Victim of His Own Myth: Leo

In my time with the Pets Alive organization, now with Pets Alive Westchester, it has been my privilege to work with some seriously behaviorally challenged dogs as a volunteer. I know of no other organization that allows prepared, qualified volunteers to work with dogs who by virtue of their past behavior may need to spend the remainder of their lives in a sanctuary setting.

I’ve worked at Pets Alive Westchester with some tough dogs. Some I couldn’t touch for a very long time. Some I needed protective gear to work with. But not Leo. And I want to be clear that I was never forbidden to work with Leo, I was just warned about him.

From the beginning of my time there I was warned by staff that Leo was unbelievably violent to the point of being nearly uncontrollable. It was widely accepted by the kennel staff that only one staff member could handle him, and he was always sedated for any necessary medical treatment. The one staff member whom he was said to like took him out sometimes, but Leo didn’t get as much human interaction as he should have.

Since Pets Alive took over the shelter that is now Pets Alive Westchester, they have spent a lot of time mythbusting. Many dogs that the previous operators had locked away and labeled dog aggressive or violent were not so, and we’ve spent a lot of time re-evaluating dogs and proving that they’d been misunderstood and mislabeled. But not Leo, such was the force of unanimous opinion from staffers who had been there for years. I am ashamed to say that I, at one point, made a replacement kennel door for him – he had a habit of shredding the existing heavy-duty plastic guillotine doors that separate the kennel insides and outsides, and I constructed a special door reinforced with steel. When I asked if I could go in to install the door I was told that I wouldn’t make it two steps into his kennel.

And then, one day, his person was gone.

No dog should be isolated. No dog should be without human contact. And so, with his person gone, it was time to re-evaluate the toughest dog in the shelter.

I started visiting Leo and giving him treats through his kennel door so he’d get used to my presence. I didn’t see a whole lot to worry about – he’s so smart that he quickly learned to spot me and sit quietly by his door for a treat. After a few days I slowly, carefully eased by way into his kennel with backup standing by in case I ran into trouble and Leo began… to hump my leg.

I quickly leashed him and led him out of his kennel in the hopes that he would stop humping me, instead he grabbed the leash with his teeth and tugged it until we passed the last kennel, at which point he stopped, and we had a mostly lovely walk. I say mostly because if I stopped for too long, he would begin to hump me madly. In the Age of Millan many would immediately leap to the conclusion that he was trying to “dominate” me, but that didn’t seem to be the case at all. Leo seemed to be stressed, desperate for social contact, and perhaps even compulsive. This reaction is not entirely uncommon in highly stressed dogs.

After a few walks I determined that Leo wasn’t out to hurt me and I started introducing him around and having him meet other people, and several other people who began to walk him as well. It struck me that some of the undesirable behavior I’d seen at the shelter – the compulsive chewing, the humping, grabbing his leash, charging the door – could be the sign of a dog who was not violent, but extremely stressed out, anxious and fearful in a kennel environment. I’ve certainly seen that before. A plan began to form.

PAW trainer Misa Martin and I took Leo for a dog test which he passed with flying colors. Like many dogs, the previous shelter operators had labeled him as extremely dog aggressive, which he was not – although his social skills were definitely a little rusty! I did a brief car test with him to make sure he wasn’t afraid and not only was he not afraid, he was perfect in the car, lying down and staying in his designated seat the entire time. And then I took him home for an overnight.

You can see he’s a little nervous in this video, but he settled down quickly. He was wonderful with the other dogs, quickly chose his favorite bed, and really enjoyed snuggling on the couch.

Best of all? No humping. No leash grabbing. No inappropriate chewing. And the thought occurred to me as I brought him back to the shelter the next day that he was actually better behaved than any of my own dogs.

So I began to take Leo home more, and I discovered more about him. He’s house and crate trained and learned “crate!” as a command very quickly. He likes people of all kinds. He likes it when he gets to sleep in the bed and get his chest scratched. He’s just fine with having his feet touched and handled. He’s not food aggressive to people or to other dogs. He’s mature, settled, calm, and quietly affectionate. As dogs go he’s actually pretty darn spectacular. He’s left alone with the other dogs when I am out and has never done anything destructive in the apartment.

Although he now had many more friends and was getting daily walks and attention at the shelter, I couldn’t bear to bring him back to the place where he had experienced such stress. So now Leo is with me. On the day I brought him home he was microchipped by a tech who had never done anything medical with him without sedation. I held him while she inserted the chip. He didn’t even need a muzzle.

I love Leo, but I shouldn’t keep him. At this point I try to adopt animals with special medical or behavioral needs, which is not Leo at all. He’s wonderful and would make an incredible dog for just about anyone of any experience or skill level. So until Leo’s forever family comes along, I will foster him and I will always be here to take care of him should he ever need it. If you’re looking for an incredible dog, you should come and meet Leo. He is so fantastic and so very deserving of a home and a family – a sparkling, hidden diamond tucked away in the back of a kennel, where Leo had been since 2008.

There is a larger point here as well, and this is something that comes up wherever you have animals in long-term housing. It’s something I’ve seen before: an animal is judged, labeled, and the decision is made about What They Are, never to be changed – and that decision usually involves isolating them. The truth is that sometimes people get it wrong, that some incidents are a one-time thing, and that any sort of behavioral test or evaluation is simply a snapshot of the animal’s behavior at that point in time. Dogs can and do change, evolve, learn. One always has to be re-evaluating, looking at dogs with fresh eyes, trying new things, having new people come in to offer opinions. It only takes one breakthrough to get to a dog whom you thought was lost forever.

One of my favorite dogs of all time is Pets Alive’s Cam. Cam is an incredible dog who was under tremendous stress when Pets Alive took over his care, and it took quite a lot of experimentation to find an ideal situation for him and the right people to help him – he, too, is afraid of kennels. But they never gave up on him, never labeled him and tucked him away, never stopped trying to find the situation that would work best for him, and today he is a very, very happy dog with many human friends.

I thought I knew all that. Sometimes I need to be reminded. Thanks, Leo. I’m gonna try to make it up to you.

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  • jamie

    this is am amazing story and so true. the label one person gives a dog sticks with them and of that one person is wrong then a wonderful dog could be treated like a monster and never be given the chance to prove how great they are. thank you for sharing this with us

  • db

    Okay, you had me crying by the end of this. Bless you for giving Leo a chance. He is a beautiful pup with a beautiful spirit. I hope he finds that special home, but if not, he will never have to go back to a kennel/shelter/sanctuary ever again.

    I wonder how many wonderful dogs (and cats) lose their lives because we humans are so . . . stupid and stubborn. Everyone who works at or volunteers for a shelter/rescue/animal control needs to hear Leo’s story.

    • davyd

      Db. About 4 million cats and dogs lose thier life every year in shelters. But we can change that.

  • Way to go John and long live LEO!

  • pittiefullove

    I’ve never visited your blog before, but I absolutely am thrilled I stumbled upon it– and this post. I’m originally from Westchester….I hope someone I know personally steps up to love this boy forever, but until then I’d say he’s incredibly lucky you came along.

  • Mayra

    When I read that this poor dog had been in this situation since 2008, I nearly cried! This happens way too often, thank you for finally helping him. I am so happy that Leo is now experiencing what he deserves, love….

  • kelsie

    this has brought me to tears. i love it so much. thank you for giving this dog a chance when no one else would.

  • Jodi

    What a beautiful story. God Bless you for what you’ve done for Leo.

  • Such an excellent article! I’m definitely going to share this on my next blog on StubbyDog. Labels, of any type, only serve as a dis-service to animal and community. This is such a wonderful and resonate example of this fact! Thank you!

  • allkntry72

    ..I needed this story, because over the weekend I did some ‘reading’ on the breed and expectations and just general personalities..though I am not a pit owner myself..I almost was this past week..a handsome fella in CA that just tugged at my heart strings from Harbor Animal Shelter ..anyway – he was rescued by a wonderful rescue RoJo Paws Rescue Cora-Corrine..but it got me to thinking..my Great Pyrenees pups are sorta laid back, rather ‘gentle giants’ that love their walks, love to run in their fence area..but prefer to just lounge watching tv with my son…and I thought, if I were ever in the situation of needing to save ‘that special one’ I need to know more. Long and short of it..after two articles on line, I shut my computer down and just cried…in my experience with pit bull dogs, I’ve never seen what was described nor felt fear around them…but the public has scared the ‘dickens’ out of media and that’s all they know how to report..so this video and this story are a life saver for me. Thank you for sharing Leo. He sure is handsome and you are an animal angel..bringing him out like that.. It’s just a miracle in its self he’s still alive..in isolation in a shelter..wowowoww…but God is not done with Leo yet….He has plans for this pup..can’t wait to hear more about what Leo does.

    • This dovetails nicely with a conversation I found online about this post where I was said to be setting Leo up for failure by leaving him alone with other dogs… because everyone knows you can’t do that with a pit bull!

      I wrote this without referring to Leo’s breed, although he’s obviously some kind of pit bull type, because in the context of his behavior it’s irrelevant. When I evaluate a dog, I have to leave behind pre-conceived notions about behavior based on breed/type, because for any given breed I can find you lots of examples that do not meet the standard of the breed. Instead I try to evaluate a dog based on the actual behavior of the actual animal in front of me. Every dog is an individual, every dog deserves to be evaluated and treated as such. (Given that I work with a lot of dogs with bite histories, my evaluations tend to start on an ultra-basic level: Enter kennel. Are there teeth on me? If not, proceed.)

      So given that breed generalities are just that – generalities – it’s even sillier to apply them to “pit bulls”, which are a type made up of lots of breeds. How could I generalize a statement about, say, behavior towards other dogs in a type that includes both game-bred APBTs and American Bullys, where the standard is a dog that is friendly to strange dogs? Both are considered pit bulls.

      The beauty of pit bulls is that if you look long enough you can find one who is everything you ever wanted in a dog.

  • One of my bigger challenges when I was dog training in NYC was addressing the “Humping = Dominance” myth. My estimate is that in more than 90% of dogs that hump, it is due to social frustration and stress than any real dominance. The saddest thing is seeing a dog that is humping from frustration and stress be subjected to MORE stress by those who then approach the dog from a conflict/dominance model. it used to make me nuts.

    So glad you spotted what he really needed and found you way to his true personality. I’m sure he’s very glad to be living this new life. I hope you are able to place him without him having to return to the kennel setting that was causing him such anxiety.

  • Thank you for sharing Leo’s story and for giving him a second chance.