Pit Bulls are Lovers, Not Fighters

During my morning hop through the blogosphere, I learned that today is National Dog Fighting Awareness Day, and feel compelled to contribute.

I’ve never known any fighting dogs, and until recently, I didn’t really know any pit bulls very well. I’ve been a fan of Pit Bulls and Parolees since it started, and I’ve been working on a novel for a few years that prominently features fighting dogs. At first, I gave a main character a pet pit bull, but my fascination with the Michael Vick case led me to broaden the storyline to include dog fighting and pit bull rescue. And that’s led me to go out of my way to make friends with some pitties.

Maverick
In the past few weeks, I’ve been hanging out with Maverick, a pit mix at my local shelter. I think he’s a really special dog. I love the way he smiles at me, and he knows how to have a good time in the play yard. But I fear that every day that goes by with him spending most of his hours in a kennel, the less adoptable he becomes. He needs lots of attention and consistent reward-based training. So far, I’ve been working on teaching him his name.

Yesterday, there were two dogs barking at us from the adjacent play yard, and a little girl walking a teeny tiny dog on the other side of the fence. Maverick looked very interested in all of the dogs and not remotely aggressive.

In case you missed it, here are a few of my posts about volunteering at the Humane Society of Skagit Valley:

And here’s another video of ol’ Mav, this time with a floppy disc.

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This post is part of a special Dogs n’ Pawz Tuesday’s Tails Blog Hop dedicated to raising awareness about dogfighting and special bullies in need of adoption. Cohosted by Lola the PittyBarking from the BayouTalking Dogs Blog, and Love is Being Owned by a Husky.

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Three new friends

Today I signed up to volunteer at the Humane Society of Skagit Valley. I’ve always wanted to walk shelter dogs, but have never done so before, because it seemed like I ought to be walking my own dogs.

Well, why not do both?

Truth be told, I found myself on the HSSV website yesterday fantasizing about getting another dog. I’m conflicted, because on the one hand, I want Leo to have a playmate who will run around with him more than Mia does. On the other, I’m scared of having to break up a three-way dog fight.

I saw this handsome fellow’s profile and felt sad that he’s been in the shelter since November, after being found all by his lonesome on a mountain trail.

But how to know whether he’d get along with my pups? Maybe I should go visit him.

Then I saw this guy, and my heart broke to read that he’s never been allowed indoors. He might not even be house trained.

jeck

I can’t adopt all the dogs, as much as I’d like to, but I can visit them regularly. And if in getting to know them, I think one of them might be a good match for our family, I can bring Rob and the dogs over to meet him. (Assuming our next dog will be a boy, in the interest of preserving Queen Mia’s status.)

My volunteer orientation isn’t for a few weeks, but I introduced myself to all the dogs today. Jeck, the shepherd, was the first one I met. He was very mellow, sullen even, but he kindly angled his body for me to scratch his butt as best I could through the bars. What would that be like, to adopt an adult dog who had never been inside, who wasn’t even house-trained? Could he stay out in the yard all day, and then sleep inside with all of us at night?

Jeck was quiet, but Hugo, the brindle pit bull, and his next door neighbor, Koa, were rowdy. Hugo jumped up on the bars and pawed the plexiglass. Let me out! I want to play. I’ve been in here so long.

Oh, Hugo, how I wanted to play with you.

Here’s Koa’s profile:

Koa looked at me soulfully and barked when I paid attention to Hugo. Don’t be swayed by his fancy brindle markings. Black dogs always get overlooked in shelters!

Boys, boys. Be patient. I’ll come visit you as soon as I can. And if some wonderful person takes you home before I get back, I’ll understand.

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How to walk a “normal” dog

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Things that have happened during my recent mellow meanderings with Mia:

1. A loose dog ran down the middle of a busy street toward us. We crossed the street to see if he had a tag on his collar, but he did not. We walked with him up a cul de sac where we found a neighbor who told us the dog just roams loose all the time. I was not entirely satisfied with this answer, but the dog stayed in the cul de sac. Short of calling animal control, I didn’t know what else I could do.

2. A couple was jogging with a dog across the street. I quickened my pace because Mia and the dog kept sneaking looks at each other. The couple must have crossed the street and slowed their pace to walk behind me, which I only realized when I turned around to go back for a poop bag I’d left behind. When I saw them, I said, “Oh, sorry.” And they said, “No, you’re fine,” walked around us and jogged off on their merry way.

3. While walking at night, we saw a man and a dog heading toward us on the same side of the street. So accustomed am I to veering very far around all other warm-bodied creatures, I swung a wide berth. The man asked if his dog could say Hi, so we moved closer. The man told me his dog’s name and said he was 12 years old. Since it was dark, I hadn’t realized how gray the dog’s muzzle was, or that he appeared to be a pit mix. Our dogs sniffed each other very politely. I wondered later whether the man thought I was trying to avoid him because his dog was a pit bull. He may well have considered it his duty to show me how friendly his dog was, when really, my only concern was that I not make anyone uncomfortable by bringing my scary German shepherd too close.

4. While walking at night, with a reflective light attached to Mia’s collar, I saw a blur of white in the street up ahead. When my eyes adjusted to the dark, I realized it was a light-colored dog being walked on a leash. Maybe its owner was trying to swing a wide berth around us, but they still passed pretty close. The dog lunged toward us excitedly, so I let Mia sniff hello. Did I have another option? There was nowhere else to go, but I suppose I could have tried to hustle her past the other dog without them meeting.

The other dog reared back its head and yip/snarled (yarled?). Sounding mildly exasperated, and yet also mildly surprised, the owner said to her dog, “What’s that about? Was it the light?” I was 10 steps ahead at that point and wanted to say something reassuring, because boy, have I been there. But I also know the most helpful thing the non-reacting dog can do in that situation is get out of there.

I called back a very socially awkward mumble that was supposed to convey, “You know, maybe it was the light around Mia’s neck. But don’t worry about it. You’re fine. Your dog’s fine. We’re cool. Have a nice night.” I think what came out was: “Huh, yeah, mayb.” (sic. I didn’t actually say the last syllable of “maybe.”)

Now, I don’t know if that’s the first time her dog has ever been unfriendly to another dog, but I do know that saying something like “What’s that about?” is a reflex when you have a reactive dog. One must give the appearance to other dog owners that one knows one’s dog has been inappropriate.

The last incident really drove home the fact that I do not know how to walk a normal dog.

Social mores likely vary among regions. In some parts of the country, I’m sure it’s considered very rude to let your dog anywhere near another person, but here in the Northwest, we are beyond dog friendly. Our local bookstore even welcomes pooches.

That said, I don’t know whether I’m supposed to veer away from other people walking their dogs, as I attempted to do with the man and his pit bull, or let them get within sniffing distance, as I did with the woman and the light-colored dog.

Both felt wrong to me, but either is fine by Mia, because she is a “normal dog.” Her hackles might go up if she doesn’t like what she smells, she might notice another leashed dog at a distance, but generally speaking, she’s not going to bark, lunge, and pull me off my feet. She’s not going to snarl, snap at, or bite another dog.

Leo, on the other hand, is not allowed to walk around our neighborhood, because he would not have handled any of the above situations well. He would have barked and lunged at all those dogs. Actually, he might have made the best impression in that last scenario. If I let him pull on his leash right up to every dog he sees, to let him get a good sniff, I’m fairly sure he wouldn’t bark and lunge at them. Fairly. But I don’t let him do that, because as dog friendly a town as this is, I know better than to let my 100-pound German shepherd get all up in everydog’s face.

What should the rule be? Do I have to call out to every dog-walker I see: “My dog’s friendly. Is yours? Can she say hello?” Because you know there are lots of people who will say yes, even when the answer is no.

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I want to save them all

Note: I would love it if the following story ended with me bringing Misty home, but, spoiler, that hasn’t happened. My hands go up to everyone who’s ever rescued a dog, and for those who rescue animals every day.

My heart won’t stop bleeding for all the homeless dogs. Perhaps I need to block all the dog rescues I follow on Facebook and Twitter.

After last week’s puppy visit, I felt at peace with our status as a two-dog family… until I saw a listing last night on Old Dog Haven for a 10-year-old German shepherd, described as “very broken down.” The Facebook post had no photo and I couldn’t find one on Petfinder or the shelter’s website. I thought of asking for a photo, but then thought, Does it matter what she looks like?

I said to Rob, “There’s this dog at the shelter in Everett. Says she’s been there a while and led a very rough life before that…”

As the words came out of my mouth, I felt ridiculous. A senior dog? A female? Not part of our plan. Our next dog is supposed to be a pit bull, remember?

Still … the shelter is only a half hour from my office, and I knew I’d have some down time today.

This morning, a new Facebook post included Misty’s photo.

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My heart ached as I drove to the shelter, trying to convince myself that I’m not crazy. I’m not committing to anything. I just want to see the dog. Get a new picture of her. See if she’s in any better shape since this photo was taken. The description said she likes being outside during the day. She could be much easier than a puppy to care for. She could lie beside Mia in the backyard … assuming Mia tolerates having another female in the house.

If we fed her a diet of raw meat and grain-free kibble, I bet her coat and skin would clear right up.

It took longer than a half hour to get to the shelter. There were road closures. When I walked in, I asked the lady if she had a shepherd named Misty.

“For adoption? No.”

“You don’t have a dog named Misty?”

“Not for adoption.”

“I saw her on Old Dog Haven.”

“For fostering? You need to go through Old Dog Haven.”

“I can’t even see her?”

“You need to go through Old Dog Haven.”

I called Old Dog Haven from the car and got voice mail. I could do nothing but drive away feeling heartsick, wondering if I should have pressed the issue. Poor Misty, not only is she in jail, but she’s not even allowed visitors? But shelters have rules for a reason. Maybe I’d jumped the gun.

Later I saw on Facebook that several other people had called or stopped by and been told the same thing, but the shelter is all straightened out now, and Misty is available for adoption. I was angry that I was denied the opportunity to see her, but encouraged because so many other people expressed interest in her. A few people have put in applications already.

That’s the beauty of social media: in just a few hours, Misty’s story touched tons of people. My heart’s still bleeding, though, thinking about all the dogs in shelters who don’t have Facebook pages and Twitter feeds broadcasting their stories to the masses.

Take, for example, all the dogs at the shelter that I didn’t even bother to look at today, because I was so focused on Misty.

UPDATE: Misty was adopted on Sept. 10. Later that night, she showed signs of bloat, possibly from an enlarged spleen or tumor that caused her stomach to twist. She was euthanized in her new owner’s arms. Very sad, but as Old Dog Haven and her new owner point out, it’s also a success story. The purpose of Old Dog Haven and similar rescues is to prevent senior dogs from dying alone in shelters.

These things (pinch collars)? Never useful.

When you have a strong belief about something controversial, and you know you’re unlikely to change someone’s mind, do you keep quiet or speak your mind?

During a visit to a dog rescue, I found myself on the other end of an elaborate defense of pinch collars. “A lot of trainers are starting to realize the benefits of pinch collars,” the dog rescue lady told me.

Really? Because I haven’t heard of a single positive reinforcement trainer defecting to the use of an antiquated pinch collar, saying, “Yeah, my force-free methods have failed and I now realize aversive training is the way to go.” Quite the opposite. My understanding is that the most current research has shown force-free methods to be the preference.

Rob and I were walking beside this woman as a powerful pit bull pulled ahead of her on his leash, demonstrating certainly that it is possible for a collar to constrict against a dog’s neck without causing it pain, but not really making a case for training loose leash walking.

She’s telling us that they have to use pinch collars because a lot of her volunteers aren’t very experienced, so they need to be able to control the dog in case it tries to bolt after a rabbit. She adds that Haltis would cause more damage to the vertebrae than a pinch collar if a dog raced to the end of its leash.

I’m thinking, These aren’t acceptable defenses of a pinch collar. Don’t let inexperienced volunteers walk your dogs. Don’t let a dog bolt to the end of its leash. But I’m also thinking, She’s so sold on this device, what’s the point of telling her I think she’s wrong? It’s not like I’m going to change her mind.

Still, I couldn’t stay quiet. Trying hard not to be overly bitchy, I offered, “With our first German shepherd, we used a pinch collar for more than a year, and it didn’t stop her from pulling. The only thing that solved the problem was a Halti and clicker training.”

I knew I wouldn’t convert her on the spot, but at least she didn’t say, “You’re wrong!” I feel better that I at least put that information out there.

I can’t prove that using a pinch collar made Isis neurotic. What I know is that we had an anxious dog who got progressively worse while we were using aversive training methods. What I know is that everything I tried failed to stop her pulling on the leash, until I tried a Halti and a clicker.

My first misgivings about this rescue came when they sent me an email with a list of helpful videos for socializing puppies. Among them were videos from Leerburg, one of the websites I consulted when trying to figure out what I was doing wrong with Isis’s pinch collar. I don’t object to the information in their video about bringing home a new puppy. I think it’s a good idea to use an X-pen to keep a puppy separate from adult dogs, so the puppy can watch and learn the proper way to behave inside. (Though the crazy dog mom in me can’t imagine not letting the dogs play with toys in the house.)

Another video was labeled “This is what you will end up with if you think just love alone will be enough. Do not be fooled by positive only and harness programs. All dogs need discipline.” It shows how a pinch collar is used to mellow out a rambunctious pit bull. Nice demonstration, but I’ve seen the same exact thing happen with a Halti and a clicker.

The list of videos and ignorant comment about “positive only” programs didn’t deter me from my primary goal of visiting a litter of puppies at this rescue.

If we were going to get another dog (and we're not getting another dog), we'd get a boy. But Rob had a hard time keeping the girl puppies away.

If we were going to get another dog (and we’re not getting another dog), we’d get a boy. Rob can’t help it if he’s a girl puppy magnet.

Once there, in separate conversations, I told both the rescue owner and her trainer that my original intention was to get an older dog, but I found the photos of the puppies hard to resist. The trainer said that with two adult dogs in the house, we’d be better bringing in a puppy. The owner said that with two adult dogs in the house, we’d be better bringing in another adult dog. That’s how we wound up on the walk with the pit pulling on the pinch collar.

This dog would need a strong leader, the rescue owner told me, then asked a series of damning questions about our current dogs. Yes, they sleep on the bed. Yes, they walk slightly in front of us on the leash. “Then your dogs don’t see you as the leader,” she pronounced.

Busted. But allow me to again quote Victoria Stilwell’s book, Train Your Dog Positively:

The irony is that to believe dogs see us as their pack leaders actually requires that we first anthropomorphize dogs by assuming they share our human concern regarding rank and what others think of us.

… the entire concept that we must assert our claim to the throne of pack leader before our dogs is based on a mirage. For the sake of argument, though, let’s say that dogs are completely motivated by a burning desire to become pack leader over their human counterparts. At some point in this theoretical exercise we must necessarily decide to disregard the simple truth – that dogs are well aware that we are not, in fact, dogs.

…It is time, therefore, to finally retire the term pack leader – especially when it refers to humans interacting with dogs. Domestic dogs don’t live in true packs, and even if they did, we, as a different species, wouldn’t be a part of them.

I didn’t expect to leave the dog rescue today with a puppy in hand. We weren’t 100 percent ready to get a third dog at this time anyway. But I really didn’t expect to leave feeling so discouraged and disgruntled. I can’t believe anyone still endorses these training methods.

Even more surprising was that the rescue owner badmouthed force-free training. The most offensive thing she said was that positive reinforcement is a problem because when that training fails, dogs wind up in shelters, and a pit bull in a shelter has only a 1 percent chance of survival. As if the only dogs being given up are those for whom positive reinforcement has failed!

That riled me up on the way home. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to say something at the time, but what would I have said? “Have you looked at the percentage of unadoptable dogs that get euthanized after pinch collars and dominance methods resulted in aggressive behavior?”

No, it’s probably better that I said nothing and left on pleasant terms.

How about you? When was the last time you found yourself torn between being polite and being honest about your opinion?

My “normal” dog

The magic of Mia is that I can take her anywhere. Truly. She doesn’t even need a leash; she sticks right by me. Even on a leash, she doesn’t bark and lunge at any of the usual suspects.

My original plan for the Festival of the River was to take Mia with me both days, but then I decided to leave her at home the first day while I set up the booth and got a feel for things. As last year, I watched dogs walk by all day long and looked forward to having my buddy with me the next day.

When Rob and the doggies joined me that evening, we left Leo in the car while we picked up a few items I’d left at my booth. After we set up our tent in the woods, I took Mia on a second trip into the crowd to get a slice of pizza. Both times, she was an exemplary ambassador for the German shepherd breed, accepting oohs and aahs of admirers with a quiet grace and politely greeting other leashed canines large and small.

mia tent

The next morning, as we walked Leo and Rob back to their car, I said, “I’m so proud of Leo. I consider this weekend to be a complete success. Of course, now that I said that, probably Mia will have a complete meltdown. Ha ha ha.”

At the booth, I tethered Mia’s leash to a table as I rearranged my display boards and put out brochures, stickers and temporary tattoos. I set out a bowl of food and water. Early arrivals strolled between the booths, and before I even noticed the white pit bull and its owner, Mia barked at it.

Oh, no. No no no.

A few minutes later, another pair of dogs sparked the same reaction. A biologist working a booth across from me called out, “Kari, I don’t think your dog likes pit bulls.”

True, one of the pair was a pit bull, but I knew this wasn’t a breed-specific reaction.

“If she’s going to bark at every dog that passes by, this is going to be a long day. Ha ha ha,” I said. But I was thinking, If Mia barks at every dog that passes by, no one with a dog is going to stop at my booth, and people who are afraid of German shepherds aren’t going to stop here either. This was a really bad idea.

What am I going to do now? I can’t leave her in the car. I can’t just leave the festival. I have no cell phone reception, so it’s not like I can easily call Rob to come get her.

I had these thoughts because I have a history of owning reactive dogs. Leo’s barrier frustration makes him bark at passing dogs. If he were off leash and allowed to run up to every dog he saw, he would be perfectly friendly. I think. But because he is a redirected biter, I will not test this hypothesis.

Mia is not reactive. I knew she didn’t mean any harm by her barks, but her intent was irrelevant. I could not have a barking German shepherd at my booth.

Mia was unconcerned about other dogs on leash the night before, so what was the difference? Being tethered to a table?

Maybe I’ll just undo her leash and let her roam around my booth. Mia walked to the edge of the booth, nearly touching a vendor of geode wind chimes, and peered behind my vinyl curtain. The geode vendor gave me the stink-eye, so I leashed her back up.

I kicked myself for leaving Mia’s rubber Chuck-It ball in the car that Rob drove home. I tossed her an apple-shaped stress ball in hopes that she’d occupy herself with tearing it up for the next twenty minutes. She sniffed and ignored it.

Think, Kari, think. You know how to solve this problem.

Positive reinforcement. I filled a poop bag with treats and stuck it in my pocket. The next time I saw a dog approach, I gave Mia treats. My initial strategy was to get her to associate treats with the passing dogs, but Mia is so food-motivated that she was distracted enough to seem not even to notice the other dog.

An airedale, the same one we saw tethered to an RV earlier that day, lingered with its owner at a neighboring booth. Mia noticed her and barked a few times. I redirected her gaze in the other direction and wondered, Am I going to have to do this all day?

As it turned out, no, I didn’t have to do it all day. Either the positive reinforcement worked, or Mia just got used to the idea that other dogs were going to walk by. (Or both.) I gave her treats every time I saw another dog coming, but I also worked my booth, meaning I put temporary tattoo application and fish consumption rate explaining above Mia management. One guy entered my booth as I was treating Mia and I thought she might bark at the approaching dog as soon as I took my attention away from her, but she didn’t make a sound, and when I finished with the other guy, the dog was long gone.

While Mia may have driven off a dog-fearing festival-goer or two, she was a major attraction for many, many more people. Far more people asked, “Can I pet your dog?” than asked me to explain the importance of raising the state’s fish consumption rate, although you can bet I used Mia as an opening.

Here, Mia proved to be the bomb-proof dog I know her to be. At one point, I was concerned briefly she might frighten a toddler mid-pet by barking at a passing dog, but she did not. Perhaps strokes from a toddler are as positively reinforcing (and/or distracting) as a handful of treats. Other children cuddled her, rolled on top of her, and even put their sunglasses on her. (I wish I’d gotten a photo of that one.)

Mia and I both relaxed and I was so happy to have her with me. Her presence brightened my day. Gave me someone to talk to during the slow stretches in the afternoon.

As much joy as she brought me, and as much as I know she loves being by my side, it occurred to me that Mia might not actually be having the best time ever.

I had a similar feeling the night before, blissfully snuggled with Rob and the doggies in our tent. Rob had gotten stuck in horrible traffic on the way into the festival, and nettles scraped his legs as we set up camp.

“Are you having fun?” I asked.

“I’m just trying to get through it,” he said, perfectly amiably. I love that about Rob. The outing didn’t meet his expectations, but he didn’t punish me for it. Like Mia, he was there for me, making sure that I had a better time than I would have alone, but not getting all that much out of it himself.

That’s what our dogs do for us. If you asked Mia, she’d tell you she’d rather go with me anywhere than get left at home. But as the responsible adult, I recognize that bringing Mia to the festival was more fun for me than it was for her.

She was bored, lying on the grass beside me for hours on end, with the occasional break to walk to the port-a-potties. Worse, the constant assaults from strangers took a toll. Late in the day, a man asked if he could pet her and Mia barely raised her head to him before letting out an exhausted sigh. Sure, whatever, I’m here for your amusement.

My last post illuminated what I learned last weekend about managing my barrier-frustrated dog, Leo. I also learned a lesson about my perfect, normal, senior dog, Mia. Next year, I won’t force her to work the festival with me. (And Rob doesn’t have to drive down to camp out with me. Unless he changes his mind.)

Sleep tight, Mia Bear, you worked hard.

This post is part of a Senior Pet Awareness blog hop, brought to you by BlogPaws.

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Someday my pit will come

The heart wants what the heart wants.

My heart has decided it wants a blue pit bull.

When I searched Google images for a picture of a blue pit, I found one named Isis!

Isis

Courtesy of smphotographyca‘s tumblr

Pretty sure she belongs to someone.

In 2009, when our Isis was still alive, before I had any plans to write a memoir, let alone a dog memoir, I started a novel called Fight Like a Lady, intending it to be entirely unautobiographical. Therefore, the dog in the story was not a female German shepherd named Isis, it was a male pit bull named Apollo.

As I turn my attention back to this novel, which has evolved to feature several pit bull characters in addition to Apollo, my heart seems to think I cannot write another fictional scene until I get my hands on an actual pit bull.

Excepting Apollo, the pits in my novel are rescued fighting dogs. Don’t think I don’t know that I can’t very well go to a shelter and say, “Excuse me, I’d like to adopt a pit bull because I’m writing a book about dog fighting.”

Last week I saw a blue pit on Petfinder and got it into my head that she belonged with us. Perfect timing to bring home a new dog, I thought, since I plan to work from home until the Skagit River bridge is fixed.

Possibly, this was a diversion from actually writing anything… but I told myself it was just the boost I needed to get me back at the keyboard.

This pretty pitty turned out not to be the one for us, but I was torn at first. Neither Rob nor I fell in love with her right away, but I didn’t know for sure about Mia, after all, and what a mistake that would have been if we hadn’t brought her home with us.

There was less risk with this dog, though, because the rescue organization has a trial period, and she’s living in a loving foster home that already turned down some potential adopters. Not the same situation that Mia was in.

Fortunately, the decision wasn’t up to us, it was up to Leo and Mia. We let our dogs, one at a time, into the pit bull’s backyard and after a cursory sniff, they paid very little attention to each other. A few days earlier, Leo romped with a larger, darker male pit bull at the dog park. That’s really what we’re looking for: another playmate for our doggies.

We left, somewhat relieved that we hadn’t brought the wrong dog home.

Later that evening, I got a call that Bark and Lunge is a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest. Maybe that’s the boost I needed to get back behind the keyboard!