Advocate for my fur babies and for all block-headed bullies everywhere.
An animal-lover-from-birth, turned zoology major, turned doggie daycare worker, turned certified dog trainer, turned pit bull owner, turned Director of Operations of an animal shelter who has changed career paths since moving back to Wisconsin (can we say “5678”), but greatly misses being in the thick of animal welfare issues.
I was recently asked why I own pit bulls - this was asked immediately after this particular person had learned that we have to keep our two bullies completely separated at all times due to Dizzy’s increased dog aggression as she got older.
Talk about feeling totally judged.
But it’s not the first time I’ve been asked that question, I’m sure it won’t be my last, and my answer is always the same.
I have worked full-time with animals since I was twenty-years-old: when the complex relationship we can have with animals became clear in my mind thanks to the great wide world of college education. On my first day working at a doggie daycare, I was told to watch out for a senior pit bull dog who found residence on our “small dog” floor. I was warned that he was weary of strangers and that I should just let him approach me. I followed direction and within minutes of walking around the floor, I found his shoving his way in between my legs demanding my attention. That moment has vividly stuck with me since that day and, I believe, it was a sign from the universe that I could be a person to help fight for a cause that was in desperate need of advocates.
As I continued in my career, it became obvious that pit bull dogs were the most wildly misunderstood, the most frequently and severely neglected, the most overpopulated due to irresponsible backyard breeding, and the most discarded breed of dog. Yet, despite all of those things, they were also the most resilient, earnest, loyal, and eager-to-please dogs I came into contact with.
My heart broke for them. So, a few years later, when it came time for me to adopt my first dog, it came as no surprise from my colleagues that Maxie would bear a striking resemblance to that very “weary” pit bull who inspired me to stand up for a cause.
Maxie was four-years-old when I adopted him and nothing like I had planned on actually bringing into my home. He was fearful of the world around him: he hated most men, was scared of children, hated all dogs with pointed ears (excluding his dear friend, Gus), became nervous of new holiday decorations, balloons, or furniture rearrangements, and very quickly expressed to me that he would not be the bomb-proof pit bull ambassador I was hoping I adopted.
I couldn’t bring him to work with me - he couldn’t play with the other dogs at daycare and would just incessantly bark in the office (a trait that I have never been able to break in the nine years that he’s called me his.
I had to be his personal body guard any time we left the house.
I lost my patience with his barking more times that I am willing to admit.
But what became very quickly apparent was that Maxie was my heart dog.
Where he came with excessive baggage from the four mystery years prior to our meeting, he came with even more endearing and amazing qualities that have.
As a young and new dog trainer who thought she knew everything, he was exceptionally patient and loyal as we navigated our way through how to communicate with other another. He waited years for me to finally give up all of the expectations I had had for him and just accept him, and his boundaries, for who he was.
He is the fastest and most eager learner I have witnessed, constantly looking to do what you are looking for, learning every parlor trick in the book, and being oh-so-close to doing his “Chewbacca Yawns” on cue.
When I lived alone, he was my courageous companion (even when I knew he was shaking in his boots) to make sure his Mom felt safe and secure.
He has amazing intuition and, even though he feared most men who entered his life, he unwaveringly accepted my Dad, my Step-Dad, and my boyfriend who is now my husband and Maxie’s best friend in the entire world.
He hates having his picture taken but will sit for minutes at a time while I try to get just the right shot of his perfectly imperfect face.
The first day I met him, he wildly did zoomies around my apartment before landing on the couch right next to me - forever claiming that spot as his own.
His greatest joys in his youth were to play fetch for hours at a time and to chase a melon-sized plastic ball around the play yard before all of the other daycare dogs arrived for the morning.
In his senior years, he still gets a tickle from carrying a tennis ball around with him - you’ll break his heart if you throw it - and I am certain if that plastic ball reappeared, he would burst out of his skin.
While he couldn’t play with 95% of the dogs who came to daycare, he always made odd friends, including all of his Pittie ladies and his main squeeze, Camer.
As he got older, I trusted him more and trusted my abilities to advocate for him more. He began to go more places and I will also think fondly of our Mommy-Maxie trip to go hiking in the Snowy Mountains and visit “Dad” for the weekend in Saratoga, Wyoming.
At 13-years-old, he can now run off-leash on our property and live his best, most peaceful life.
He has been a medical anomaly, questioned most of the people who have come into his life, still annoys me with his barking, and is a bed hog, but, long ago, I came to terms with the boundaries I would need to place around that gentle spirit and decided he would probably be the most difficult dog I had ever owned.
Boy was I wrong.
Four years later, enter a ten-week-old, ten-pound Dizzy who screamed and panicked her way through her very first puppy playgroup at the facility where I worked. Her foster mom and I quickly agreed she needed to come to daycare as often as possible in order to become social with other dogs and, slowly but surely, she would overcome her fear and even make some really good friends - particularly with anything that never grew past seven-inches tall or anything that was comprised of some kind of Doodle properties.
Dizzy soon found her way into our hearts and our home. She and Maxie were thick as thieves. She became more confident. She shared her love and excitement about the world with any man, woman, and child she came into contact with. I could take her everywhere - something I had never experienced with Max. She, I thought, would be the ambassador I had been hoping for. But then adolescence hit and her ability to ignore the dogs that she didn’t like became more and more impossible. I pulled her out of daycare and she was left to just play with her remaining good friends.
Shortly after that, though, we moved to Wyoming for my husband’s residency program and her only remaining friend was an aging Maxie.
I felt less confident bringing her places, even though she loved the people, because I could never trust other dog owners.
Her life of going to work with me every day transformed into being a “normal” dog sleeping on my bed from 9-5 as I took on the role of being the Director of Operations of an animal shelter.
And then she tore both of her ACL’s. Financial constraints, personal life-changing challenges, and limited confidence in the veterinary care available in our area, we elected to treat her conservatively with braces, rest, pain management, and physical therapy: a decision I would later regret.
About a year after tearing her ACL’s, Dizzy began showing aggression to her former BFF and cuddle partner, Maxie. Each of the four times she bit him, we would make behavior modification and management changes, I would call my old dog training friends to rebuild my confidence, and we would stick to a new routine. We would try to isolate what would have triggered her and try to minimize her stress - especially when we made the move back to Wisconsin three years later. We were able to go almost one year without any incidents and, actually, with some pretty amazing progress and play sessions. But when she had two incidents within a week, we knew that we were not making the right choices.
Our home had become more stressful than any of the four of us could bear (though the dogs were always much better about hiding it than we were).
We knew that we had to make a decision: Dizzy either had to go or we had to commit to keeping them separated for their rest of their lives.
Having worked in the thick of the animal welfare community, I knew the reality and the unfairness of surrendering her to a shelter. Even if I believed there was a slim chance she would make it out alive, I knew that, if we couldn’t keep Dizzy safe, no one could. Euthanasia was another fleeting option, but, although, each time I would think about the times I had to jump on top of her and pry her mouth off of Maxie I would become equally furious and heart-broken, I also knew I could never live with myself if we had made the decision to put her to sleep and I will forever be grateful to my husband for making it clear that he was not even 1% on board with that option. There was too much good inside of that psychotic little spirit.
So we were left with one final option - keeping the dogs completely separated at all times.
Having just moved to our new home on 32-acres, we knew that we had the space to provide them each with a life of stimulation and fulfillment.
Because I was working from home during the day, I knew that each of the dogs would have more attention and activity than they had had when I was working sixty hours per week.
And now being in a different position, I knew it was necessary to give Dizzy the absolute best chance of success and finally reduce her pain by getting her knees under the knife with bilateral TPLO surgery - what I truly believed to be the root cause of her sudden aggression towards her former best friend.
It seemed that all of the pieces would align and that this plan could actually work out as long as I could work my way through my pride and admit that, despite all of my efforts, I would not have the pit bull ambassadors that I had been hoping for when I adopted Maxie and Dizzy. As a dog trainer, I believed I had failed them. As a responsible pet owner, I believed I had been living a lie. I would, forever, have to defend my problem fur-children when others asked about them and would have to tolerate all of the times people insinuated that “I was asking for this” when I adopted two pit bulls.
Now, one year since the day we separated them and from the day she returned home from her surgery, I am able to tell you how I really feel about our decision: it was the best thing we ever did.
Neither dog has ever been happier.
Neither is missing out on any piece of their life (though Dizzy would tell you differently when we have to put her in her kennel for break time).
Neither is forced to stressfully determine the best way to live in a household where they feel uncomfortable.
What we see in our dogs is that they are both eager to spend their time with us and are appreciative of their separate space.
What we see in ourselves is that we spend more time doing the things that each dog, individually, loves to do. We celebrate who they are. We spend more time enriching their lives.
Being a responsible pet owner is not about providing them with food, water, and a warm place to live. Having an ambassador dog is not about taking training classes, bringing them to the dog park, paying for them to attend daycare while you work, or being able to sit at an outdoor restaurant with them. Being a good dog trainer is not about having perfectly behaved, well-balanced dogs. Instead, what makes you all of those things is learning who your dog is as an individual, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and building a life for them where they can feel empowered, successful, confident, and calm.
I, now, can’t imagine my life without Dizzy in it and am so glad that my husband so adamantly advocated that we could do this and that our new reality with the two dogs didn’t mean that we had bad dogs or that we had not done everything we could to make them both successful.
Where I have struggled with both dogs’ idiosyncrasies, I have been able to let go of all of the things that I thought she “should” be and have just let her be.
I accept their quirks, because it’s really ok that Dizzy does not like to be bothered while she is sleeping and that I have to get a treat in order to motivate her to get moving at ten o’clock in the morning or that Maxie has to hang out by himself in the bedroom when we have company over.
I work with them to establish predictable boundaries because even though Dizzy has mastered the Resting Grinch Face and Maxie sometimes lets his emotions get the best of him, they both truly does love to be praised for doing something right.
I advocate for them when people question why we would keep Dizzy when we are planning on having children because they have never seen the total puddle she turns into when someone under three-feet tall is near and when visitors roll their eyes at Maxie who is barking from his sleeping quarters upstairs.
Both rugrats are far from the "perfect pittie advocates" I had planned on when I adopted them. They have tested me and made me lose my patience (and temper) more times than I am willing to admit. They are constantly in competition to see who will cost more in vet bills and on claiming the title of "the most difficult dog I've owned". But both, especially in the last year, have accomplished many other things: they have taught me to be more patient and understanding, to not get frustrated when the first (or second or third) plan gets thrown out the window, to respect that what is easy for some is not easy for all, and, their forte, to love each moment fully.
While I can't be sure whether she "knows" I am pregnant, I have to say she has been surprisingly snuggly and watchful of me over the last several weeks. We have always had a classic "Mother-Daughter" relationship - I was always the last option for playtime or snuggles, but always the first one to know when she needed something - so her attitude towards me has been noticeably different. Be it that she "knows" or that, after five-years of cohabitating, we've finally hit our stride and know how to best communicate with one another.
They represent a continuation of the reason why I fell in love with animal behavior and the human-animal relationship when I was a sophomore in college. They are a continuation of the reason why I believe pet-ownership is a bigger commitment than so many people realize - it's not always easy, it's not always convenient, it's not always cheap.
But it's the commitment that I made to them and one that I am happy to keep on making.