This is a special holiday series for anyone who has ever sighed and said, “What do I do with this dog?” We want you to know that, whoever you are, wherever you are, you are not alone. Shoot, most trainers and dog behavior nerds end up in the field after finding themselves sharing their home with a dog whose behavior was way more than they’d bargained for.
In this five-part series, each of the five DOL directors will tell the stories of our naughty beasts, from chaos to today, in the hopes of not just sharing wisdom, but some courage, humor, and solidarity as well. You’ve met Sampson, Sedona, & Rufus. Now we present a pretty little pittie named Suki…
Suki is a beautiful blonde, just like her mom, who happens to live with a quintessential naughty boy beast named Zane. But Zane came into DOL director Dawn’s life when she already knew what to do with naughtiness. Suki showed up on the doorstep one day and changed everything. She is a beautiful, wiggly social butterfly and, between her newly adopted brother and visiting foster dogs, often the best behaved and most mellow pup in the house. Once upon a time, that wasn’t so…
Just before Christmas 2005, an adorable little 8-week-old puppy showed up on my doorstep. Literally. I opened the door and there she was, just sitting there in the cold. It was very late at night and I only went to the door because my dog Bella was sniffing around the threshold and whining. I remember thinking it was either a weird coincidence or someone in the neighborhood who knew Bella and me figured I would take her in if they left her there.
The next day, I put up “Lost Dog” flyers in the neighborhood thinking that someone would be missing her. During the couple of weeks I waited, I pondered whether or not I had the time, money, and desire to keep her. I had never raised a puppy and considering my stressful circumstances at the time, it seemed like an enormous commitment. I also suspected she was a “pit bull” and there was a lot of publicity about “those dogs”, so I spent hours online researching and trying to sort out the facts from the negative hype. Only having limited experience with the breed (all of which was good), I still wondered if I should keep her. The information I read indicated she would be an intelligent, high-energy dog who could be stubborn and would do best with an experienced handler. Was I that person? I didn’t think so and I decided to put her up for adoption through a local rescue group. In the mean time, we stopped calling her “Puppy” and named her “Suki.”
By the time Suki had an interested adopter, she was almost five months old and my daughter and I had grown really attached to her. I had given much thought to our situation over the months and ultimately ended up calling off a trial adoption, assuring the rescue I was ready for the commitment and promising to be her forever home. That decision set me on a path I would never had dreamed I would take.
I was determined to do all the “right things” to help her grow up to be a “good dog,” so I enrolled her in a puppy training class at a local pet store. Suki was the star of her class in learning and executing her commands but had a tendency to be rude and pushy with other dogs. I figured more socialization and interaction was what she needed, so I began taking her to the dog park to be around lots of other dogs. At first, we’d only go into the small dog area but she played too rough with the other dogs, so we began going into the large dog area. She got pushed around a lot at first, which I thought was normal play, but then slowly began to become the bully of the park. People began giving me dirty looks and pulling their dogs away from her. Some even rudely told me she shouldn’t be coming to the dog park. Soon after, we stopped going to the dog park. I continued walking her every day in my neighborhood but she began having really obnoxious outbursts at other dogs she would see. Worried my dog was becoming “aggressive,” I hired a certified dog trainer to come to my house and help.
The trainer told me I needed to establish myself as the alpha and showed me how to do an alpha roll. He showed me how to do hard leash corrections on walks and how to force her to sit and stare at things to which she was reacting. He also brought his very confident female pittie over and told me he was going to have her help correct Suki and teach her appropriate behavior. The trainer’s dog would roll her on her back and pin her to the ground when Suki would charge her (which I was instructed to let her do). I was scared and uncomfortable but I was paying this guy for his “expertise” and he assured me she was learning from his dog how to behave. But as time went on, Suki’s reactivity grew and I stopped using the trainer.
Frustrated, I decided I would just modify my walking routes to minimize the number of yards with other dogs and go out during the off-peak dog-walking times. Unfortunately, my old neighborhood had a fair number of loose dogs in it and we had a handful of very scary encounters with dogs running up to us. Over time, Suki’s reactivity increased to where she would explode anytime she saw any other dog within sight. By the time she was almost a year and half old, we’d had two incidents in which off leash dogs had run up to her and a fight broke out. Both times, Suki caused damage to the other dogs and I began to worry about the safety of neighborhood dogs and whether or not I was going to be sued. She was fence fighting with my neighbor’s dogs on a daily basis and had redirected on Bella’s leg during a fence fighting episode, breaking a bone in her paw. She had ruined the new carpet in my house, chewed up my furniture, and enjoyed digging holes in my backyard. I no longer took her to my parents’ house because I didn’t trust her around their small dog. My friends and family were routinely suggesting I needed to just get rid of her. I was at my wits end, crying tears of frustration constantly. I resorted to keeping her in the house as much as possible. She was driving me crazy and I realized I resented her for it.
I seriously considered reaching out to rescues again but I couldn’t seem to abandon the promise I had made to be her forever home. I did some more research online and that’s when I found references to a trainer named Lee Mannix. Numerous forums and reviews had positive things to say about him, specifically that he was good with aggression cases and didn’t use negative training methods, so I called up and scheduled an appointment.
The day of Suki’s evaluation, I brought in all the background paperwork and let Lee read through it. When he finished, I think I made it all of two minutes before I burst into tears. I told him how she had come into my life, about the “training” we’d done, about her “severe dog aggression”, and flat out admitted I had no clue what to do. He explained to me that her profile and behavior indicated fear…of most everything. He said he could help me learn how to communicate with her and build a relationship to address the issues we were having. I’m sure I must have looked crazy sitting there staring in disbelief at his response. I’m not sure what I was expecting. I guess part of me was anticipating the advice to have her euthanized… after all, that’s what others had suggested as the only solution. In any case, I agreed to sign her up for a training class.
Suki and I ended up taking several training classes with Lee over the next year. I learned how little things I had been doing over the years were reinforcing fear and causing insecurity, and then I learned how to do those things differently. I learned that a handful of treats, a calm demeanor, consistency, and patience are how you get results. We did our homework, Lee helped us with snags along the way, and I began seeing positive changes in her behavior. Most importantly, I began to love my dog again. We rebuilt our bond with each other and became best friends.
It wasn’t until several years later that I began volunteering with shelter dogs. It didn’t take long to think that many of those same techniques I had learned could help the dogs in the shelter who were exhibiting behavioral issues. And it did. A couple of years later, I find myself in the company of some amazing friends who have travelled similar roads with their own dogs, have a penchant for the “naughty ones”, and who are on a mission to help those dogs that others have given up on. Do I still think opening the door that night and finding that little pup sitting there was a coincidence? Not a chance. I now know that she found me so that I could find my passion in life. Thanks a million, Suki Soo.”
Suki’s lesson to us is that you are your dog’s best chance for success, and that reaching out for help on their behalf shows strength and love.