This is part of our "Forever Dog" series. You can read Part I here.
My first month with Brody was bliss. He came to work with me, he explored the outdoors with me, he loved my best friend's dog (a little 35-pound white and brown mutt), and he was a great friend to all of the other dogs I was still bringing home from the shelter for their 48-hours of bliss.
I enrolled us in a clicker-based obedience class mainly to keep him socialized with other dogs, and we passed that with flying colors. A few times I took him to doggy daycare, thinking he might be bored on the days I couldn’t bring him with me to work. But when I watched the daycare camera, he spent the entire day lying underneath the chairs the staff sat on. Every time one of the employees sat down he creeped out and snaked his way up into their lap -- as if they might not notice a 75-pound black mass making its way on top of them. He’d get into their laps and then go in immediately for the face licks. After that, I figured my money would be better spent on more toys since he could destroy anything in under two minutes. The house was often littered with decapitated fluffy animals or the remnants of a squeaker that didn’t make it to hour two of its life.
I set up a camera at home one day to see what he did while I was away. He crawled onto my favorite chair, yawned so hard I thought his tongue might fall off, and then settled in like the world depended on it. Eight hours later he hadn’t so much as moved a muscle. Two hours after that he yawned again and went back to sleep. He clearly wasn’t miserable. Sometimes when I came home he wouldn’t even get up until I brought out the leash.
Then I took him on the bike path one day. It was a beautiful spring morning, the seasons just beginning to change after a harsh Vermont winter. We were working on heeling with the clicker, but as a biker passed us at a high speed Brody lunged forward with a look in his eyes that I’d never seen. A few minutes later it happened again. I tried to bring him back to the heeling, using the clicker and rewarding him with food, but when the next biker came by he lunged again, getting stopped by the leash which wheeled him around towards me, and in one quick motion he bit the inside of my leg. Although I was shocked, I knew this was a classic case of redirecting his fear/aggression on the closest object (me) and that he wasn’t actually intending to bite me. All the same, I had no idea he possessed this quality at all until that moment. He hadn’t bit me hard -- just lunged in and bit and then released, getting all that energy out, but he’d still bit me.
While I had experience working with dogs who had aggression issues, I by no means considered myself an expert. After trying to work with him on my own, I wasn’t seeing improvement. In fact, things were getting worse. Other than the men he had already formed relationships with, he began to dislike men he didn’t know. I couldn’t figure out why this didn’t show up before -- perhaps he was becoming over protective of me, or maybe it was there the whole time but went away temporarily because he was adjusting to his new life. I also knew that my own anxiety about the situation was growing and he was likely picking up on that -- in other words, I was making it worse by being nervous.
In early summer, my family and I went for a hike up Snake mountain outside Middlebury, Vermont. My nephews were both under the age of five, and Brody loved the whole family. At the top, we laid out our lunch and overlooked miles of forest all the way to Lake Champlain. Brody lay beside me, slinking closer to my nephews on his stomach at the speed of a slug until he was close enough to nibble at least a half a sandwich out of one of their hands. The sandwich was vacuumed directly into his stomach while his deep brown eyes blinked innocently around, as if he too couldn’t believe someone had taken a small boy’s sandwich. Then he rolled over on his back, tilted his head against the cool ground, and waited for my nephew to give his belly a scratch. The whole thing was such a masterminded plan I couldn’t help but laugh.
When we finished our meal, Brody stood up and shook, a sign that dogs are often relaxed or letting loose any anxiety they may feel. At this point, I knew he had a very strong working drive in him, and I made a job out of everything we did. So on this day, I had a Ruffwear hiking backpack on him and had filled up the side pockets with a bunch of junk so he'd have a job going up and down the mountain. While he was on a leash at the top during lunch, the rest of the time he was off leash while we worked on heeling, down stays, and various other things to keep him occupied. But the Ruffwear pack, along with a red bandana I had around his neck, looked pretty freaking cool.
A man with a scruffy beard walked toward us, commenting on the hiking pack and how good looking of a dog Brody was. I thanked him, but at this point I was well aware that Brody did not like men he didn’t know, especially men with facial hair, and especially men with facial hair who were wearing hats. All three boxes were checked with this guy, so I put Brody in a down stay, brought out the clicker, and began rewarding him. At the same time I asked the man to not come any closer, and I explained as calmly as I could that my dog did not like men he didn’t know. The man either ignored me or didn’t hear me because he kept approaching. I repeated myself, this time more sternly.
“Sir, do not touch my dog,” I said as he got within three feet of us. Brody remained in his down stay, and I clicked the heck out of that clicker any time he looked toward the man.
“That’s quite the harness,” the man said.
“Thanks, I’d be glad to take it off of him and let you look at it, but please do not come any closer. My dog does not like men he doesn’t know.”
To my surprise, the man continued to approach. The rest of this moment replays like a slow motion horror movie in my brain to this day. I think I had too much faith in the human race, because in hindsight, I should have busted a move down that mountain and not even had the conversation. The man knelt down in front of Brody. I yelled at him to move away, but it was like he was deaf. He grabbed Brody’s harness and pulled him closer to his face, which was now on the same plane as Brody’s face. I was too late, but I still tried to insert myself in between them -- it was like one of those dreams where you want to move but can’t. And then it happened. Brody growled first, then he lunged the last six inches between his face and the man’s face, and he bit him. He didn’t hang on -- it was a quick bite, but it was still a bite. Right in the mouth. The man leaped back, holding his hand over his mouth. I could see blood.
The next few hours were some of the worst of my life. The man turned out to be incredibly nice and an ex-marine, but I still had to walk down the mountain for hours with him and my dog, wondering the entire time if he was going to sue me and call the police and take Brody away from me. I was shaking uncontrollably. I was also wrestling with the fact that my dog, who I’m responsible for, had bitten a person in the face. Questions raced through my mind. What if it had been a kid? Was it all my fault? Why didn’t this man listen when I said not to touch my dog? Could I have done anything different? Should I put my dog down? Is that the responsible thing to do? Was I being irresponsible by even having him out in public if I couldn’t control him? I had him on a leash, I had my training tools with me, and I was very clear with the man. But does that make what happened OK?
I’m not going to sugar coat this. Brody bit the man in the lower lip, and I accompanied him to the ER and paid for his bill and the stitches to fix it. I was shaking the entire time, and with every passing minute I felt more nauseous. So many people I know would tell me to put my dog down over the next week. Members of my family felt strongly that it was the right thing to do. This man didn’t say I should or shouldn’t do that, but I believe that’s what he thought I was going to do. As for me, I had lost my trust in my dog. And I had lost confidence in my ability to be responsible for my dog.
So that’s when things changed. The next six months are a blur of different trainers and a steady draining of my bank account. I picked up every possible book I could read on aggression in dogs and rehabilitation. At this point, all of my own training had been using positive reinforcement methods, so I tried all the specialist trainers that used some version of that. I even drove to Pennsylvania and spent a week on a farm with six other people in similar situations, working hour upon hour to learn methods that might get this aggressive side out of him. I went to all the people that anyone with an aggressive dog said had cured them. But with every trainer I worked with, although the methods would work within the training environment, it never changed anything in the real life situations. This is not to say that their methods don’t work with most dogs -- but they didn’t work with Brody. And I put my heart and soul into this training. Brody was all I had at this point in my life, and I was 100% committed to rehabilitating him and keeping my best friend alive.
Life had changed pretty dramatically. Brody was almost always on a leash everywhere we went. I didn’t take him to work anymore. I didn’t feel comfortable having him around children. When we went to the vet, he wore a muzzle because he hated the vet more than men. Even though we trained every day, he wasn’t getting much better. If a guy came over who I felt I could trust, I would ask him to ignore Brody. If he ignored Brody, then Brody would be fine and after a couple hours they’d be best friends. But in any case where I felt uncomfortable, Brody would be in his crate. I eventually adjusted to this new life and just accepted that I had a dog that was different than most other dogs out there.
Fast-forward to the end of that year, December 23, 2011. A fresh layer of snow had fallen, and I was taking Brody and Jacoby (the female dog of my best friend) up my favorite mountain. It was mid-morning on a weekday, and there was only one other car in the parking lot. Even so, I put both dogs on leashes. The way up was snowy, and after 20 minutes the trail became so icy I had to put snowshoes on. We came to the middle of a steep and very narrow incline when I spotted a man at the top of the incline. He also spotted us and yelled down to me, “I hate dogs! Keep them away from me!” It seemed to be just my luck that the only person on the entire mountain that day would hate dogs, and I had a very bad feeling forming in my stomach. I yelled up that I would move to the side of the trail as best as I could and that both dogs were on leashes. I also yelled for him to please keep his distance as he passed. The trail was hard to maneuver on because of the ice, and my snowshoes were clunky and making things even more difficult. I managed to get myself and both dogs over to the side, holding their leashes tightly. I had them both lie down, with Brody directly next to me and Jacoby next to him. At this point, I wasn’t worried about Brody but more so about Jacoby, as she will sometimes bark and lunge when on leash, breaking into a pack mentality that then riles Brody up. My anxiety rose as the man approached. He didn’t seem quite right -- he kept swearing at me and yelling about how much he hated dogs. I was extremely uncomfortable. Just as he was passing us, he started a fresh slew of swears and began muttering under his breath things about me that I won’t share here. I just wanted the moment to be over. But when he was one step past us, Jacoby leaped up and barked at him, her leash so short that she landed on top of Brody and knocked me off balance because of those clunky snowshoes. I fell face-first downhill onto the trail, leaving Brody to lunge at the man at the last second and get a quick bite into his pant leg on his right calf. The perfect storm.
This man was not like the man before. He took out a knife and started threatening my life. He repeatedly shouted that he wished he had his gun so he could shoot my dog and me right then and there. I was scared to death but tried my best to remain calm. I tied the dogs to a tree and asked if we could examine the bite. There was not one, but there was a tiny hole in the pant leg. I offered to replace the pants, but the man insisted Brody had bitten through his skin and he would have to go to the hospital. He also insisted that he would be suing me for every penny I was worth and would make sure my dog would be dead by the end of the day. He was going to call the police as soon as we got to the parking lot. There was nothing I could do, so I agreed to him calling the police (he was still holding a knife very close to my face), gave him my license after he insisted (presumably so I couldn’t drive away), and then I told him I would meet him in the parking lot. I booked it down the mountain with the dogs, threw them both in my car, and waited. He finally appeared, still screaming and threatening to call the police. While I will never know what his true intentions were, I attempted kindness.
“Sir,” I said. “I'm so sorry this happened today. You have all of my contact information, and I'd be happy to accompany you to the hospital. As to suing me for everything I’m worth, I ask you to consider that in two days it will be Christmas. I hope you can find it in your heart to not ruin my life.”
He muttered a few more things, made me swear I was going to euthanize Brody, and then said that I should be ready for the police to show at my house any time. Thankfully, they never did.
But once again, I was left with a lot to think about. I didn’t know if this man would or wouldn’t report the incident. Even though Brody didn’t leave a mark, he did make a hole in his pants. I knew if I hadn’t fallen on my face and Jacoby hadn’t lunged first he would have never moved. But no matter how you slice it, he did bite a second person, and once again I hadn’t been able to stop it. If the police came and took Brody, it would be miserable for him. I didn’t want him to go through the same experience he’d had in his first two years. And if they did take him, they would put him down and I probably wouldn’t even be allowed to be there. I came to the conclusion that the only responsible thing I could do was to put him down myself. He’d had an amazing couple years with me, and I was so thankful for that. I made the appointment for December 28th.
I was up late that night into the early morning hours of Christmas Eve. I was sick to my stomach over the whole thing, desperately searching the internet for some kind of miracle. This time I didn’t search for positive reinforcement training. I knew Brody had a huge drive and an instinct for protection as well as hard work. I had never explored it before, but this time I was looking for a trainer that dealt with military or protection dogs. I had a feeling that if there was any chance for Brody, it was going to be in learning how to control his bite rather than trying to take it away from him. To my surprise, the person that came up in my search happened to be less than 3 hours away from me, outside of Brattleboro, Vermont. His name was Kevin Behan. Even more surprising, he returned my phone call on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, and nothing I said seemed to discourage him. His voice was gruff, to-the-point.
“Leave him with me for a month,” he said. “Then you can come spend a week here learning the techniques for training at home.”
“A month?” I questioned, uneasy about both leaving him with a stranger and how my bank account would look afterward.
“Drop him off on Monday. Anytime. I’ll be around.” And with that, he gave me directions to his farm and hung up.
Leaving my dog for an entire month with someone I hadn’t even met yet seemed insane. But I was hanging on to hope by my fingernails, and I was willing to go to extremes to see if there was any way to keep Brody alive. So I cancelled the vet appointment and instead drove to southern Vermont.
Kevin’s driveway was long, leading up to an old farmhouse with smoke puffing out the chimney. The temperature was well below zero, and I left Brody in the car while I scanned the property. There was a large barn where I could hear dogs barking, a smaller structure that I later learned was the classroom where Kevin helped his clients learn about why he trains dogs the way he does, and a large two-story garage where more barking echoed from. A man was walking toward me. He was tall, wearing a wide-brimmed hat that left his face in shadows. He had on thick, winter Carhartt overalls, and as he got closer I could see a short gray beard under the hat. Great, I thought. He’s the perfect example of a person that Brody would definitely bite. My heart was beating out of my chest.
“I’m not sure this is a good idea, he’s probably going to try to bite you,” I said as Brody barked protectively from inside the car.
Kevin shrugged. “I’ve been bit before.”
“OK, but Brody is a 75-pound lab pitbull mix. He could really hurt you. I already had to pay for stitches once.”
“If you’re worried about me suing you, you can stop worrying,” he said, opening the car door and grabing Brody’s leash.
Brody lunged out of the car immediately, ready to go in for the kill. Kevin yelled out a single word I couldn’t make out, something like “Aiyyy” and walked a few steps with Brody who went from fully energized to absolutely calm in less than five seconds. They walked toward the edge of the property, me running behind them, mouth agape. Just as I was about to tell Kevin to hold off on touching Brody, he started trying to get Brody to jump up on him, lunging one knee toward him and saying “Up” -- which didn’t take very long. When Brody jumped up, Kevin reinforced him, saying “good, good” and then reached into his treat pouch to reward him. Within a few minutes, Brody had this down pat. Kevin would issue the command, Brody would lunge at him and get his paws on his chest, then he would get rewarded and come down. He never once seemed aggressive as he did this. I couldn’t find any words for what I was seeing.
“We’ve got to work on his bark, his energy is all pent up,” Kevin said. “That’s the most important thing, getting the bark first. Then after that, we get to the bite.” I had no idea what this meant but watched as he put Brody in a sit and said, “Speak.” He had food in his hand and held it close to Brody who wanted it and didn’t know what to do. He stared and then whined -- Kevin gave him the food. Then he said, “Speak” again. Brody still didn’t understand, and after a minute or so he became frustrated and whined -- then Kevin rewarded him. Within a few minutes of this, he let out a small bark and was rewarded immediately. Soon after, he caught on.
“It’s going to take awhile to get it to be a real bark,” Kevin said, to which again I had no idea what he meant. But later that day, he took us into downtown Brattleboro to a park filled with people. He calmly walked Brody around, though he had a long black tube that you can buy from an auto parts store in his hand. I was not clear on what this was for other than that it didn’t look like a dog toy. They walked through the park, and as Brody’s body language suggested he was getting worked up when they got close to a man, Kevin would issue the “up” command and then let Brody bite the black tube, Kevin holding it and letting Brody’s entire body try to wrench it away from him. Kevin would hold tight to the tube while Brody worked every muscle in his body, then Kevin would let him have it. Brody usually did a celebratory circle at that point, tail wagging and shaking that toy like he had won the Olympics. Then Kevin would walk him by the man again, and while absolutely everything in my body stood on edge, Kevin would strike up a conversation with the man, sometimes even suggesting the man pet Brody. Nothing ever happened other than Brody sometimes sitting nicely for a treat. Once again, I had no words for what I was seeing.
Back at the house, Kevin told me there was a lot of work to do in the next month.
“Can I come visit him?”
“Maybe in a couple weeks, I’ll give you a call. He’ll do great here.”
“OK,” I hesitated. “Should I leave his muzzle in case he needs to go to the vet?”
Kevin laughed. “He won’t need the muzzle, he’ll be fine without it."
“I’m serious. He hates the vet more than he hates men.”
“Well then we’ll make sure to go to the vet and I’ll take him to a male vet.” While I hoped he was joking, he wasn’t a very sarcastic guy. He meant every word he said.
“When you come visit, we’ll go together so you can see how to do it without the muzzle,” he said. And with that, he walked Brody toward the barn, waving over his shoulder. I stood in the driveway alone, watching how Brody didn’t even turn back but instead trotted confidently next to this man he had met only a few hours ago.
My whole life was about to change again, though I couldn’t have predicted where it would take me in my wildest dreams. By the time it was Februrary 2012 -- just two short months later, I would be driving out to Wyoming to live in a trailer on the edge of a frozen creek with one goal: to rehabilitate Brody for good. But at this moment, all I knew was that I had finally found Brody the dog whisperer I had been looking for.
Click here for Part III - The Bond. And if you’ve got Forever Dog story of your own, we’d love to hear it! Email us your story of 600 words or less (with pictures!) at email@example.com or share it below in the comments.