
Towards the end of the session, he took her out and did some obedience work with her on lead. It was amazing. He started out walking her down the street, with her following reluctantly, tail held low, but not quite tucked. They disappeared out of sight. He returned from the walk a while later with her heeling, sitting, and turning with him like she'd been doing it for years. Her tail was wagging a mile a minute and she looked as if she was prancing, all the while looking up at him with what looked like adoration. She loved having something to do! He told me that he had walked her past barking dogs behind fences, a nearby kindergarten school where children were running around playing, and past my neighbors houses where people were conducting outside activity. She ignored it all. She did not strain at the leash, lunge, or bark at anything. He introduced her to a few people on the sidewalk and she was polite, although still timid.
He sat with us and talked some more, petting Babe and occasionally making a quick movement with his arm to see how she'd react. After a few times, she stopped shying away and just ignored it. He was pleased with that. I'm sure that during this time he was also doing other things and watching for telltale signs that escaped my notice.
When it was time for him to leave, the trainer summed up our evaluation. It was mostly positive, as he saw no overt signs of aggression to be worried about and did not feel that she was so fearful of people that she would be a fear-biter. He said that he could tell that her self esteem was low, probably from her prior living situation, whatever that was. But he added that wherever she was, she apparently was well socialized as he was amazed at how well she behaved around other dogs, my cats, and the kids in the area.
He said the timidity and occasional barking at people approaching would likely decrease as she built confidence in herself, mainly through obedience work, and by me correcting her whenever she did it. He showed me how to give an appropriate correction during these times. He explained how obedience training gives a dog the security of knowing where it's place is and what is expected of them in different situations.
The negative side was that since she was harboring a fear of people, he felt that there would always be the remote chance of her biting if she was backed into a corner by someone she was very afraid of and could not escape, or put in some other similar situation. However, he reiterated the word "remote," as he did a few things to try to make her feel intimidated and did not get an aggressive response. But he wanted me to be aware of the risk, and to keep working on her socialization and training to ensure that never happened.
We made an appointment for him come back in two weeks to re-evaluate and to start formal obedience with Babe, me, and Tom, my fiance. After one or two sessions, he said I could then just go to a regular group class. He wanted us to do one or two private sessions to help Tom interact with and understand Babe better. As he left, he told me that in his opinion, I had a wonderful dog and that we were lucky to have found each other.
After he drove away I almost burst with pride. I gave Babe a big hug and sighed with relief. I knew in my heart that with proper training, love, and discipline, she would be a reliable companion for life. I ran to the phone to share my good news with Tom, and explained the necessity of him being involved in Babe's obedience training. Tom agreed to it, and was happy for me and Babe.
It has been over year since then, and Babe has blossomed. We have completed two obedience classes, and Babe is a polite, well-mannered canine member of society. Together, Babe and I have swayed the opinions of many people about the American Pit Bull Terrier and other breeds mistakenly considered to be untrustworthy or vicious. I am still in occasional contact with that trainer who helped us start off on the right track. I thank him for it every time I see him, and I'm sure Babe is thankful too.
Written by Jennifer Thompson
The above story is hosted by Dog-Play and was written by Jennifer Thompson at my request. We hope to encourage people to neither ignore problems nor give up on the dog, but to seek professional help. Jennifer's story warmed my heart because it was clear from the very beginning that she was thoughtful and committed. If all dog owners were like Jennifer we would have very few dog problems.
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Created: November 3, 1997 Updated November 12, 2007
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