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.