Saving Sadie - by John Sealander

At first glance, Sadie seems exactly like any other Dalmatian. She'll chase a tennis ball for hours. She tugs at her leash, eagerly trying to turn every walk into an exuberant run. She sheds her own weight in dog hair every year. And, like most Dalmatians, she likes to greet you by making a flying leap into your lap when you return home at the end of the day.

This beautiful, playful five-year-old liver-spotted lady isn't like most Dalmatians however. She has bitten. Sadie has bitten other dogs and even worse, she has bitten people. A lot of knowledgeable people who ought to know such things strongly recommended that Sadie be put down. Sadly, the majority of dogs in her situation are. According to conventional wisdom, a dog that bites is a ticking time bomb that will eventually bite again. Many public shelters and animal control authorities routinely euthanize dogs like Sadie. So do a lot of veterinarians. These people all are convinced that what they are doing is best for the dog and best for society.

I don't think many well-meaning advocates of euthanasia ever ask the dog what it wants. Luckily, someone did ask Sadie, and her answer was clear. Sadie wanted to live. She is a remarkable survivor who, against all odds, managed to overcome every obstacle in her path. For every well-meaning expert who was convinced she should be put down for her own good, she managed to win-over another well-meaning expert who became equally determined to give her another chance.

Dogs like Sadie don't live very long without a guardian angel. Sadie had a choir of angels. She had a veterinarian who refused to give up on her even when other vets suggested that she be euthanized. She had a patient and understanding trainer who was convinced that there was still a loving, eager-to-please dog trapped inside Sadie's all too obvious shell of fear and abuse. Most importantly, she had Ann.

Ann rescued Sadie from a veterinary clinic where her former owners had abandoned her when she had been diagnosed as being heartworm positive. They told the vet to send her to the pound because they didn't want to pay for treatment. A monthly HeartgardTM pill wasn't the only thing that Sadie's former owners failed to give her. They also failed to provide her with the basic social skills that every puppy needs to survive. There is every indication that Sadie was purchased at a puppy mill and taken away from her littermates long before she had a chance to develop the social skills that all puppies learn by playing together. Since Sadie never had a chance to play and grow with her littermates, she never developed a "soft mouth." All puppies nip and bite one another as they learn to play. Puppies quickly learn that if they nip one of their littermates too vigorously, it stops playing with them. One of the first things a well-socialized puppy learns is how to control its mouth. Most young dogs quickly learn that a "soft mouth" is the secret to successful and sustained play.

A dog that doesn't learn to control its mouth as a puppy almost never learns this essential skill later in life. Once fully grown, there is almost no way to teach a dog the strength of its own jaw muscles without risking serious injury to another dog or, even worse, the dog's owner. A dog that has never developed a "soft mouth" simply doesn't know its own strength, or its potential to cause harm to others. Unfortunately, many owners don't understand the importance of proper puppy socialization any better than their dog does.

This was certainly the case with Sadie's original owners. They didn't see a dog that had failed to acquire necessary social skills. Instead, they saw a puppy that nipped too hard and needed to be punished. As Sadie grew, she was beaten and punished whenever she bit or nipped. This didn't cure the problem of course, but it did cause Sadie to curl into a ball and yelp in fear immediately after she bit. Even as an adult dog, Sadie never understood why she bit or even that her actions could hurt someone. She did become fearful of what could happen afterwards however.

When Ann rescued Sadie from the clinic where she had been abandoned by her owners, she found a dog that was weak with heartworms and fearful of everything. Even then, Sadie was a survivor. She responded well to heartworm treatment from a sympathetic vet and began to put on weight as she resumed eating normally. It was only after Sadie became healthy and active that her ongoing fear began to show itself as aggression. An incident with one of Ann's other dogs resulted in a trip to the emergency clinic, a dozen stitches and a search for a safer environment for Sadie. Like many fear aggressive animals, Sadie could bite without warning and it was hard to tell in advance what might provoke her.

Everyone knew that Sadie was dog-dog aggressive, but since she seemed so gentle with people, no one thought that the problem might be more fundamental. In the search for a safe and happy environment, Sadie passed through a series of foster homes. Most of these foster parents had other dogs however, and they were understandably reluctant to leave Sadie alone with them. Even at her best, Sadie seemed unpredictable around other female dogs and there was always the danger that her aggressive side would show its face again.

This search for a home where Sadie could be safe eventually led her to me. Ann had asked Janet and I if we would consider providing a foster home for Sadie. We had a fenced yard and at the time had no other dogs in our house, so it seemed like an ideal situation. We agreed to take Sadie, knowing that she was aggressive to other dogs. How could we refuse? Sadie charmed us immediately. She was playful and loving, and did the best she could to fill the void left when our own Dalmatian had died earlier in the year. Within a few days, Sadie was sleeping on our bed, chasing yellow tennis balls in the back yard and begging for table scraps like any self-respecting Dalmatian.

We knew that Sadie wasn't predictable with other dogs and I would always keep her on a tight leash when we passed another dog on our walks. Day-by-day she seemed to grow more relaxed and I had strong hopes that she would eventually get to the point where she was no longer fearful and could play with the other dogs in the neighborhood.

Although I was careful to warn friends and neighbors that Sadie was a rescue dog with a history of aggression toward other dogs, I never dreamed she could be aggressive to people until the day she bit our neighbor.

I'll remember that day forever. Our neighbor had lost her own dog the same summer that Janet and I had lost Spot. We hadn't seen each other recently however, and she didn't know that Spot was dead. When she saw Sadie and I walking down the street that afternoon, she initially thought I was walking Spot and came running up to pet him. I told her immediately to stop and stay back, because this definitely wasn't Spot. She stopped about four or five feet away and we continued talking while I gave Sadie the command to sit. I told my friend all about Sadie's sad history and how we thought she was very fear aggressive because she had been badly abused as a puppy. All this time, Sadie was sitting quietly at my side, looking very sweet and friendly. I remember my neighbor saying that she looked like a good dog and told me that maybe if she let Sadie smell her first, they would become friends.

My friend kneeled down to face the dog, moved about a foot closer and slowly reached out her hand for Sadie to sniff. Without any growl or warning signs, Sadie lunged forward, pulled the leash out of my hand, knocked me over and went straight for the woman's face. The dog bit my friend right below her nose and almost tore her lip off. It took fifty stitches and a good plastic surgeon to put her back together again.

All my neighbor wanted to do was pet a dog again. Her own dog had died only a few days earlier. It was so sad. To this day, my neighbor thinks she did something wrong by approaching the dog after I warned her to stay back. I, in turn, think I did something wrong by not recognizing that Sadie had the potential to harm someone. If I'd had any idea she might bite, I never would have walked her on a public street in the first place.

Since my friend was injured badly enough to require medical attention; animal control was contacted immediately. They came to my house only a few hours after the bite and put Sadie under a mandatory 10-day quarantine. I only found out later how rare it was for animal control to allow a dog that had bitten and drawn blood to remain quarantined at home with its owner. Usually, animal control will take the dog with them immediately and often euthanize it after the mandatory ten-day waiting period.

Sadie was lucky, even if it didn't seem so at the time. She couldn't leave the house for ten days. She had to be kept on a leash even when going to the bathroom in the back yard and had to be placed in a locked crate before any visitors could enter the house. The house itself had to be locked at all times. Janet and I were the only people allowed to touch the dog for the duration of the quarantine. Each day became a little longer than the one that came before. Sadie knew something was wrong. By day five she was not just chewing on her yellow tennis balls in the evening, she was biting them in half. By day eight, she was trying to dig under the fence when I took her outside on her leashed, very supervised bathroom breaks. I could see why she was getting frantic. She absolutely loved the daily walks in the park that began when she moved in with us and abruptly ended when she bit our neighbor. She knew the park was still right outside our fence, but she genuinely didn't understand why she no longer had access to it. When the tenth day was finally over and the animal control officer who had placed her under quarantine came back to release her, everybody who had become part of Sadie's life was worn out.

In theory, the ten-day quarantine was enforced to ensure that Sadie didn't have rabies. This was just a technicality though, especially since Sadie already had a valid rabies certificate. The real reason for the ten-day wait was that it gave everyone involved time to decide whether she would live or die.

Sadie got to live. It wasn't a unanimous decision however. The senior animal control officer on her case recommended euthanasia, citing her own experiences with a rescue dog she had owned who had bitten her husband. Much to my surprise, my own veterinarian recommended euthanasia. Amazingly, the woman Sadie had bitten wanted to give her a second chance. So did the vet who had treated Sadie for heartworm and gotten to know her best. Ann wanted to give Sadie a second chance and so did I. We just didn't know the best way to do it. I felt responsible for putting Sadie in a situation where she could harm others. I honestly didn't think she would ever bite. Even through the stressful quarantine period, she never snapped at me and always slept curled up next to me in bed.

It's hard to know what to do in a situation like this. One vet recommended giving Sadie Amatripoline, a drug in the Prozac family, to keep her from becoming aggressive in the future. Someone else recommended that we find a home for Sadie in a private animal sanctuary where problem dogs are allowed to live out their lives in the relative safety of a rural Texas ranch. A surprising number of friends still thought Sadie should be put down. I think Sadie made the final decision herself. She wanted to live.

A life on powerful anti-depressants didn't seem right for Sadie. Neither did a life fended away from the people she loved in a distant animal sanctuary. I certainly knew that I couldn't keep Sadie forever. We had next door neighbors with small children and the rest of the neighborhood was fearful that Sadie might bite again. The small group of guardian angels that had banded together to save Sadie finally agreed that the only solution was to look for the best dog trainers and animal behaviorists we could find and let them evaluate Sadie objectively. We honestly didn't know if Sadie could be saved. We all agreed to live with whatever decision the evaluation team made and with much apprehension went with her on the appointed day to cheer her on. We didn't know what the trainers would decide, but this is as close as we could come to letting Sadie decide her own fate.

It took a long time to find the right trainers, but it was worth the wait. After a very thorough evaluation, the evaluation team agreed that Sadie was very aggressive with little or no natural bite inhibition. They also found her to be extremely intelligent, eager to please and well worth the effort it would take to socialize her. Like many of us, they saw a good dog trapped inside a shell of fear. I can't say enough good things about the trainers and behaviorists who became an integral part of Sadie's guardian angel team. They worked gently and patiently with her for over two months just to build a foundation for regaining the social skills she never learned as a puppy.

When the training facility agreed to take Sadie, Ann, Janet and I said goodbye to her temporarily. This was really the best solution. We all knew that if Sadie ever bit again, she would be put down. At the training facility, she would be safe and out of harm's way while she learned some very essential social skills. I would visit Sadie several times a week and with every visit I noticed small, but very tangible improvements. Sadie was calmer and less distracted by the world around her. She was affectionate without the frantic neediness that used to be her trademark. With every passing week, she seemed to increase her chances of living a normal life.

As I continue to work with Sadie, my opinions about animals have changed. I used to think that there were "good" and "bad" breeds and that some dogs were simply aggressive and mean by nature. Sadie taught me a lot of things. I learned that even the most well mannered dog is still an animal that can easily bite if provoked. More importantly, I learned that even aggressive dogs are not inherently bad. Behavior is determined by far more by socialization than by breeding. Sadie was and is a good dog who got off to a very bad start.

I have a feeling that aggressive dogs share a similar fate with the mentally ill in the human world. They just don't get any respect. It's easy to find sympathy and support for the physically ill. Almost any rescue group will tell you that it's a lot easier to find a home for a dog that's blind or has three legs than for a dog that growls. Like the mentally ill, an aggressive dog is often looked on as spoiled goods and shunned.

The truth is that with enough time and money, almost any dog can be socialized. Few people seem to try however. If a dog isn't properly socialized as a puppy, it seldom gets a second chance. You could make the argument that there just aren't enough resources to go around. After all, why go to the trouble of saving a dog that bites when shelters around the country are overflowing with gentle, well-socialized dogs that will soon be euthanized. The prevailing attitude seems to be that "good" dogs get to go to the head of the line when it comes to limited rescue resources. Maybe this is the way things have to be. I hope not though. What if humans were treated the same way? If good behavior were the main criteria for getting the care we need, many of us wouldn't be here today.

Sadie has come a long way. She will never be a dog that can be safely taken to a public dogpark or play with small children. She will make the right person a wonderful companion, however. It isn't always easy to find a home for a dog like Sadie. With her beauty, charm and playful exuberance comes a big responsibility. For the rest of her life, Sadie will remain a dog who could bite again. Even though she is now one of the best trained and well-mannered Dalmatians in Texas, all it would take was a quick unpredictable surprise to trigger another fear reaction and another biting incident. One thing we all learned from Sadie's trainers was that when a dog lives in a human world, it is our responsibility to keep them out of harm's way. I've become a big believer in training. A well-trained dog is not only a safe dog; it is a happier dog. Training is a two way street. You become more aware of your dog and its environment and your dog becomes more aware of you. With the proper training, a dog like Sadie doesn't need a muzzle or mind altering drugs to keep her safe, she's got you, always anticipating her every move. It's not a perfect world, but it can be a happy one.

If I'd known that Sadie was a fear biter who could send my neighbor and friend to the emergency room, I'm sure I would have never agreed to foster her. I'm glad she came into my life however. Even though I've known and loved Dalmatians for many years, Sadie taught me something new. You can never take an animal for granted. Socialization is far more important than training. And training is far more important than muzzles or medication. If that were all I'd learned, it would have been enough. Sadie taught me something even more important though. I learned that with enough time and patience, almost anything is possible. Sadie is a survivor. Knowing her has made me a bit more of a survivor myself.

If you enjoy these stories and would like to help this wonderful breed of dogs, please consider making a donation to Dalmatian Rescue of North Texas. Your donation will help Dalmatian Rescue continue to rescue and rehabilitate the hundreds of Dalmatians that are abandoned in North Texas every year. To help give a deserving Dalmatian a second chance, just click on the button to your left. You can use any major credit card to make your donation instantly and no matter what you choose to give, you can feel a little better knowing that you have helped a dog very much like Petey find the one thing it really needs: a home.

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