In early October, an injured, emaciated pit bull wandered into the right place.
Oliver the pit bull wandered into the back yard of Amy, a woman in Wichita KS who rescues pugs. He was in lousy shape - covered in scars and wounds, both old and fresh, and was very underweight - but he had a wonderful attitude, loved people, and accepted extensive handling without complaint even in his obviously painful state. Amy had him vetted and neutered, helped his body heal, and took great care of him, but could not keep him - she has a house full of rescued pugs and no experience with pit bulls (though I have to say, she learned fast!).
A few days after she found Oliver, she started sending his video around looking for help for him and a place for him to go. I get a lot of contact about stuff like that - so much so that I usually have to block it out, but I saw Oliver's first video and there was just something about him. I started to try to help him out, and let's just say that placement for a possible former fighting dog of unknown temperament isn't easy. We decided that the best way to find appropriate help for Oliver was a professional evaluation with attention to his level of dog aggression so that we could find the way to best help him.
I thought that would be the easy part! I tried with my personal contact network but couldn't find anyone in Wichita, so I threw it open to the internets and posted to several pit bull liservs and message boards, sending out an email looking for someone who could evaluate him. The results I got were, to say the least, surprising. I got a ton of information on dog aggression - some fact based, some not so much. I got people expressing that I shouldn't bother, because fighting dogs are always animal aggressive. Hogwash. I had people tell me that pit bulls can't be reliably evaluated, that they're somehow different. Bullpuckey. It's like some people within the pit bull community - owners and lovers of the breed - have bought into and internalized some of the tired media-driven hysteria. As was posted earlier this week on the wonderful blog For the Pit Bulls...
These are still dogs. They are not mythical beasts of destruction, they are not cybertronic droids bent on world domination. Yes, they are generally more athletic than other medium-sized dogs and yes I'd agree their "bell-curve" reactivity is shifted a bit more to the reactive side. They are terriers, after all. But their temperaments and behaviors are not so different than most dogs, not off-the-richter-scale fantastical or bizarre.
Right on. In the end, putting a request for a recommendation for a professional evaluation in front of a few thousand pit bull lovers generated, unfortunately, not a single one.
I know what's possible, given that I see it every day. I care for and am around, on a daily basis, pit bulls and mixes of all types from all backgrounds that span the entire scale of dog and animal aggression - like any other dog. Anything's possible, and you have to actually ask questions with an open mind to find out answers, which is all I was looking for.
Finally I started contacting trainers in the CPDT directory, hoping to interview someone by phone - and it was here that I got lucky when I found Kelly Spencer from the Family Dog Training and Behavioral Center in Wichita, KS. I'm a fan of the CPDT certification, which is required of all the trainers at work; since anyone can call themselves a trainer it ensures some level of experience and common background with a focus on humane, science-based methodology. Early on in our conversation I asked her what she did differently when she evaluated a pit bull. Her reply was "Nothing, why?". Good start. We had a lovely conversation about dogs and pit bulls and what I was looking for in an evaluation (as well as what an evaluation would not be able to reliably indicate) and found that our attitudes seemed to align. She agreed to do two one hour sessions to try to get an idea of where Oliver stood, and I mailed off a check and waited...
Kelly spent two hours with Oliver watching and testing his reactions to people and animals and came away impressed with him. He was social and friendly with people and allowed all kinds of contact, and showed little in the way of dog aggression. At this point he'd had some casual contact (such as through fences) with some of the pugs at Amy's house and hadn't shown any aggression towards them. In Kelly's tests with him, he was open and friendly towards other dogs, and attempted to avoid dogs that were snappy or aggressive towards him. Her testing with Oliver told me what I needed to know; that I could work with Oliver in my home and foster him for adoption. I want to be clear here that I would think no less of Oliver, and he no less worthy of rescue, if his dog aggression was off the charts - I just would not personally be able to work with him in my home situation.
Two weeks ago Amy and I met at the halfway point between us in New Mexico, and I met Oliver and took him home with me. He's a wonderful dog and a pleasure to have around. He's energetic, fun, goofy, and thoroughly lovably dorky. Right now he hangs out regularly with my 15lb spaniel Ginger - they go on walks several times a day together and have supervised hang out time. She's slowly getting used to this big ball of energy and he's just fine with her; she's about as easy as they come with other dogs and a great one to start with. Ginger is small, female, very dog social, inoffensive, and has excellent dog skills. Hopefully he'll eventually meet my larger dog, Jessie, who will be more difficult - she doesn't like other dogs and will likely challenge him, so that intro will have to be done very carefully because I don't want to put Oliver in a situation where he feels he has to react to that. Right now he can be in his crate in the living room and she can be near him without any tension between the two of them at all, and that's a great start. I live in a neighborhood where some of the dogs run loose and he's seen them on his walks and been just fine with them - he remains loose and confident, sometimes interested, not aggressive, easily distracted. He loves every person he meets and his handling is bulletproof - no food aggression, anyone can pretty much touch him anywhere. He's met my girlfriend's chinchilla, Pip, who is very dog savvy, and tries to play with him through Pip's cage - even play bows to him!
Oliver will stay with me for a while and learn some things - he needs a little work on how to behave appropriately in a house and we'll do some basic obedience training. I am not a trainer by nature or vocation (Amy has described me in a few places online as a trainer, which is very flattering but not something I'd call myself) but I do have a keen interest in behavior and a hell of a lot of behavior management experience. We'll see how he does with other animals over the long term and he'll get some cat exposure as well as exposure to dogs. So far, so good. When I feel I know him well enough, I will try to adopt him out, and he can stay with me for as long as it takes. That won't be hard, he's pretty thoroughly lovable. Please feel free to drop me a line if you're interested!
What of his scars, his injuries? Where did he come from? What is the history? I'll never know for sure. I can make some guesses but I might be wrong. Oliver's almost certainly been fought; the marks on his body are consistent with dogfighting injuries. (One person emailed me to say that his marks proved nothing; that he could have been in a tangle with a raccoon. Lady, I'd hate to see the raccoons in your neighborhood.) Oliver could have been a bait or starter dog for dog fighting, or perhaps he was with some young tough who thought just any pit bull would make a good fighter and turned out to be wrong. I doubt Oliver was any good at it. He looks like he's been on the losing end a few too many times and his teeth are perfect - nothing broken from fighting as an aggressor. His overall dog aggression seems quite low, and he's certainly been quite social and playful thus far with Ginger. I'll never know for sure what his story is. All I know is who he is now - not a monster or a myth or a stereotype, but a dog; a great dog.
Shelters nationwide are full of dogs like Oliver, dogs who are being judged - and too often, killed - based on myths, half truths, and assumptions. Perhaps they're not being judged based on visible scars but on a big, blocky head, or a muscular body, or cropped ears. Dogs that are never given the chance for a qualified, impartial evaluation, for rescue, for a home, for a life. We have to change this.
Thanks, Amy, for giving this wonderful dog a chance and supporting him. I hope I can do right by him, as you did.