Saving Ollie - Part 1 in a series on a shelter dog with serious behavior problems

I had little optimism for Ollie’s future as we concluded his initial behavior consultation. Homes for 140-pound dogs who bite people are in short supply, and Ollie seemed about to lose his. Ann and Meredith (not their real names) had adopted him from a shelter less than two months before our appointment. Their relationship started out wonderfully. The big goofy Harlequin Great Dane quickly bonded with his new family and spent his first 2 or 3 weeks charming their friends and neighbors. Then his behavior took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse.

It started when he bit Meredith’s elderly mother as she entered the house. From there, Ollie’s aggression quickly escalated. He remained affectionate with his new family, but began ferociously guarding doorways against everyone else. Low growls and wary stares soon replaced the warm welcome he had given earlier visitors. This frightening behavior led Ann and Meredith to start confining Ollie away from visitors, but he still bit twice more over the next month. On their veterinarian’s recommendation, they consulted a dog trainer who recommended returning Ollie to the shelter.

Ollie’s aggression surprised the shelter’s management. He had come to them under tragic circumstances, but – exhibiting only physical signs of his trauma – the seemingly gentle giant charmed everyone he met during his brief stay. They asked my partner and me to perform an in-home evaluation and offer a second opinion. We met a dog who, in addition to exhibiting extreme aggression in doorways, was likely to bite anyone that grabbed his collar, handled his hindquarters, or tried to remove him from furniture. He warned us that he would bite when we made him uncomfortable, but an untrained eye could easily miss those subtle warnings.

Ollie was a dangerous dog, but not a hopeless case. We quickly gained his trust and saw his delightful softer side. We explained to Ann and Meredith that Ollie could probably learn to safely interact with visitors, but it would involve a long, tedious behavior modification process with no guarantee of success. We outlined the work involved and encouraged them to take some time to digest the information before making a decision about how to proceed.
I generally avoid making recommendations to clients about a dog’s ultimate fate. I prefer to explain my interpretation of the facts and let owners reach their own decisions. Privately, though, I concurred with the first trainer’s recommendation to return Ollie to the shelter.

Ann and Meredith were exceptionally dedicated and conscientious owners who had clearly fallen in love with Ollie. They adopted him for companionship, though, not as a risky and time-consuming rehabilitation project. They didn’t sign up to develop the advanced dog training skills necessary to help him. They never intended to rearrange their lives to protect friends and family from their dog. Most importantly, they just were not prepared to live in fear of the day that safety precautions somehow failed and their enormous unpredictable dog attacked someone else. I suspected that Ann and Meredith would make the painful decision to return Ollie to the shelter. They did. It was the right decision.

An owner’s decision to return a dog like Ollie usually means a death sentence. Few shelters have the resources necessary to work with them and appropriate homes are extremely rare. Ollie, however, had been adopted from a “no-kill” shelter: the Animal Adoption Foundation in Ross, Ohio. We had recently started working with AAF, and I didn’t know their policy on euthanasia for behavior problems. I did, however, know that Ollie would be welcome at the shelter for the foreseeable future and that every effort would be made to address his behavior problems and find him a good home. I took comfort in knowing that Ollie would get a second chance, but I still had grave concerns for him. I have my doubts about the no-kill movement, and many of them center on the fates of dogs like Ollie.

I hesitate to wade into a discussion about the relative merits of no-kill versus full-service shelters. It is one of dogdom’s great hot-button issues and I am far from an expert. Usually when the topic comes up in groups of animal advocates, I try to steer the conversation towards something safer, like politics or religion. Prior to working with AAF, I had only volunteered or consulted for full-service shelters. My experiences with no-kill organizations had – I have since learned - been with poor representatives of the movement, and some of them really disturbed me.
Several of my clients had adopted dogs with serious behavior problems from no-kill organizations that apparently knew about the issues and failed to disclose them. I had also seen dogs “warehoused” in kennels for years at a no-kill shelter with inadequate behavioral enrichment. I know from heartbreaking experience that long-term shelter confinement can have a devastating effect on many dogs’ mental health. For these dogs, such confinement is a fate worse than death. Those were my two big fears for Ollie: that he would either be irresponsibly adopted out to a family that could not handle him or that he would live a miserable life deteriorating in the shelter.

I’ll tell you in advance that neither of these fates awaited Ollie. He is alive and well and living the good life. It’s been almost 2 years since I first met him. My observations and interactions with Ollie and with AAF’s amazing staff and volunteers in that time have expanded my ideas about shelter management and what shelters can accomplish. I don’t have many answers, but I do have many interesting (I hope) questions and observations to share. Some touch on the issues that divide no-kill and full-service shelters, but most of them are relevant to all shelters and their communities.

To be continued... Part II