Jack is a dog who should have had a short life.
Where and how he spent his first couple of years is not known in any detail. The large, shaggy black dog ran with a pack of semi-owned canines who roamed between the communities of Masset and Old Masset, chasing cars and generally creating a nuisance. He was eventually picked up as a stray and impounded. A person associated with the pound felt sorry for him and took him home to foster until a new home could be found. A couple of weeks later, the foster parent called me to ask for help.
"He keeps getting out of the yard and running away. The kids can't get into our backyard without Jack slipping out, and then he charges down the street bumping into people. It's really weird; he runs up to people and bounces off them and then finds another person to bounce off of..."
"He sounds pretty lively," I commented, my eyebrows raised. "How much exercise is he getting?"
"He seems quite lazy. He just lies around in the backyard all day. Except when he decides to destroy something. You should see what he did to the trampoline!"
"What about when you walk him?"
"He's too strong for the kids to walk, so he hasn't been getting out much. Except when he escapes."
I had already visited to fit Jack with a head halter, but the family had decided not to use it since the dog pawed at his face when they put it on. Since it seemed they were not going to be able to meet his needs, I offered to foster Jack myself.
It quickly became apparent that Jack was an unusually energetic dog. An hour-long walk did nothing to take the edge off; I soon resorted to bike riding to keep up with him. But other than that, he was a pretty great dog. He housetrained quickly, got along with the other dogs, and was very affectionate with me and my partner. He even got along with the cats.
After one of the escapes from his foster home, the police had threatened to shoot Jack if they saw him on the loose again. Apparently they considered him a threat to community safety. "He's a big marshmallow," I scoffed after getting to know him a little. How could anyone be afraid of such a lovely dog?
It took a month or two before we began to notice the first signs of aggression. I don't even remember now how we came to admit that he was dangerous. I know that our denial was gradually eroded as one incident followed another. "He's afraid of people he doesn't know" turned to "He doesn't like people in his yard" became "He's not safe in public." It was clear, finally, that there were two possible options: put him down or adopt him ourselves. Reluctantly, (we had six dogs already) we kept him.
BEWARE OF DOG!!! signs were posted on gates. But, amazingly to me, people didn't read them. I came out my front door one day to find a cheerful Jehovah's Witness lady standing on my porch, telling her obviously frightened little boy to "pet the doggy." A friend looked at me in surprise when I told him not to reach through the fence or Jack would bite. "Look, he's wagging his tail. What a friendly face. You're my bud, aren't y- Ouch! He BIT me!" We began to padlock all the gates, not because Jack would open them, but because visitors would. We installed a bell in our driveway because no one could get anywhere near our front door anymore.
I looked for training solutions, but the Internet was new and the books I now recommend to owners of aggressive dogs had yet to be written. By trial and error I developed a method that allowed Jack to accept and even welcome strangers into his territory. Then I went to a dog training academy and learned techniques for treating stranger aggression. (Hint: there's no magic bullet. It's a lot of work and progress is usually slow and really, if you're looking to create a dog who is 100% reliable with strangers, you may well be disappointed.) Click here for some help from Pet Expertise.
Having a dog who bites people means always being on alert, always thinking in the back of your mind, "Where's Jack?" It means having escape-proof fences, never dropping the leash, and never taking a vacation with your partner. Is it worth the sacrifice?
Well...I'd hesitate to do it again. On the other hand, I've learned so much from trying to manage Jack. Many owners of aggressive dogs end up becoming professional dog trainers because they gain so many skills during the process of rehabilitation, as I did. I've also developed empathy for clients who lack the time or commitment to carry out a long-term training plan. If I, as a dog trainer, have only rehabilitated my dog to the point where he's manageable but not "cured", why should I expect others to go the distance? I work on his issues when other things don't get in the way...which is not as often as it should be.
Jack is a dog who should have had a short life. And yet, here he is, an old dog, sunning himself on the front porch, surveying his territory. We are both glad he's made it this far.
Shane Windatt, CTC, CPDT
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