August 2008, deep south Alabama summer, the air is hot and thick. The phone rings at the Safe Dogs by the River Rescue and Training facility, the only positive reinforcement-based facility in the region. It’s a fellow rescuer, the director of a local rescue that I occasionally work with, asking me to assist on the retrieval of a dog I may have room to take in. Please keep in mind this story happened over a decade ago, and I did the best I could with what I knew at the time.
We pulled up to a corner lot in a nice neighborhood overlooking Lake Guntersville. There was no fence, so we were able to walk up to the property and out back where we observed two tied dogs. One, a male intact pitbull-type dog, was tied to a half-erect dog house with empty food and water bowls strewn about; the other, a pregnant female Catahoula-type dog, was tied to the house with no shelter, food, or water access. We did not know how long she had been in that situation; information was hard to come by.
While we were there we observed an intact male Chow Chow roaming; he made no attempt to approach us but he did notice us. We came to learn he was a common roaming fixture in the neighborhood.
My fellow rescuer had convinced the owner to relinquish the female dog, but not the male dog. We hoped to revisit the situation at a later date.
The tied male dog was wary, keeping his distance, making no attempt at contact. His body was tense, his weight shifted to his rear legs, his mouth was closed, face tense and worried, commissure pulled back, ears back, and periodically he displayed piloerection along his rump/tail and whiskers. We only invaded his space enough to refill his water bowl and put it within his reach.
The tied female dog, likely between 1 and 2 years old, was social and affiliative, offering play bows, soft, wiggly body movements, and squinty eyes, jumping up and overall exuding “friendly” dog energy. I agreed to take her to my 6-acre rural farm property where I ran a multispecies rescue and training facility.
Upon arrival, I put her into a small fenced enclosure at the property, and one at a time I let the existing dogs (I recall there were approximately nine dogs) out and they were able to greet through a chain-link fence (we had no dog-dog aggressive, reactive, or fearful dogs at this time). Every encounter was positive; she was playful and social with each dog individually, so I then took her out of the pen and into the large 1-acre yard and reintroduced each dog one at a time, then adding one dog at a time until they were all in the yard. All went extremely well. She fit right in. She did chase the extremely dog-savvy cat, and I had to remove the cat from her mouth once (with a soft bite, just holding the cat – I traded her the cat for treat), but thereafter she did not chase him or show any predatory behaviors.
About 48 hours after arrival, the dog, now called Mia, whelped 11 seemingly healthy puppies outside! I moved her and her puppies into a closet in the bedroom so I could keep an eye on them and give them some privacy and space from all the curious noses poking about. She was happy to share them all with humans, canines, and felines alike. She was a doting mother, and a really pleasant dog, especially given her unknown history.
Mia was fed twice a day with a high-quality organic kibble supplemented with high-quality organic canned food, as well as occasional organic meat (chicken, goat, rabbit, cow), organic vegetables, and organic raw goat milk from a local farm, and the fruit of the trees on our farm. The pups got supplemental bottle feedings with organic raw goat milk to help ease the stress on Mia. We used no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, or other chemicals on the property (I have multiple chemical sensitivity and an autoimmune condition).
I had just been reading about the military’s “Super Dog” program and the importance of early socialization1 and kept those things in mind when handling the puppies. It included all the things I would have been doing in the natural course of handling them, but it caused me to be more keenly aware. From birth to about 3 weeks the pups were positively handled by multiple people, with an emphasis on different ages, scents, genders, races (as much as was possible), abilities, etc. and the pups did not show obvious signs of stress from being handled and did not show any fearful behavior around handling or people in general. They were positively exposed to multiple substrates, stairs, indoor and outdoor environments, livestock, other dogs, cats, noises, cars, and whatever else was present on the farm.
Super Dog Program website
*1. Tactile stimulation
Holding the pup in one hand, the handler gently stimulates (tickles) the pup between the toes on any one foot using a Q-tip. It is not necessary to see that the pup is feeling the tickle. Time of stimulation 3-5 seconds.
2. Head held erect
Using both hands, the pup is held perpendicular to the ground, (straight up), so that its head is directly above its tail. This is an upwards position. Time of stimulation 3-5 seconds.
3. Head pointed down
Holding the pup firmly with both hands the head is reversed and is pointed downward so that it is pointing towards the ground. Time of stimulation 3-5 seconds.
4. Supine position
Hold the pup so that its back is resting in the palm of both hands with its muzzle facing the ceiling for 3-5 seconds.
5. Thermal stimulation
Use a damp towel that has been cooled in a refrigerator for at least five minutes. Place the pup on the towel, feet down. Do not restrain it from moving. Time of stimulation 3-5 seconds.
From 3 to 5 weeks we continued with slow and positive exposures, a lot of play and exploration and beginning husbandry handling (touching or even trimming nails, handling ears, mouth, genital area, etc.).
From 5 to 7 weeks they were taken in small groups to walking trails (held with some sniffing), home improvement stores (held or in cart), vet offices (held, but for scale), and similar. We watched for stress signals and worked hard to not allow them to become overwhelmed. It was about now that we realized that the roaming Chow Chow, as well as the pitbull were likely both sires to the puppies, as several resembled pitbull and/or Chow. The most likely breed mix for the pups was Catahoula, pitbull and Chow in whatever combination.
Around 7 weeks all the puppies, Mia, and my personal dogs were taken to an outdoor event called “Blessing of the Animals,” where I set up an ex-pen away from the crowd and had the Episcopal Church bless each dog and pup (not to leave any stone unturned in support for the pups). I did not allow for much handling of the pups by strangers, and I heavily managed interactions. There did not appear to be any ill effects from this event; in fact they seemed to have a great time. At this stage, they all appeared to be normal, healthy, squishy puppies.
Around 8 weeks something changed. I began observing aggressive behaviors, just between the pups at first, and this was more than exploring boundaries. This was overt aggression. For example, one pup would hard stare at another, first from a distance, then shift their weight forward and boldly march up to that pup, put a chin over the other pup’s shoulder, use full body strength to knock the pup over and pin them down, then a bite-shake somewhere around the head or neck area, eliciting a loud yelp, which did not defuse the biter in any way. I had to intervene to remove the aggressor pup from the recipient pup. This was the beginning of what looked like a contagion of aggression.
At 8 weeks I had not realized the severity of the situation. Though I normally wait until 10 weeks to place puppies, it was a bit overwhelming with 11 rambunctious and increasingly aggressive pups running around. I placed one pup in a home, and transferred two pups to another rescue facility in a more populated area. Sadly, I have no idea of the outcome for those three pups; I tried to find out but got no response. With eight pups left, I decided I wanted to keep one and would try to place the other seven, assuming the best.
At 8.5 weeks I took three pups to a fundraising event, Woof Stock, and used an ex-pen and again heavily managed their exposure and handling. They appeared to have a good time. I was advertising adoptions and taking applications, but I do not ever do onsite adoptions.
By the time they were 9 weeks old I realized something was terribly wrong about how they were behaving around each other. There were serious fights, often with very little warning or reason, far beyond the expected range of play behaviors.
I asked a fellow rescuer to come evaluate what I observed; they confirmed they had not seen anything quite like it either. I asked a vet tech, a professional positive reinforcement trainer (the only other one within 100 miles — (there were very few dog people educated in modern ideas and techniques in the entire region), and several people familiar with dogs, and they all agreed with what I was observing. I consulted with colleagues and did research as it was available; no one I contacted had really experienced such a thing, though we had heard of such outcomes.
I took two pups (the most aggressive and least aggressive, on average) to our integrative vet for medical evaluation to determine if there was a medical cause, and they got a clean bill of health. They showed no aggressive or fearful behaviors at the vet’s office or toward any of the people they engaged with. I also left them in the vehicle, which they were comfortable and familiar with, until our appointment to avoid any potential triggers and/or dog-dog encounters. There were no veterinary behaviorists within the region, and this was entirely out of our resource realm (social media and canine science was not what it is today). I reached out to all my resources; no one had any clear answers nor an ability to take any of the pups into their care.
When the pups started fighting with each other I had tried distracting them with food, toys, or play, and these would work with some pups some of the time, but nothing worked all the time, and it was not subsiding. Rather it was getting worse. Basic training was going well; they were smart and eager pups, but this had no effect on the aggressive behavior displays.
One of the most difficult situations I, and many rescuers, encounter is available options in the local region. There are certainly dogs that “could” be helped in a long-term educated foster program or similar, but those educated fosters are like unicorns, and they are often overwhelmed by the need and burn out quickly. The lack of appropriate homes and/or fosters creates a serious ethical dilemma for all rescues, something that at the time of this incident was too taboo to discuss, even among rescuers. The decision to place potentially dangerous dogs is a serious one with extreme potential for poor outcomes; it is made even more volatile by the lack of modern education in the region (it’s only marginally better currently). Safe Dogs by the River does not place marginally dangerous dogs in the community as a matter of ethical policy; we have had this policy since the late 90s as a result of our experience with our first behavioral euthanasia of a healthy but dangerous young dog.
By 10 weeks of age these puppies were trying to kill each other. Bold or shy, it made no difference, they all engaged in some level of serious aggression between them. These pups would target, stalk, chase, grab, bite, shake, and by all observations try to kill each other. I had to keep them separated or in pairs or trios based on what they were doing at any given time. They began displaying aggressive behaviors toward the adult dogs around this time too, but with far less success. Most of the dogs simply walked away from them. The adult dogs were increasing their distance from the pups each day, whereas they had thoroughly enjoyed playing with them prior (even my puppy-hater curmudgeon dog had liked them).
This was especially concerning because dogs who experience aggression from other dogs are more likely to develop aggressive behaviors themselves, and have been shown to be more likely to kill other dogs.. Although they are still developing, behaviors seen in puppies are strongly predictive of behaviors in adult dogs.
It was time to consider some really hard choices after exhausting what was available at the time.
In my region, there was one part-time animal control officer for over 200 square miles of mostly rural terrain, to give some reference. Spay-neuter services were some of the most expensive I had encountered nationally, with a median income for the county at around $22k. I spent the majority of my time helping people unlearn what celebrity trainers and old-school habits had brought into their lives with largely disastrous results for dogs and relationships; I did a lot of reeducation on the misunderstanding of canine behavior. When I would take in dogs that were in need of special homes, those with enough experience and education to safely and humanely handle dogs with concerning behaviors, there were very, very few resources available, to adopters or me. I could have sent these adorable pups off to some other rescue up North to deal with, and pretended I didn’t see the behavioral issues that made them a potential danger as adults5,6, but although this is a common practice, I find it unethical.
I made the appointment. I asked the same rescuer who helped me get Mia to assist me. Then I held the heads and bodies, while weeping, of all seven puppies, one by one. I euthanized seven healthy puppies that day.
Yes, I made the extremely difficult decision to euthanize all but one of the puppies. Both love and ego played a role in my choice to keep one. Because I could save this one, I was a trainer after all, I taught others how to do this… I loved this pup with all my heart, and I hoped I had the skills to bring her around, but I was wrong.
At about 6 months the pup I kept was involved in a dog-dog incident. She had been doing well with the resident dogs (though her environment was heavily managed). Several had been adopted out and some new ones had come in, all with few issues. We even visited a dog park a couple of times! It appeared she might make it!
I was pet-sitting two dogs, a Schnoodle and a Maltese. The Maltese tormented the Schnoodle; he was a terrible bully. I was filming the behaviors to go over with the owners when they returned. We all know management always succumbs to human error at some point, and I am no exception. I was doing dishes standing at the window overlooking the back yard, and I realized the Maltese had somehow managed to get into the yard with all the dogs. I observed this tiny white fluff of fury aggressing at every dog that came near him. He must have been terrified! I dropped the dish in my hand and ran outside. I had another pet-sitting client, a 6-month-old female Bull Terrier, who was also the best friend of the pup I kept. They played rough together like none of the other dogs would play, with well-matched play styles. The Maltese was in the face of the Bull Terrier with my pup right there in the mix. I was within 6 feet of grabbing the Maltese when it happened – the Bull Terrier picked the Maltese up in her mouth and shook. Then my pup grabbed the Maltese and played tug with the Bull Terrier. Every other dog disappeared to their safe spaces (I found most if them in their crates, doors wide open). I tried to get the little dog from the two dogs, but I could not wrestle him away from them. Each time I could grab him, one of the dogs would snatch him back from me.
Everything went into slow motion at that point. I would get the Maltese, and then if any part of the dog was in reach, they snatched him back. We did this several rounds. Finally I got the Maltese and I lay down on him, attempting to cover his whole body with mine. The first attempt did not go well; a tuft of his leg was poking out from under my arm and I felt him get snatched away again. When I tried the second time I was able to fully cover him, and he was biting the palm of my hand repeatedly. I was screaming for help from my neighbors, for what felt like forever, but no one came, so I knew I was on my own. I got prepared and grabbed the scruff of the little dog and jumped up fast, holding the dog up as high as I possibly could. This finally worked. The whole incident likely lasted two minutes, but it felt like a lifetime.
I immediately put the Maltese in the front of my vehicle. Then I went and crated every dog but my pup. I put my pup in the back of the truck and we drove to the closest open vet. Mine was closed on Wednesdays. I had the Maltese cared for first. They tried to save him, but the injuries were too severe. There was not a place on this dog without a scratch or bruise of some sort, but few actual wounds or punctures. I also euthanized my pup. A bit of a side note: There was one positive outcome to this horrific tragedy. The Schnoodle seemed to understand that the Maltese was not coming back, and I visibly observed her shoulders drop to a normal position, she let out a deep, heavy sigh and she blossomed in front of my eyes – it was that fast and that drastic. The Schnoodle really had a great time the rest of the stay with us.
We will never know what caused the outcome, but I suspect it all began in utero – the massive stress the bitch was under while pregnant could have made this outcome unavoidable7. It could have been genetic predisposition, as some breeds have8 and even with a perfect pregnancy this may have happened. It could have been genes that were turned on by the environment, or epigenetics.9 It could have been bad luck. It could have been something I did or did not do. It was probably a combination of every one of those factors and then some.10
I have successfully whelped many rescued litters since then, and learned from all of them, but that horrifying experience still informs me today. I hope that the whole thing did not happen in vain, that I have taken these valuable lessons and used them to prevent such an outcome from happening to others.
I experienced, and still do sometimes, grief, regret, anger, sadness, loss, defeat, mortification, humility, and more. I use these emotional states to motivate me to do better, be better, and know better.
- Howell, T.J, King, T. & Bennett, P.C. (2015) Puppy parties and beyond: the role of early age socialization practices on adult dog behavior. Veterinary Medicine: Research and Reports 6, 143–153.
- Schilder, M.B.H., van der Borg, J. & Vinke, C. (2019) Intraspecific killing in dogs: predation behavior or aggression? A study of aggressors, victims, possible causes and motivations. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 34, 52-59
- Beaudet, R. Chalifoux, A. & Dallaire, A. (1994) Predictive value of activity level and behavioral evaluation on future dominance in puppies. Applied Animal Behavior Science 40, 273-284.
- Serpell, J.A. & Duffy, D.L. (2016) Aspects of Juvenile and adolescent environment predict aggression and Fear in 12-month-old guide dogs. Frontiers in Veterinary Science 3:49.
- Fratkin, J.L. et al (2013) Personality consistency in dogs: A meta-analysis. PLoS ONE 8(1): e54907.
- Appleby, D., Bradshaw, J, & Casey, R. (2002) Relationship between aggressive and avoidance behaviour by dogs and their experience in the first six months of life. Veterinary Record 150, p.434-438.
- Wells, D.L & Hepper, P.G. (2006) Prenatal olfactory learning in dogs. Animal Behaviour 72:3 681-686.
- Amat, M. et al (2013) Differences in serotonin serum concentration between aggressive English cocker spaniels and aggressive dogs of other breeds. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 8.
- Ilska, J. et al. (2017) Genetic characterization of dog personality traits, Genetics 206:2, p.1101–1111.
- Wilsson, E. (2016) Nature and nurture — how different conditions affect the behavior of dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 16, 45-52.
Chelsea ‘Safe-Dogs’ Edwards is the Founder and Executive Director of Safe Dogs By The River, a Holistic Rescue and Canine Education (Non Profit) Organization. Her passion for animals started at birth, but it was a tragic event that sparked a career when she was seriously mauled by a group of dogs as a teenager; rather than becoming fearful she strove to educate herself about dogs, behavior and husbandry in order to prevent similar outcomes for other dogs and people. With 20 years of working with dogs & continuing education, that includes both behavior and veterinary experience, she is uniquely positioned to provide targeted rescue, behavior and training services to the demographic of people and pets that need it most, those experiencing extreme poverty and/or houselessness, which she has made a primary part of the Mission. As a prior homeless person and recipient of a serious dog bite incident, she wanted to bridge the gaps she found in accessing humane and modern companion animal support and the safety such education provides.