“We learned we had to wear light colors in photos with Jesse, or he’d disappear,” my friend told me. “If we wore black or he was against a dark background, we’d have to Photoshop the image so our puppy would show up.”
Learning Photoshop turned out to be a lot easier than living with Jesse, whose fleeting appearance in my friend’s family album offers a poignant reminder of what can go wrong when a dog and its family are mismatched. She agreed to share this painful episode in her family’s life to help others better understand the importance of understanding their dog’s personality type and, even more, of training it accordingly.
So, here is “Jesse’s” story (all names have been changed):
“We’d been wanting to get a second dog for about a year,” Sue said. “When my youngest daughter showed us Jesse’s photo on Petfinder, we all fell in love. He was adorable.”
Jesse was about two months old and living with a foster family in Tennessee. He and his sister had been abandoned as wee pups, and there was no indication they been abused. After narrowly missing “death day” at the animal shelter, Jesse was rescued by Great Dog Rescue New England, which Sue compared to an “underground railroad,” ferrying hundreds of unwanted dogs annually from southern states to homes in New England. His next stop was another foster family in Rhode Island, where he waited for Great Dog to find him a permanent home. After Sue applied to adopt Jesse, one of Great Dog’s volunteers came to Cambridge for the required home visit. She met Sue, her husband, their three daughters (ages 12-21), and the family’s other pets: six-year-old Abby, a Lab mix rescued from the streets of Puerto Rico, and a small parrot.
The family passed muster, and last September Sue and her two younger daughters drove to Harvard to pick up Jesse, who was about three months old by then. Jet-black, with skinny legs and floppy ears, Jesse was of indeterminate heritage, but the folks at Great Dog thought he would stay relatively small. “We wanted a smaller dog than Abby, one who would be more of a lap dog,” Sue said.
“It all seemed perfect at first,” Sue recalled. “After a week or two of feeling each other out, Jesse and Abby began playing together, and it was wonderful for her to have another dog for company. He cuddled with us on the sofa, and the girls adored him.”
Right away, it was clear that Jesse needed a lot of exercise. “He was always a lot of dog. Very physical, but in a loving way.” Sue became a regular at the Danehy Park dog enclosure, spending an hour or more there with him every day so he could run off-leash and work off his excess energy.
“He was very social and got along great with the other dogs at the park,” Sue recalled. “Everyone loved Jesse.”
Even with regular and vigorous exercise, however, Jesse remained rambunctious and “a major handful,” Sue said. “He just couldn’t seem to relax at home, and he chewed everything in sight. I felt badly about keeping in the crate all the time, so we just tried to always monitor him.” They took him to about two dozen puppy obedience classes at Pet Smart, but afterward they didn’t consistently apply or reinforce what they learned.
To Sue’s dismay, Jesse just kept growing, weighing nearly 40 pounds by the following spring. “He pulled on the leash and got too strong for the girls to walk,” Sue said.
Now larger than Abby, Jesse began dominating the older dog, blocking her if she tried to get out the door first and snapping if she got too close to his food. More troublesome, he started to make guests a little nervous, growling during playtime and guarding his favorite napping spots on the furniture.
Looking back, Sue realizes the warning signs were there all along, but she didn’t recognize them soon enough. Compounding the problem, her family was going through a particularly stressful period, which distracted them from Jesse’s training.
“We thought it was our choice to let him up on the furniture to cuddle with us,” Sue said. “But I now realize we had a dominant dog on our hands, and we should have been teaching him all along that there’s no free lunch, and making him earn every privilege with good behavior. With Abby, we could say ‘No!’ and she’d hang her head and act submissive, but Jesse had no fear; he’d just stand his ground and stare at me. He was wagging his tail, but we discovered that isn’t always a friendly sign with a dominant dog.”
Then, the unthinkable happened: Jesse lunged at Sue’s hand when she tried to shoo him off “his” chair, drawing a little blood. The wound was superficial, but his aggression scared her. A short time later Sue’s youngest daughter tried to entice Jesse to play when he was on his bed; he was wagging his tail, so she assumed it was safe to sit down next to him. As she reached out to pat him, Jesse bit her forearm—fortunately not badly enough to need medical attention.
Distraught, she consulted an experienced dog trainer from the New England Dog Training Club (NEDTC) in Cambridge, who immediately sized up Jesse’s problem as classic “resource protection.” To avert another, more serious incident, the family would have to implement an intensive training regime to control Jesse’s dominant behavior. Without making these changes, it would be risky to keep Jesse any longer, especially with children in the house.
Sue realized, after much soul-searching, that they couldn’t give Jesse the consistent training and vigorous exercise he needed to thrive. Less than a year after they adopted him, the family made the wrenching decision to help find Jesse a more suitable home. In hindsight, Sue conceded her family’s dynamic was “too chaotic” to give Jesse the firm training that would have prevented these incidents.
“We were all heartbroken,” Sue said. “We knew that, with his biting history, Jesse risked being put down if we sent him to a shelter.”
She got in touch with an old friend, an animal behaviorist who takes in “problem” dogs. Her friend lives in a rural area with six dogs of her own, and she kept Jesse for a few weeks to assess him.
“We visited Jesse there and he seemed much happier and more relaxed,” Sue said. “She told us that Jesse wasn’t a bad dog; he had just entered the wrong environment. My friend found a rescue group that agreed to place Jesse, contingent on his successfully completing a month of intensive retraining, which I happily paid for. We have our fingers crossed they can find him a permanent home with loving owners who can give him the discipline and exercise he needs to thrive. We still miss him terribly,” Sue concluded.
The lesson of Jesse’s story is that good intentions are not enough. Whether you’re adopting a rescue dog or buying one from a breeder, choosing a mixed breed or a purebred, selecting a puppy or a mature dog, a successful match hinges on understanding your dog and yourself, and on consistent training that brings out the best your dog’s personality. Next time, Sue will know better. She and her family still miss Jesse, and hope he will find a new owner who understands how to bring out his best qualities.