Sunday, September 05, 2010

Warning Signs and Letting Go

The one sure thing I had grasped was not to expect to see immediate results from my teaching. The most valuable lessons are absorbed and utilized five or ten years down the road when students find themselves in circumstances where the insights make sense. Very little of this can be evaluated in the short term, and least of all by testing.
Andrew Ross, "The Celebration Chronicles"

I came across this quote this morning in Ross' "Celebration Chronicles" (review coming as soon as I finish the pretty good book) and it really hit home. We learn, we absorb, but it's not until we really hit a relevant circumstance that we truly understand. In my case, I spout the stuff I've learned, but I may not *really* get it. And for me, I didn't know this until I knew it. Yesterday, I learned a big lesson about something I've heard about for a long time but never seen in action.

There was a dog in our shelter who was the epitome of an overstimulated, crazed dog. I didn't know a thing about him, except what I could infer from his kennel card, his kennel presence, his "jewelry", and his appearance. His kennel card said he came in as an aggressive stray, and noted that he had a low intake score (hard for the officer who took him in to handle,) and noted that he had been tazed, meaning that the police originally brought him in. He was wearing a prong collar and harness, which meant that the animal control officer was unable to remove the prong collar- we try to remove any large hardware before kenneling, for the dog's safety. And the dog, a very large intact male pit bull (probably a mastiff mix by breeding and type, but definitely a pit bull type) was at the front of his cage when anyone opened the door to his row of kennels, barking, hitting the cage, hard staring at the person, sometimes snarling and showing all teeth. His hackles weren't up, his eyes were blown, he was full bore at the person in front of him. If I had to describe him, I would say "his arousal was through the roof."

This is something I've said a lot: that dog is aroused, the dog is over-aroused, he has arousal issues, etc. I've seen it in dogs- the blown eyes, unfocused look. I'm not having a lot of luck finding good links for people who haven't seen it, or to describe what I'm talking about. The best I can do is this short video:

The video isn't really what I want, as it's predatory arousal, but it shows it a little. The dog is entirely focused on the squirrel on the roof. She doesn't care about anything else, but it's not a "good" focus. The owner (in the blog post where the video comes from, it sounds like the video-er is the owner) attempts to make contact with the dog, and the dog flicks tongue a couple times and moves away- the dog is gone. All that matters is that squirrel. The predatory arousal is All That Matters- it's a chemical thing. I saw this when Mac attacked a dog. I thought I had written about it, but I can't find the post right now. When Mac attacked another dog, it was purely chemical- Mac was just Not There. Normally, even when he sees a C.A.T., he knows where I am. I can call him, and I can watch the wheels turning- do I want to go away from this really really awesome, tasty treat, for my person, or do I want to Hulk Out? When he went for the dog, he was not Mac. He was dog over the top, dog single mindedly on a task. Not a job, a chemical necessity.

The dog in the kennel yesterday was the same way. There was no dog there. Then his owners came. The details are not something I can share, but basically, they had asked to have the dog picked up after he had bitten a relative. They wanted to see what their next steps were. They wanted their dog back. My eyes widened, and I warned him that he was quite aggressive. On the way back, they described a sweet, typical, nanny-dog pit bull. They were pretty well-versed on the breed. And they were shocked when they saw their dog. His aggressive bark changed a bit when he saw them- it changed with some recognition, but it didn't stop. He didn't relax, he didn't put four feet on the floor. He just Kept Going. His eyes did not undilate. He mostly looked at me. Fast forward a few twists and turns and I opened the cage (fatal mistake) to let them remove the prong collar. When the owners went to shut the cage, the dog busted out. They went to put him back into the cage, and he attacked his owner. He bit and held onto his leg. When I got him off, with surprisingly little effort, he bit and held my boot. His owner choked him off using his harness, which I hadn't let him take off, and physically threw him back in the kennel. All recognition was gone. I was fine (yeah for combat boots!) but the dog's owner has some wounds on his leg.

This was the event that convinced them that they did not want the dog back in their home, with their small children.

I spoke to the owners for a long time. This had "never happened." The dog, previously had been a calm, mellow dog who loved the two small kids in the house. The only behavior they could pin point as remotely worrisome was some shyness with strangers. I believe that this arousal came recently. I don't know what caused it to show up, and I believe it had never been this bad. The owners had met the parents of the dog and said they were both chill dogs. The dog is about two, the other dog in the house just came out of heat, and there is a 12 year old dog in the house. The dog was separated from his mother and littermates at 5 weeks of age. The mitigating factors are all in place. I'm sure the kennel made it worse- being confined, being surrounded by other dogs, etc. But I'm also sure this didn't just happen. They were beating themselves up for missing any warning signs. But I tried to convince them that they had just seen the warning sign- before they brought the dog home, and made the correct choice not bringing the dog home. (Although I feel terrible letting the dad remove the collar from the dog, I had permission from my boss, and he didn't believe anything would happen. Before that final incident occurred, he wanted to go home and consult with more family members.)

Letting go is hard. It's easy to be blinded by love for a pet. I know I am. It's also easy to tell other people what decisions to make. You need to euthanize your dog, your dog is going to be a headline, your dog is fine, your dog is sick, etc. In the end, only you can make this choice about your dog. Only you can suffer the consequences, pit bull owner or not. Pit bull community's stridencies aside, this family is the one mourning their dog. Fortunately, although the dog's mom said she always believed that there were "only bad owners, no bad dogs," I told her that she WAS a good owner for surrendering her dog before anything else happened. Her dog wasn't bad, he had serious problems.

That dog brought home lessons I've always known. About the dog who is just "wired wrong." About people who know better making decisions. Not right or wrong decisions, just decisions. I can't let Mac go yet. I may have to further limit his life, to keep the public safe as he gets older and even crankier, but I, too, am blinded.


Rinalia said...

Could the dog have had a health problem?

Do you think mitigating factors aside (kennel, stress, etc), he would have reacted differently if he was outside in an open area, around his people?

I don't blame the family - few people are in any situation that allows them to handle an easily aroused dog who redirects WAY inappropriately and WAY off the charts. Sure, there are a few sanctuaries but they're generally full, and far & few between.

Glad you are okay.

themacinator said...


thanks for the comment. yes, he could have had something medically wrong with him. i always always think that's the first place to look, especially with owned animals with owners who have a way of managing their dogs. with mac, he has a messed up ear that is almost chronically infected. when he's acting particularly edgy, i can almost guarantee you the funk in his ear is extra funky.

and yes, i think he would have reacted fairly similarly with his people that day. that arousal was not coming down soon. i'm not a biologist, but the adrenaline and chemicals that were already pumping in his head were THERE. (i keep looking and looking to find the stats on how long the adrenaline? cortisone? stays in the body after a bite, but i can't find it.) i put all the dogs on the other side of the kennel run after he first saw his people and he calmed down a tiny bit, enough to recognize them and sit on command twice. but i believe that something as frustrating for him as being put back in his kennel would have still been too much for him.

another way to describe how over the top chemically he was at this point was how much sedative his body could handle when we went to sedate him- approximately 3x what it should have taken for a dog his size to go down intra-muscularly, AFTER eating 2x his does orally. we could not safely handle him until he was down, and he was still fighting the sedatives at this point.

this was not a dog for a sanctuary situation (i don't think you're implying what he was). he could not safely be handled by anyone, and he was so extremely unhappy in a kennel. the risks were too high, the benefits too low.

Sarah said...

Great post, there's a lot to think about here.

I've known a few dogs that took multiple doses to sedate, and they are indeed very scary. One reminded me of a horror movie monster that just . wouldn't . die. When I have to give a dog a second or third injection of sedative, my gut reaction is always "Thank god we're putting this dog down, he is dangerous."

I'm sorry that Mac attacked another dog. I hope that dog is okay, and you are okay, and Mac is okay.

YesBiscuit! said...

Thanks for sharing this story. There is so much to think about regarding the issue of aggressive dogs. Some people see human aggression in a dog as a fatal flaw - like "he bit someone so we shot him" type thing. At times, I envy people who can see so clearly and feel at peace with their decisions. I am more of the look-at-it-from-167-angles type.