Today I found myself standing in a small group of women with our small group of dogs talking about my tribulations with Bugsy as a younger dog. I laugh now about Bugsy chewing a hole in the wall and digging, biting and ripping locked cabinets open . I smile and tell stories about how when I met Bugsy and the shelter staff handed me his leash, he nearly ripped my arm off, (I also smiled then). Standing there, I realize how far I’ve come, how much I have learned and with no small amount of effort.
I remember the Collies I grew up with. I remember a black tri collie named Cinderella walking my sisters and I to the school bus and back (the walk seemed so long when I was a kid). I heard stories of an old Collie named Sadie walking a puppy named Haley around the perimeter of my parents’ farm just a few days before her death. Haley still roams that farm. No leash. No fence.
I find myself sitting in moments of wonder and thoughtfulness that is best in the company of dogs. I thoroughly enjoy the outdoors, and thrive when outdoor time is mandated. I like to read, and I like DIY. I remember when I was in my first obedience class with my beloved Pit bull Terrier dog Ginger. At the end of the 2 months of classes the instructor brought some beginning agility equipment including a small tunnel about 3 feet in length. After our first trys I found myself standing in line next to a young woman and her Min Pin .Terrified of the tunnel, the Min Pin was unable to be coaxed through without the teachers help.
“She is so good.” She said looking at my shiny fawn and white brick house of a dog.
I am ashamed to recall that I glowingly told this person “She’s a really smart dog!”
And she was a really smart dog, but I had my hand it as well. Geez, I might as well have said, “yeah, my dog is smart and yours is an idiot.” And that is at least as impolite as it is untrue. Truth is from the start; months before I adopted Ginger I was doing work to make her a good dog. I put a lot of thought into what type of dog I was looking for. At that time, my main goal was to find a partner to hike with.
I had been walking the local nature trail with my first adopted dog, Harry. Harry, a Rottweiler mix, would eagerly walk on the trail away from the car and into new territory, albeit gingerly. Then, when we turned to come back, he would just give up. He would begin to limp along until finally he would lay down to take a break. He would go so,…… very,…… slow . This was my first clue to his arthritis. He was almost 10. I considered getting a bike for me and a cart for him. Then I considered getting a dog that could keep up with me. I started researching natural remedies for arthritis.
I talked to my roommates about getting another dog for months before I went to the shelter and met her. And to be completely honest, I walked right by her without even a glance. I was looking at a beagle when my boyfriend at the time called me over to her kennel. She was a really tough looking short dog and there was a plastic doughnut dog toy in tiny pieces all over her kennel floor. The doughnut reminded me of Homer Simpson. It was then I realized that all the dogs in the shelter kennels were barking, and jumping and pacing as I walked by and this dog was sitting. Her tail, wagging. (Pick me! Pick me!)
I went home and thought about it. Actually I tried to forget about it. Was another dog really the right choice? I got a job at a doggy day care and boarding facility. Some time went by and I checked the shelter website and saw that she was still available for adoption. So I went to spend some time with her, and walked her around the 'meet and greet' yard. Then I dragged my roommates out to the shelter to meet her. We were all in agreement. She was awesome. She was in. It was an exciting day. I brought Harry to meet her soon after.
I had already bought a large dog kennel, which I had planned to use for the dog I might adopt, and I put an old sleeping bag in it and a chew toy that Harry had never, ever put into his mouth. I grew up in a house where dogs lived outside. Now this is my house and I just really wanted it to be nice for her.
She destroyed the toys we gave her, and lots of shoes. She yelped nightly for days, and when she finally stopped I was taken by her so much that I moved her kennel into the bedroom. She was NOT potty trained and my boyfriend would get angry and told me it was my fault for not being tough enough on her. He told me he had friends who bred pit bulls back in his hometown and to potty train them you rub there face in to there feces if they go in the house. I was also told, by him and many others, to hit my dog when she misbehaved. As I continued to reach out for answers I continued to love my dog and her big tongue hanging out, licking my hands. I had everyone telling me what the answers were, and those mostly involved violence or ‘dominance’. I just didn’t want to hit my dog, Her sweet temperament and gentle nature, her willingness to please me drove me to question that her motives where to “control me”.
I discovered positive reinforcement training and resources for people who love pit bulls instead of torturing and fighting them. I trained her diligently and Ginger started making everyone elses’ dog look bad. The state of Iowa is not a friendly place for pit bulls and many dog day cares, apartments, and even whole cities have banned them. My first obedience instructor told my class that we should pretend to eat or actually eat some of our dogs food before we fed them each meal. Yeah, I did do it a few times. It just didn’t make sense to me and it didn’t seem to affect my dogs’ behavior.
I became an enthusiastic pit-bull advocate. I took Ginger to the dog park. When she tried to play with another dog it’s owner picked it up by its hind legs and spun it away from her in the air, which was incredibly interesting to her, naturally. Because Ginger was banned from some places, and the dog park had been such a failure due mostly to stereotypes, I had ‘dog parties’ and invited everyone over that I knew had a dog. Sometimes, it was a bit much. I wasn’t sure how else to socialize her.
I read training books and enrolled her in an agility class at a local training club that used positive training. I read more books, and I watched episodes of Victoria Stillwells’ “It’s me or the dog” until I knew exactly what she was going to do to handle the dogs who misbehaved.
Ginger was great. During an agility fun match we ran towards a table and I shouted the command “table!” as she ran ahead of me. Ginger jumped onto the table and looked at me. Then jumped off the table to the feeble barrier between her and the audience, stuck her head through the barrier fence and licked a little boy on the face, her tail wagging.
“Ginger! Table!” I shouted,trying not to laugh and ran near her. Just as quickly she jumped back on the table and sat on command. After the fun match was over all the children in the audience came over to us and asked to pet her. She lay down and was surrounded. One mother came up and thanked me.
“She’s very afraid of dogs” The woman said looking back and forth between me and her daughter petting my dog. “She was bitten. I brought her here to see that dogs can be fun. I can’t believe she is petting a dog. Thank you.” Just remembering gives me the shivers.
I beamed with pride. I started telling people that I held her to a higher standard, and I did. I had to, because so many people hated her without even meeting her. I once had a passerby tell me that I would ” learn my lesson when my dog attacks me”.
I started fostering dogs and through working in the dog day care fell in love with Australian Shepards (among other loves, of course). I fostered a young dog through an Aussie rescue who caught the scent of a rotting deer carcass across the road and was hit by a passing car. I was devastated. A few weeks later I saw Bugsy in the shelter. I called the Aussie rescue and begged to get him into the rescue. I vowed to spring him from the shelter.
(at that time the rescue was still working on its non-profit status and the animal shelter would therefore not relinquish dogs to them). So I pretended to adopt him. I pretended so hard that it became true. After 48 hours I called the rescue and called the whole thing off. I didn’t know what I was doing really. I was still coping with the loss of my foster dog.
Bugsy, is the best bad decision I ever made.
Bugsy was a MESS! But I cleaned him up and taught him tricks. He got along wonderfully with the two resident dogs. Ginger and Bugsy would often be caught chewing on the same toy at the same time. After Bugsy had settled in I began fostering dogs again. I fostered 7 dogs over a two year period( if you include Comet and Cupid.)
About 5 months later, on a stormy Christmas eve night two stinky, fluffy, starving puppies found there way into my garage after the door had frozen open. It was Ginger that had woken me up that Christmas Eve and “told” me that something was in the garage. I looked for their owner, and found they had been an unwanted litter and tossed out. A mix of working Great Pyrenees and English Shepard the pups were not taken in by any rescues and I couldn’t bring myself to take them to the shelter, so I vetted them and started my own rural puppy rescue “Gimmie Shelter!”. So far Comet and Cupid are the only puppies “Gimmie Shelter!” has served. Comet was the most angelic adorable puppy I have ever seen. Cupid was possibly the sweetest.
I waited awhile before introducing the puppies to any of the resident dogs. I was afraid they
might have contagious dog diseases. Then, when the vet gave me the all clear the puppies began spending time with the dogs for a short play periods at a time. One house dog at a time. Until I felt confident that I could be in a room with all 5 dogs. I really enjoyed my time with the group as a whole. The adult dogs played so gently with the puppies. The puppies were, obviously, adorable. The lovable goofiness levels in my house went through the roof. It was great.
The last night I had all 5 dogs together I was sitting at my desk, writing, and watching the dogs play. I saw Ginger and Bugsy playing together in the connecting room. They played so well together. It just amazed me. At my feet Harry played with one of the puppies while the other chewed on a toy nearby. I loved how youthful the puppies seemed to make Harry feel. The puppy would lick and roll into Harry’s face sometimes the puppies entire head going into Harrys mouth. It just seemed so dangerous, but was obviously so natural and fun to them. Harry was so gentle. Ginger walked into the room, her coat shining and her muscles bulging. She was a beautiful sight. I looked at my dogs and thought…this is why I am not keeping these puppies. Neither one of them. I have wonderful amazing dogs who deserve my attention and affection.
Less than 10 minutes later Ginger attacked Harry. He was still lying on the ground when it happened. I had done no real research on dog behavior or body language at that point so I can’t tell you where things went wrong. There was blood on all the adult dogs by the end of it. The fight only lasted a minute.. While I was breaking it up, I was confident. Thanks to my experience handling dogs at the daycare(though this rarely happened there, and never as bad as this was) . When it ended I shook with fright.
I found the puppies hiding underneath the couch and secured them for the evening. I checked over Harry whom had been lifted and shaken by his neck. Ginger had had no trouble tossing his body around even as I grabbed and lifted her. Harry had multiple lacerations to the neck and vomited through-out the evening. I crumbled and sobbed, when Bugsy put his furry head on my lap. I looked down at his big brown eyes and gasped to see what appeared to be him crying blood. He had a cut just a millimeter below his eye and it was dripping blood.
I thought Harry might die and I rushed him to the vet after sleeping next to him in bed all night. But he only suffered bruising and bite wounds. Bugsys’ eye healed and you can’t find the scar now. Ginger had a small bite wound on her rear from when I carried her by the scruff of her neck to another room.
For some time I struggled with Ginger. After this I could not successfully reintroduce her to the pack. The more I tried the less I wanted to try again. Eventually I learned that the more a dog has a chance to act out a behavior, the more likely it is to repeat it. I cared for her separately from all other dogs for the remainder of her time with me. I contacted rescue groups and trainers and asked advice and read so many books so fast. I couldn’t do it fast enough. Ginger was not okay with splitting her time with me and she was acting out constantly. It was horrendous. When she was not with me she began what I can only describe as crying, a high-pitched whining that was interrupted by grunts and pawing. Though she had been potty trained for a year now ,she eliminated in the house and in her kennel. She seemed in misery.
From my reading I put together that Gingers prey drive had gone up dramatically since I had adopted her. Also she was about 3 then, the time pit bulls reach maturity. I realized that she had been posturing and being pushy to the other dogs and I hadn’t realized it because I didn’t really speak there language. I was so disappointed in myself.
I kept trying until I felt confident I could successfully re-introduce her and failed. She attacked Harry and spattered blood on my walls. In order to break up the fight I had to rip the dogs apart and throw Ginger down the stairs in order to buy myself enough time to kick Harry into a room and slam a door between them. BANG!
Time stopped as I stood at the top of my stairs staring down at my beloved dog who slept on the same pillow as me so many nights. My beloved dog, now lying at the bottom of my stairs unmoving. For a split second I thought, if ever my dog would turn on me, now is the time. Even in that moment I loved my dog, and I know she loved me and I rushed down the stairs to her. She shuttered, and then got up. She looked around. Shook. Then wagged her tail and licked my face. Such is the devotion of dogs.
Some of you will hate me by the end of this blog post.
The next day I called the vets office and made an appointment to put Ginger to sleep. My voice shook as I asked the vet how much notice I needed to give them if I was going to change my mind. Of course, I changed my mind! A thousand times I did in the hours before the appointment. But I didn’t cancel. Ginger had steak and cottage cheese for dinner. I spent nearly every minute of her time left by her side. We went on walks. Watched TV. Cuddled and I cried. She was so sweet sitting half on my lap and cocking her head to the side. I had to cancel.
Why not consider re-homing Ginger?
I had been volunteering as a foster home and advocating for homeless pets , especially pit bulls for long enough to know that there is many more dogs with vices than happy homes to put them in. Pit bulls with a history of aggression don't have a lot of adoption options. What she needed was a miracle and apparently we were all out. Yes, I tried, I sent e-mails and made calls. I spoke with pit-bull advocates on the other side of the country! And on the phone we cried together.
I also had to feed the other dogs, so I separated her and fed them and then brought her back. I got out my best treats and decided we would work on some agility! But she wouldn’t do it. She ran to the door Harry was on the other side of and grunted and growled and barked and dug. I took her away. She went back. I put her on leash. She stayed at the end of it looking towards the door Harry was behind. The amazing focus she had had with me during our obedience and agility training, her determination to finish any task was now so misguided. I couldn’t refocus her. I fell to my knees in pain to see it.
Ginger passed away January 9th 2009. She went peacefully to sleep while I petted her soft glistening coat. “I’m sorry.” I cried in a whisper into her ear. “ I’m so sorry. I love you. I’m sorry.” I walked away with her leash and collar in my hands. I spent the next week in my basement. I was beaten. I was crushed. I was ashamed.
Time passed and I picked up were I had left off. No more dogs have been injured due to fights in my house. I began reading books about dogs again, but this time not just training books. Books about behavior and body language, history and evolution of dogs. I successfully adopted out the sweeter of the two puppies, Cupid. I came to realize that Comet had some pretty serious food and resource guarding issues. Using positive reinforcement methods I worked with Comet at home and enrolled him in a puppy socialization class. By a year old Comet had taken 2 obedience classes and was CGC certified. (Now he has been in three, we love it. Such fun!) Comet is an AKC certified Canine Good Citizen and does therapy work with adults with developmental disabilities. Comet barks at things he smells in the night, occasionally still steals pizza off the counter, and needs a lot of regular exercise. He has a soft, fuzzy, milk and honey coat, and gives up toys and food without a fuss. He is so very gentle with children and cats, has a tendency to herd, and has become a strikingly handsome dog, if I do say so myself.
Ginger taught me so much about determination. I still love pit bulls. Admittedly I can get choked up around them, like when a month ago I was volunteering at the local animal shelter and handled an extremely shy fawn and white pit bull named Shelby who I accidentally called Ginger when I was working with her.
Ginger has been the biggest of driving forces in my unending quest to understand those who can’t speak my language. So as I stand in the dog-training club with Bugsy who is laying down so politely next to me as us humans chat about our struggles and victories with our dogs, I do not bring up her name. But when I speak of a lesson I learned about dogs, I am always speaking about a lesson Ginger helped teach me.
No dog will suffer under my roof if I can continue to have the strength and determination Ginger had in her life. I will carry the wisdom to see suffering of all kinds and to stop it if I can keep with me the lessons dogs teach.