Dog aggression is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart. My husband and I had just bought our very first home, we were in our mid 20’s, and very inexperienced in raising dogs! A week or two after moving in, someone from our church approached us with a tiny puppy that they had found dumped in their garbage can. He couldn’t have been much older than five or six weeks, and as Michael and I had wanted to get a dog anyway….we said a resounding YES, and “Oliver” became part of our family!
At the time, we really didn’t know all that much about various breeds of dogs, and all we knew was that we had a tiny black and tan puppy who needed a loving home. Oliver was a pretty standard puppy, but looking back now, I can see what a dominant dog he was, and how completely unprepared I was to handle a dog like him. He was likely a Doberman Pincher mix of some sort, and really needed strong leadership…but not knowing any better, I didn’t nip some problem behaviors right from the start, and I should have done so. He had never gotten his original dog pack socialization, and from day one he had a very strong problem with really rowdy play biting that we just couldn’t get stopped.
By the time he was an adolescent puppy, he was a real handful….jumping and play biting and nipping hard enough that he left pretty good bruises at times. He weighed about 40-45 pounds, and he was athletic and quick, so his size and energy made him difficult to control. I asked my vet for help, and he referred me to our local obedience club for training. So, I contacted our local obedience club to see if they could help me. This would have been in 1981 or so….and there really weren’t many dog training options in those days.
Obedience Classes Begin….
When the next round of group classes started, I nervously showed up at a city park with Oliver on a six foot leash, and joined a class of other dogs and owners hoping to find solutions for our dogs. Oliver was no better or worse than the other dogs, so I started to relax a bit. I felt a bit intimidated by having one of the few mutt puppies in the group, as most of the other dogs were purebred.
I remember that when one of the instructors came over to introduce himself and meet me and Oliver, as he reached out his hand to pet Oliver, naturally, Oliver opened his mouth and grabbed the instructor’s hand. The instructor pulled his hand away, and backhanded Oliver’s muzzle with a clipboard he was holding in his other hand. More than thirty years later, I STILL remember the horrified feeling I had when that happened. When I protested his treatment of my dog, and the instructor explained that he was showing Oliver that he was in charge. Oliver always kept a low profile around that instructor after that, and frankly so did I! Positive reinforcement training hadn’t been discovered yet, so poor Oliver and I were trained with harsh traditional methods of intimidation and force.
Oliver learned how to Sit/Stay, Down/Stay, Heel and Come in his class. He did well, and I was proud of his ability to perform the commands that I taught him. However, his overall behavior really didn’t change much for me at home. He was still really rough, and I didn’t see an end to his bullying play and lifestyle. I took an additional obedience class that the kennel club offered, and had different instructors, but they were just as hard core in their methods as the first one had been…only neither of them felt the need to backhand my dog!
The Blame Game…
As things continued to go badly at home, I was told that I babied my dog, and wasn’t tough enough with him. I was supposed to show him that I was the boss, and put him in his place…something I didn’t know how to do….and frankly was unwilling to do, if it meant hitting my dog or being unkind or cruel to him! I did want the behavior to stop, but no one helped me with anything that I could do. I was always blamed because I just wouldn’t be physically tough enough with my dog.
It’s probably important to note at this point, that these trainers were very good trainers of their day. They were showing their dogs in AKC Obedience Trials….accumulating points and working toward an OTCH (Obedience Trial Champion) designation with their dogs. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the training methods were essentially to teach your dog that they could avoid pain if they produced the correct behavior. Dogs were never seen as being thinking, feeling creatures….just dumb animals that needed to be manhandled to get results from them. So….I did the best that I could with the training, but it hurt my heart that there just wasn’t another way to get things done and get results. I just couldn’t bring myself to be mean to my dog in order to get his behavior stopped.
Other Options That I Tried As the Aggression Got Worse…..
I finished the obedience training and had a dog who could do a lot of commands, but whose behavior was awful at home, making him difficult and even scary at times. Oliver was 18 months old by this time, and I just didn’t see a good end to things. So, I contacted my vet…again…who suggested training again. When I told him I had done that, he suggested trying female hormones to help mellow Oliver. That regimen didn’t do much of anything to dissuade his rough, increasingly aggressive behavior. I knew I was was running out of options for Oliver, and I was starting to feel a bit afraid of him.
At some point in time, Oliver started really growling over being crated, or if we got too near his crate when he wasn’t in the mood for it. When we had friends over to our house, Oliver started to exhibit threatening behavior and I became worried that he might actually bite someone someday. Again, I talked to our vet, desperate for a way to make Oliver’s behavior stop! It was progressively getting worse, and I really felt as if my dog was a ticking time bomb. Sadly, apart from training, neutering, and female hormone treatments, there was nothing left for me to do to help Oliver.
Because I was becoming increasingly afraid of my own dog, and after exhausting every method of the day to moderate his behavior, we made the awful, gut-wrenching decision to put our dog to sleep. He was so close to actually biting someone, and we just weren’t willing to let that happen….especially because that might well have been a child’s face.
I’ve lived with that decision for thirty years. It was devastating. It’s never easy to put your dog to sleep, but when that dog is a young, healthy, two year old dog, and the reason for euthanasia is aggression…it’s a heartbreak like I’ve never experienced. Looking back, it was the right decision to make, given all of the circumstances, and my lack of skill in living with a dog like Oliver.
Today….knowing what I know….I could probably save a dog like Oliver. I could likely rehabilitate him, and teach him appropriate behavior….all by using appropriate leadership….and kind, consistent rules for living in my house, and with positive reinforcement training methods. To this day, I’m so very sad that I couldn’t save him. Whenever my mind goes back to him in my memories, I have always regretted not having the tools I needed to be able to help him. Handing him over to my vet was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and I never, ever want to see another dog end up with that sort of fate, because so much can actually be done to rehabilitate an aggressive dog today.
In Memory of Oliver….
So this week, as I address dog bite prevention in my posts, I’ll be writing them remembering a tiny puppy who found his way into my home and into my life…and definitely into my heart. Oliver, I’m so sorry I failed you. I wish I could have known the things I know today about how you were speaking to me with your body language. I wish I had known the importance of early diet, puppy brain development and pack socialization. So many strikes were against you, and I always just wanted to give you a great life. I loved you so, and I’ll never forget you. And even though I wasn’t successful in saving you, I’ve learned so much to help other dogs just like you, and I’m saving others….one dog at a time.
***Postscript: Sadly, all of my photographs have been misplaced in our last move, and I don’t have any pictures of Oliver to post with this blog. All of the images of black and tan dogs are from stock photos. None of them are images of Oliver, but give you some idea of what he looked like.