Daysy's Story: From 'Dangerous' Dog to Pampered Pup
Though it was nearly 16 years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday. May 3, 2002 I was awakened by an emergency phone call from the shelter. They had closed one wing of the building because a giant hulk of a dog they had taken in the night before was attacking her kennel door. The metal poles were bending and seemed to be about to fail. Her behavior was so extreme, they feared she would get out and maul someone. They needed me to come down and deal with the situation.
Given that the staff at the shelter were accustomed to working with potentially dangerous dogs, I was surprised by the request. But, I got up, got dressed and headed to the shelter. When I got there, I went straight to the impound kennel, where I was greeted by a red sign staff had hung on the door that read, "DANGER! Do Not Enter!"
I opened the door and went past the sign.
It did not take long to figure out who the problem dog was. Daysy was a large (about 90 pounds) American Bulldog who was making her presence known, barking, growling and lunging at the door to her kennel, hitting it so hard that the chain link was bowing and the poles that held it in place were bending. The latch on the door also looked as if it could fail at any minute.
Intellectually, I understood that many/most dogs behave differently when they are behind a barrier, like a fence, a door or a window or in a kennel. This can present as a phenomenon known as barrier aggression, which is not true aggression. It is entirely display behavior and not dangerous. A great example of barrier aggression can be seen in the following video of a group of dogs "fighting" through a large gate. But, watch what happens when the gate opens...
Many people know sweet dogs that behave like vicious savages when the mail carrier comes by, or when someone passes by a car the dogs are riding in, or they know dogs who love other dogs, but who mark and lunge wildly if they see another dog while they are walking on leash. All of those are forms of barrier aggression. Though they are annoying behaviors, and should be addressed with training, they are not dangerous.
Standing in front of Daysy's kennel seeing her 90-pound body hitting the chain link with full force with her barking and growling, I mentally understood all of that. I also knew that the overwhelming, vast majority of dogs are not dangerous. Emotionally, however, none of that mattered, because none of that told me specifically how THIS dog was going to behave once the barrier was removed, and to get Daysy out of the kennel, I was going to have to open that kennel door.
My heart skipped a beat. Leash in hand and catch pole at the ready, I prepared to open the door.
I have a special technique for opening kennel doors of dogs exhibiting this behavior that allows me to brace the door with my foot and hands, to prevent the dog from pushing through it. That way, I can observe their behavior with the door partly opened to observe their behavior as the barrier is slowly removed.
I braced the door with my foot, undid the latch and slowly began to crack the door open looking through the opening and speaking to Daysy in a high pitched but soft voice. "Go for a walk?" I asked.
She paused, looked at me through the opening of the door, and, to my delight, rather than lunging, she dropped her head and began wiggling her cropped stub of a tail so hard that her whole body began to jiggle. I leashed her up easily and took her out for a nice long walk.
Daysy was not a dangerous dog. She was a large, untrained and fairly reactive dog who absolutely could not be safely housed in the main kennel at the shelter. However, by moving her back to a comfortable isolation area, with access to a staff-only break room, we quickly began to see a very different side of her: She loved to cuddle on the sofa and was prone to giving slobbery kisses.
In the calmer environment of the isolation area, her barrier aggression was dramatically reduced. As she got to know more of the staff and volunteers, it disappeared entirely. Her only remaining challenge was that she was a very large, very strong and very untrained dog. Fortunately, the shelter had just the thing for that.
We had an at-risk youth program that involved kids from the local county correctional facility coming to the shelter to learn dog obedience training. The kids worked with the shelter's most challenging dogs, teaching the dogs the basics of good dog behavior (and learning some good behavior themselves in the process). Daysy quickly became the kids' favorite dog and they would often fight over who got to work with her each day. Daysy turned out to be eager to work, eager to please and super-smart. She blossomed into a spectacular dog and was adopted and became a great camping and fishing companion.
Daysy's new family sent us periodic updates and photos of her various camping and fishing adventures until she eventually passed away at a ripe old age and after having lived a life filled with love and joy.
This morning, I read a blog, written by Doug Rae of the Humane Society of Fremont County in Colorado. He and his staff regularly work with "scary" dogs like Daysy, and has one of the highest save rates of animal shelters in the nation because of it. Too few animal shelters follow his example, unfortunately, and countless dogs are needlessly killed because of that.
If animal shelters are going to be role models of responsible animal stewardship, and I believe they should be, they need to know and understand the most common behavior challenges that face our pets. They should also be prepared to work with them, manage them and correct them.
The fact of the matter is that animal shelters are terrifying places for many animals. Expecting the animals to behave perfectly in that situation, therefore, is unrealistic. Yet, basic fear-based and stimulation-based behaviors (most commonly, barrier "aggression") remain common reasons animal shelters destroy pets.
If animal shelters are going to present themselves as experts in animal care, then they have to BE experts in animal care. To be experts, they need to be willing to work with dogs who are struggling to adjust to shelter life. Doing that not only helps shelters save animals with behavior issues that are not dangerous, it also helps them better identify dogs that are, thereby keeping their communities safer.
Beyond a doubt, it takes a special kind of person, with specific knowledge and training, to stand outside a kennel door like Daysy's and then safely open it. It is, however, the responsibility of every shelter to identify, train and nurture those people so that their shelters can be full of them. Everyone wins when they do, including the animals, the public and the shelter staff and volunteers.
When I think back at my years in animal sheltering, the stories that fill my heart the most are the tougher cases... the Daysys, the Bravos, the Busters and all of the others. At most animal shelters these pets would have been killed. Instead, they ended up living wonderful lives and enriched the families that adopted them. They have become sources of love and pride for all of the people whose lives they have touched. That is why, even though it was nearly 16 years ago, I remember first meeting Daysy like it was yesterday. It is also why, when I received the final email from Daysy's dad, telling me of her passing, I shed some tears, not just of the sadness of her death, but also for the happiness of her life and how deeply she touched the hearts of so many people. That big, scary, slobbery, sweet dog touched a lot of peoples' lives.