A Cautionary Tale - Please Learn From My Mistakes
Posted at 04:58PM - Comments: (95)
Fostering a dog-aggressive dog presents dangers even experts can't always predict.
Note: This blog post is long, and an explanation for the editorial published in the July 2017 issue of WDJ.
Not quite a year ago, I told you about Ruby, a Cardigan Corgi I fostered for my local shelter three years prior. She had found a home, but was being returned to the shelter, and I had decided to foster her again, to try to assess what had gone wrong.
When I first fostered Ruby, I had observed that she was a confident, tough little dog, who would freeze and give a “hard eye” look at other dogs when they crossed her in some way, but I never saw her display any overt aggression. Also, she responded to a verbal reminder – even just a mild “Hey Roo-bee . . .” – with a tail wag and a return to a loose, relaxed posture. Eventually, Ruby found a home with a relative of a friend.
A few months after she was adopted, I received a couple of calls from her new family. It seemed she had apparently caused (or at least, had been an active participant in) a number of dog fights and dog-aggressive events. In each of the two incidents that her owners called me to discuss, I pieced together a clear case of “trigger stacking” – wherein the dog is put into a situation that contains several stressors, and after more than the dog can handle, acts out aggressively to put some space between himself and the stressors.
In the first case, her owner took her on an evening walk that suddenly turned rainy. The owner took refuge at a friend’s house. The friend didn’t want a strange dog in her house, as she had a small Poodle who was fearful of other dogs, so the owner left her in the friend’s yard while she visited with the friend indoors. Ruby started panicking and trying to get into the house, and fell into a fishpond, and couldn’t get out! Her owner and the friend had to help her get out, and then, feeling bad for her, they let her into the house and started drying her with a towel and hair dryer. I lost count of the many potential stressors by this time in the story. When Ruby caught sight of the Poodle, she launched herself out of her owner’s lap and “without warning” attacked the Poodle, leaving several punctures that required emergency treatment.
I walked the owner back through the story and explained the many ways she had given Ruby more to handle than she was capable of dealing with. I suggested that, since she had left deep punctures when she bit the other dog, her owner needed to consider that she would be likely to do damage if she was ever in a stressful situation with another dog. I recommended she avoid other dogs unless she muzzled Ruby, and not take her to other people’s homes where there were other dogs (and not allow other dogs in her own home). I also recommended that the owners consult with a local trainer, and reminded them that they could always return Ruby to the shelter if they were in over their heads with her aggression.
The next call I got was regarding another fight. This time, the owner was walking Ruby during pre-dawn hours at a beach where dogs were allowed off-leash. Ruby was on a leash, but was approached by an off-leash dog. The owner shouted for the other dog’s owner to get her dog, but the other owner couldn’t call the dog off in time, and Ruby dove in and started a fight. Once again, she bit the other (bigger) dog badly and the dog needed emergency treatment.
At this point, the owners did consult with a trainer. They also decided they wouldn’t take her to any other places where they were likely to encounter off-leash dogs. They loved Ruby at home, and said she was very affectionate and funny and well-behaved there. They were just a little sad to be unable to take her out without worrying about a dog fight.
But last year, the owners divorced. The wife kept Ruby, and moved into an apartment without a yard. A runner herself, she started jogging with Ruby before it was light out, to make sure Ruby got enough exercise. But after yet another fight (initiated by Ruby when she was approached by another off-leash dog), the now-single woman owner decided she couldn’t handle or manage Ruby anymore, and she returned the dog to my local shelter.
I believe that dogs who are a danger to humans and other dogs and animals don’t belong in mainstream society. I also don't believe that a dog-aggressive dog should be warehoused in some sort of “sanctuary” for the rest of his or her days; I think social isolation for these aberrant individuals is cruel, not to mention costly. Given that so many behaviorally normal (and certainly harmless) dogs are being euthanized in shelters, I accepted the hard fact that after three years and a number of traumatic events wherein Ruby seriously hurt other dogs, she may well end up euthanized by my shelter as unadoptable. But I also wanted to see Ruby for myself. I could see so many reasons for the stress that would cause her to act out, and wondered if she could be placed in a less-stressful home safely.
I met Ruby and her owner in the parking lot of my local shelter. She was just as cute and engaging as the last time I saw her. I was waiting for the moment when she saw another dog to see if, after three years of inadequate management and “practice” with aggression, she would immediately show signs of tension, anxiety, or aggression. We took Ruby into the shelter, where her teary-eyed owner signed the surrender paperwork. Within a minute, someone else brought a dog through the shelter lobby on a leash, and I, holding Ruby’s leash, watched Ruby carefully. Her eyes flicked to the other dog and then away. Her demeanor didn’t change. She was wagging her tail and her body was loose.
I had spoken with the shelter director earlier in the day, and had asked if I could again foster Ruby, even just for a couple of days, to observe and evaluate her behavior again, just to satisfy my own curiosity. I had a theory that Ruby might be just fine if she was placed in a home with someone who was familiar with signs of stress and anxiety in dogs – someone who could interrupt and redirect her, and certainly manage her proximity to other dogs (with gates and crates, etc.) if these signs were observed. And I thought that her dog-aggression may have been exacerbated by all the classic triggers that a dog-aggressive dog living in an urban area with people who are not particularly dog-savvy are often exposed to: daily walks in close proximity to other dogs, a tight leash, a tense owner, hours of inactivity and social isolation for long working days, and no opportunities, ever, to run outdoors off-leash.
If Ruby had responded to the sight of that other dog with immediate signs of aggression – pulling toward the dog, having an outburst of growling and barking, etc. – I would have left her at the shelter, and let the shelter conduct their own assessment, come what may. But now I was curious: Were all of Ruby’s past aggressive encounters with other dogs avoidable, through good management, acute observation, and a reduced stress level?
I had Ruby signed back over to me as a foster dog again, just for a few days, so I could investigate further. I hated to think that I had made a terrible mistake when I had evaluated her three years before; was she actually a dangerous dog who I had helped place into a good home, setting everyone up for disaster? The converse was also awful to consider: Was she basically a good dog, put into a bad situation with clueless owners, who routinely exposed her to far more stress than she could handle?
I first took Ruby to the house where I have my office, two blocks from where I live. I had left all my dogs at my home. I wanted the Corgi to have a chance to re-familiarize herself with the house and the backyard, and all of its dog-smells. I wanted to see how she would respond to the dog who lives on the other side of the backyard fence, and to the sight and sound of dogs walking by the front of the house. In both cases, I could see her notice the other dogs, and get a tiny bit more alert or tense, but she immediately responded to any sort of verbal interruption – calling her name or a warning: “Ah ah, Ruby…”. She would instantly look at me, wag her tail, and return to a nice, loose posture.
Over the next few days, I watched Ruby like a hawk while I introduced her to my dogs (one by one, starting with large, experienced, dog-savvy Otto; then a large, wiggly, doofus adolescent Woody; and then small, “don’t tread on me” Tito). I was most cautious about her with Woody and Tito, for different reasons.
I was worried that Woody, who tries hard to get every dog he meets to play with him, would push past Ruby’s boundaries and trigger her aggression – and I didn’t want to set him up for a bad scene. I am doing everything in my power to make sure I am helping to mold him into a perfectly socialized, non-anxious, non-aggressive pit-mix. But Woody didn’t seem very interested in Ruby, and when she gave him a hard look, he left her alone.
I was more worried that Tito, a 10-pound Chihuahua-mix, would give a hard look of his own to Ruby. Tito had a chronic back problem that hurt him at times, and though he usually just got out of the way when other dogs were around, he often growled and snapped at other dogs if he thought he might get stepped on or knocked over, in an effort to make some safe space for himself.
I used gates and crates and lots of treats to keep everyone separated and yet loose and “normal,” without tension or tight leashes. Ruby did fine.
I took all of them (first Ruby and the two big dogs, and then the next day, Ruby and all three of my dogs) to a local open-space area where we took long, off-leash hikes alongside a lake, where they could also swim to their hearts’ content. Ruby was so happy; she ran and swam and stuck right by me, just as she had three years ago when I fostered her the first time. I saw her do the momentary freeze/hard look thing a couple of times, when one of my other dogs crossed her path, and each time she immediately responded to me calling her name by looking at me and wagging her tail. I rewarded her with a treat each time she redirected her attention from them to me.
After a week of this, I was confident that Ruby was an adoption candidate – with some restrictions. I didn’t think she should be placed in a house with small dogs. Though she had been involved in fights with dogs of all sizes, she had bitten and badly punctured small dogs in each of those those incidents. And while I thought she would be best placed in a home with NO other dogs, she would probably be fine in a home with a larger dog and a person who was very experienced with dogs and observant of their behavior. I thought as long as someone was paying attention and managing her behavior, and reinforcing her for turning away/softening every time she so much as thought about getting stiff or confrontational, she’d likely be ok. At least, that was what I reported back to the shelter. They would want to do their own assessment, of course. But I felt I would be able to promote her to friends and try to find her a more appropriate home than her first one. A ranch would be perfect – with room to run, little if any time on a leash, and only big, well-socialized, familiar dogs to hang out with. In my part of the state, a home like this shouldn’t be hard to find for a cute, smart, tough little dog. I resolved that on Monday, I’d take Ruby back to the shelter so they could assess and hopefully place her.
On Saturday evening, I loaded up Ruby and my three dogs, and picked up a friend and her little dog, and we went to the lake. There is a spot I know where there are rarely other people, and if there are other people we could get far away from them with our pack of dogs.
When we got out of the car, I had Ruby on leash at first, so I could see how she responded to Samson, my friend’s tiny (4-pound) dog. She did glance at him – but she was more interested in the water. Nevertheless, we were super careful to keep Samson and her far apart; he’s just so small. It was Samson’s first exposure to a body of water, and my friend was having fun encouraging him to wade and then swim.
My big dogs took turns fetching a toy I threw for them in the lake. Ruby was having a blast by herself, alternately running up and down the shore of the lake and swimming, biting at the waves caused by the wake of ski-boats hundreds of yards away. Tito was wading at the edge of the water and playing with a tennis ball by himself, dropping it into the water and “catching” it again and again.
We had been at the lake for about 30 minutes when it happened. My friend and her dog were on shore about 50 feet away. I was standing waist deep in the water, with Tito onshore about 10 feet from me, and Ruby swimming near me. Tito was momentarily without his ball; I think he was watching the big dogs, who were swimming out in deeper water. Ruby swam by me, and waded out of the water, and, as she passed by Tito, she suddenly just pounced on him. There was no warning from either dog. Tito, who can growl and bristle at other dogs, didn’t. He was distracted, and not paying attention to Ruby. She just grabbed him across the back of the neck and shoulders, and started shaking him like she was killing a rat.
My friend quickly picked up her little dog. I took three steps and grabbed Ruby by the collar and scruff of her neck, actually lifting her off the ground – but she wouldn’t let go of Tito. He was yelping – screaming, really – and she wouldn’t let go. She wasn’t growling or vocalizing, she seemed quite calm, she just wouldn’t open her mouth. Still holding her off the ground with one hand, I started pounding her on the head with my other fist, but I was looking around to see if there was a stick or something I could use to pry her jaws apart. And then she just opened her mouth and let Tito go. He took off running, screaming, for the car, which was parked about 100 yards away.
For a long moment, I considered drowning Ruby on the spot. I was shaking, of course. Mad. Upset. My friend ran after Tito, crying. I don’t know where Otto and Woody were when the whole thing happened, but they had come out of the water and were standing about 20 feet away, frozen, fearful.
I carried Ruby, still by the scruff, to where my leashes lay. I clipped a leash to her collar and walked her to the car. She was calm, wagging her tail and behaving a little deferential to me (given that I had just been pounding on her). She didn’t seem aroused at all.
Tito saw us coming and retreated under the car. I put Ruby in the “way back” of my car, and tied her there, so she wouldn’t be able to jump over the seats into the main part of the car. I lay on the ground and called to Tito, who was whimpering in pain and fear. I couldn’t see any blood on him, which I could barely believe. He crawled toward me, but screamed when I tried to touch him. When I opened the car door, he jumped into the car, on the front passenger floor. We put a towel over him; he was all wet from the lake, and though it was super hot out, he was shivering.
We got everyone else back in the car. I tried to be calm while driving home, though of course my friend and I were discussing and recounting what had happened as we drove. Neither one of us could believe how fast Ruby’s attack was, and how calm. It was exactly as if Ruby had seen a rat and tried to kill it – a purely instinctive thing.
On the way to the emergency vet hospital, I dropped off my friend and her little dog, and dropped the other dogs at my office (with Ruby locked into a room by herself). At the hospital, they admitted Tito immediately, giving him something for the pain right away. They used an ultrasound to see if he had any internal bleeding; they didn’t see any. They took x-rays, and nothing was broken. But he did have some punctures, hard to see under his wet coat (he never shook off, he was in so much pain), so they were going to put him under anesthesia, and clip and clean the wounds, and insert drains. They said they were busy, so it would be at least an hour or two before he was ready to go home.
I texted a dog-trainer friend from the vet’s office, and she said to come over. We sat for an hour in the dark on her front lawn, discussing what happened. She told me some of her war stories about dog-aggressive dogs. She told me not to blame myself – but of course I do.
The vet called and said she wanted to keep Tito overnight because he was in so much pain. For the same reason, the next morning, they gave him both a shot of another pain medication and applied a Fentanyl patch that would time-release strong pain-relieving medication to him for the next five days. I picked him up at about noon the next day, Sunday, with antibiotics and an oral pain medication to start him on Monday.
I sent a message to the shelter director, explaining what happened. I sent the same message to Ruby’s former owner. I recommended that she be euthanized, and both her owner and the shelter director concurred. Her owner messaged me back: “I am sad, but I agree that she should not be allowed to do this ever again.”
The shelter director said I could bring Ruby to the shelter that day (which was a Sunday, and the shelter was closed), but I didn’t want her to be punished by a day or days spent in the shelter; she had been there for weeks before I fostered her the first time and I knew it would be highly stressful for her. I said I would keep her separated from other dogs until the shelter was open.
I was working through Sunday, so I had Tito in my office, on a comfortable bed on the floor by my chair, and Ruby gated in another part of the house with access to the backyard. My big dogs were at home. Tito was quite sedated with all the pain meds. He sat up once in the early evening and drank a lot of water that I offered to him. But I was concerned about how quiet he was. At about 10 that night, I called the emergency vet again and asked how long they thought he would be so quiet – how long the pain meds would have him so sedated. They asked about his breathing, and I told them it seemed normal, neither fast nor slow, regular. His gums (capillary refill time) seemed fine. He would wake and focus his eyes on me if I called his name and told him he was a good dog, but he didn’t wag or try to get up. I was told that he would likely be quite sedated until the morning, but of course I should bring him in if he worsened in any way. I kept looking at him as I worked.
At some time after midnight, I heard a noise. Tito was still lying on his side, but his legs were paddling like he was running in a dream. I called his name, but he wasn’t sleeping. His eyes were open, unseeing. He was having a seizure. I scooped him up, bed and all, and put him on the front seat of my car. I started driving to the emergency vet, crying, saying, “Oh Tito, please, I’m sorry, hang in there, Tito.” As I was driving onto the on-ramp to the freeway, perhaps four minutes after I first saw him seizing, his body gave one final convulsive jerk, with his head up and backward, and then all movement stopped.
I think his death was caused by internal bleeding and/or a blood clot. I didn’t continue the drive to the vet, so I don’t know for sure, but it’s the most likely explanation.
And it was all my fault. For bringing Ruby home. For exposing Tito – and my friend’s tiny dog, oh my word – to Ruby. For failing to anticipate that happy excitement might also trigger her dog-aggressive behavior. For not taking Tito to the vet earlier that night, when I was first growing concerned about how quiet he was.
I drove home, sobbing. I transferred Tito’s body to the back of my car, petting him and apologizing uselessly. Early in the morning, I buried him in the backyard, with some of his tennis balls and a handful of treats.
Later that day I took Ruby to the shelter. I had messaged them about Tito, and told them I didn’t want Ruby to suffer, but I thought she should be euthanized. I showed them the text that her former owner concurred. They agreed. They allowed me to be present, as an owner should be, in my opinion, during euthanasia. I stroked her head and said what you can’t help but say while a dog is being euthanized: that it’s okay, and she’s a good dog, and I’m sorry.
And I am. I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am.
I admire, respect, and appreciate the work of owners and trainers who work to manage and rehabilitate dogs who have bitten people or other dogs, but I don’t think I’ll ever be trying again. And for this, too, I’m sorry.
Lessons from Fostering an Aggressive Dog
Many of you will be shocked by this decision. Some of you will disagree. Some of you might say that she could have been rehomed somewhere without dogs, or sent to a sanctuary somewhere. All I can say is, there are many dogs who have never attacked other dogs and could use a chance to show what good dogs they are, and I thought this dog had all the chances she deserved.
I’m sure that some of you will judge me. Don’t worry, I have spent the better part of this past year judging me. But if recounting my mistakes will prevent anyone else from making the same ones, Tito’s death won’t be in vain.
1. Ruby was a smallish dog, so I didn’t think she could be so deadly – that was stupid. Any dog who bites, and especially those with a demonstrated tendency to puncture when they bite, can kill or fatally injure another dog. Given her past attacks, wherein she bit other dogs (with punctures), I should have had, at the very minimum, a muzzle on her around other dogs – and realistically, she shouldn’t have been around other dogs at all. And I never should have allowed my friend to have her small dog present. If there is anything I am grateful for, it’s that Ruby didn’t attack Samson. I’m also grateful that I hadn’t yet helped Ruby find another home somewhere else, where she may have had the opportunity to attack another dog.
2. I thought that because I was so close to Ruby, and watching her carefully, I would be able to prevent any aggressive act she might contemplate. In retrospect, that, too, was dumb. I was RIGHT THERE. But she was just so fast. My friend and I have discussed that moment dozens of times since it happened, and we both agree: she showed absolutely no premeditation.
3. Because I had thought that almost all of Ruby’s past attacks had happened when she was leashed, I thought that leash frustration and stress about being leashed was a huge contributor to her aggression. I thought that as long as she was off-leash and happy and (it seemed to me then) unstressed, she wouldn’t do anything aggressive – but that was badly misinformed.
4. I had always thought Ruby’s aggression was tied to stress, and that she had acted out aggressively when she had been put into stressful situations that were past her ability to handle. But, I’ve since learned that I was terribly wrong about two major concepts having to do with canine stress:
- I thought of “stress” as only unpleasant things. It was clear that she was stressed when around other dogs when she was on leash. It seriously never occurred to me that a dog could become physiologically aroused by happily running, swimming, and playing fetch – and that this biochemical state of that arousal might be nearly identical to a dog in a “fight or flight” situation. One might call it “good stress”, but its effect on a dog’s behavior may be no different than the unpleasant kind of stress.
- I also thought of “stress” as having an influence on a dog that same day. I did not know that it can take days for a flood of stress chemicals to completely leave a dog’s body. And it never occurred to me that the months and weeks and days prior to the incident would have a bearing on the events of that day. Her owners’ divorce, move into an apartment, perhaps even the daily jogs on leash (in proximity to other dogs), being sent to my house . . . all of those things could have been working to keep Ruby in a state of physiological stress.
I discussed this whole incident with Whole Dog Journal Training Editor Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA. Pat was incredibly kind and empathetic, but she also helped me see where I had made mistakes. I asked her if she would write about dog-aggressive dogs for WDJ, and we talked about various angles for an article. The article she eventually wrote appears in the July issue of WDJ (now online and in print). In the article, and another past article referenced in the current issue, Pat explains how dog-aggressive dogs need to be managed, and how that can be accomplished, if their owners are willing to try.
I’m sorry that I personally wouldn’t be willing to try to manage a dog-aggressive foster dog again. The potential cost and trauma is too great. If one of my own dogs ended up being aggressive, I’d of course do anything in my power to keep him or her safe – and all other beings safe from him or her. I now know that I would have to do much more than I actually did. I’m sorry for that, too.