Sunday, November 29, 2009

TIME: Can attack dogs be rehabilitated?

The first time I met a dog from a fight bust was in the quarantine kennel at the shelter where I volunteered. I had been given the privilige of bestowing treats and love to the dogs languishing in the "bite kennel". Some were there because of court orders, others had bitten people or animals. Most were friendly or shy, few said no to the cookies. Even fewer made it out of the shelter alive. It was a sad place for me, and I did what I could to make their lives a little better.

Back to the fight bust dogs. There were five of them, lithe, agile pit bulls. One was incredibly cage aggressive, launching himself time and time again at the kennel door. I ignored him, randomly tossing treats into his kennel when he'd stop his aggressive overtures. He was not one who I could ever truly bond with, he was too frightened and reactive to tolerate even the most modest of advances. The other four were overzealous with their affection. They were covered in scars, jagged wounds evidence of the physical trauma they endured. Psychologically, though, they seemed at ease with their predicament, if not a bit under-stimulated and bored. One was extraordinarily dog reactive, the other three displayed modest levels of reactivity...all within what most would consider the range of normal dog behavior. One would spend her days play bowing to the dogs across the way, butt high in the air, whole body swaying side to side. She'd fling herself dramatically towards the other dogs, stymied by space and kennel walls. But she never lost her love for other dogs, and she would lick the face of the dogs who passed by her kennel on the way to their deaths.

For three years, these five dogs languished, mostly forgotten. No one was allowed to take them for walks, even though four of the dogs were incredibly human social. In secret, I would reach my hands into the kennels, stroking muscular backs, gently fingering scars and wounds, scratching under chins and massaging velvet-soft ears. I wasn't supposed to touch the dogs, but their plea for interaction - beyond tossed treats - demanded my response. They reveled in this contact.

Their "owner" was found guilty and the dogs released to the shelter. This was 2000, long before Vick and even before I was able to convince this shelter to stop automatically killing crop-eared pit bulls (it was assumed they were fighters *eye roll*). The automatic response of the shelter was to prepare the kill room for these dogs. In my heart of hearts, I knew this was wrong. It was a denial of life, a suppression of compassion, the wrong choice to make for, at the very least, three of the dogs. None would be given a pathetic excuse for a temperament test. None would be offered to qualified rescues for possible placement. It was assumed that, because these dogs had fought other dogs, that they were irreversibly scarred. Damaged goods. Unwanted. Unadoptable. Untreatable. Dead.

It was the first time I touched the dogs outside of their kennel. The really aggressive one had to be tranquilized before being carried to the kill room. I begged and pleaded with staff to let me hold the other dogs, at least before they were killed. I was lucky - on that day, a pit bull loving animal control officer allowed me to give those dogs their final goodbye. I touched each and every one of them, admired their beauty, trying in vain to calm their undulating, joyous bodies. I hugged the dog-friendly one, telling her how much I loved her. And then they walked themselves to their deaths. Oh, the violation of trust, the betrayal. It stings me even now. Back then, I was nineteen, foolishly believing what the staff told me, that it was a good thing, the kindest thing to do...killing healthy, adoptable dogs was kind? The truth is too painfully obvious - that was a coping mechanism. The reality is that those dogs did not deserve to die. Not at all.

Nearly a decade has past and now society expects shelters to try and salvage dogs from fight busts. Even while we ban pit bulls left and right, we express our schizophrenic desire to save the most abused pit bulls.

Things have changed and for the better, I think. TIME has an online article, entitled "Can Attack Dogs Be Rehabilitated?" Is that even a valid question anymore? Was it ever a valid question? It's an okay article, except for what I believe is the most fundamentally missing point - that these are still dogs. They are not mythical beasts of destruction, they are not cybertronic droids bent on world domination. Yes, they are generally more athletic than other medium-sized dogs and yes I'd agree their "bell-curve" reactivity is shifted a bit more to the reactive side. They are terriers, after all. But their temperaments and behaviors are not so different than most dogs, not off-the-richter-scale fantastical or bizarre.

So why must we still paint them as attack dogs, as unfit to be with other animals or children? The truth of the matter is that many pit bulls confiscated from fight busts and permitted to be rescued, they live with other dogs. And children. Somehow, they restrain themselves from eating everyone in sight. Some are so solid that "rehabilitation" is a non-word, a silly term that has no real-world meaning to these particular dogs. Some are shy, scared of their own shadow, where "rehabilitation" means earning trust and teaching confidence. Some are dog-reactive, where "rehabilitation" means management and properly supervised canine interactions. Some are fear-biters or resource-guarders and "rehabilitation" means, if a suitable foster home is available, redirecting behavior into appropriate actions, teaching boundaries or, if a suitable foster home or sanctuary is unavailable, it means death. Some are riddled with mammary cancer or other deadly diseases and "rehabilitation" in the physical sense is not possible. In the end, they are dogs with various personalities, different temperaments, myriad ways they cope with the world.

They are not so different from any other dog entering the shelter system, except that their tragic past is a known entity, a shadowy, nearly tangible thing. It seems only fair to give them a chance at life. Is that not something every dog deserves?


EmilyS said...

Pit bulls as victims is the new thing.. which is certainly way better than pit bulls as monsters.

But the story ignores that many of these bust dogs have ALREADY been "rehabilitated" (if they ever needed it in the first place) and are in foster homes, or forever homes being normal dogs.

((hugs for your memories of your early experience and for sharing...)

Anonymous said...

When I think "attack dog" I tend to equate it with the kind of purposely under-socialized, snark wildly at anything that moves, understimulated dog on a chain that is supposed to "protect" things I see far too much of.

IMO most fight bust dogs would be easier to rehabilitate than those poor beasts.

Stephanie Hyde said...

What a beautiful and accurate piece you have written. I felt my eyes starting to tear up. Extremely convincing. God bless you for your love.

Stephanie Hyde
People For The Ethical Treatment Of Pit Bulls

Rinalia said...

EmilyS - it is interesting that the fact so many of these dogs are living a normal life is left out of the story.

Amanda said...

Rinalia, this is beautiful! I have been reading your blog for a while, you have amazing photos and your commentary on life, animals, dogs, all of it is great.

Having a bust dog in my own home, I totally agree, "rehabilitation" means little to nothing. We have provided her what we provide any dog out of the shelter--love and structure--and she is blossoming beautifully. She seems to have missed the memo regarding the damaged, horrible creature she is supposed to be. ;)

My heart aches for the dogs you describe here. They undoubtedly deserved more...which always makes me hug any dog in my presence all the tighter, thankful for them and what we can provide, despite any shortcomings.

Rinalia said...

Amanda - thank you, you are too kind.

I popped over to your blog - lovely dogs, adorable child, beautiful photography!

Sally is a beautiful dog with the perfect pink nose I am partial to. :) I wish I could do more of what you do...someday, I'll be amongst the ranks of APBT foster "parents"!

Anonymous said...

To snuff out a life is to snuff out love, even if it's latent love, and that is a sad thing.

People like you, Rinalia, and the pit bulls you protect and defend, are helping dispel ignorance and fear, so that the precious qualities of these beautiful beings can come to the fore and lift the whole world to new heights of compassion.

The Voracious Vegan said...

This post is beautiful, thank you so much for writing it. It breaks my heart how pit bulls are just instantly seen as vicious monsters, unable to be saved. All dogs are good, that is a fact. They are not born evil or vicious or violent, they are trained to act that way by evil people. They can all be saved and helped and rehabilitated, or at the very least allowed to live out their lives in a sanctuary.

One of our dogs, Jack, is part pit bull, part black lab, and he is the goofiest 80lb lap dog ever. But people still shy away from him when we tell them that he is a pit mix. I can't believe anyone could be scared of my gigantic goof ball. He has raised an entire litter of foster puppies and I have seen him spend hours playing with tiny kittens, lifting his feet carefully so he doesn't step on any of them. He is a sweet hearted lovebug but as soon as people hear the word pit bull they instantly assume the worst. Thank you for spreading the word and defending them!

Anonymous said...

I work with dogs and see a lot of dogs who are rescues of all breeds and types. I don't see that rescued "pit bulls" are different from any other rescued dogs. Yes, some will be reactive, some will not. Some will like other dogs, some will not. Truthfully, the majority of dogs I see who are really dog reactive are NOT "pit bulls". People are so stuck on the idea that if it is a "pit bull", it is going to be a certain way. When can we start treating them like individuals? When will be people see that they are, you know, just dogs?