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Hatteras, My Aggressive Childhood Dog, Is a Training Success Story

He had a pattern of attacks, yet he became our family's most loyal and trusted companion.

 |  Jul 31st 2013  |   12 Contributions


Hatteras was my childhood dog. He was a gorgeous dream, save for one glaring imperfection. Yes, he was a disaster. But also a teacher who ensured a fine life for all the dogs who followed, and who still influences my rescue work and mentoring. Perhaps he dashed little-girl fantasies of skipping through the field with Lassie, but I wouldn't change things. Hatteras was the dog who built me.

I have yet to meet a dog who was as dangerous. He did not have a bite pattern near as much as an attack pattern, and his resume included attacks on family members (myself included) and strangers, police involvement, quarantines -- major dog aggression. He also led to the death of the family cat.

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Hatteras the day after we got him.

His arrival in my life was improbable; my parents had said I could not have a dog. It wasn't that they didn't like dogs, for they most assuredly did. Enough to say that New York City was no place to have one. They were upended on a vacation in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina (hence the name), when on a busy highway they spied what they thought was a kitten on the side of the road. As they pulled over, they realized it was a puppy. They put him in the car with three squealing daughters. My mother dropped us all off at the beach to play with the puppy while she frantically looked for the owners, but it was too late: I had my dog. My dream -- and my responsibility.

Raising my puppy, two incidents surely were pivotal. One a mystery, predating Hatteras's arrival into our lives. One glance at the residual effect, which presented itself after a trip the next summer, and we knew something horrible had happened to him. We brought home realistic toy pistols that day, and in play pointed one at Hatteras, who froze and started to quiver. For such a confident boy, the reaction was unfathomable, leading my mother to say he must have witnessed something ghastly. We all were unsettled, and never pointed our toy guns at him again.

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Hatteras in Central Park, NYC.

The next happened a year later, and was a nightmare. On a twilight walk with him and my mother, we passed a Saint Bernard, who, after a quick sniff, spun around and attacked, pinning Hatteras to the ground and gnawing on his neck. Four people (including the Saint Bernard's owners) beat on him wildly for what seemed like forever. Hatteras almost died; he could barely walk from blood loss. It was a miracle he survived.

Another year passed with our perfect dog. And then sexual maturity set in. At first, Hatteras became aggressive toward other dogs. Then, unpredictably, to strangers: Some people he loathed at first glance and others he accepted as long-lost friends. Finally, he became aggressive toward his family. And then the business with my sister's cat, which was pretty much a disaster.

Through it all, he was still our dog. And that meant many good things: He loved to play, was fearless, loyal as your shadow; a true family dog. Most of the time, he was an awesome presence. Barely a day would come when I was not stopped on the street by a stranger reveling in his majesty. Warts and all, he was my pride and joy.

And also my responsibility. My parents always made that clear. The moments of his wrath made me fear that I had failed him and he would be put down. Not that my parents threatened to do so, but it was the way back then. I understood I was responsible for dog's interactions with the world, and I had to keep everyone safe.

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Me with Hatteras while he was still an adolescent.

I hit the books and chatted up every dog person I could find. I learned more about breed types, function, and related behavior. Desperate to avoid incidents, I learned how to read Hatteras, understand him, predict scenarios. I would go over every incident, wondering what I had done wrong. Seldom were errors in judgment repeated.

Seeing my efforts, my father found a trainer via the New York Times. He sent me off to a group class in Central Park, where I met a remarkable woman. She saw how intimidated I felt bringing my dog to a class surrounded by other dogs, she saw my nerves and struggles, and she took his lead. What I saw was a revelation. Hatteras worked for her spectacularly, the other dogs seeming to drift from his mind. She would become a spectacular mentor. I learned so much from her, such as timing and understanding my dog's motivations and needs.

I recall her saying, “Training is not for the moments you expect, but the moments you do NOT.” It was an epiphany to me; like Dorothy's red shoes, my power was there all along. This was on ME, not as a burden but as empowerment. Know your dog, understand the motivations, know the scenarios, be prepared, equip your dog with the tools to handle the challenges. THINK! This was before the era of clickers and the popularization of behavioral rehabilitation. This woman was a maverick; she loved aggressive dogs, and Hatteras was her pride and joy.

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My mother with Hatteras.

He never did turn into Lassie, but emerged spectacularly well-trained, and over time the frequency of incidents faded. High obedience made things different. It's hard to attack someone coming into the elevator when on a good “sit.” Little to worry about during off-lead romps in Central Park with such a solid recall. He died a natural death, adored by our family, admired by our neighborhood. His legend is as the family dog of majestic beauty, rather than the hardcore psychopath.

That legacy is an enduring one. It has encouraged in me a “think first” attitude, which has led me to be a breed matcher and adoptions counselor. Hatteras taught me the importance of proper development in the puppy and teenage stages, which has led me be a puppy-rearing coach. All my clients have Hatteras to thank. In an era where disposable dog syndrome was still in full force, we stood strong and prevailed against it. I see that vision now in everything I do.

A person's doggie wishes, hopes, and dreams one day become a living creature of heart, emotion, and value. Be responsible for what you wish for, match yourself wisely and within your own limitations, and then commit. Sometimes you are right and sometimes you learn, but it needs to be one or the other, for you are his guardian and he is your dog. And mine will forever be a dog named Hatteras.

More by Lucy Ohannessian:

About the Author: I have been a passionate animal welfarist since age six with an interest in many animal issues. I share my life with three breeder-purchased dogs, a Giant Schnauzer and two American Cocker Spaniels, and I'm never without foster dogs in my pack. I have maintained an active presence in rescue for the past 17 years and am co-director of the transport based rescue Southpaws Express. I also share my life with a feral born cat, Cheza, who is sassy enough to live among them all.

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