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Operator: "Hello, Los Angeles County Animal Shelter. How may I help you?"
Me: "Yes, I am calling to make sure that dog #A------- is in your facility." (Sorry I don't remember his actual Identifier).
Operator: "Um, yes. It looks like he is here but I have to warn you, he is labeled as Aggressive. You may not be able to see him."
Me: "Why was he labeled aggressive?"
Operator: "He snapped at a volunteer, so he may be un-viewable."
Me: "I'm on my way. Thank you."
My sister and I arrived at Lancaster's LA County Shelter. They were jam packed with dogs of all breeds and sizes. It broke my heart. The employee who helped us was violent with Duke when trying to identify him. He was clearly traumatized, shivering and tail so far between his legs I thought it was cropped.
Then we got in the meeting kennel (or pen). My sister and I went and sat down on the bench. It was clear Duke was scared. So we gave him a break. As we sat and talked. He slowly approached us. We ignored him. He got closer. We didn't even move and kept speaking in a calm tone. He slowly came and laid under my sister's legs. We waited a few minutes before she dropped her hand, still just looking at me. He sniffed her hand. Then she petted him. He looked as if he had never been touched kindly by a human before. He probably had not. And then my sister sealed his fate. "Sis, if you don't take him, no one will."
"Aggressive" was the last word I would use to describe this dog. Scared, terrified, traumatized, anxious, nervous, fearful...these words would describe him to a T, but aggressive? No!
He is the reason I am writing this. 4 years later and Duke, who has been renamed Scooby (for obvious reasons), is my best friend, great with other animals and ok with other humans. He is still shy and anxious but the farthest thing from aggressive. This is for all the other Scooby's out there being turned down thanks to mislabeling.
Why Animals Are Labeled Aggressive in Shelters
Dogs, cats, and other animals can be labeled as aggressive by employees and volunteers. Although most shelters will tell you that employees are the only ones able to label animals as anything, a volunteer's story or fear can translate into the horrifying "AGGRESSIVE" label quickly. This mainly happens because the shelter staff is overwhelmed and volunteers are supposed to be capable help. Plus, they are human and fear is transferable.
Volunteers are there for their own altruistic reasons. But not all should be. They are given an orientation and then job duties. But if you give a cat person dog duties or vice versa or, even worse, someone who has never had a pet but "they are so cute," you are bound to see cognitive bias come through. I should mention, just the same can be said about some shelter employees.
Most animals are scared when they arrive at the shelters. They have been picked up, probably by a catcher who uses questionable means to throw them into a dark cell on a truck where other animals are also isolated and scared. When they arrive at the shelter, they are yanked from the cell and put in a sterilized room to be cleaned (hosed down) and labeled. The entire process with rough handling and probably little to no soothing (please see overwhelmed workers above) before being thrown into a kennel with other dogs will traumatize even the sweetest animal. Then when viewed they are taken from there to another tank to be viewed by more strangers, judged and either go back to the kennel or go with the new strangers. It can all be traumatizing and animals will react to their environment in a way they feel they must to survive.
Do not misunderstand, there are aggressive animals. In truth you are in more danger of getting bit by a chihuahua than you are of getting bit by a Pitbull. Now that isn't to say that either is inherently good or bad. All animals are just that, animals. They will react to their environment in a way they feel they must to survive.
Here is where you start. With an animal (most likely a dog) labeled "aggressive" by an employee or volunteer who may or may not be transferring their internal fear onto the dog. Or a dog labeled "aggressive" because they are fearful and unsure of their environment. So let's talk behavior.
How to Tell Non-aggressive Behavior When Met with Aggression
I should mention, I am not a behaviorist. I am someone who in my 30+ years has had the joy of fostering and rehoming nearly 30 dogs, most of which were labeled "aggressive." I have been bitten by dogs, cats, and horses numerous times, plus snakes, cows, and a goat! I still love them. Look, animals can't talk. They can't say "Hey Sue, I really don't like that" so they use body language. Here is what I have found with dogs who are scared (every animal breed has its own body language, so we'll focus on dogs from here on out):
- Ears will get pinned down and back.
What this means: They are scared or unsure how to react.
- Tail is tucked between back legs or pinned down (for curly tailed dogs) and straighter.
What this means: They are scared. They are like a loaded spring ready for fight or flight.
- Hackles raised. The fur along the top of the back along the spine is raised and standing up.
What this means: They are in fight mode and in the defensive when paired with any other behavior. This can also be playful/excited and usually not with any other behavior listed.
- Snarling. The upper lip is pulled back revealing the teeth.
What this means: Fight mode. Proximity is close enough to the scared animal it is ready to attack.
- Backing up and lowering hind quarters.
What this means: The animal feels cornered. It is not sitting but getting ready to escape as quick as possible.
- Lunging with hackles raised, tail twitching
- Snarling and snapping. Can have drool coming out.
- Snapping when touched (This could also identify an injury or place the animal is or has been hurt)
- Growling and lowering of the head.
This is not a definitive list. This is by no means a guarantee that a dog couldn't react with hackles and have a "snarl" when they are actually smiling and playing. Or look nice and then snap. Every dog is different in some way. They have personalities just like we do. And no adoption nor purchase should be taken lightly. Research the breed(s) and make sure that the breed's traits fit with your lifestyle before even looking at an actual dog.
What to Do About an "Aggressive" Label
Ask the shelter why the dog is labeled aggressive. Some may not have a reason. Or they will tell you as mine did. Make a decision based on your best judgement. If a dog is labeled aggressive because it bit a volunteer ask if it drew blood or had a reoccurring event, it may have been scared, cornered, being grabbed, or anything. If the label occurred by a serious event e.g. it attacked another dog or attacked a person, those dogs are usually only allowed to be fostered to authorized rescues/persons and I would take a pass unless trained to work with that behavior.
Most dog bites occur because the human was doing something wrong or not paying attention. Dogs react to their environment in a way they feel they must to survive.
If you can, ask to view the dog. This means being taken to the kennel it is held in to see how it is reacting. Scared dogs may hide or pull back or react by barking at you through the fence. Try getting low (squatting and don't look it in its eyes). If the dog stops and looks at you with no sign of fear or aggression, it is a good sign. At this point ask yourself if YOU have the time and patience to treat this dog and help them along. Be realistic. Scared dogs are trying and can be difficult, but if you are able they can be the most rewarding.
If you are willing to give it a chance. Ask to see the dog in a play place/meeting place. This could be a dog run, an enclosure some place to meet and greet in a safe environment. When you first enter, do not be the first to approach. Sit and wait (patience game begins). Let the dog approach you. Keep asking yourself if this is something you can work with. Again, be realistic. You want to look as non-opposing as possible. So relax. When the dog comes up to you, slowly put your hand out palm down and the top of your hand toward the dog. Let him sniff you. If they get closer, slowly try to pet him. If he pulls back, wait again. This may take 10 minutes or 1 hour. With Scooby, my sister and I waited 45 minutes for him to approach and another 30 minutes to pet him.
Decide whether you are the right fit for the dog. I have a talent with "broken" animals. I have spent a lifetime getting to know their behaviors and how to respond. It is OKAY if you are not up for the challenge of the scared "aggressive" dog. You gave the dog a chance. It is your choice. If you decide to not take them, speak with the manager at the shelter and tell them your experience, they may remove the label or change it to be more accurate. If you do decide to adopt them, be prepared for some challenges. But the rewards are amazing when you see them break through and start enjoying life.
Scooby is 5 years old now. He loves me and is well behaved around new dogs. His play is a bit of a push for some though since he likes to dart out, tag, and run away. He is also a talker when he plays. The growls and yips make some think he is aggressive. Silly humans. When he meets new humans he has a tendency to bark because he thinks he will get treats (thanks to a friend of mine). But although I had many a challenge with him over the last 4 years, I could not imagine my life without him.
So the next time you hear a dog being labeled "aggressive," ask questions to discern if the dog truly is aggressive or if it is only reacting to its environment.