Ugh, I love my pitbull. I've had him for about a year and a half now, and he's so incredibly loving and loyal, hilarious and wry. But he's a beast. After two strikes, he's been kicked out of daycare, this time for nipping a new handler (which I understand -- at least I'm not that kind of pitbull owner who says upon hearing about the murder of three babies, "But what's going to happen to the dog who murdered them?").
And now I'm trying more than I ever have to rehabilitate him and work on the problems that led me here.
Wait, didn't I get a puppy recently? Yes. Yes, I did. And I feel really good about that decision. Partly it was because caring for my pit has been so exhausting. I can't tell you how healing to my soul it is to actually have a dog who loves everyone and kisses and delights strangers all the time. I'm so glad I got the little puppy who also now happily keeps Sam company if I have to leave him alone (since he's animala non grata at doggie daycare), and the two of them do very well together. The problem with Sam has never been with other dogs. It's always this one thing: People who reach out their hands or get too close to him. So as you can imagine, he's been a real dude magnet.
Listen, I knew what I was getting into when I adopted him. I mean, I didn't really. I assumed that Animal Care & Control's behavioral assessment of him being non-aggressive was correct, but they must not have tested him with strangers. He's absolutely non-aggressive with a bunch of people who he meets right off the bat (my podcast cohost, my former intern, xoJane people, that dude who I hooked up with one time who assured me, "dogs always love me" -- he was right!).
But the problem is all those other people -- tons and tons of people -- who he sniffs nervousness, fear, dislike, uncertainty or any of the other energetic weirdnesses that send him into a tailspin. Those people he wants to stay away from him, and he will not hesitate giving a warning nip to the person (he has never broken skin on his warning nips, which is one of the few things that comforts me about his aggression -- I've never been concerned that he would ever do any real damage or is at risk for actually hurting them beyond a nip).
Because I try to look at life's more difficult points as being some annoying lesson in disguise that will bring out some cool reserve of strength in me that I never knew I had, I look at this dog that way, too. Sam has taught me how much my own fearful aggression and jealousy and any other nasty quality I have probably rubs off on him. He shows me that I need to be patient. He shows me that I need to teach discipline and limits and get exercise.
I make sure to give him a 2-hour walk every day now -- along with his 5-month-old brother Trip who traipses alongside him with a psychotic Cavalier King Charles spaniel grin on his face. And upon the advice of my brother-in-law I've gone back to using a choke collar on Sam. Not the kind with the prongs, but just the regular simple chain choke that I keep at the top of his neck and have very tight so there is zero chance he can get away from me.
When I was using the Easy Walk, he was just too strong, and if a skateboard came by, he would often try to attack it, I would pull him, and then end up with bruises covering my legs from pulling him back. Or, one time, he almost knocked a skateboarder off. That would have been a nice little lawsuit.
When I've been at my saddest, I've talked to my sister on the phone and said, "I may have to put him down. He may be too aggressive." (Just so you know, I'm crying even typing that, so you don't think I'm a monster.) And she said, "Here's an idea that Sam might like better. Maybe try using the muzzle first."
I laughed through my tears (a special gift when someone can make you do that). "I know, I know, don't worry, I'm not going to. I just mean if he seems to be dangerous. I don't want to be one of those psycho dog owners who puts herself or anyone else at risk." Then I made a super dark joke about becoming a parent of a real life human child and putting my child down at the first glimpse of a problem. Gallows humor, it keeps me sane every time.
Here's the thing: I do absolutely and frequently use a muzzle with Sam, but in my experience, he behaves better when I don't use it, and instead just use the choke collar and keep him close so that he can't do anything if he freaks out for whatever reason.
Today, I had a young sweet trainer come by who is trying to learn how to become a behaviorist and volunteered her time to see if she might be able to help him. She charges only $50. This is versus what a real behaviorist costs which is $400 an hour, with $100 in 15-minute increments. As the trainer walked Sam, she saw exactly what I meant about the muzzle. He tries to bang the muzzle against the wall, the ground, the leg, anything to try to get it off. I'm not talking about for a few blocks. I'm talking for hours. He despises it.
There was a time when I said I would never take him out without the muzzle again, but I've compromised to never taking him out without a choke collar again because I can fully control him and if he goes wild on a skateboarder, he will choke himself out and learn not to do that. And I've noticed an improvement. He's made the choice more and more often to get the reward of treats for being calm when a skateboarder comes by rather than flipping out.
I explained to the trainer today about how I had gotten my latest Sam injury which was a deep tooth mark in my arm. Sam didn't bite me, but he was barking at a skateboarder, and I was sitting down, didn't have a tight grasp because I wasn't using the choke collar, and my arm hit his mouth as he was barking bloody murder.
Ashamed, I confessed to my brother-in-law how how truly idiotically I had handed the entire situation. With tears of anger and hurt and frustration running down my face, I rubbed my bloody arm on his face, and said, "You did this! Why did you do this? You hurt me! Do you know that? YOU HURT ME!" Wow. How wrong is this? Oh man, let me count the ways.
As we were walking along today, there were no incidents or even near incidents because we had both the muzzle and the choke collar. I will say that the trainer was cracking me up because God bless her, this sweet young girl was walking along with this 70-pound pitbull wriggling around in his muzzle and she would go up to strangers to try to find people to help us in training exercises and she'd approach them and say with the most cheerful smile, "Do you want to pet my dog?"
"Oh my God you are ridiculous," I said. She laughed and agreed. So she tried another approach to new strangers she approached and with the same pep and enthusiasm came up and asked...
"Hey, can I ask you a question. Do you like dogs?"
I couldn't help cracking up at the absurdity.
"Oh my God, stop," I said, and then approached a guy who seemed psyched by the fact that we were walking a pitbull. "Hey, my dog has behavioral problems but we have his muzzle on so there's nothing he can do to you. Would you help us out with a training exercise?"
That did the trick.
At another point, she suggested I buy a Hawaiian lei to put around his neck to make him more approachable and to make the muzzle less scary and to show that he was just in training and not aggressive.
"But he is aggressive," I said. "He's nipped several people. I love him so so much, but I need to be honest with him, with myself and with these poor strangers."
Overall, she was great though, and it was endearing to listen to her, 22 years old and idealistic, as she debated with the grizzled pitbull-loving old-timer who helped us with our training exercises and who, sure enough, set off my dog's alarms and made him go crazy about positive reinforcement versus negative reinforcement.
Here was the old dude's negative reinforcement philosophy: "When he reacts like that, you have to pull on his chain really hard and then let go and then pin him to the ground and show him you're in charge," the old man said to her.
"But the dog doesn't learn anything," she said. "It's a short-term solution. Sure, in the short-term he's not going to go after people, but he doesn't learn through positive reinforcement exactly what you want him to do."
Then we all talked about Cesar Millan, and I broke the news as I often do in small cocktail party groups that The Dog Whisperer tried to kill himself. Glad to always be the one to bring up that fun fact.
Overall, it was a good session with this kind young girl. We now have the video that she's going to share with her mentor who is a more experienced trainer, and I might use it to reach out to some different organizations who might provide a discount to work on his aggression. (And if you want to see Sam when he is chill and has been given the requisite time to develop trust of a new person, here he is at a podcast recording acting just great.)
I realize that none of this is an ideal situation -- for him, for me, for strangers -- but here's what I know. When I think about life before him, I remember a gaping void. And then I think about that first night together, when I passed out holding him, my clothes still on, and we held each other through the night, and I so felt like we were saving each other.
I still feel that way. I really do.
I need to love, and I need to be loved. It's embarrassing and earnest and stupid, but there it is. I just can't do that as easily as I used to with all the games of dating, where love and romantic affection are peppered as treats and taken away as punishment. I've seen too much.
I am sure I'll fall in love with, like, a human being again in my life, but let's be honest, having this dog makes it more difficult being afraid he's going to attack some poor dude who just wants to go in for a kiss or something. (Although to my dog's credit, he did once bark away a totally sketchy guy, for which I'm forever indebted. And I've dated two guys for several months at a time while having him, and he did just fine. Good boy, Sam.)
Owning these dogs has opened my heart so much more to the ability to love again. It's a healing I never expected and now can never imagine living without.
They've trained me well.
Find Mandy long-form at http://tinyurl.com/stadtmiller.