When I wonder if it’s worth putting more time into an at-risk dog with behavioral concerns, I just have to think about Wade and I know that it’s worth every second.

There are many dogs that I have a blast working with at Animal Services, some that I grow to love, and then there are dogs like Wade. When working with rescue dogs gets hard, when I am overwhelmed by the number of euthanized dogs in shelters and I start to be apathetic, I remember Wade.

Rescue plea for Wade

Wade came to my attention as a rescue plea. Dogs with rescue pleas need to be rescued by private organizations with the means to care for them. This may be because of medical or behavioral concerns. It is especially challenging to save a pitbull or a pitbull mix at municipal animal services. There are a number of reasons for this, including overpopulation, prejudice, and the needs of this breed.

The veterinarian at Animal Services didn’t feel comfortable handling Wade because of his fearful and growling behavior. Euthanized dogs in shelters too often lose their lives because of a shortage of time. Time is too limited for the medical staff to devote enough of it to every scared dog that needs it. Rescues have a harder time saving pit bulls and mixes because it is harder to find fosters for these dogs.

One of the staff members at Animal Services took time to get these pictures and Wade was posted as a rescue plea dog.

How to save a pitbull mix with potentially dangerous behavior

I saw a scared dog trying to defend himself, but I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe I could do it, but I wanted a little help. If you’re debating working with an at-risk dog, it’s well worth seeking the help of a local trainer or animal behaviorist who uses positive training techniques. You may be surprised by how willing trainers are to help when they are asked directly for help with an individual dog. 

I contacted animal behaviorist Jon Wedemeyer, of North Florida K9 Behavior Center, and he agreed to come out and meet Wade with me.

Day 1: First Meeting: Wednesday, 2/27/19

Wade was calm but cautious when he came out to the play yard with Chris, one of the kennel techs. Wade tried to hide behind Chris’s legs and kept his eyes warily on me. After a few minutes, I told Chris that it was ok to leave Wade and I alone in the pen.

Being alone with a potentially dangerous dog was a bit intimidating, but watching Wade made me feel that the last thing he was going to do was leap in for an attack. Here’s how I won him over. 

Step 1: Ignore

At the beginning, I showed no interest in Wade. I strolled around the pen, picking up some poop and photographing the bushes to get him used to the sound of the shutter.

Wade stood by the fence and looked after Chris. Periodically, he glanced nervously over his shoulder at me. I didn’t look at him directly, but kept note of the sound of his movements and glanced at him from the corners of my eyes. 

Finally, Wade walked away from the fence for a bit and considered me. I was aware of him standing there, still, with his big ears pricked towards me. 

Step 2: I’ve got something

I went to the toy box and began rifling through. I could hear Wade coming closer, but I didn’t look at him. He sniffed cautiously towards the toys, then trotted away.

This went on for a couple of minutes, me rifling through and examining the toys, him coming up and sniffing me briefly and trotting away. 

Step 3: I trust you

Finally, Wade approached me more closely and sniffed the toys as I took them out and piled them next to the box. Then he sniffed me, thoroughly. He sniffed my ears, my face, and my hands as they held the toys.

I swallowed the momentary fear of having him suddenly so close, knowing well that he would be aware of my fear and less likely to interact positively with me. 

You really can’t work with a dog you’re afraid of. You have to trust them completely to ask them to trust you completely.

Step 4: Do you trust me?

As Wade examined the toys and me, sniffing and moving closer, I reached out and slowly started scratching his chest. He stiffened for an instant, then leaned into my touch and licked my ear. Then he leaped away, play bowing. Play is an indication that a dog is developing trust.

Step 5: Oh you want to play?

I slowly stood up with a toy and moved away from Wade across the yard. He tentatively followed me a few steps then waited with a quizzical expression. I looked back and play bowed towards him, crouching and then springing away. He cocked his head, confused, but wagged his tail just briefly. I went back to the toy bin and did it again. This time he plunged into a play bow too and we were off. 

Becoming friends

Wade and I alternated playing and becoming more comfortable with touch over the next hour or so. He became responsive and cuddly, gave me licks on the chin, let me put my arms around him, and followed me around. 

By the time I left after being with him for a total of about two hours, he was leaning on me and following me. He let me pick up his paws, touch his ears, and look at his teeth.

Wade was playful and sweet with the dog in the next pen. Having another dog in the pen next to him made him more outgoing with me as well.

When Jon the behaviorist arrived, he had to go through the entire process of drawing Wade out again. It seems that once Wade decided he trusted someone, he was willing to trust that person but it didn’t necessarily sell him on anyone else. Wade hid behind me, circling me to keep me between him and Jon, not unlike how he had with Chris when I first met Wade. 

Ready to be my dog? Wednesday, 2/28/19

Wade was clearly happy to see the shelter supervisor, Jane, and me the next day. He was affectionate and playful with me in the yard and didn’t mind me taking the slip lead on and off. I took him for a walk around the property. He walked very well on the leash and leaned on my leg when he was scared.

I took Wade back to the yard and played with him some more. I touched his paws, ears, and looked at his teeth. I picked him up and when he was set down he went off in zoomies around the yard.

I called Jane and met her in the parking lot to practice going in and out of the car. Wade was happy to meet Jane. He jumped right in the car and sat there happily while I started it. 

After that, we walked through the lobby, greeted some people and dogs nicely, and sat and waited our turn for the yard with the tub.

Wade didn’t mind being put in the tub, but he wasn’t thrilled when the water started. He fought to get out, but there was never an instant when he stiffened or gave me a look, much less growl.

After his bath, Wade had serious zoomies! He ran around and around, playing with toys and me and rolling in the grass. He exuded happiness.

When another dog, an energetic pit mix named Jackson, came into the yard next door, Wade played with him through the fence and they both clearly wanted to get through the fence and play together.

Jane and I laughed. Clearly this dog wasn’t going to be a risk to the community. 

After my second day with Wade, spending about six hours with him, and doing everything that I’d need to do with my own dog, I felt confident enough to take him home.

Rescue. Thursday 2/29/19

Second Chance Rescue, an amazing organization that saves pitbulls and other hard-to-place dogs that would otherwise be euthanized, agreed to take Wade if I would foster him. Paperwork was started and Wade was moved off the euthanasia list.

That’s how it came to be that Wade was saved. He was an unusual case because he was so improved that everyone agreed that he could stay and be adopted from animal services.

This sweet boy just needed some time to open up. He became playful and affectionate with the staff and friendly with strangers. The staff was relieved to change his status to adoptable.

Take some time

It only took a week for Wade to show himself to be a highly adoptable, wonderful dog, which is good, because he didn’t have much longer. If only there were more kennels available and more volunteers to help at the shelter, saving pit bulls and pit bull mixes like Wade would be a lot easier.

The dedicated staff at Animal Services work their tails off to save every dog, but there are simply not enough kennels for all of the dogs.

Every dog that goes into a foster home or that gets adopted makes room for a shy dog like Wade to take the time that he needs to open up. Working with rescue plea or at risk dogs literally saves their lives. 

Day Out: 3/14/18

I took Wade for a day out from ACAS. He did great, hanging out calmly while I ate my lunch and worked. He loved running in zoomies around the yard and playing with rope toys.

He didn’t seem to mind going back either though. This laid back, playful fellow was pretty ok with anything. He wasn’t used to those jangly tags around his neck though! He’s pretty sure those are for playing.

3/22/19 Adopted for the first time

Wade was adopted by a family who had a big, boisterous pit girl already. The woman had mobility challenges but hoped that Wade would be calm enough for her to handle.

It was fun watching Wade play with their dog, who clearly adored him. I hoped they would be friends for a long time, but I worried about Wade’s puppy ways in their home.  

4/9/19 Returned

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, Wade’s new family couldn’t handle the energy with two active large dogs in the household. They were also having a hard time with potty training. I spoke with the family throughout the time that Wade was away and soon realized that they were going to return him. Saving pit bulls and pit mixes can be challenging because these are usually athletic, energetic dogs who may not have much training or experience being a pet.

Wade was happy to see me and the staff at ACAS, especially his favorite tech, Chris, but I could tell that he missed his family. He paced and paced in the yard, looking back for them. I couldn’t distract him or console him.

I felt so guilty as I led him back to his kennel. He stared up at me with his trusting expression, asking with his eyes, “What’s happening?”

4/13/19 Adopted

Wade didn’t have long to wait for a new home. A young couple saw me playing with him in the yard during the 2nd Annual Artwalk. They hadn’t noticed him when they walked down the rows, but when they saw him playing they liked him.

This is so often the case. A dog fails to stand out in the kennel but steals hearts in the playpen. This is especially true with brindle and black bully dogs, who seem to blend into the crowd.

Wade seemed very happy to go home with his new family. They’ll have the energy to keep up with him and don’t mind working on his potty training.

Wade is the sort of success story that keeps me loving what I do. I am so proud to be part of a volunteer community and Animal Services that work so hard to give even the challenging dogs a chance.

Thinking of giving an at-risk shelter dog a shot?

Working with at-risk shelter dogs is one of the most rewarding things that I have done with my local animal shelter. You can save a pitbull or another breed at your local shelter, but be ready. Sometimes this kind of rescue results in some meaningful heartache. If you are considering it, there are a few things to keep in mind. 

Some dogs don’t make it out. Dealing with this kind of heartache after you’ve invested in a dog is very hard.

Don’t hesitate to ask any questions you may have about working with at-risk dogs or saving pit bulls. Let me know if you want more information about shelter dog euthanasia.

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