Agility for special needs dogs? Absolutely!

  People ask me all the time if special needs dogs (deaf, blind and deaf-blind dogs), can lead a normal life.  Shelters rarely put them up for adoption, breeders tend to kill them at a young age (although this is never admitted), and rescues tend to have very strict limitations for any potential adopters, if they even do take one on. My question is, why? Why not give them a chance to lead a normal life?  I own special needs dogs, and I have been training them without any issues for many years.

Why would it shock or amaze anyone that a dog that cannot hear or see could do agility? Why do people think it is impossible to teach obedience to them? They adapt and can be conditioned, just like their seeing and hearing brothers and sisters. Other dogs do not see them any differently and I strongly believe we need to learn from our canine loved ones.

In April of 2012, I was asked if Charlie, a deaf-blind dog, could enroll in our basic agility class. Of course I said yes! I have fought for, and stood behind my deaf dogs for years.  I would never deny an owner or their dog, the right to reach their full potential.

A colleague of mine asked me how I would teach a deaf-blind dog agility; my answer was, “he has a nose, I will use it.”  It is the first thing a dog relies on, and their most powerful sense. If we teach dogs how to find the slightest traces of drugs that are masked by other scents, or people lost for days; why not use it to train them in other ways too.

So Charlie enrolled in our basic agility class with four other classmates that could see and hear. We taught him how to maneuver the obstacles by different scents; carefully thought out as to what effect they would have on the dog (relaxing, exciting, non-offensive).  He performed all of the equipment and learned them at the same pace as his classmates.

His owner asked if I would consider doing an all special needs agility class, so again I said of course. I love all dogs and when I decided to get into this field, it was to help all of them; so why would I exclude special needs from any activities? I know my deaf boxer Flinn and my deaf-blind dog Gaia have no idea they have a disability. They adapt, as should we.

Fast-forward to July 2012 and I had my first all special needs agility class starting, three deaf-blind dogs, and one bilateral deaf dog.  I could not have been happier to see how involved the owners were and how much the dogs enjoyed the class.  On August 4th, in just 6 short weeks, the class graduated. A very special moment for the dogs, the owners, myself and hopefully for the special needs dogs sitting in shelters waiting to be adopted.

Below is a picture of the graduating class, I am very proud of all of them and I look forward to getting more information out there in hopes that others will do the same. Open your classes and doors to our special needs, adopt them out, let them lead the normal lives they deserve to have.


Congratulations Flinn, Boomer, Charlie and Lucy. ( And their parents for giving them this opportunity!)

Painting by Stephanie Conrad of The Pet Studio- ( I will cherish it, thank you)

For more information about how to train your special needs pet, please email

hugs to your furbabies,


Our story about the Gatesville Rotties.

 We had been asked to take on a mom and her pup, that we named Sophia and Outlaw, in February this year. They had been part of the hoarder incident in Gatesville TX, only 2 of the over 260 dogs taken from a desperate situation.  We were happy to help in any way possible as always.

 Sophia, at 10 yrs old had a son, a beautiful little guy that brought so much to my life in the short time he was here. She had been forced to defend her son in a pack of dogs that most likely would have killed him for no other reason but the scarceness of food. True to nature, this committed mom put aside her own hunger and cared for Outlaw, protected, defended and loved even in her weakened condition.

  The day we picked her up we were expecting a neglect case, mainly because we have seen so many hoarding cases in the last 20 years; I was surprised, I was heartbroken and I was outraged. The back of the transporters truck opened up, and out popped a very thin, very nervous old girl barely able to stand, peeking out to assess the strangers in front of her. Cautiously she sniffed my hand and stiffened up- has she ever experienced any positive human interaction? This old girl so weak and frail still managed to stand over her only pup, ready to defend him if needed. It took a little time for her to approach me, but as she did I noticed Outlaw curled up on the floor board completely content. A tiny ball of fur, no bigger than his mama’s paw.     


  We changed vehicles and started our journey of rehabilitating this desperate family. Immediately I convinced myself I would not be keeping them, I already have a large pack and recently lost two of my very best dogs that happened to be Rottweilers; I knew I was not ready yet.

  The drive lasted two hours, the entire time was spent comforting Outlaw and reassuring Sophia I was no threat to them. All the while, repeating to myself I did not need another male nor did I want to become attached to a breed that I had experienced such unexpected and untreatable diseases with over the last two years. No, they were not staying- I firmly argued with myself.  

  Fast forward to March, exactly four weeks later, I have completely fallen in love with Outlaw and fought with myself that I can manage training this baby and making him my next “go-to boy” for my business. I mean I was already teaching him things other dogs learn at an older age, and he was smart- a little sponge. Completely eager to learn anything I threw his way- a real baby genius. I started making future plans, thinking about going back to competition and titling him as I did my very first Rottie.  This boy could go even further; after all it would be so easy for me now. I already have 20 years experience; I have already had the chance to learn from my past mistakes and I have the patience at my age to take things slow; teach him perfection. He had the same drive as my last Rottie, and I never had a male Rottie before! Yes, we would be a great team; showcasing the breed, how loyal and gentle they can be.

 It was not long before we received an urgent email regarding a litter of pups from the same case in need of bottle feeding. Three baby girls, three weeks old that had been taken off nursing their mom due to her sickness. We of course, said we would take them in temporarily until they found fosters.

  We now had a ten year old mom, her ten week old son- which I decided to adopt, and three bottle fed babies. Lack of sleep and formula was our life for three weeks. That may not seem like a long time, but at our age and with our schedule, a couple of hours of sleep a night for three weeks means zombie time. We faithfully set the alarms for two to three hour feedings, and still managed to run our business normally. It is amazing, looking back now, that we stayed sane.

  The puppies, our “angels” as we called them, found a foster to go to and even though we were tired, it was sad to see them leave.  We had named them after “Charlie’s Angels”, Alex, Nat, and Dillon. Perfect names for three strong little female fighters; they did survive a terrible beginning to life and they certainly brought smiles to our faces and warmth to our hearts.

  I began focusing all my time on getting Outlaw prepared for a life of endless possibilities, when I received an email from the rescue again. This time they were not looking for help, no one needed us to “rescue” them- no this time, we would need help.

  The new fosters had taken in the “Angels” and started to see them get weak. They were moved to solid food and they couldn’t eat without choking.  The veterinarian tested them and we received the bad news, they had Distemper. We were shocked, upset and in denial.  Surely I had nothing to worry about; I had stuck to my entire technician training and kept them completely separated. Isolated from Outalw and Sophia; completely. The vet explained that this strain was rare and it normally is seen when pups eat solid food- relief I thought, Outlaw has been eating solid food for weeks!  To be safe we made an appointment and had him and Sophia checked out. Yes! They were in good health- no need to test! I went back to training Outlaw in every area a pup could retain!

  One week later, Outlaw started coughing. Still in denial I convinced myself it had been from the trachea tube they used during the neuter. I kept him completely isolated from everyone in my pack- tending to him all day and comforting him with all the motherly love I had. I refused to believe it was possible, this would not happen. Our vet tested him with a wide range test to pin point his illness- it came back as the rare strain of distemper. I was devastated but I still refused to allow my new boy to be taken away from me. I contacted my best friend in hopes that her “voodoo” magic would help him- acupressure, massage, herbal meds- I didn’t care what it took. 

  Then he started showing neurologic ticks in his face. My heart felt like someone reached in my chest and physically grabbed hold to stop it. I watched this beautiful and amazingly genius pup twitch uncontrollably having difficulty even walking in just three short days. A glimmer of hope- we put him on Valium to subside the tremors.  It was short lived. Even on Valium, his tremors began to take over his entire body. As hard as it was, I made the decision to let him have peace.

  I held him in his last minutes, trying to stop his tiny body from shaking- the entire time whispering to him that he was the best pup I ever had. Assuring him he would never feel pain again, and thanking him for the few wonderful weeks he gave me. A few minutes passed and I knew he would never suffer again.  He would be cared for by my past Rotties now, loved and protected by them as they did for me.

  We arrived home and I got down on the floor to hold Sophia, in my own way, apologizing to her for not being able to protect him as she did. I sat there for what seemed like forever, comforting her and promising her I would never give up on her. The call was made that evening to the rescue that Sophia will be living her life out here with us. I did not have the heart to see her leave, the sole survivor of our efforts to help, the mother to the one pup that made me feel young and inspired again. No, I need her as much as she needs us.

   We love you Outlaw.

Love Mama Sophia and Mama T






The Healing Process of Two Very Misunderstood Dogs



  September 28, 2010. Papa, the dog that brought out an emotion in me I have been successful in keeping at bay; came to us by way of the dedicated and caring staff at Town Lake Animal Shelter. As you may have read in his first blog, Papa’s situation, like many others I have worked with in the last 23 years was that of severe abuse and neglect. Judging by the wounds he suffered, it is likely Papa was used as a “bait” dog. Papa received an out-pouring of support from our clients and the public that read his story. As a thank you to all of you, I wanted to update everyone on his progress four months later.

  Today, Papa, my special little man, is happily living with our pack. He still makes me melt when he comes up and places his head on my lap. He helps clients, kids and other dogs everyday by working sessions with me and going to communities to talk about the cruelty of dog fighting. He sits in on our Seminars to educate the public on the real truth behind this breed, stealing affection by anyone willing to give it to him. Best of all, he fills me with the answer as to why I work so hard to help in this field when it feels impossible to make a difference. I just need to look at how much love and thankfulness he has in his eyes, as he curls up next to me while at my desk or in my recliner. The eagerness to do anything I ask of him, the concerned look he gets if I am feeling stressed. Papa reminds me every minute of the day that as bad as it gets I have to keep fighting for them.

This is a photo of how much Papa has changed in the last four months.

progression of papas scar healing

  December 30, 2010. Captain, an emaciated badly injured American Bulldog was brought to us to avoid being killed in a Texas shelter. You may remember his story; he had been the victim of a dog fight. Forced to put his life in danger for money or status of his owners, but he lost. To show their gratitude, his old owners left him abandoned to die from starvation or his injuries, which ever happened first? Thankfully Captain had been picked up by Animal Control and brought to the shelter, where many people came together to help this guy have a chance to live the life he like so many, deserve.

  It has only been four weeks since Captain came to us, his paw half missing, completely starved. He has, just like Papa, made leaps and bounds in his recovery. He has shown nothing but a tremendous amount of love and affection to any human willing to give it to him. He patiently stands for his paw to be covered with a plastic bag before each of his 4-5 walks and then continues to stand afterwards for it to be soaked and have the “Healing Gel” applied. He walks with other dogs every day showing no aggression, he quietly waits in his kennel during classes or sessions and wags his tail every time a client approaches. At his last vet visit, a child came up to him and he immediately placed himself into a surrendering position (on his side) so she could pet him. He did manage to sneak some gentle kisses in to thank her for petting him.

   Originally it was thought he would lose his leg due to the injuries he suffered, but with the “Healing Gel” and constant treatments, he gets to keep his leg. Here is the progression in just four short weeks: progression of healing in paw

  Both of these truly amazing dogs were almost killed after human’s forced them to a life of torture. I personally would ask that everyone involved or not with Papa and Captain’s rehabilitation, thank your local shelter staff for the endless love and compassion they have for the massive amounts of animals in their care.

  Papa, Captain and I would like to thank Frances, at “Frogworks” for her amazing healing gel, Christina with “Skillful Paws” for her amazing talent with massage and acupressure, the staff at Town Lake Animal Center, Waco Humane, and all of the dedicated clients, volunteers and friends that have helped us in our successful journey to the healing process of two very “misunderstood” dogs. We can never thank you enough!

If you would like to help us in their medical care, please click on thier names below for their Chip in funds. Thank you again.



Still think “Pit Bulls” are dangerous?

Watch out, it’s a “Pit Bull”. I hear this so many times it makes me insane. This blog is for all the people out there that continue to say this breed is dangerous.

   picture of captain his first vet visit 

  I received an email from our friends up in Waco Shelter, regarding a dog that they had come in to their care yesterday. The email was a call for help as he is labeled a “pit bull” and has horrendous wound to his front paw. Of course we are not a rescue group and as much as I state I will not take any more in, how can I let this guy be killed because he is injured and a certain breed? I can’t. So out goes the call to say we will take him and get him back on his feet-pun not intended. 

  The employee that contacted us is one of the bully friendliest people you could hope for in a shelter environment.  She fights to help them just as we do, against all obstacles thrown at her due to breed prejudice and policies. Make no mistake; her job is a tougher one because we know she cannot help them all; as much as she fights, more will come in- same old story for all shelter systems.  The difference here, she stands up for the breeds that immediately are set to be killed. My hat is off to her and I am very thankful our bullies have someone like her in the shelter. She even went the extra mile-many miles- to transport half way to us and stop at her vet on the way. The picture to the right tells how badly injured he is, and how gentle he is regardless of the pain. <Fallon, you are a true hero.>

  The transport pulled up at 11:30 on the dot- they are good that way J– and greeted me full of tears. They are clients of mine and two very big hearted people always looking to help our four legged friends just as much as we are. They had been crying because of the injuries this dog had endured and they were touched by how affectionate and happy he was to be around humans even after suffering like this.  Yes, this sounds familiar; this case immediately touches me because only a few months ago I had the same feeling when I met Papa.  < But these are “pit bulls”! Aren’t we supposed to be afraid they will “rip our faces off without warning?  > After a very teary goodbye, the transporters left us with the reminder that not all humans are as cruel as the person responsible for Captain’s wounds. They even went out and bought him his first toy and –even though the economy has been tough on them, like so many others- they donated a gift card towards his vet care. Yes there are true compassionate people still out there, thank you Brandi and Mike.

  Yes, he has a name. The shelter dubbed him Captain Hook. I can’t call him Captain Hook, just because Hook was mean, so we are shortening his name to Captain J– I am weird like that.

  So after getting a real time look at his wounds – and feeling sick to my stomach that someone could be so cruel- I realize this boy’s story may be more similar to Papa than I thought originally. No I do not think he was a bait dog, but I do think he was a fighting dog. He has the telltale scars all over his face and front legs, a deep puncture over his eye, as well as in his mouth, and he had an abscess puncture wound on his “good” leg. Yet walking into the Center he showed no signs of aggression towards the dogs. No signs of aggression towards every human that touched him. But isn’t this the breed so many in the media and politics say are born killers? Have we been lied to? You decide.



  This is what this poor guy is dealing with; the pain this must be causing, I cannot imagine.






 This is what we will have to do multiple times a day until we can find a vet open to possibly take off his leg. Sorry the pictures are so graphic, but as you can see he is missing half his paw and throughout the soaking and cleaning he remained sweet and tolerant



  Fast forward 3 hours. My awesome best friend – and a fabulous canine acupressure/massage practioner, Christina from Skillful Paws, took time on her much needed day off, to come down and do a session with him.






He obviously appreciated it.


 So what is the point of this story? I mean we see and hear about abuse all the time in the media, on TV. What makes this any different? This is a dog that suffered because of a human- for enjoyment, status or money, could have been killed because of human fear and prejudice; but was saved because there are still humans out there that have enough love and compassion to stand up and say, “Enough”.  If this story makes one person realize anyone can make a difference, then that is enough to save one more dog. Maybe it will become contagious, maybe more people will look and see that this breed is not the monsters they are said to be, but true masters of forgiveness. Maybe.
 Please hug your furbabies often, there are so many dogs that never get a chance to experience true compassion and love.





What Makes Papa Different?

photo of Papa a bait dog

  It is a heartless, cold and yet a scary reality that shelter staff and rescues experience every day- the unwanted, abused, forgotten dogs of society.  This story is about Papa’s journey.  It is dedicated to all the people that help dogs like him go on to live the life they deserve.  You all are fighting for dogs like this and you should be very proud of yourselves.   I know I am thankful and proud of all of you.

  Four weeks has gone by since I had been called to pick up a very damaged little Staffie.

  The night I picked him up I was enraged to think someone could be so cruel and uncaring.  Someone watched this very loving dog be attacked repeatedly by another dog.  They paid no attention to the wounds he suffered, gave no medical care, and they showed no emotion when they dumped him at the shelter, where the outcome would have been death had the staff not fought to find someone to take him.

  A couple of friends and I had met with the shelter staff after a meeting at the shelter-ironically, a “pit bull” task force meeting. They had been sitting outside of the building with papa on a leash, waiting for the meeting to end, staying after hours to insure he would make it out that night. As we walked up, I was able to clearly see the damage he had endured, sweet little Papa Smurf as the shelter staff called him.

  Papa, a petite little guy that had been dumped in the shelter without a care, covered in bite wounds, and yet shows nothing but affection for every human he meets.  Looking past those horrible wounds, I must admit it was love at first sight for me and my friends that had come with me. This little guy immediately snuggles into anyone’s arms, puts his head on your shoulder, and softly moans to you as if he was telling you of his past ordeal.

  As we walked to my truck to load him up, I began to think about all the dogs I have been asked to take in and help.  Was he really any different than them? The dogs our society has given up on, ignored at times when they need our attention the most, left to die lonely and afraid, their last few days in a concrete cell just because they did not fit in someone’s lifestyle anymore?  No, he was just like them; a dog that someone treated as a material belonging, cast out without a second thought  but he had to suffer through another dog attacking him before he was cast out.  For me personally, it meant more.

  The kennel I had in the back of my truck for some reason was just not right for him. Many dogs had been there before, traveled just fine but why did this one make me think twice? Could it be I had a feeling of guilt for being human? Had I suddenly gathered all the guilt for the cruel things man has done to these noble and loyal beings? This was not my normal working mind; I normally take in a dog and see the future instead of feeling bad for what they had been through.  I preach this to all my clients but yet, I found myself placing him gently in the passenger side of my truck where I felt he would be more comfortable.




  As I hopped into the truck, Papa placed his head on the console over my arm and began to make these very sorrowful sounds.  Low moaning, that made me (of all people) tell him “it would be ok”.  I suddenly realized this dog had hit a spot inside me that I had turned off, my maternal side.  Now don’t get me wrong, I love all my dogs and all my rehab cases just as much as anyone but being in this field for as long as I have, I have always put my dog instincts in charge when I work.  The dog instincts I have learned through years of observing, researching, and rehabilitating dogs just like him, so they could go on to live normal lives.  I know better than to put my human emotions out there when it comes to working with canines.  They follow completely different rules then we do; they thrive on living with someone they can be confident in but yet, I find myself trying to console this badly damaged dog.

  A half hour on the road and I pull into the entrance of my drive, getting ready to hop out of my truck to open the property gate. Papa stands up and starts trembling and whining, desperately pawing at my arm to keep me in the truck.  I stopped and thought if he had done this to the human that dropped him off at the shelter as well. Did he try to plead with this human not to leave him, not to give up and abandon him? How horrible it must have felt for him to watch someone, he no doubt gave a few years of love to, hand over a leash to a complete stranger, turn their back, and just walk away leaving him to possibly die alone and suffer in the pain inflicted by some other dog more worthy than he. Again, I feel the need to console him, gently rubbing his mangled face and telling him I would be right back, my subconscious now screaming at me about my own rules of the first 24 hours of taking in a dog, hello separation anxiety!

  I jumped out of the truck and raced to open the gate quickly, not wanting to leave him any longer than necessary. As I returned to the truck, he lay back down and started moaning again while placing his head on my arm. Typically, I pull in and close the gate behind me, but not tonight.  No, tonight I decide I will not leave him unattended again even for such a short time.  I drive up our long drive and park the truck outside our Center.  As I put the truck in park, he again started to tremble so yet again, I ignore my professional side and reach over him to untie his seatbelt and carry him through the driver’s side door.

  His legs work just fine even though he has a tremendous gaping wound on the back of his front leg from the “worthy dog” that had attacked him. Even though he was walking outside the shelter with the caring staff that gave up their evening for him, I am carrying him into the Center. Once inside, I gently placed him down and introduced him to my partner Brandie.  He immediately went over to her, buried his head in her lap, and started moaning.  Just as I had ignored all my rules, so did Brandie.





  It has not even been a full hour of meeting him and I find myself on the floor of the Center, at his level and face to face.

     Where did all my years of experience go? Part of the reason I can turn a dog around so quickly is because I follow the set rules of canine communication and pack behavior  yet, here I am ignoring all my past research, experience, and my own safety- face to face on his level with a dog I hardly know. A dog that had been slated for death because society says if he has been in a dog fight and shows dog aggression, it will be unpredictable with humans.  Did I really just lie on the floor and throw my theories to the wind? Yes, I certainly did.

  After spending quite a long time with him that first night, I placed a blanket in his kennel and “tucked” him in for the night. He curled up in a little ball, gave me a very gentle kiss, and laid his head down.  I closed up the Center and went on to my own bed thinking about my behavior with this dog.  It is so unlike me, what makes this dog different? Again, I ask myself this.

  The next day we brought Papa to our veterinarian for a full checkup.  Just as he had the night before, he seemed panicked by the fact that we placed him in the car. Moaning and holding Brandie’s arm as she drove.  No Papa, we are not like the man that left you before. We are not dumping you into a cold cell to live out your last few days watching humans walk past a beat up chain link door and stare at you, some of them, placing judgment without knowing, others feeling bad for not being able to take you home. This is not where this car ride will end.

  The staff at our vet immediately fell for him the same as we had; loving on him, consoling him.  Why? This is a breed so many people immediately change sides of the streets if they see them. A breed most of the world would rather see put to death and banned. What makes this dog any different than the others born with the same “label”? He is full of scars just as so many before him.  Society tells us this breed is bred to “kill” yet even professionals that deal with dogs in their worst state of mind daily have forgotten this with one glimpse of Papa. Could society be wrong?  The sheer masses of politicians, lawyers, and news reporters we look to for truth?



  With the visit behind us, we now start the long process of healing. We must apply wet to dry dressings daily to help the deep muscle tear on the back of his front leg close (which turns into three times a day because he rips the bandages off). We have to clean, apply spray, and care for the multitude of wounds on Papa’s face and neck. We must apply eye drops to his left eye twice a day because of the deep puncture he had in the corner of his eye that ruptured his tear duct. He must have oral antibiotics and pain killers twice daily, which we have to place at the back of his mouth because he is smart enough to eat around them. Every day Papa stands completely still for us to do all of this, never needing anyone to restrain him and always thanking us at the end by giving us a gentle chin kiss.

He receives acupressure once a week to help in the healing process by a dear friend of mine that immediately feels the urge to “sing” to him and he sits patiently showing his thanks to her as well.


  His daily routine has now become that of constant medical attention, being caressed by complete strangers that instantly fall in love with him and long walks on the property with other dog, which make him very nervous. He trembles and becomes defensive when a dog barks or shows aggression, understandably so.  Every day we get closer and closer to other dogs, teach him commands, and re-teach him social skills. We show him that we, unlike the humans he lived with before, will protect him from other dogs. We will control rudeness and aggression so he can relax. We practice controlled greets with my pack members and have him lay down among them in a calm atmosphere. We reward him for looking away from a challenging stare instead of reacting defensively.

  We enter week three of our stay together and I have an appointment with a dog that has severe dog-dog aggression. He weighs about 4 pounds and frantically lunges and tries to attack all dogs he sees. Typically I have an intern or Brandie to help me by bringing out one of my very experienced pack members but today I am on my own. Although this is not something I typically do so quickly into a rehab case, I bring Papa out of his kennel and ask the client to hold his leash. I guess one of my reasons for doing this was having the knowledge that the owner followed society’s views.  The owners of a dog that has already successfully bitten other dogs and continuously launched himself aggressively at other dog’s necks viewed all staffies as “killers”. As I brought Papa outside and handed the leash over, the owner tensed up and stood completely still, clearly wondering if he would be the next statistic. I then, walked over to help the other owner control her dog. The session lasted about 20 minutes and as I looked over to Papa.   I see him lying at my client’s feet, sound asleep. The client is now completely relaxed and calmly talking to Papa.  With all quiet, I return to retrieve Papa’s leash and the client tells me he loves my dog. “Yes”, I said, “me too”.

  The fourth week in and we have a planned event to attend, a local fair to benefit our rescue groups. We had planned on attending and showing our support for weeks now. Brandie and I decide this may be the perfect opportunity to bring Papa out into the public. He needs to practice his social skills in an outside busy environment so this for me, is an ideal training situation. We pack up our needed things, treat bag, treats, his favorite tug toy, and head out on our adventure.

  He again becomes nervous about getting into the truck but now, he must trust that we will not leave him somewhere. Into the back seat, he climbs and proceeds to place his head on the console between us. No whining, no shaking. We arrive at the event and out he jumps, a bit nervous by the parking garage sounds, cars zipping by, an echo of a distant dog barking. We walk him through and enter the street side fair, wonderfully crowded by people that share our love for animals.

The very first booth we visit he starts to tremble and show extreme nervousness, sitting next to me watching everything pass by. I immediately start his working side by applying his “watch me” command to redirect his attention from the multiple dogs pulling their owners past us, rushing up to rudely greet each other. I start to wonder if this may have been too much for him at this stage.  After a few body blocks to protect him from his over excited canine friends, he starts to trust that I can protect him and settles down. We begin to walk the fair, myself keeping an eager eye out for dogs that may threaten him while Papa sniffs every inch of the areas we pass including the low hanging purses of the waves of passers-by. 

 This is not the first time I have ventured out with an inexperienced dog; I make it a habit to challenge all the dogs I take in to real life scenes. I do, however, wonder what is going through his mind. Has he ever been in public? Did he ever get a chance to get outside of a fenced yard besides his trip to the shelter? Has he ever experienced masses of dogs, humans, and popping balloons?


As the rows of people walk by him, visibly taking extra steps to get a distance away.  After all, this is that breed they are warned of.  He calmly walks next to Brandie and me only focusing on where we are going next.  Before the event, I had told all my clients he would be there hoping he would have some supporters to show him comfort. Of course, I was not disappointed. Papa had many fans show up to support his first day out in the public.



An hour went by and Papa had gained enough confidence to approach other dogs. He began to cautiously go up and smell them, staying a little distant at first. With each successful greet he really began to relax and enjoy the company of the other dogs. Even gaining enough confidence to go up and kiss other dogs.

  By the time two hours had past, Papa was sitting next to other dogs enjoying his afternoon of making friends.

  It has been only four weeks for Papa’s life to completely change, and mine.  Four weeks that we have spent together, building trust, learning from each other, and changing people’s view of a breed so many hate and fear. Four weeks ago could have been his last day of life; it could have been just another statistic we, in this field, are crushed to see.  Papa could have been overlooked and left to die alone because he was born a certain breed as so many others are.

  In four weeks, this one dog has opened eyes and hearts of every human he has met and completely rebuilt his chance at a new life, all because the people in the shelter refused to be swayed by society. In four weeks, thousands of other Papas are not so lucky; they are the ones we need to feel bad for, the ones we need to fight for, not Papa. No, Papa just made me remember the ones I cannot save, that is what makes him different than the others.

 Tara, Brandie & the “pack”

When will the Human race change?

  I received an urgent email from a shelter worker (and friend) today, about a special dog they have in their care.  This dog they dubbed “Papa Smurf”, has warmed the hearts of the staff members with his gentle and loving nature towards humans. The dog is an American Staffordshire terrier or as many people frequently call them, a “Pit Bull”.

  You all know how I feel about that term, if you don’t by now, I hate it. To be more clear, I really (fill in the blanks) hate it and Papa Smurf is a really good example of why.

  Papa was dropped off by an anonymous source at TLAC last Monday. He is covered in bite wounds and scars all around his face, neck and front leg area. It is thought that he had been used as a “bait dog” due to the wounds he has suffered. In the email, were the behavior notes on this badly injured dog:

“ 9-23-10 Dog is super sweet, very good natured. He appears to be house broken. He will whine to go outside to go potty. He gets a little nervous when a lot of dogs are barking at him. He loves affection, walks great on a leash, and gives sweet kisses.

 09/23/10 18:23 Met this dog in L&F today and was blown away. Even with all the medical stuff going on with him, he is super sweet. He loves people and wants to constantly be with them getting affection. Very nice dog.

 9/23/10 Great dog. Very gentle. Shy, but wagging and looking for approval. Loves petting and does not appear to be at all head shy, which is surprising for dog with this type of scarring.

9-23-10 “Papa Smurf” will sit with a hand signal (like you’re telling someone to stop) and shake. Walked by some dogs today and he smelled them and greeted them with tail wag. He is very gentle with humans. He loves to run outside, a little scared walking through the hall ways when I took him up front to lost and found. After a few times through there he got braver and walked normally. He does not really know what toys are, he doesn’t chase a ball or any squeaky toys.  Papa is very affectionate!”

  For anyone unsure of what a “bait dog” is, I will explain. Please understand it is very heartbreaking but this happens every day and needs to be known.

  A bait dog is typically tethered to a fence or tree by a short line, about 6-12 inches( if that), so they cannot run away or possibly injure the dog  they are training to “fight”.  Their mouths are generally taped or wired closed (I have personally seen a dog with a metal hanger used as a muzzle), again so the dog in training does not suffer any injury. The, dare I call them, humans that are training their “fighters” will then release their dogs in an all-out attack on them. They will be cheering them on in hopes they can get them even more excited about killing their victim.  The “bait dog” has no chance to run or defend itself and typically if they are not killed by the dog being trained to do such horrific damage, they meet a very cruel and horrible death. Most times, left to die from their infected wounds, or if these barbaric idiots are drunk enough, they may torture them until they do die.

  Now most of you have heard the horrible torture the Michael Vick’s dogs endured, this is not just media hype. This is real life and HUMANS were the cause.  Sadly in Pittsburgh, street dog fighting is very common. In this, a group of young gang members will meet in an alley and have the dogs attack each other in a show of gang strength. The losing dog is typically hung, tortured, and left to die, all because it lost the fight and embarrassed the gang member that lost. Again humans are doing this, the human race that I belong to. It is embarrassing. Embarrassing to know the “more intelligent” species could do something like this and sleep at night.  And yet, people all over the world will blame the breed of dog instead of looking at the true responsible party, the human. People can’t bear to think that our species would be responsible for such cruel acts. They would rather blame a creature that even after being tortured by us, will show humans warmth, love, and trust.  I will admit my species is not perfect, I can admit it after seeing dogs like Papa.  Papa “a dog that even after he suffered like this” has the forgiveness for other dogs and the human race. Could any of you ever forgive someone for this type of torture if it was done to you?

  Tara, Brandie & the “pack” 

photo of papa smurf. bait dog
Papa Smurf

We ask them to “protect”

  Day after day I am asked to rehabilitate dogs for aggression.  I have worked all different breeds, ages, sizes and yet they all have the same issue, they are asked or trained to protect us and condemned for doing so.  This week in particular I have received multiple calls about human aggressive dogs, dogs that are growling and in some cases “unexpectedly” biting the family members. For me, there are no “unexpected” attacks just a dog that has been taught to do so. In very rare cases, a dog will have a medical reason for unexpected aggression; thyroid issues, brain tumors, or a pain response. This again, is fairly rare; most cases of aggression are due to the conditioning of the dog.

  Now after doing this for over twenty years, not much surprises me anymore.  I have seen some of the sweetest dogs become highly reactive and aggressive because of lack of understanding between the owner and the dog. This is normal in my opinion because humans are not born canine, so they do not understand the subtle little signs that lead to big problems later on; but to train a dog to be a “protector” or a “fighter” means you are asking and conditioning them to be aggressive. 

  I was told by a client (that contacted me for fear their dog would attack their own child after it bit a neighbors child), that they were worried their dog would no longer “protect” them from intruders if we taught them to be non-aggressive.  This is the scenario the dogs and I are put in regularly.  We ask them to show aggression, but make the rational decision as to who to be aggressive towards. Dogs do not rationalize; they do what they are trained to do. They do not see that child jumping the fence to retrieve their ball, as a friend but an intruder as you taught them. They do not see the mailman as a human just out doing their job, they see him/her as a threat to their territory that you have asked them and encouraged them to protect.  Years ago, I was called to rehabilitate a massive Rottweiler that was highly aggressive towards humans.  The background on this dog- for three years he lived chained in a basement and only allowed to be free in a fortress of a backyard.  The owner, a single young college girl, encouraged the dog to be aggressive toward the neighborhood gang members that used her back alley as a drug trafficking area.  I received the call to help her rehabilitate him only after her fiancée came to visit her and received 85 stitches to his thigh upon meeting him. The girl was completely shocked that her dog would show such fierce aggression towards the man she loved, but a stranger to the dog. Sadly, for three years the dog did exactly what he was asked, protected her by charging the fence anytime a gang member approached and he was paid back by being killed for not being able to immediately “love” this stranger she brought in. This did not have to be this way, but we as humans think our dogs can feel and mimic our emotional attachments.

    I am regularly told “I like that he will be aggressive towards strangers, I live alone” and yet the very next sentence I am told “I can’t have him biting complete strangers”.  So which is it? How can you want them to be aggressive but not show aggression? That is like asking a police officer to protect us from a gun toting criminal but not draw his gun. Thousands of dogs are chained in backyards, taught to chase small animals (a game of “get the squirrel” is common in most households), and provoked to bark at strangers at our doors. Many people amp their dogs up by saying, “who’s here, who is at the door” some even say, “get him” thinking this is fun and not thinking that they are conditioning them to show aggression.  I often tell my clients to repeat “I do not feel bad” during a training session, but the truth is, I feel awful for them because we create the problem and they suffer for it.

  Recently I had a dog in my care that was specifically bought to protect its original owner from a police raid and was supposed to be trained to become a fighter.  Thankfully the original owner does not have the dog anymore, but the family members that took him in blamed the “breed” for the aggression issues.  They told me because he was a “pit bull” he was unpredictable; this of course has nothing to do with the fact that the original owner trained him to “protect” his stash from the police or show aggression towards other dogs in hopes he could make money off of it. This is where we as a human race, need to admit that we have created the issues in these dogs and stop blaming a specific breed!

  If we ask and expect them to protect us, we are responsible just as the criminal that loads the bullets in the gun before he shoots his victim. The gun is not to be blamed, the criminal is.

Pack Strength at its Finest

  A couple of days ago I received an urgent phone call from a Humane Society asking me if I could help them with a stray mom and her 3 pups. To say I was shocked would be an understatement.   I am just a very small training facility run by myself and my partner Brandie-thankfully she loves this business as much as I do- but still, we are not a rescue group.  So why did I get the call? The little family they needed help with, they told me were staffies with disabilities.  This is a double death sentence for this poor little family of furkids.   See, mom and her two boys, only 10 weeks old, are completely deaf and all are missing one eye.  The eye they do have, they have very limited sight out of. The baby girl of the family was perfectly healthy and happy, but again she is a Staffie mix. Due to overpopulation and space this little family was the next in line to be killed. Now I am not one to keep my mouth shut when it comes to breed discrimination and I tend to be in your face about the issue. I recently became involved with the Austin “Pit Bull” –hate that term- Task Force, to try and help local groups like Love-A-Bull Inc., educate the communities about this noble and loving breed.  So alas, the word spread 130 miles north that I was the one to call in order to help this little family.

  Now we all know staffies typically are euthanized first, regardless of health or behavior, due to the difficulty of getting them adopted. What with the living restrictions and bad press out there, who would take on the possibility of not finding a home or worse, being constantly badgered by friends and family that your dog will “eat your face off” someday? But three 10 week old pups and a mom, that even though she can’t hear you or see you coming, would rather lick your face and snuggle into your arms then run away?  I mean really, how threatening could they be? Just because they were labeled Staffies, this tight nit family that has survived on their own, would likely be killed just because they were born a certain breed. This is what drives me to continue to help them, the love they have for a prejudice species-us- is unconditional no matter how we view them. No prejudice on their end, if you have two hands to pet them and a lap to lay in, they love you no matter what.

  So I anxiously awaited their arrival, getting more cages set up in our already packed center of rehab cases. After lots of phone calls, to the ever patient transport people with directions of how to get to our tucked away location they finally pull up.  As they get out of the truck, I am immediately fighting with myself about not feeling bad for these dogs. I tell all my clients to repeat the mantra, “I do not feel bad”, when we are working to rehabilitate them; and yet I am finding myself having to repeat the very same thing. Puppies are handed over; only two as I was told some unique soul adopted one of the deaf boys, and out comes mama. She is not a Staffie, oh no not at all; she is a very scared bull terrier cross.  The transport volunteer places her down on the ground and she is just about shaking out of her fur. I can only imagine what this poor girl is feeling at this point; she has been in a moving vehicle for about four hours, surrounded by humans that she does not recognize -by her only sense- scent.  Mama crouches down and basically crawls to her puppies to check on them, she has no idea that we are here to help her and her pups and I have no idea what type of interactions she has experienced with humans.

  After entering the Center, mama-having to be carried- slowly walks over to me and sniffs my leg in a polite greeting and curious way. She then proceeds to circle her pups to keep them near her, with only limited sight in her left eye, she keeps turning around and placing her back legs against them to feel where they are.  We set them up in their little cages with fresh food and water, letting them get used to the smells of their new temporary home. Within just a few minutes they all were quick to fall asleep, safe and secure.

  Our evening walk, took a bit of time; baby steps so to speak. The entire family had to learn their surroundings and how to walk with this thing we call leashes, around their neck. Mama took the lead and stayed very close to my leg as I walked, trusting that I would guide her safely, like we have asked of her fellow canine friends for years. Yes, I am a guide-human for this very trusting canine and I am completely ok with that. After a bit of navigating down stairs and around fence posts, we reached our destination of the potty yard. Mama like any mature dog immediately relieved herself and kept persuading the pups to do so as well. Once everyone was done, we stood around outside so they could get some playtime and investigate more of their new surroundings.  The pups were too involved in their game of tumble but not mama, her job was to scan the area, to clear it for her puppies.  After a good bit of time, we all started walking back to the Center to tuck them in for the night.  The little boy, also deaf and blind suddenly became startled by something and started to have a panic attack, screaming and throwing himself around. I calmly walked up knelt down and just laid a hand on his side, to get him to relax and feel more secure. He immediately stopped panicking and started following us again, albeit very cautiously.  As we approached the steps, he sunk to the ground and stopped moving-his baby sister already jumping up and down the stairs like it was a game- then mama, a dog I have only known for a few hours, did something I will never forget. She calmly walked over to her baby boy, touched him on the side, walked back to me and proceeded to lie down next to me. Her baby boy now walked slowly over to me and followed us back into the building. I have to admit, I was honored that she trusted me this much in such a short amount of time.  As we settled them back into their cages, mama began to wag her tail- a level, happy wag dogs give to people they trust- and I received the best thank you kiss followed by a very gracious bow.

  To think these poor furkids were to be put to death, just because they were wrongfully labeled a certain breed kills me inside.  What human could show this much trust in a complete stranger they cannot see nor hear, not only with their own lives, but with the lives of their children- in such a short amount of time?

  That is pack strength at its finest.

Why do we own dogs?

  I often wonder what drives a human to want a dog.  After 20 years of working in this field, sometimes this question still burns in my mind.  Is it the companionship these beautiful and forgiving creatures give us or is it just for social status? 

  I like to think that it is for the companionship, mainly because I try to keep in my mind, that all people have a good soul.  After all, humans are a nurturing species that instinctively have a burning need to care for all that is weak and vulnerable.  We boast about how we are the more intelligent species, the most rational. Yes, I think for the majority of dog owners out there, it is the thought that this one creature will be waiting happily for you, even if you did something horrible a few hours ago.  This unknowingly loving creature will always look to you and wag that whip like tail at just the sight of you. It doesn’t matter if you scolded them that morning for leaving you a present on the floor; they forgive you and are blissfully happy that you are back home.  They hold no grudges for your outburst of anger that they redecorated your kitchen with leftovers and tin foil. They still show you affection even if you push them away because you had a bad day. 

  I sit back and look at my pack members and rescue dogs everyday. I wonder how they can be so forgiving after the lives they had.  I mean seriously, if we as humans went through what they went through, we would most likely be sending our therapist’s child through some Ivy League college.  Just look at my Staffie, Axel. This amazing creature lived in a run for a good portion of his life, coming out occasionally to play with the volunteers at a rescue group, never really having a consistent owner, until now.  The first time he came to me he was like a freight train of energy. He had been so pent up he literally could not sit still for more then 1.5 seconds.  We joked because his leg muscles were so well defined, that he looked like a Staffie on steroids; but really the reason for it was incredibly sad.  He would race back and forth in his little run, jump up and down like a pogo stick just to keep his mind busy. So I wonder, what would I be like if I was stuck in a run for 2 years with only an occasional outing for play with another human? Would I be so quick to accept another human as a companion?

  Axel’s experience with people had been his daily caretakers that fed him and let him into his outdoor pen. Even though he never had a constant human companion, he greets me everyday with a play bow and a body so full of happiness that he looks like he will explode out of his fur.  How can he be this excited to see me? He did not grow up with humans loving him and caring for him like a furry child, he was not conditioned for this.  But alas, he is a dog, a forgiving and loving creature we as humans take for granted everyday.

  Then there is Tyson, a recently rescued staffie.  When I was asked to take him on through a local bull breed advocacy group Love-a-Bull, I had my doubts that this magnificent animal would ever be able to bond with a human.  He and his sister had been chained outside with no human interaction for 4 years with an occasional bowl of food tossed to them. The heroes at Love-a-Bull rescued him and brought him to me in hopes that we could help him become a better canine citizen. This is a dog that had no reason to even look at humans unless it was to protect his territory.  He never knew what a gentle touch felt like; he never experienced the soft praise a caring human could speak to reward him for just being there. No, his life was spent in the backyard, attached to a truck chain, as an object of social status.  His life was selfishly used as a trophy for humans, looking big and bad so a human could brag his dog was tougher than the other neighborhood dogs.  Why would this dog trust any human? How can I expect him to not stiffen up when I try to pet him, he never felt a loving touch before.  How can I be surprised that he cannot give me accepting eye contact for my soft praise, has he ever had a human just lovingly talk to him?  Why should he care if he pleases any human or me? Honestly, no human ever gave a crap about him, why should he even give me the time of day.

  With all this in my mind, I spent the first couple of days secretly wondering how I could tell the rescue group that for the first time in my career, I have failed.  I was certain I would never be able to show this dog that not all humans were harsh, greedy creatures looking to use him as a substitute for their own lacking strengths.  Would I believe that?  Would you?  It had taken four years for any human to step up and even care enough to take the weight of that chain off his neck.  It took four years for him to feel what it was to run around and actually play with his sister.  I would be foolish to think I can change him in a short time, if I could at all. 

  Then came day three of being in my care. I approached his kennel (more of a safe built for dogs, being he has never been crated before) and asked him to wait while I put his collar on. This for the past couple of days was a very long process of waiting longer than your average human has the patience to wait. He immediately sat down and waited patiently for me to place the collar on him. As shocked as I was and as badly as I had wanted to do a joyful little dance right there, I contained myself and kept my calm demeanor.  As I slipped the collar on, he leaned forward and put his enormous muzzle in my face.  Now this is a strange situation I placed myself in, I never leave myself unprotected.  I make it a point to constantly preach to my daughter to never place yourself in a dangerous or vulnerable position when working with our rehab cases. Yet here I am, literally face to face with a dog that has no reason to not bite the person that has been controlling him for the last couple of days. But this morning, I was the student.

   With his nose at my chin, he was slowly taking in short little sniffs. I was hoping I didn’t smell like breakfast.  Then he very gently gave me a little kiss to the chin. In my mind I took it as a thank you. I thanked him back softly and gave him a big facial massage. He leaned into it with such force that I was nearly taken off balance. This literally brought tears to my eyes. The fact that this poorly treated dog that lived as confined as he had, could show affection to a human in such a short time absolutely amazed me. Seventy-two hours of having shelter, food, and kindness made four years of neglect truly a thing of the past.   

 Yes, that must be it. We love to have a dog because they are so forgiving and full of love.

 For more information on how you can adopt Tyson and give him the same love and respect he will give you, please email