Behavior modifications help save dogs' lives

Thursday, July 4, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Lindsey Rapp, 25, will never forget the day she was attacked by a vicious dog.

She was babysitting at a house on Paris Road and had let her miniature dogs out. When she went out to get her dogs from the front yard, she found herself on the ground, being dragged by a pit bull. As the dog tore into her arms, she couldn't think of anything but escaping the dog's jaws.

"Its teeth were stuck in my arm at two different times, and it was shaking my arm and dragging me," Rapp said. "I'm not real tiny, so I'm not sure how (it happened)."

After a trip to the emergency room and two weeks of being unable to even feed herself because of the injuries to her forearms, Rapp has recovered physically. The dog that attacked Rapp has since been euthanized because of the dog's history of attacks.

Recently, however, the Central Missouri Humane Society and behavior specialists have been trying to avoid euthanasia, even in cases this extreme.

Already this year, the Humane Society has received more than a thousand dogs. And sometimes, the dogs have behavior problems that can affect their future.

Often, aggressive dogs are euthanized. But in the past four years, the euthanasia rates have decreased from 62 percent to 29 percent.

Once a dog arrives at the Humane Society, staff members must decide if a dog is adoptable. Mary Pat Boatfield, executive director of the Humane Society, said if a dog passes the behavior assessments, it might get a second chance with a rescue organization.

The day after the attack, Rapp was told by Animal Control the dog would be held for 10 days. If the owner did not come to get the dog, it would be turned over to the Humane Society.

After the 10 days had passed, Rapp went to the Humane Society to check on the dog. She couldn't find out much about what would happen to the dog, but she found out the dog was there.

"They were probably trying to protect the dog against bullying, since it was a pit bull," Rapp said. "I wasn't checking on the dog because of its breed. I just wanted to know for my own sake what would happen to the dog."

Many dog breeds with a reputation of aggressive behavior, such as American pit bull terriers, bull terriers, Staffordshire terriers and some mastiff breeds, are described under the term “bully breeds."

Boatfield, said if a dog has a history of aggression against humans, such as an attack, the organization looks into what happened and the dog's history before deciding where to place the dog. The dog can be adopted, euthanized or be transferred to a rescue organization that can work on specific behavior issues.

Kelly Tracy, behavior specialistworks with dogs to ensure a positive relationship between dogs and their owners and with other dogs as well. She's a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner and provides consultations and assessments for rescue organizations. She also offers in-home training and behavior modifications for pets.

Tracy said it's important to remember dogs are self-centered and always do what is in their best interests. Every situation and dog is different, so what makes them uncomfortable will also be different.

If a dog has a history of misbehaving, Tracy said there are many ways to modify its behavior. The first thing a behavior specialist will do is consult with a veterinarian to rule out medical issues, and then it is important to identify stressors and triggers for unwanted behavior.

Boatfield said the Humane Society is not an environment most dogs are familiar with and that might affect a dog's behavior. In these cases, dogs might be moved to foster homes if they are believed to be adoptable because they might not be in their best form while at the shelter. 

Tracy said with little information about the dog or its history, it is impossible to say what made the dog attack Rapp. It might have been aroused while chasing the miniature dogs, or it might have been something entirely different.

"You can teach a dog to sit when you are in the living room," Tracy said. "But when you go into another room, it may not respond because it is in a different setting."

Tracy said the best way to help a dog overcome a fear is step-by-step training. If a dog is scared of the vacuum cleaner, one should determine how close the dog can be to the vacuum before it goes over its threshold. From there, take it just one step closer and reward the dog. The process continues with time and patience. 

Rapp was relieved to learn that the dog that attacked her had been euthanized, though she found out from a reporter and not the Humane Society. She said she thinks that any dog that has attacked someone should be euthanized and that if the dog that attacked her had attacked a child, the child would have had no chance of surviving.

"If the dog attacks once, then it's not the same," Rapp said.

Tracy agrees that a dog that has attacked a person is permanently altered. But she believes that dogs' aggression is sometimes misunderstood.

"I want to give dogs a voice and save lives," she said. "How we deal with aggression issues is often the difference between the life and death of a dog."

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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