Saving Ollie - Part 2 in a series about a shelter dog with serious behavior problems

Click to read part 1
Ann and Meredith returned Ollie to the shelter soon after our visit. AAF’s Executive Director, Eric Johnson, asked my advice about how to proceed. In other shelters I had worked with, the answer would have been obvious: euthanasia. At AAF, however, that option would not be considered before making every effort to improve Ollie’s behavior.

For now, I’ll dodge the question of whether committing resources to dogs like Ollie, rather than euthanizing them to make room for more “adoptable” dogs in need of scarce shelter space, is good policy. I’m hoping to clarify my thoughts on that issue with this series of posts. I’ll start with the first issue that any shelter considering keeping a dog like Ollie must evaluate: risk.

The first risk of housing aggressive – or potentially aggressive - dogs is the risk to staff, volunteers, visitors, and other animals in the shelter. Ollie posed an obvious risk. How do you safely house – let alone rehabilitate - a 140lb shelter dog likely to attack anyone who opens the door to his run? At the time, I would have answered, “You don’t.” AAF’s mission, however, obligated them to try, and I wanted to help.

Eric housed Ollie in a locked adoption room. Initially nobody except Eric, my partner Mel, or me was allowed to open his door. For the first couple of weeks, I worked with Ollie every day. Eric and I performed some simple exercises to teach Ollie to associate people opening his door with treats instead of with conflict. He responded surprisingly well. Soon we involved experienced volunteers in the exercises. First they approached with me, then under my supervision, and finally independently. Slowly the list of people allowed to work with Ollie grew. So did Ollie’s enjoyment of these visits. Before long, volunteers took over his rehabilitation.

Early in this process, Eric began giving Ollie the run of the reception area when the shelter was closed. Volunteers interacted freely – if cautiously - with Ollie when he was loose. This practice made me uncomfortable. Ollie interacted nicely with everyone, but I still saw signs of his discomfort. Given the weeks it had taken his aggression to manifest in his adoptive home, I viewed him as a ticking time bomb. Few of the staff or volunteers had any significant training in safe handling at the time. Most were oblivious to Ollie’s occasional warnings that they were scaring him.

I expressed my concern to Eric, but I didn’t press the issue. I know that many people, especially dog trainers, will criticize that decision. Why would I participate in behavior modification that I suspected would ultimately fail? As the resident “expert,” didn’t my continued cooperation when one of my safety recommendations was not followed encourage irresponsible behavior? Maybe, but I don’t think so.

I expressed my concerns gently for a variety of reasons. First, I was a newbie at the shelter. I had not yet proven what I could offer them. I knew that nothing turns off hard-working shelter staff more than a know-it-all coming in and trying to change things before he understands how the shelter works.

Second, I know that, like many dog trainers, I’m predisposed to err on the side of caution. In today’s litigious culture, a single bite can mean a death sentence for a dog, so I am accustomed to avoiding them at all costs. Very few dogs ever behave aggressively towards humans, but – as a trainer specializing in aggression – I see the ones who do every day. That combination of regular work with aggressive dogs and a strong aversion to any bite risk skews my judgment.

AAF’s operating model made their approach to the risk Ollie posed seem reasonable. With the exception of their executive director, AAF is run completely by volunteers. Most have a strong stake in the shelter and its mission. Determining an acceptable level of risk was their responsibility, and taking on a bit more than a typical pet owner made sense. I saw my job as ensuring that their decisions were well informed.

I also have to admit that the challenge of working with a dog like Ollie in a shelter setting appealed to me. The shelter was going to work with Ollie whether I helped or not. Their efforts would certainly benefit from my input, so I threw myself into the work with enthusiasm.

My concerns about the staff’s lack of training in safe handling proved valid. Not long after Ollie returned to the shelter, a young woman was petting him and decided to give him a hug. This is a terrible idea with any unknown dog, but especially with one who has a history of aggression. He bit her in the face. The bite was serious, but not disfiguring. Approximately a year later, Ollie bit another volunteer who failed to follow basic safe handling practices.

These bites could have been prevented. Restricting volunteers’ access to Ollie could have eliminated any risk, but it also would have slowed behavior modification. Ollie’s behavior improved quickly and dramatically with the freedom he enjoyed. The 2 bites were probably a fair price to pay for that improvement. Did Ollie’s progress, however, justify the risk of potentially more serious attacks? I don’t know.

I don’t have the data necessary to accurately evaluate the risk a dog like Ollie poses to his caretakers. Hopefully shelters will someday all employ animal behavior professionals performing evidence-based risk assessments. Scientific study of the issue, however, is only just beginning and few shelters have trainers on staff. Most animal welfare workers are, for the time being, stuck relying on experience and gut feelings. This uncertainty about life and death decisions makes the evaluation and assumption of risk by shelters and rescues groups a controversial topic. My experience with Ollie reminded me of the need to keep an open mind on the issue. We’re all still learning.

Part III