by Ellen Landauer
Killer pitbull Charlie surges toward me and my beloved German Shepherd, Ena. Will this result in a dangerous dog aggression incident? Knowing who is holding Charlie's lead gives me confidence it will not.
Killer pitbulls are not as common as the media would have you believe. Most dogs of this breed are generally mild-tempered and fun-loving. As in any group of dogs, there are those with high-energy temperaments, raised without regard for their true nature. Ignorant owners beget dangerous animals.
All too often, a dangerously aggressive dog has brought heartbreak to a pet owner or parent of young children. Even experienced trainers fail repeatedly to rehabilitate such dogs. The verdict is that such a dangerous dog can never again be trusted and must be destroyed.
That is, UNLESS they have the good fortune to end up at Kevin's.
Below is the story of the day Ena and I met Charlie, a reformed killer pitbull.
It doesn’t take a big stretch of the imagination to believe that a Brahma bull is surging through tall grasses toward me and my black sable female German Shepherd.
No, this is not the prelude to an attack. Holding the end of the other dog’s leash is a dog-man who successfully rehabilitates the worst of the worst - so-called 'incurably vicious' animals.
“When I first laid eyes on Charlie, my bones ached,” confides Kevin Behan, my training mentor since 1998.
Charlie is a mostly white American Pitbull Terrier. Weighing in at over 90 pounds, he is a ‘Charles Atlas’ even for his brawny breed.
A few weeks ago, this killer pit bull arrived at Kevin’s Vermont home and training center with only one purpose - to clamp his massive vice grip of a jaw around the throat of any dog he saw and throttle the life out of them.
Charlie was so bent on getting at other dogs that he tried to bite through a chain link kennel if he caught sight of another of his kind - so blindly determined, his jaws would bleed from trying to get through the metal barrier. Even with decades of experience redeeming the worst basket cases of dog aggression, Kevin knew he had his work cut out for him with Charlie.
Now, only two weeks after arriving at Kevin’s, Charlie is about to meet Ena (or is it more like ‘Reformed Terminator’ meets ‘Aspiring Land Shark)?’ Ena hails from the toughest East and West German working police lines. She and I stand waiting in an open field as Kevin brings Charlie out to meet us. This will be a therapy session for both dogs.
I am reasonably calm waiting for them to get close enough for the two dogs to make physical contact. One reason is that I haven’t yet been enlightened about Charlie’s violent past. Also, through years of training with Kevin, I have grown to trust unequivocally that he always knows the right thing to do, especially with the most dangerous of dogs.
As they come closer, I am impressed with the immense size of Charlie’s skull, the uncompromising density of his musculature, and his confident demeanor. The smiling spread of his panting jaws spans the whole width of his head, somewhat like the mouth of a huge toad. My hands tighten their grip on Ena’s lead.
Charlie appears calm and happy, very much in harmony with Kevin. There is no tension in the lead that Kevin holds in relaxed hands.
Ena regards Charlie hungrily, as a desirous woman would contemplate a real hunk of a man. Ears forward, all four feet planted solidly, she leans into her collar, slack tongue hanging sideways from salivating jaws. Because of Ena’s strong temperament, the more energy a creature has, the more she is attracted to them.
Ena has a few little issues of her own. I tried to be as careful as possible when she was a puppy, bringing her together with other dogs in a harmonious way under ideal circumstances. But my older German Shepherd, an Americanbred from show lines, conventionally trained, was stressed and dominant around other dogs. As a pup, Ena picked up an accumulation of that tension. Consequently, she became overcharged to other canines. This prevented her from making calm, confident contact with dogs, even though she was attracted to them.
Kevin stops about twelve feet away. Charlie stops too, calmly aligned with Kevin, still not pulling on the lead.
“Let her come over so they can sniff noses,” Kevin instructs me.
I gingerly release my grip on the long line and let it slide through my hands. Ena moves directly to Charlie. Kevin is ready for anything, yet relaxed and neutral. His easy manner provides a harmonious environment in which the dogs can make contact. He holds Charlie on a sturdy leather lead. Charlie is rock-solid calm.
Ena, however, is bug-eyed, head-over-heels fascinated with Charlie. She is overcharged and doesn’t know what to do with all that energy. The hair lifts over her spine as she sniffs noses with Charlie.
“Unclip her lead,” Kevin directs me. “It will be easier and safer. You don’t want the leads to tangle.”
I reach down and remove the long line. Ena bounds around Charlie a bit, then sidles right up next to him. Charlie stands quietly, like a gargoyle-headed statue. He bows his head a bit as Ena begins to put her chin over his shoulders.
My heart rate picks up and I glance at Kevin’s face. Kevin stands at ease studying the dogs with benign interest. His hands on Charlie’s lead are quiet and sensitively attuned, like the light touch of a master horseman’s fingers on the reins of a spirited horse. Even before trouble erupted, he would know what was going to happen and respond with lightning speed and uncompromising sureness.
Charlie is so mellow it is impossible to believe he had ever been a killer pitbull. Ena wants to wrap herself around this delicious hunk of dogflesh, and nervousness comes up because she doesn’t quite know how to connect. Rising up on her hind legs, she straddles Charlie’s shoulders, her front legs splayed stiffly out on either side. Gnarly growling noises vibrate in her throat and chest. Ena opens her jaws over the top of Charlie’s head, then chews on his ear.
Charlie appears to find her behavior perfectly acceptable. I wonder where his flash point is. How much static will he tolerate from Ena? Per square inch, those jaws must have more power than a junkyard car crushing machine...
I look at Kevin, asking, “Should I be a little concerned right now?”
Kevin nods, grinning and chuckling a bit, keeping a relaxed focus on the dogs.
There is no explosion. The ex-killer pitbull is patient as an old work horse.
Ena calms down and gets off Charlie’s back. She bows, inviting play, then teasingly punches the muscle-packed shoulder of her male friend with a front paw. The former ‘killer pitbull’ softens his strong silent stance and the two dogs sensuously rub their sides together. Emotional harmony reigns supreme.