I was young and naive about pet overpopulation when I answered an ad on Craigslist offering Alapaha Blue Blood Bulldog puppies. When I showed up at the “breeder’s” house, I found a trash-filled yard and a dirty shack with about seven puppies inside squirming around in their own feces. The adult dogs were separated and kept in makeshift chicken coops.
I scooped up the first puppy who wandered out and placed his tiny paw on my leg. I didn’t know whether I had grabbed a boy or girl, and I didn’t care. I was horrified at the conditions the dogs were being kept in. I paid the man and left. (Later, I reported him to local authorities and even PETA — with no results.)
The man had claimed the puppies were 6 weeks old, but I learned that they were only 4 weeks old, so we had to feed our boy goat’s milk and puppy supplements for the first couple of weeks we had him. Otto also had to spend the first week of his life with me at work so I could keep an eye on him 24/7. He started “nursing” on anything fuzzy. It was cute but sad, as we knew he must be missing his mother terribly.
At 8 weeks old, we found out he was deaf. As a courtesy, I contacted the backyard breeder and informed him of Otto’s condition. He replied that none of his dogs had issues, and that I must have done something to cause the deafness.
I reached out on Craigslist, trying to find out whether anyone else had gotten a puppy from this man and had similar problems. One person replied and said she bought a puppy a week or two after I did and it died of parvo, as did the rest of the litter. Otto was lucky after all, even if he was deaf!
Although we were sad that Otto could not hear, we were determined that he would still have the best life possible. A PetSmart trainer helped us pick treats for our training sessions (the smellier the better) and gave us great tips on how to manage him. We attached a little bell to his collar so we could locate him in the house. One day, I absolutely panicked when I couldn’t find him. He had curled up underneath the couch for a nap and, of course, couldn’t hear me calling him.
We got Otto a friend, a sort of “hearing-ear-dog,” if you will. That’s when we adopted Axle. They were only a month apart, so we thought they would do great together. We would raise them as brothers and train them with the same visual cues.
We had absolutely no idea what we were in for.
The first couple of months were great. Otto and Axle would play together and sleep curled up with stuffed animals. We were working on their basic training, using visual and verbal commands for both of them. Otto was a quick learner, but Axle was just the class clown.
When Otto was about 4 months old, the fights began. He would mostly just growl and show his teeth while wrestling with Axle, and everything we read stated this was “normal” puppy behavior. It was at this point that my vet first said Otto was going to be a problem.
The vet’s advice was to euthanize Otto since he was obviously aggressive and would grow into a large, unmanageable dog. I would hear none of it, so I switched vets. Unfortunately, my new vet shared the same opinion. I just decided that they were all biased against my dog, and that Otto was fine; he just needed more training.
Despite training and behavior modification, the fights escalated. At the time, it seemed impossible to tell who or what started it. I always blamed it on Axle because he was the Pit Bull in the family. It took some time and a lot of watching their body language, but I soon realized that Axle wasn’t the problem … it was Otto. As Otto grew, my vet’s warnings escalated. By this time, he had treated several bites and scrapes, and he was worried that I was next. I was determined that Otto’s growing aggression could be cured.
I worked harder at training both dogs. I reached out to the dog community and received very confusing responses. “Feed and pet Otto first, since he’s clearly dominant. This is all just a dominance issue, and you have to show him preference.” Others gave me the opposite advice: “Ignore the dominant one and cater to the underdog so the dominant one thinks things are equal.”
By this time, Otto had made it clear that he and Axle could not be inside together. Axle would lay on his belly and slowly drag himself toward Otto in an effort to play, but Otto would just look down his nose and hold his tail straight before he’d lunge at Axle, teeth bared.
After scrubbing blood out of my carpet for the umpteenth time, we tried the crate-and-rotate method. This seemed to be the answer to our problems. While I was at work during the day, Axle would be crated and Otto would have free run of the house. We would let them out in the yard together, where they would play like nothing bad had ever passed between them. I was thrilled with our progress and again convinced that Otto’s aggressive behavior was curable, or at least manageable.
Boy, was I wrong.
Otto’s fixation on things like tires and moving vehicles got worse as he got older. By the time he was 9 months old, he weighed more than 80 pounds and difficult to walk. He would lunge at cars and was a menace to bicycle riders.
When I saw a car coming, I would have to wrap his doubled leash around a light pole or tree and brace myself to keep from being dragged into the street. I tried harnesses, positive reinforcement, and other behavior modification techniques with no success. We also were new to the neighborhood, and the nearby kids thought it great fun to poke sticks and throw things at my dogs. Otto even began reacting violently when he saw a child.
My family members expressed concern. They knew how I felt about Otto. They knew that I had told my husband, if we ever had to choose between our dogs, Otto was our keeper. They knew I had three full photo albums of him. They knew I was trying my hardest to manage his behavior. They knew I was nowhere near giving up on him.
They also knew that he was dangerous. My sister had witnessed Otto bashing his head into Axle’s crate, growling and trying to bite him. She, too, had dealt with an aggressive dog before, and it had ended badly.
But I still wasn’t ready to give up on Otto. He began showing intolerance to Axle outside, so we shortened their together time. I restrained him on car rides, and I eventually had to muzzle him if going to the vet. I couldn’t take him in public otherwise.
Our walks were brief and strained. He was becoming a prisoner in a house and a fenced backyard. I had to crate him when repair people or family members came over. Still, I was optimistic about our future. I would post in forums where people were talking about putting down aggressive dogs and let them know we didn’t have to take that route. I believed I was being a responsible pet owner and managing my dog’s behavior.
Otto was born on Dec. 23, 2010. The day of his first birthday, I dressed him up all handsome in a red tie with polka dots. He just sat and stared at me. I’m not sure when it started, but he had stopped greeting me when I came home. Instead, he would sit or stand at attention and quietly eye me as I made my way around the house. If I stopped to pet him, as usual, he would issue a low warning growl. Where had I gone wrong?
On Christmas Eve, we were up a little later than usual. The dogs were having a potty break outside, and I was headed to bed. I had extra-special presents for our little fur-kids, and I couldn’t wait for the dogs to open them!
I had not been in bed long when I heard terrible barking and growling and yelping. Otto had jumped on Axle. There were no toys or bones in the yard for them to be territorial over. At that point, Otto had become so volatile and unpredictable that the least little thing could set him off.
I rushed outside in my pajamas to find my husband already in the middle of trying to break them up. Axle was screaming because every jerk of Otto’s body meant a fresh rip in his flesh. Otto’s eyes were crazed, and he thrashed around wildly as he tore at Axle’s throat. Between holding collars and dumping cold water on the pair, we somehow got them apart.
As I hurried Axle inside, Otto continued to lunge against my husband’s grip, trying to get at Axle again. His sheer violence and determination was terrifying. My pajamas were soaked with blood; in the heat of the moment, I didn’t know whether it was mine, Otto’s, or Axle’s. Fortunately, I wasn’t hurt, but every scenario and “what if” in the world began floating around in my head.
I knew what I had to do. Otto’s aggression was such that he would never be adoptable. He would hardly let my husband and myself near him, much less a stranger. He was violent toward people, animals, and even objects like tires. He was unpredictable and a terrible force when set off.
I knew that keeping him alive was not what was best for him. Whatever was causing his mental distress was not pleasant for him, either. He was a danger to himself and to others, so we let him go.
I couldn’t see his face in his last moments, but my husband could. In a hushed tone, he told me, “Otto looked at peace, and he was calm. He looked like he understood, and as though he was relieved that we finally decided to let him go.”
We buried Otto with his favorite Elmo toy. As we laid him to rest, his lifeless paws seemed to curl around the soft red material, his nose buried in its folds as though he were simply asleep. I was beside myself with grief for quite some time after, and I found it hard to tell people what had happened.
Even though I knew we made the right decision, I felt as though I had murdered my dog. As time passed and I learned more about dog behavior, I felt less guilty about letting Otto go peacefully and more guilty about not doing it sooner. I had knowingly housed a very dangerous dog and had also allowed Axle to be continually traumatized by Otto’s unprovoked attacks.
Part of being a truly responsible owner is knowing when to let go. I didn’t do it soon enough, but thank goodness I did do it. Not all dogs who show signs of aggression will end up like Otto. It’s important to consult your vet and trainer to decide what path is best for you and your dog. Just don’t wait until it’s too late.
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