After working with boatloads of shelter dogs over the years, we've dropped the belief that pit bulls are an inherently dog aggressive breed. We certainly consider them to be one of the more improperly socialized breeds in our crowded cities right now, however. We don't always do right by dogs in this big busy world of ours: Rushing them into dicey nose-to-nose greets with strange dogs, setting them up for failure in chaotic, poorly run dog parks, leaving them to their own devices at home with other dogs and no playground monitor to enforce the rules - or just plain isolating them from other dogs altogether in lonely backyards. Then, when they get into trouble or come to the shelter and show bad manners with other dogs, we blame them instead of their handlers - or especially - we blame their breed. "Damn pit bulls! Can't trust them with other dogs!"
Poor dogs - What have we done to them!
The sadder side of this story is how much damage we can do to a dog's psyche within the shelter walls. Shelters are impossible places for dogs to live - What, with raging hormones, constant noise and stress, fence fighting with neighbor dogs, distracted handlers and never enough time to help a dog stay exercised or improve his dog-dog skills.
We faced these challenges head-on last summer, when we started selecting dogs for our Ambassadog program at Oakland Animal Services.
Dirk was a big, sexy beast who showed us that he was able to co-exist and even play appropriately with other dogs. A good start. We got him going with training (he was a champ!), took loads of photos and fell ever more in love with his handsome face. And then, the worst happened ... We learned of an accidental fight that occurred between him and another large male in the outdoor kennels during the noise and chaos of the morning cleaning routine. After that fight, Dirk started looking for trouble at cleaning time. And then, he started creating trouble whenever a dog walked near his kennel. And finally, he triggered whenever he was near a dog that offended him. Watching him unravel from dog tolerant to dog aggressive behavior was a heart crusher. With no experienced foster home available and no way to re-school him at the shelter, we made the painful decision to put Dirk to sleep. It was AWFUL. He died because the world, and finally, our system failed him.
Out of this tragedy came a new gameplan: All dogs designated for the Ambassdog program were now to be shuffled to a smaller, quieter, calmer ward where all would get used to each other's presence and live like roommates rather than jailhouse gangstas. Peace and quiet was rewarded and reinforced. And best of all, we created a little oasis (photo: above) where dogs could get out of their kennels and become socialized to other dogs in a relaxed, safe setting.
Every shelter needs an oasis for their long term dogs. In this environment, they learn that they have to follow rules and good things happen to them when they show appropriate behavior. They looove this place and what it represents (learning! attention! fun!) and scramble to get inside during their out times. Dog intros can go as slow as we need here using crates and tie-outs, and everyone is rewarded for loose, happy body language around other dogs. They hear us laughing here and they get to let go of their stress and be a real dog - a pet dog - for a small but very important part of their day.
I was especially grateful for this space the other day when we introduced Salvador to a dog who is brand to the program. Salvador had been snippy with dogs when he first came to us. Not surprising, he had an injured front leg, he was skinny, unneutered, and the shelter was full of edgy dogs ready to push his frazzled buttons. 'Not to worry,' we said - 'We'll get him over this.' Thanks to the team's guidance and especially, Miss Retha, Sal has learned to expect that only good things will come from other dogs - All this, while living among dozens of reactive, barking shelter residents. Last week, Salvador imparted an "All is well" lesson to new dog 'Bemis.' Here's a video of their first play session, inside the oasis otherwise know as our trailer. Listen to how Tim and Mike are rewarding the dogs for their appropriate play. Look at how damn happy those dogs are. Every shelter needs a space like this - Really.
Many, many thanks to our supporters who helped make this tiny island a reality. And forever thanks to Dirk for a lesson that's saving so many dogs.