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Providing a Quality Life to the Animals Who Need it the Most

When I first met Bear, I instantly felt connected to him. He reminded me so much of my personal dog Buck, the dog whose aggressive behavior had inspired me to become a dog trainer and to rescue, rehabilitate, train, and create management protocols for dogs with behavioral special needs. His family had reached out to us for a consultation while they were visiting family in our area from out of town

The first step in any consultation I do is to take as much of a history as possible. For many of my rescue clients, the dog’s history may be a mystery, as the dog could have come in as a stray or only adopted been adopted a few months prior to starting training. Bear was very much the opposite. His family had known him since he was a three week old puppy that had been found as a stray. They met him when volunteering at the animal shelter where he was brought, and the second he was old enough, they adopted him.

Bear was raised with as much love and care as any dog could ever possibly want or need. His family trained him and socialized him. They gave him toys, treats, high quality food, whatever veterinary care he required, and they never hit him or abused him. 99% of dogs raised in their household would have grown to be the perfect family pet, but Bear is in the 1% of dogs who, because of his genetics, grew up to be aggressive regardless of what they did.

Bear had several small incidents where he bit his owners, usually it was his mom, who loved him more than anything. Still, his family refused to give up on him. Their family grew to include a little boy and his family continued to work with Bear and mainly kept him separate from their son to make sure everyone would be safe. Things were difficult, and they felt like Bear was depressed being separated from the family, but they persevered knowing Bear was not a candidate for rehoming and that he’d likely be euthanized by any shelter for his behavior.

When I met with them for their consultation I gave them the best advice I could in a two hour period. I counseled them on what motivated his aggression, what could be done to predict his triggers, and suggested they immediately begin muzzle training him. They returned home and we agreed we would touch base once again on his behavior later in the year when they moved back to our area permanently.

Things came to a head when the family moved. Bear is a dog who likes his predictable routine, and that much change was very stressful for him. A short while after the family moved, Bear had a severe bite incident with his mom. She simply told him “No” when he went to pee on something he shouldn’t and he ended up biting her multiple times. Bear found himself at animal control after the incident for a bite hold, and even though everyone was pushing for him to be euthanized, his mom would not give up on him. She reached out to me once again and we came up with a plan.

In my professional opinion, Bear was a dog who should not have been rehomed, adopted out, or put into a typical shelter system. He has uncommon triggers, such as eye contact, that would be difficult for an average or even an experienced family to manage safely. However, in my home where we already manage behavior like his on a daily basis, he could most definitely be handled in a safe way lifelong. Unfortunately, I could not take Bear into my home as a foster until I moved from where I was living to our farm location, and that would be months away. His family stood by him regardless, and paid for him to live in a very large kennel in a wonderful boarding facility for several months. They visited him and took him for muzzled walks. I visited him and got to know him little by little. The moment I was able to take him, Bear and his family made the drive up and became a permanent foster dog in my home.

Bear’s aggression spans several areas. First, there is his fear aggression, meaning when he meets new people he is so afraid of them he will act aggressively, barking and lunging towards them, hoping to scare them away from ever approaching him. He is also a fear biter, so with veterinary handling he will snap to defend himself, but this comes from fear, so he will also tremble and urinate on himself when he see the vet. He has a history of resource guarding, so he will protect his bones, food, water, toys, and even humans (yes, we can be resources as well) when someone approaches them. He has been territorial and aggressive when a stranger enters his home or room. Finally, and most importantly, he has social dominance aggression. This type of aggression is the most difficult to manage in a home setting, because it is directed at family members. Instinctually they feel they should be above the humans in the home hierarchy and therefore the humans should not be able to correct their behavior and they may reacting aggressively in response to any correction or perceived slight.

Bear has come so far in the two years he has lived with me. He has become more confident, he’s learned to trust my guidance in new situations so he no longer feels the need to be reactive when he is around strangers. He has learned to trust other dogs so he is no longer reactive towards them. He has learned to trust we will never touch his possessions or take something from him, so he now allows us in his room, which is full of toys, bones, and slow feeder puzzle toys, without feeling the need to guard those items. We never allow a stranger into his room so he no longer feels the need to defend his “territory.” We work with veterinarians who respect his fears and allow us to help hold him ourself for any veterinary handling, so he is much less fearful when he needs to get vaccines or blood draws. Not once in two years has he had a single incident of aggression with me or Adam, who are the only two people to handle him and the only two members of his “pack”

Every day Bear wakes up to his predictable routine in his big, beautiful room in my house. He is in there without the muzzle, but when it is time to come out to interact with people, to go for a walk, etc we ask him to put his nose in the muzzle before coming out. I phrase it in this way, because that is exactly what we do; we ask him. We never want to force any dog into a muzzle, which is why we train them and teach them it is a positive tool that will allow them to go on adventures, rather than something used to punish them. Bear sees his muzzle as his window to the outside world, and every day, multiple times a day, he puts his nose willingly (sometimes even enthusiastically) into his muzzle, ready for the next adventure with us.

Some people at this point may say he is rehabilitated and ready for us to remove the basket muzzle, and maybe even could be a candidate for adoption, since he has gone so long without any aggressive incidents. We disagree. Some dogs come to us with learned aggression that can be rehabilitated. Bear is not a dog who can unlearn his behavior because his is not learned, it comes from his genetics. Our job is to safely manage Bear every single day and to make sure he can live a long, happy, and uneventful life here with us without ever putting him, ourselves, or anyone else at risk of an incident. We will not take the chance that without the muzzle one of his old and uncommon triggers could become an issue, leading to him biting again.

When we sat down as a group before there ever was a Wayward Ranch, we talked about what our mission statement would be for our rescue. Several ideas were bounced around but we finally landed on the mission statement we hold true to today: to provide a quality life to the animals who need it the most. We wouldn’t meet Bear for two years after we founded our rescue, but it is almost as if he was who we had in mind when we were creating our mission statement. Bear needed us. No other sanctuary or rescue agreed to take him in. Any shelter that took him would have had two options: either they would have euthanized him or they would have housed him longterm in a small kennel run, which is not a quality life for any dog. Had they rehomed him to another family he could have hurt someone else. Bear needed us, and we were able to help him live, but that wasn’t enough. We needed to provide him with a quality life, and that is where the muzzle comes in! Bear has his own room in my house where he has a queen sized bed, all of the toys and chews he could ever possibly want, but without human interaction he still would be lonely and depressed. Because of his muzzle, we can spend hours with him each day, brushing him, playing with him, taking him on walks and runs, and letting him explore the property, always safely and on multiple leashes. Every day that he goes to bed happy and tired we have done our jobs!

We get requests weekly for dogs just like Bear who have aggression but still have enough potential they don’t deserve to be euthanized. Sadly, we can only help a small number at a time to preserve the quality of life we are able to offer. My hope is other rescues and sanctuaries can see the success we have had with Bear and open their minds to using a basket muzzle as a longterm management tool to provide a better quality of life to the dogs in their care with behavioral special needs. A muzzle is a tool like any other, and tools can be used correctly or incorrectly, but a muzzle used correctly can be what gives a dog like Bear a chance to live and just be a dog.

Written by

Eleni Calomiris

Founding Board Member and Executive Director

Wayward Ranch Animal Sanctuary

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