By Nancy Kerns
Not quite a year ago, I told you about Ruby, a Cardigan Corgi I fostered for my local shelter three years prior. She had found a home, but was being returned to the shelter, and I had decided to foster her again, to try to assess what had gone wrong.
When I first fostered Ruby, I had observed that she was a confident, tough little dog, who would freeze and give a “hard eye” look at other dogs when they crossed her in some way, but I never saw her display any overt aggression. Also, she responded to a verbal reminder – even just a mild “Hey Roo-bee . . .” – with a tail wag and a return to a loose, relaxed posture. Eventually, Ruby found a home with a relative of a friend.
A few months after she was adopted, I received a couple of calls from her new family. It seemed she had apparently caused (or at least, had been an active participant in) a number of dog fights and dog-aggressive events. In each of the two incidents that her owners called me to discuss, I pieced together a clear case of “trigger stacking” – wherein the dog is put into a situation that contains several stressors, and after more than the dog can handle, acts out aggressively to put some space between himself and the stressors.
In the first case, her owner took her on an evening walk that suddenly turned rainy. The owner took refuge at a friend’s house. The friend didn’t want a strange dog in her house, as she had a small Poodle who was fearful of other dogs, so the owner left her in the friend’s yard while she visited with the friend indoors. Ruby started panicking and trying to get into the house, and fell into a fishpond, and couldn’t get out! Her owner and the friend had to help her get out, and then, feeling bad for her, they let her into the house and started drying her with a towel and hair dryer. I lost count of the many potential stressors by this time in the story. When Ruby caught sight of the Poodle, she launched herself out of her owner’s lap and “without warning” attacked the Poodle, leaving several punctures that required emergency treatment.
I walked the owner back through the story and explained the many ways she had given Ruby more to handle than she was capable of dealing with. I suggested that, since she had left deep punctures when she bit the other dog, her owner needed to consider that she would be likely to do damage if she was ever in a stressful situation with another dog. I recommended she avoid other dogs unless she muzzled Ruby, and not take her to other people’s homes where there were other dogs (and not allow other dogs in her own home). I also recommended that the owners consult with a local trainer, and reminded them that they could always return Ruby to the shelter if they were in over their heads with her aggression.
The next call I got was regarding another fight. This time, the owner was walking Ruby during pre-dawn hours at a beach where dogs were allowed off-leash. Ruby was on a leash, but was approached by an off-leash dog. The owner shouted for the other dog’s owner to get her dog, but the other owner couldn’t call the dog off in time, and Ruby dove in and started a fight. Once again, she bit the other (bigger) dog badly and the dog needed emergency treatment.
At this point, the owners did consult with a trainer. They also decided they wouldn’t take her to any other places where they were likely to encounter off-leash dogs. They loved Ruby at home, and said she was very affectionate and funny and well-behaved there. They were just a little sad to be unable to take her out without worrying about a dog fight.
But last year, the owners divorced. The wife kept Ruby, and moved into an apartment without a yard. A runner herself, she started jogging with Ruby before it was light out, to make sure Ruby got enough exercise. But after yet another fight (initiated by Ruby when she was approached by another off-leash dog), the now-single woman owner decided she couldn’t handle or manage Ruby anymore, and she returned the dog to my local shelter.
I believe that dogs who are a danger to humans and other dogs and animals don’t belong in mainstream society. I also don’t believe that a dog-aggressive dog should be warehoused in some sort of “sanctuary” for the rest of his or her days; I think social isolation for these aberrant individuals is cruel, not to mention costly. Given that so many behaviorally normal (and certainly harmless) dogs are being euthanized in shelters, I accepted the hard fact that after three years and a number of traumatic events wherein Ruby seriously hurt other dogs, she may well end up euthanized by my shelter as unadoptable. But I also wanted to see Ruby for myself. I could see so many reasons for the stress that would cause her to act out, and wondered if she could be placed in a less-stressful home safely.