I had a dog for five and a half years. She was a skinny, brown dog, shipped to Seattle from the Caribbean as a young puppy. I started fostering her when she was only 11 weeks old and immediately saw signs that she wasn’t quite “right”. I pretty much ignored these signs because she was so young and cute. One night as my husband and I sat on the couch watching TV she woke from a deep sleep and started snarling and barking. We laughed it off, “she’s only 11 weeks old, must have had a nightmare”. I took her to my puppy class (did I mention I am a dog trainer?). It didn’t go well. She was visibly uncomfortable with strangers. When I tried (halfheartedly, I admit) to adopt her out, she would not approach any potential adopters. No problem, we love this little puppy, we’ll adopt her. I’m a trainer, a good one. I can fix her.
She got worse. I started reaching out for help from all my trainer friends and colleagues. You name it, we tried it… counter conditioning, desensitization, clickers, CAT, BAT, drugs… I know this stuff, I teach this stuff, I deal with these dogs all the time, I teach a Difficult Dog class. I took her to numerous classes, mine and others. She was extremely well trained. We did everything “right”. Her recall was flawless, she wasn’t destructive, she chewed her own toys, rode well in the car. She loved playing with other dogs. My son was born when she was a year old and they loved each other. In fact, if you were one of the few in “Pua’s Club” all was well with the world. We made a ton of progress with her. It started taking less time for folks to be able to be in her “club”. If you came over to our house 50 times and ignored her until she was ready, you may be able to eventually join her exclusive club. She would let you know with a nose tap under your hand. We were making progress. When Pua was in her world and with her family, she was an awesome dog. We loved her and she loved us. But she could not handle strangers. She could not be in public. Even with all of our work and progress Pua just could not handle the outside world. So, we managed her. We told everyone coming into our house to just ignore her. It worked. They could come into our home as long as they completely ignored her, didn’t look at her, or try to touch her and, as long as she had an escape route. People who didn’t follow these instructions (or moved to quickly, or in her path) would get snapped at. But I’m on it, I’m a trainer, I could read her discomfort. The snaps were few and far between.
Then she would bite. The 1st time happened when my son was an infant and I was trying to get him (held in my arms), a stroller and 2 dogs (leashes on) down our steep hill of a driveway for a walk. A jogger ran across our driveway and Pua bit him on the hand. Animal control was called. Reports were filed. The 2nd time she bit I was walking her on leash again with my son, now a toddler, when a loose dog came running towards us from across the street. Pua didn’t mind the dog but when the owner then came running right into all of us chasing after her dog, Pua bit her backside. The last time Pua bit we were leaving breakfast at a restaurant on the last day of our vacation. I was still in the restaurant when my husband took her out of the car (on leash) to go potty before our drive home. Just as he took her out, my now 4.5-year-old son and my mother approached. Pua was very happy and excited to see them; they were her family after all. At the same moment, a woman passed by on the sidewalk and reached her hand down to pet Pua. The perfect (shit) storm. Pua bit the woman’s forearm. The police were called.
I think about what I would tell a client if they came to me with this dog. I would tell my client that when we look at aggression we look to see if this is normal behavior for this dog in this circumstance. Normal does not necessarily mean desirable, but is this behavior normal, or predictable, for this particular dog in this situation. If the answer is yes to the above then it’s actually a good thing; we can predict when this dog will react and manage the dog; don’t let the dog get into these situations or any situation the dog can’t handle. All of Pua’s bites above fit that description. In fact, we managed her quite well considering the number of bites in the number of years we had her but there were (and always are) management slips, failures and likely bites. We did all the behavior modification we could but Pua simply had limits. There was a mental glitch there somewhere, a mental glitch that medication and behavior modification couldn’t repair. I knew when Pua was uncomfortable or hit her limit. But I was not the only person with Pua. I could not be around her, managing her 24/7. She lived with other people. I would tell my client that yes, we can modify her behavior (work on all of the behavior modification we had worked on with Pua) but she will most likely always have a potential for aggressive behaviors (bites). I would tell my client that this dog needs to be heavily managed; controlling her environment at all times. I would also tell my client that management is never 100%. We are managing behavior as the last resort, when all other methods have failed and the animal is simply at her limit. Since nothing is 100% are you willing to risk when (not if) management fails?
It’s complicated and layered and I can’t find a “right” answer. I feel like I failed this dog, I failed myself as a trainer and I failed my family. It is devastating and heartbreaking. Worst of all, I don’t know how to explain this to my son. What have I taught him? She was wonderful with him. How can he understand why we took his dog from him? I’m sure there are people/trainers out there who would say “well, you didn’t do this…” and I will certainly say it to myself. EVERYDAY. But how far do we go? Do we keep her housebound? Muzzled 24 hours/day? What happens when one of my son’s friends lets her out of her crate or takes off her muzzle? How many bites are OK? I believe I was the best person for this dog but I just couldn’t “fix” her. A year ago when my 15-year-old shepherd mix was dying of bone cancer I knew what to do. It was horrible to let her go but I knew it was “right”. I could explain that death to my son. I don’t know about Pua. I will have to live with this every day.
We have so much power over the creatures we love and care for. We decide where they live, what they eat, when they play. We decide their life and their death. There is no more important job. It’s a job I never wanted. My dear Pualani, I’m so very sorry. You were my child, my companion and my teacher. You didn’t have many human friends in this world but I, for one, loved you and I miss you terribly. Rest in peace.