Author’s Note: I’m going to take a brief break from Smokey’s story here to address an issue that came up a couple weeks ago. But please don’t forget to sign and share the following petition in Smokey’s memory.
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As some of you may know, Joe and I have a new addition. Meet Panzer (formerly Daniel).
Panzer came to us from All Shepherd Rescue in Baltimore, Maryland. Judging by the scars on his face, the state of his filed down toenails and a few filed down teeth and the phobia he has of people touching his rear, it’s very likely that Panzer was used as a bait dog in a fighting ring. He was found wandering the streets of Washington DC. We think he’s about Shelby’s age, somewhere between 11 to 14 months or so. He weighed just 50 pounds when he was rescued and was so emaciated that he couldn’t walk.
“If the dog has issues, they’re the right family for him.” That’s what Carolyn told the rescue when they called her for a reference. She laughed about it at herding the next week and said, “Well?” when I gently chastised her. I sighed. Of course she was right. We have rehabilitated our fair share of behavioral issues at this point and Lord knows we know about medical conditions. Do we ever know about medical conditions.
So of course I did my homework and got prepared to battle the behavioral quirks that were bound to surface in a dog who had such a rough go of it so far. I learned all about the horrendous things that go on in fighting rings (if that was indeed where Panzer was), and what kind of dogs those people look for. I researched what I should expect from him in way of problems, both physical and mental, but especially behavioral. I called our trainers, our behaviorist and began to prep the speech we would need to recite to our families about what may come their way from our (at first) potentially unpredictable new pup. What I forgot to do was buy a collar. Naturally.
That meant that on the day Panzer got dropped off at our house by his very gracious foster family, we had to borrow a temporary collar from them. So we were faced with a decision – leave Panzer at home while we ran to the store to get him a collar or take him with us. Well, the first option didn’t seem very right to us. Hi, nice to meet you, welcome to this strange place with a new dog, here’s your kennel, spend some time in it. But the second option was a little frightening considering there was a lot of new going on already for the poor boy, and we weren’t super excited to expose him to more on the same day.
After we talked about it, we decided to just bring him along – it was only a collar, and it was only going to take a minute.
Off to Petsmart we went.
While I was discussing an appropriate bed for Panzer’s growing and re-developing joints with one of the sales associates, I heard barking. I turned around and saw a high energy pit bull, smiling a big smile and pulling on her leash toward Panzer. Her bark wasn’t terrifying and didn’t sound like the typical “get away from me” bark you hear from dog aggressive dogs. Her owner was holding her back, but she seemed pretty determined to reach our Panzer boy. I called to Joe and urged him to move Panzer away from the dog. He used a treat and praise and lured Panzer down a nearby aisle. The owner of the pit bull stared at me with accusing eyes, which I promptly ignored and went back to my perusal of bed options.
When I was finished and had acquired the perfect joint friendly bed for Panzer, I went to the cash register to check out. We had apparently picked an incredibly inopportune moment to visit Petsmart as there were at least 40 dogs and owners in the store, many of which were waiting in line. Joe went around and waited near the dog training area with Panzer while I got ready to check out and pay. Standing behind me in the line was the pit bull, sporting her hot pink collar, big toothy smile and a still salty owner. I looked down at the dog, smiled briefly then looked back up. The line next to me looked shorter, so I moved over. The owner and the dog followed me.
I put Panzer’s bed, collar and tag on the register while the lady in front of me finished paying for her purchase. While I stood there, I again looked at the dog. She had remarkable coloring, a cream with beautiful, crisp white markings on her neck and face.
“You don’t have to be scared of her just because she’s a pit bull.”
I looked up from examining the dog and shook my head, startled. “Oh no, I wasn’t…” I fumbled for an answer, mainly because I was so shocked. I could literally feel the rage emanating off of the dog’s owner, a man who obviously adored his pit bull, judging by her zebra striped hot pink collar, the two toys, rawhide and training treats in his hand.
“She won’t bite you, and she likes other dogs.”
“I’m not afraid of her.”
“So why did you tell your husband to move your dog away?”
I groaned inwardly at the husband comment, something I’m getting more and more used to when Joe and I are out, and shook my head, “It’s not her. Our dog, Panzer, we just rescued him literally three hours ago. This is sort of his test run out in public since we got him, and we didn’t want him to hurt you or your dog. We’re not sure how he would react with all this stress and everything.”
The man blushed and lowered his head, “Oh, I didn’t realize. I apologize. I’m just so used to people being afraid of her just because she’s a pit bull.”
I smiled and waved a hand as the cashier began to ring out my items, “Not a problem, I get that, we have German Shepherds, so we’re used to it to. Can your dog have a treat?”
He nodded, and I threw a treat on the ground while she smiled, wagged her tail and gobbled it up excitedly. Maybe a little too excitedly. One of the main things I’ve learned from Carolyn is to use food as a diagnostic tool as well as a reward. If the dog doesn’t eat under a certain situation but would eat if it were, at home, say, it is far, far too stressed for that situation and can be unpredictable or highly reactive. If the dog eats in a hurried, almost frantic fashion, the dog is under enough stress that it should start raising some alarm bells. The ideal situation is a dog that eats the food at a relaxed, calm state (as relaxed as any dog can eat an especially good cookie that is). Judging by the dog’s hurried gulp and subsequent eye darts, I guessed she was mildly stressed out. I mean, who wouldn’t be? We were in a cramped space, surrounded by strangers, other dogs and loud, foreign noises. I was most likely invading this sweet dog’s flight zone, which she, because she was good natured and probably well socialized, kindly tolerated. I wasn’t about to pet her however, not because I was afraid she was going to bite me, but because it was already clearly a stressful situation for her, and the last thing I wanted was to combine it with the unwanted, unsolicited touch of a stranger. A thousand incidents of that kind of interaction with people is what can lead to the steady build up that results in people aggression. I didn’t want to contribute to that.
“You can pet her.”
I shook my head, “No thanks.”
The man grew sour in the face again, his lips tightened under a clenched jaw and his face muscles tensed. I sighed heavily as I swiped my debit card, “It’s not because I’m afraid of her. It’s because she’s stressed out, and I don’t want to stress her out more by shoving my face in her face.”
The look flew off the man’s face as he looked down at his precious pup, “How do you know she’s stressed?”
“Watch her eat.” I threw a cookie down. Again, the dog greedily grabbed it up. “Is that how she eats kibble at home?”
He shook his head.
“Oh. But she loves people.”
I shrugged, “I’m sure she does, but right now, she is stressed out. I love people too, but when I’m stressed out, they have a tendency to get on my nerves.” I left out the end of my thought trail – “like right now”.
I grabbed my bag, told the man I hoped he had a nice day, threw another treat on the ground for his dog and walked over to collect Joe and Panzer. Joe asked me what I was talking to that guy about, and I grinned and clicked the clicker in my pocket. Joe heaved a sigh but didn’t say anything.
While I was sitting at home with Panzer and Shelby, listening to the jingling of their tags as they tugged on a snake Panzer’s foster family had brought us, I sighed and leaned back. I felt badly for that man, that he felt that he had to be so defensive just because of the breed of his dog. I felt badly for the dog, who probably wondered why her owner was barking at people all the time. I saw the irony in the fact that she had probably never seen the horrors that many of her breed fell victim to, the horrors of the fighting ring, but my dog, who wasn’t a pit bull, most likely had.
More than anything though, I felt badly for society and the dog community in general. If people spent less time worrying about the breed of the dog and how big the size of its head was and whether or not it was going to snap your baby in half just by looking at it and spent more time worrying about the emotional state of the individual dog and actively trying to improve it, nobody would care whether it was a pit bull or a Chihuahua. All they would look at was how fast the dog ate its cookie. Now wouldn’t that be a wonderful world to live in?