“Becoming a Shelter Dog, Part II”

Sue Sternberg for APDT

Becoming a Shelter Dog, Part II


**This article first appeared in APDT’s Newsletter’s Gimme Shelter column. The column is a regular feature in the Newsletter, an educational publication of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.

Editor’s Note: In this three-part article, Sue Sternberg describes how a typical dog ends up in her shelter, Rondout Valley Kennels, and what shelter life is like. Part I discussed the shelter environment and staff in general terms; Part II introduces you to her shelter dogs; and Part III will follow up on each dog’s progress.

I want to introduce you to my shelter dogs – the ones who are staying with us at Rondout Valley Kennels as I am writing this article – because their stories offer valuable insight to everyone who trains and works with dogs. These stories defy the myths that all shelter dogs are alike, that all shelter dogs have been abused or are untrainable or that all of them can be successfully rehomed. These stories remind us that each dog is unique, and that we do a great disservice if our attitudes and actions do not take each dog’s individuality into account.

A Brood of Great Pyrenees

Four of our runs are filled with a delightful brood of Great Pyrenees: three 10-week-old pups and two adults. Their owners were local AKC breeders who needed to make a sudden cross-country move and whose efforts to sell the entire kennel as “breeding stock” were less than successful. The owners called us and we suggested they call a breed rescue organization, but they said they didn’t have the time to deal with that. So we immediately took the five remaining dogs they hadn’t been able to sell.

Thankfully, these dogs have superb temperaments – gentle, sweet, mildly submissive, very mellow, and people oriented. All of them are ideal family pets.

They will cost us hundreds of dollars in sterilization, vaccinations, and heartworm tests and medications. We will call Pyrenees Rescue to ask for a contribution to some of the spaying/neutering costs. We will also ask that organization to send us any approved adoptive families on their waiting list.

Three Shepherd Mixes

In the next kennel are three 9-week-old black and tan shepherd mix puppies, surrendered by a family who placed the rest of the litter on their own.

When litters such as this one are surrendered, we pay to have the mother dog spayed. We recognize that it doesn’t make sense to take the puppies if the mother is just going to produce another accidental litter in six months.

Moose, a Pit Bull Mix

In an adjacent kennel is Moose, a 6-month-old male pit bull mix. Moose was transferred here from a shelter that was concerned about his possible deterioration in the limited environment of their kennels. Moose had arrived at the original shelter as an infant with his littermates, along with a purebred pit bull mother who exhibited serious dog-dog aggression issues.

Moose, who has been with us for four weeks, has been a delightful guest. His skills with other dogs are outstanding, and he has assisted me many times when I have evaluated and worked with private behavioral clients and their dog-dog aggressive dogs.

Moose can appease, calm, and cajole almost any other dog to play. He is gentle, affectionate, and adoring of young children. Training him is a pleasure because he is easy to motivate and exudes a calm, low-key intensity. He is doing very well due to his busy schedule of private lessons, group agility classes, dog playgroups, toys, chewies, and human affection.

Unfortunately, Moose has been passed over on our shelter’s Web site that profiles our adoptable dogs because he is listed, truthfully, as a pit bull mix. And people who visit our shelter looking for pets dismiss him because of his “pitty-ness.” Nevertheless, Moose is an ideal family pet.

Michael, the German Shepherd

In the next run is Michael, a 3- to 4-year-old purebred German shepherd who was brought in by the local animal control officer as an unclaimed stray. Michael, who has been with us about two weeks, is a physically and temperamentally sound GSD. All he needs is some basic training.

Lucy, the Pit Bull Mix

Sharing Michael’s run is Lucy, a 6-month-old pit bull mix who came in as a rescue and has been here almost a month. Her story is complicated.

Lucy first came to our attention when our Training Wheels program received a report of a chained puppy. (Training Wheels, for those of you who did not read Part I of this series, is our mobile outreach program that helps us intervene with local pet owners needing assistance in keeping, caring for, or giving up their pets.)

When we went to the house on a cold winter day to investigate the report, no one was home. However, we found a pit bull mix puppy chained to the outside of the garage with the garage doors closed. She appeared to be about five months of age.

The puppy growled at us in fear, but when I finally made friends with her, she was excited to play and she leapt up at my face in greeting. We left a bag of dog food and a note for the owner, offering to help with free training, vet care, supplies, and rehoming if necessary.

The puppy’s owner called us that night in tears. An ex-boyfriend had given her the puppy, but she was ill and unable to care for a pet. We sympathized with her about her illness and being left alone to care for a dog. Although she was reluctant to surrender the puppy, she agreed to do so.

At the shelter, we allowed Lucy a few weeks to settle in, fatten up, socialize with people, learn how to learn, learn a few commands, and play with other dogs. We were encouraged that Lucy had come to us at a fairly young age because surrendered young pups have a much greater chance than older dogs in regard to successful rehabilitation, socialization, and behavior modification. There is simply less time for neglect, reinforcement of bad behaviors, bad habits, or bad experiences to have set in.

About three weeks after Lucy’s arrival, she was temperament evaluated. Despite the boost that our Training Wheels program gives surrendered dogs, Lucy tested borderline for food bowl aggression and quite high for rawhide aggression. She was tense around her food bowl and was overstimulated by food, which may have made her great fun to train but it also meant that she was a risk to be around if there were enough food around for her to covet and guard. She occasionally “freaked” out with strangers, suddenly lunging at them through the window of her kennel or while on leash. Being coprophagic, she once defecated in the front of her kennel and then guarded it as someone tried to clean it up. Her reactions, as I had observed the first day I met her, went from zero to one hundred in a split second and were quite intense, especially for such a young dog. Despite being affectionate, fun loving, silly, and endearing, Lucy was volatile.

At the tender age of six months, Lucy is already so far along in the sequence of “how to get strangers to back off” (e.g., sudden lunging/growling at their faces) that the outcome is not optimistic for rehoming. Until Lucy reaches the age of 2 or 3, every encounter with a stranger must be carefully crafted to ensure that she is “working” and not “off duty.” Every approaching stranger needs to be instructed not to make direct eye contact initially, not to approach frontally, not to reach over and pet Lucy until she is comfortable or in a non-fearful emotional state, and not to walk or run by suddenly unless Lucy’s owner/handler can prevent her from lunging. In short, Lucy requires an intensive, ongoing behavioral modification program of desensitization, counterconditioning, and follow-up-a tremendous amount of time and effort.

Because of Lucy’s fast reaction time, sharp mind, high prey drive, and athleticism, she also requires appropriate and ongoing activity outlets such as agility training, trick training, tracking, or advanced obedience. If she were rehomed with a professional or hobby dog trainer, she might have more of a shot at success. Belonging to the average pet owner – with a real life, a real schedule, and a real family – Lucy doesn’t stand much of a chance. And at this point, I would never recommend that she live with a family that includes children.

So Lucy is our most challenging guest at the moment. Even as we continue to assess her strengths, weaknesses, and needs, she is being impacted by shelter life. Our team of shelter workers are concerned about the following issues:

  • In our shelter, Lucy will encounter a daily barrage of strangers as people come looking to adopt a pet.
  • Lucy will be kenneled in a small space, with limited options for backing away to create more distance from scary strangers. We expect that she will quickly opt for lunging, barking, and hitting the front of her kennel. (She already lunges occasionally, thereby practicing her aggression.)
  • With repeated practice, Lucy will increase in both the frequency and intensity of her lunges.
  • Lucy could be moved out of the public adoption wing and into an area where only staff is allowed, but then no one would be able to view her to consider her for adoption. Keeping her in the restricted area until she is “cured” would mean keeping her for at least two more years.
  • If she stays in the adoption wing, we recognize that no reasonable person would want to meet or adopt a pit bull mix who is charging aggressively at the front of her kennel. And too, her aggressive behavior is likely to contribute to the public’s perception that pit bulls are mean and scary.

What is the fate of Lucy and the other dogs in our shelter? Check out Part III!


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