Polishing a Heart of Gold
by Lisa Sloane
Early last summer a young adult Rottweiler was left in the Peninsula Humane Society's after-hours receiving kennels. The accompanying paperwork, incompletely filled out, contained the barest of information. The young dog's name was Chief; he was one year old, intact and knew how to sit and stay. No other information was volunteered except for the following, written across the top of the form in black ink, "Most destructive dog I've had in 30 years of working with dogs!" Chief had entered our lives.
It was not long before Chief became well known at PHS. "When he first came in," remembers shelter manager Beth Ward, "he was very nervous, very fearful. He was unsure of the world and the people in it." Chief also showed some signs of dog aggression, and Ward suspected that he had been inadequately socialized while growing up; he was probably what shelter workers call a "backyard dog." Despite all this, there was something very engaging about Chief. "Because he was so shy of everything, staff took extra steps to coax him and work with him," says Ward. "For some reason he reached out and touched some people."
Operations director Penny Cistaro was one of these people. "I went into the kennel and saw that he was very timid but that he wanted to come to me. I sat down on the floor, and Chief crawled through the door [from the outside run] and laid his head in my lap. With a "Rotty" that bought me."
After being made available for adoption, several parties expressed an interest in adopting Chief, but each time realized it was not a match. In addition to his timidity toward people and his aggressiveness toward dogs, he was a young, exuberant and energetic dog who would require an experienced guardian with a great deal of time and energy. Chief began to attend Second Chance, a "good manners" class for shelter dogs offered at PHS since the fall of 1997. "Second Chance gives us an opportunity to find out what our dogs are like out of the kennel, how they are on leash and how they interact with other dogs," explains PHS' animal behaviorist, Tehani Mosconi.
PHS membership manager Karen Pisani, a regular volunteer handler at Second Chance, began to work with Chief. She, too, noticed something special about him. "The first time I met Chief he nibbled at my ear and took my earring out! He was so frantic, so desperate for human contact that I knew right then and there, there was more to Chief than just a dog who was excited to get out of the kennel. It was pretty clear that something had not gone well in his past." Pisani became a regular visitor to Chief's kennel and continued to work with him in the Second Chance class.
Making time for special cases In Fiscal Year 1998 more than 1,000 dogs were turned in to PHS by their guardians. Almost half were surrendered for behavior or temperament-related reasons. This is not an issue unique to San Mateo County. A recent study by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy found that 96 percent of relinquished dogs had received no obedience training.
Fifteen years ago the sheer number of animals received at PHS prohibited a dog like Chief from receiving special attention. "I was here in the 80s," says Cistaro. "It was much more difficult to make exceptions then. We had such a volume of healthy animals to place that we didn't have the resources to work with those who had significant problems. Today the competition for space and other resources is, relatively, better." The numbers tell the story: in 1970 PHS received more than 46,000 dogs and cats. By 1982 we received a little over 17,000 cats and dogs - and by last fiscal year the number had dropped another 35 percent, to 11,252.
As a result, PHS is putting more emphasis on preparing animals for life after adoption, and on learning more about our animals before finding them a new home. The shelter's recently expanded animal behavior department does training evaluations on all puppies, temperament evaluations on all adult dogs, and extended evaluations on "problem" animals. Today, notes Mosconi, "A dog is no longer 'just' a dog. We know a lot more about our dogs and can share this information with prospective adopters."
Sally Fekety, director of animal sheltering issues for the Humane Society of the United States, says that HSUS supports a multi-layered approach to decreasing the number of animals in shelters. "In the past shelters focused on spaying and neutering as the solution to pet overpopulation. Now we're recommending that shelters also find ways to strengthen the bond between animals and people."
The animal-human bond is precisely what Karen Pisani decided to address. Because of Chief's aggression toward other dogs, he had to be kenneled alone, a problem during the shelter's peak season. While the number of animals received has decreased radically, space is still at a premium during the busy summer months, and dogs are often kenneled two or three to a run. Pisani decided to foster Chief in her house and to concentrate on resolving his behavior problems and finding him an appropriate home.
A serious commitment
Pisani had walked down this road before with her 205-pound old English mastiff, Dino. Before Pisani join the PHS staff, Dino had begun to display aggressive behavior as he matured from puppyhood. Initially, because of Dino's size and her inexperience with a severe aggression problem, Pisani thought she would have to have him euthanized. However she decided to exhaust her resources first. The day after she first saw signs of aggression in Dino, Pisani called the humane society's free Animal Behavior Helpline. With the help of Mosconi and other professionals in the community, she learned how to address and handle Dino's problem. "I discovered that it's not so much about controlling their body as it is getting control of their mind. When they look to you as their leader -- that's when you start to see results. That's when an unsafe dog moves into the 'reliable dog' category and an aggression problem becomes manageable."
Pisani emphasizes that this is not an issue of a "broken" dog being "fixed." "The aggression can be managed, but it never goes away," she says. "You have to always be vigilant. You can never let yourself be lulled into a false sense of security because there is always the possibility of the aggression being triggered by a kid on a skateboard, or that one dog who's just sending off the wrong vibe."
After having Chief neutered, Pisani brought him home. She soon discovered more about his complex personality. "Just passing my hand over his head to hook his leash to his collar would cause him to wince and drop to the ground. He didn't know anything about being in the house: the television, running water, the shower door -- everything was terrifying." In addition, Chief was so afraid of being left alone that he had terrible separation anxiety; as the words on his surrender form had indicated, he could be a very destructive dog. Pisani worked slowly and patiently with Chief, keeping him on leash for the first two weeks, except for when he was in his kennel or dog run. "Because he was so petrified of even a raised voice it was a really delicate balance between correcting him and frightening him." With Pisani's gentle but firm guidance, Chief learned to accept the other animals in her house, establishing a fast bond with Dino, and even making other canine friends outside her home.
Pisani fostered Chief for four months, taking him through Level I obedience training at PHS as well as a special class for aggressive and dominant dogs offered by the San Bruno Dog Training Club. Chief learned quickly and soon came to not only trust, but to depend on Pisani. "As time went by, he learned that I wasn't going to hurt him and that disliking his behavior was not the same as disliking him," she explains. Today, Chief is a different dog. "A lot of what manifests as aggressive behavior in dogs is based in either fear or confusion," explains Tehani Mosconi. "Chief's so much better behaved now because he's gained confidence in himself and he knows that Karen is in charge. Because he respects her, he looks to her for guidance."
Wanted: a warm, loving home
In mid-November Chief did find a home briefly, but was returned to the shelter after only three weeks. Although the party adopting him was aware of his special needs, it quickly became apparent that Chief required more of a commitment than the adopter was prepared for. Pisani prefers not to look at the experience as a failure, but rather as a testimony to the fact that a behavior problem needs to be approached as a situation to be managed, using appropriate methods and resources. "I truly think that Chief is only about half way through his training," she explains. "He needs someone who can continue what I have started - at the same competency level."
Chief is back with Pisani now and she is continuing his training. "He's just so loving," she says, "so absolutely loving. There's a heart of gold in there. I think that it's our responsibility to take these behaviorally challenged dogs who are basically good, and train them so that the good shines through and they learn how to cope. After all, this is our world that we've created; I think we owe it to the animals to help them get along in it."
(Lisa Sloane is a friend and big fan of Chief who has enjoyed witnessing his transformation. The human companion to Jessie, a 93-pound Rhodesian ridgeback, Sloane has a strong interest in strengthening the human-animal bond.)