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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?

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
dragonvyxn
Dec. 1st, 2009 02:39 am (UTC)
beautifully written... i hope you get this published somewhere!
houses7177
Dec. 1st, 2009 07:26 am (UTC)
This made me tear up. Thanks for sharing this story.
normaeinstein
Dec. 1st, 2009 08:37 am (UTC)
Fantastic.

So, so with you
anamomda
Dec. 1st, 2009 02:33 pm (UTC)
Powerful. I love the way you write. And the way you fight for ALL animals.

Crying, but that's okay. Gonna go love my beautiful, powerful, reactive Rox girl now.
yesididit
Dec. 1st, 2009 10:14 pm (UTC)
i agree, beautifully written.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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