I don’t remember rehab being like day camp.

So says Charlie Sheen.

How much rehabilitation is possible for aggressive dogs has been a topic of much debate lately from the bust of Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels to the ASPCA’s decision to put Oreo down. Even within the animal rescue community, there are widely differing opinions. Some believe defensive aggression or fear aggression can be overcome. Some believe aggressive dogs are born that way and therefore it can’t be “trained” out of them. While others believe it depends on the dog’s history, i.e. the reason the dog is aggressive. Still others believe none of the above matters. It wasn’t long ago that I would have agreed with PETA and the Humane Society who argued that such dogs were too damaged to ever realize a “normal” life.

But then Reggie came into my life and I learned that  every aggressive dog needs patience and time.

I adopted Reggie from Animal Care & Control, a New York City shelter of full of under funded, over worked people and too many homeless pets to get the attention they deserve. Although it’s not mentioned on their “About Us” web page, they routinely put animals down for space.

After Reggie was admitted to the system as a stray, he was immediately given the standard battery of temperament tests. He growled and snapped at one of the handlers. He was introduced to another dog, and he growled at her too. As per protocol, they red-listed him. The handlers re-tested Reggie a few days later and found him to be less hostile. They downgraded him but for some reason never removed him from the red-list. In a shelter where animals may have mere weeks to live, a red-list is a death sentence because they are not shown to potential adopters. I don’t know if this is the case at all shelters, but once a dog is on the red-list at the ACC, they can only be adopted to other rescue groups in their alliance. Reggie was out of time. At the request of a rescue group I was working with, I went to the ACC to foster Reggie, but the moment I saw him, I knew he would remain with me. And I knew we had a lot of work ahead of us.

A shelter can be a noisy and chaotic place. It reminds me of being in Times Square 24/7 – you’re surrounded by unfamiliar faces, lights and sounds coming at you from all different directions, invading your personal space. It’s hard to relax and, quite frankly, you’re a little worried about being pick-pocketed. So it’s understandable if you’re not yourself, maybe even scared. Many homeless animals are fearful, and the fear shows itself in various ways. Some dogs cower in the back of their kennel in a tiny ball, thinking if they can’t see you, you can’t see them. Some dogs, like Reggie, lash out because it’s effective in keeping the scary people away. The best defense is a good offense.

That’s why, for dogs like Oreo and Georgia, a change of scenery can do a world of good. Even then, they need time. Unfortunately that’s one thing many of these dogs don’t have. Noted animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell says that it can take up to a year to truly recondition a fearful dog. But it has to be done slowly and even then there may be periods of regression before a dog can move forward again.

That was true for Reggie too. Just when I thought we were making progress (he growled at another dog after 10 seconds instead of immediately), we’d be back at square one. Using positive reinforcement, he and I kept at it, through mistakes I made, frustration and irritation. Now he usually greets other dogs and people appropriately, though he is a bit of a dog dork – approaching like a nerd with a pocket protector.

Knowing what I know now, I disagree with those who believe that keeping aggressive dogs takes space away from other animals, that there is no other alternative. That is how we rationalize a way to a solution from a sticky situation. Of course there are other options. Every one of these homeless dogs deserves a chance – the very definition of compassion.

 I know in some way we’ll always be working on it as noted by Charlie Sheen’s profound remarks – rehabilitating an aggressive dog isn’t easy. Reggie will probably never be easygoing and relaxed, but he’s leading a pretty comfortable dog life, able to get along, which is much better than the alternative. Something Oreo and dogs like her deserved a chance to have.

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