Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Heartbreak and Goodbye

In 2008, a friend adopted Gus from a local rescue. He had been from a puppy mill and they told her he was 6 months old. He was still extremely matted and in need of grooming care. By all accounts given by the foster, Gus had not had any human contact while in the puppy mill other than for vetting and being moved to mate. I was new to working with dogs and offered to help with training and socialization.

At the first vet appointment, the vet reassessed his age, estimating he was 2 to 4 years old. It was obvious that he had been extremely under-socialized, and responded to stress by shutting down completely. It took over three months just to get Gus to eat food out of my hand.

I started working with my friend on socializing Gus. She worked with him on an umbilical lead (a leash that clipped to him and her belt loop at the top) and lots of positive reinforcement for choosing to interact with her. They were making progress until she had a baby. We worked with a fake baby doll to try to help Gus get familiar with new sounds and new movements and new rules like not being able to be on the couch or on the bed if the baby was being held. Once the baby was born, the change in routine made him decompensate and return to his original behavior of hiding under beds and not interacting, defecating and urinating everywhere in the house, biting/nipping at anyone who tried to approach him.

We made the decision that Gus would come to live with me and my husband and our two dogs until perhaps the baby got old enough or the routine was more stable for Gus. My friend, like many in Southeast Michigan, had a series of financial set backs, so my husband and I agreed to assume custody of Gus.

While in my care the past two years, Gus had made headway in terms of bonding with me and accepted my touch and nervously accepts initiation of play or sometimes initiates snuggle sessions. However, he has not bonded with any other human being. I frequently travel and he decompensated each time, reverting back to hiding under beds and couches, urinating and defecating everywhere, and not interacting with my husband or any other human being, and biting. When I returned from any travel longer than a day or two, Gus and I had to start back at umbilical lead training and rebuild a large portion of the training we had worked on. This happened each and every time I left.

I tried everything I could think of to bring him farther along with socialization with humans: Progressive desensitization and counter-conditioning to anxiety inducing stimuli, crate training, bonding exercises, umbilical lead training, maintaining a set routine. I had established strict protocols for strangers who want to try interacting with him so that all interactions with strangers are positive and predictable. I had even tried a few weeks of daily herbal treatment, aromatherapy, flower essences, massage and acupuncture (horrible failure). When all that failed, I contacted my vet to discuss psychotropic medication with the goal of getting his anxiety reduced to the point counter-conditioning exercises could be reinforced and then the medication tapered off while repeating the exercises. However, the medication only made him drowsy and we had to avoid prolonged use due to the side effects on his liver.

I consulted another trainer, who recommended euthanasia. Unhappy with that answer, I consulted a veterinary behavior specialist who recommended the same course of medication we had already tried.

At this point, I wanted to find a suitable environment where he could thrive as a dog instead of living as a prisoner in his world of constant fear and anxiety. Gus gets along very well with other dogs. Watching Gus interact with my dogs, I observed that he appeared to be a "normal" dog for a few moments in time. I truly felt that the best situation for him was one where he could interact with dogs as much as he likes and not be forced to interact with humans if he didn't want to.

I started searching for sanctuary placement, but every reputable sanctuary was reporting that they were filled to capacity with permanent resident dogs. I looked for possible homes that would have less activity than ours. A home where his bonded person would not travel, did not have a lot of new people coming over constantly, had an established routine, and was willing to put in the time to help with some of Gus' behavioral issues and tolerate his toileting habits.

While searching for this home, Gus began to deteriorate further. He began biting again, defecating and urinating in the house again. He even began to redirect biting at people he interacted with on a regular basis. On Friday, Gus got frightened by something. We aren't sure what. He attacked Nugget, our 7-month old kitten, in the face. Nugget was immediately taken to urgent care and then an opthamology specialist where it was determined he had retinal detachment and permanent loss of sight in his left eye.

While waiting for updates in Nashville while my husband was at the vet's, all I kept thinking is how Nugget could have been one of my friend's children. And I can't help feeling I have failed.

I made the call to my vet.
It is 30 degrees and raining.
Gus will be buried by his first non-dog friend, Orange Cat.
He will be watched over by the Chestnut Angels

Rest now, little friend. Relax the muscles behind your shoulders and in your hips that are always tense. You have nothing to be afraid of now.

8 Sad Lessons I've Learned From Gus

It is with the heaviest of hearts that I write this list of things I've learned from three years with Gus, a 5-7 year old Silky Terrier puppy mill rescue.

1. The Absence of a Behavior is a Behavior:
I am not sure where this phrase originated, but the first time I heard it was on a criminal case involving 200 pit bulls in October of 2010. Renowned dog trainer Julie Castaneda was explaining to me that while it is normal for a dog to be emotionally flooded after a stressful event, there should be a certain point within 3 to 5 days of established routine when the dog begins to interact with its environment again. That response may be something we don't like to see such as fear, reactivity to humans or dogs, or hyperarousal, however it is still a response. Lack of response means the dog has little to no ability to self-soothe or process stress. When Gus came home, he did not move for almost a week unless picked up, did not eat or drink, urinate or defecate for four days.

2. Redirected Aggression is a Problem Regardless of the Size of Dog:
For three years, I have made the rationalization that although Gus has bitten out of fear or redirected a fear bite on another person or dog that it was somehow, "Not as big of an issue," because he was only ten pounds. However, last week Gus got frightened by something. We aren't sure what. He attacked Nugget, our 7-month old kitten, in the face. Nugget was immediately taken to urgent care and then an opthamology specialist where it was determined he had retinal detachment and permanent loss of sight in his left eye. Small dogs can still do big damage.

3. Critical Socialization Periods Are Truly Critical
Gus was a puppy mill rescue. This means he was in a sensory deprived environment for anywhere from two to four years, only being handled when being moved to mate or be vetted. This set Gus up for being fearful of everything: people, new objects, new environments.

4. Understanding the Function of Different Parts of the Brain is Key to Understanding "The Why?"
So many times I asked myself, "Why is Gus like this?" After all, a canine brain includes all structures of the human brain. (With exception of the Broca's area that gives humans and primates the ability to form speech and communicate in a language.) I began to study how interactions activate the basal ganglia (set of actions in response to stimulus), amygdala (fight or flight), and the hippocampus (storing memories). I studied the limbic system, starting to understand the myriad ways synapses are influenced by the release of adrenaline, epinephren, cortisol, dopamine, and seratonin. I could begin to see how Gus' brain was malfunctioning, how lack of stimulus and an over-active fear response solidified set of learned behaviors through neuromuscular facilitation and classic conditioning.

5. Sometimes Understanding "The Why?" Still Doesn't Help
I understood developmentally why Gus was like he was: bonded only to me, unable to accept touch, unable to respond appropriately to change in environment or sudden movement. He has all clinical signs of Separation Distress Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Repetitive Behavior, and Neophobia. Understanding this gave me clues to things to try to desensitize his reaction to new objects or people or counter-condition a set of behaviors he had learned when exposed to something he viewed as a negative. Behavioral modification can only help so much when there is true, deep, psychological trauma and developmental issues.

6. There Are Worse Things Than Death
Being terrorized by daily interactions and not having the abilities to self-soothe or respond to normal stress cycles is a horror I can't imagine living. Gus has been in that place mentally for the majority of five to seven years depending on his age. Two of those years have been in my care.

7. These Experiences Will Help Many, Many More Dogs
When Gus came into my life, I was just beginning to study dog training and behavior as a profession rather than a hobby. The frustration that initiated research, reading, and studying, gave me a knowledge base that has already helped all the rescue dogs I work with. The trial and error has given me a toolbox of methods to use to help fearful dogs that are not as permanently and deeply damaged as Gus.

8. I Will Always Spread Awareness About Puppy Mills
This skill set came at a very high price. I will always have a part of me that feels I failed Gus. That I didn't do enough. The reality is the first person who failed Gus and permanently altered his brain chemistry was the puppy miller who bred him and kept him confined in unsanitary, understimulating kennel with no human interaction for years. YEARS. And I will never stop educating and advocating for these dogs.  Learn about puppy mills here.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

BSL resources

For all the SAVE ACE folks and anyone who is looking for more information about Breed Specific Legislation:

What (Not) To Say

The Problem With Dog Bite Studies

DNA vs. Visual Breed Identification (Why Visual Breed Identification is (87.5%) Wrong)

Pick out the Pit Bull

BSL is Statistically Ineffective

BSL Allows Owners to be Irresponsible

Myths and Facts

Pit Bull Rescue Central's Statement on Breed Specific Legislation

Hello Bully's Presentation on BSL: The Facts

Best Friend's Cost Calculator: Fiscal Impact of BSL

Pit Bull 101: Humane Education

The Pit Bull Placebo:

Media Bias

What BSL Teaches Us About Profiling

Effective Legislation:

Model Law

Position Statements from Organizations

The Truth Behind Merritt Clifton Studies

The Truth Behind Dogsbite.org and Founder Colleen Lynn

Friday, November 11, 2011

Open Letter to Detroit City Council, Department of Health and Wellness, Department of Environmental Safety

To All This May Concern:

I am sure in the last few days you have received quite a few emails regarding the practices and policies at Detroit Animal Control. This email is not going to condemn or condone the choices made in the past week. Instead, it contains information to consider regarding your stance on policies regarding so-called "pit-bulls".

"Pit Bull" is not a breed. It's a generic term often used by the uneducated public and media to describe any one of a number of purebred or mixed-breed dogs that may resemble any of the Molosser breeds: Mastiffs * English Bulldogs * Boxers * American Bulldogs * Presa Canarios * Dogo Argentinos * Cane Corsos * Ca De Bous * Boerboels * Alapaha Blue Blood Bulldogs, and more.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the unfortunate aspect of breed bite statistics is that, "Dog bite statistics are not really statistics in that they do not give an accurate picture of dogs that bite... [T]he breed of the biting dog may not be accurately recorded and mixed-breed dogs are commonly described as if they are purebred." This is because most breed identification is done by visual identification by the victim or responding officer. In a study by the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2009 that showed comparison DNA analysis versus breed designation by visual identification, 87.5% of the dogs were identified incorrectly. In fact, breed identification has proven so unrealiable that the Center for Disease Control stopped using breed designation in data collection in 2007.

Due to the high cost of DNA testing all dogs that are acquired yearly by Detroit Animal Control, I would assume DAC is often making breed designations based on appearance. Since there is no way to know breed for sure unless you know the pedigree of the dog or complete a DNA profile, and breed identification is overwhelmingly inaccurate, there is no scientific basis for the euthanasia of these dogs.

Statistically, it is impossible to reduce bite statistics by eliminating a certain breed of dog. According to an American Veterinary Medical Association study article released in October of this year, "Using dog bite injury data from the Centers for Disease Control, the State of Colorado, and other, smaller jurisdictions, along with guestimates of the population of various breeds or kinds of dogs, the authors calculated the absurdly large numbers of dogs of targeted breeds who would have to be completely removed from a community, in order to prevent even one serious dog bite. For example, in order to prevent a single hospitalization resulting from a dog bite, the authors calculate that a city or town would have to ban more than 100,000 dogs of a targeted breed."

I'd also like you to consider how effectively breed-specific policies and laws protect citizens from non-targeted breeds. Since we have already determined that breed identification is inaccurate, then we must assume that majority of dog bites and attacks are committed by non-targeted breeds. Breed specific policies treat victims and potential victims of dog bites unequally. Those who are threatened by a targeted breed get immediate action of public health and animal control. Those who are threatened by a dangerous dog of a non-targeted breed get a lower priority response. It is not acceptable to have unbalanced responses when it comes to public safety.

All citizens deserve protection from dangerous dogs, regardless of what the threatening dog looks like. I urge you to focus instead on effective methods of managing dangerous dogs. Unilaterally, communities that have repealed their breed specific policies and legislation have found that the most effective way to reduce bite statistics is enacting responsible ownership laws.

The primary indicator of risk regarding dog-human bite incidents is whether the dog is a "resident dog" or a "family dog". Resident dogs are dogs maintained outside the home or obtained for negative functions like guarding, fighting, protection, breeding for financial gain. They are removed from human socialization and cannot be expected to exhibit the same social behaviors as dogs kept as pets. Family dogs live inside the home and are afforded opportunity to learn appropriate behaviors through daily positive interaction with people. They also benefit from regular veterinary care, obedience classes and training, regular exercise, and regular feeding schedules. Laws against animals kept restrained outside on chains and laws that mandate adequate shelter identify irresponsible owners who are not providing socialization and proper daily care of their animals.

Dog-to-dog aggression is a reality for dogs regardless of breed. Dogs may exhibit no dog aggression, be less tolerant of certain dogs of the same gender, or react differently in highly-stimulating situations. Leash laws and laws that require permanent identification of owned animals, such as microchipping or tattoos, help in returning loose owned dogs to their owners as well as identifying irresponsible owners who let their dogs run at large.

Finally, adopting a non-breed specific dangerous dog law will help with identifying and removing the truly unsafe dogs from the pet population. This type of law would identify aggressive and dangerous behavior in a clinical and scientific manner that could be applied to all dogs regardless of breed. This would take into consideration location of the animal, situation, and severity of danger. A complete example of such a law can be found at the Association of Pet Dog Trainers website. (http://www.apdt.com/about/ps/model_dog_law.aspx )

Please consider changing the current ineffective policies at Detroit Animal Control. They are based in fear and reaction. You have a great opportunity at this time to review your policies and ensure all are based in fact, are scientifically sound, and promote a proactive response with measurable results.

Thank you,

Melissa Szumlinski, CPDT-KA

Thursday, November 10, 2011

My Letter to the Michigan Department of Agriculture

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing concerning the current situation involving Detroit Animal Control and a stray dog who has come to be known as "Ace."

I am requesting information as to why DAC is not reporting intake, euthanasia, RTO, and adoption numbers on an annual basis. I am also requesting information regarding the steps your office has taken to enforce the annual reporting, and if any citation or reprimand has ever been given for their lack of compliance.

I know there are bigger things going on in the state right now than delving into the euthanasia of one dog. However, this is about more than just about a single dog. It is about a pattern of corrupt practices in a city department that the Michigan Department of Agriculture is supposed to be overseeing.

By refusing to negotiate with reputable rescues with a long-standing history of involvement within the city and subsequently defying a court order, Detroit Animal Control has fallen under scrutiny. A quick review of their reporting and euthanasia records reveals that they have not submitted an Annual Shelter Activity Report in at least five years.

The media all over state and in some other parts of the nation picked up on this story. As details unfolded, it became apparent that the dog known as "Ace" had been euthanized. The public has been informed that Ace was euthanized, either against a legal injunction or prior to the mandated 4-day stray hold had expired. The public, in many cases for the first time, is being exposed to animal cruelty and neglect and the reality of euthanasia. They are personalizing this starving, scared dog, and seeing breed discrimination at play. Ace has quickly become a symbol of frustration in the lack of accountability the Detroit Animal Control has to any department in the State of Michigan.

This has now grown bigger than just about the life of one dog. The story of Ace has now become about a system that has failed every standard and benchmark set in the nation for humane care of animals and has somehow not been held accountable for their lack of annual reporting.

Please take action. Please investigate DAC on their non-compliance with reporting.

Thank you for your time.


Melissa A. Szumlinski, CPDT-KA

Department of Agriculture and Rural Development States:An Animal Control Shelter is defined by state law as "a facility operated by a municipality for the impoundment and care of animals (dogs, cats, ferrets, rabbits, hedgehogs, sugar gliders, or any other non-rodent, non-livestock mammal) that are found in the streets or at large, animals that are otherwise held due to the violation of a municipal ordinance or state law, or animals that are surrendered to the animal control shelter." An Animal Protection Shelter is "a facility operated by a person, humane society, society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, or any other nonprofit organization for the care of homeless animals (dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets, hedgehogs, sugar gliders, or any other non-rodent, non-livestock mammals)." You will need an Animal Shelter Registration to operate an animal control or animal protection shelter. Please note that organizations which operate solely via foster home rescues are exempt and do not need an Animal Shelter Registration.

They must use this form


DAC is listed as a registered and licensed animal sheltering facility.

2010 Annual Animal Shelter Activity Report (No DAC Reporting)


2009 AASAR (No DAC Reporting)


2008 AASAR (No DAC Reporting)


2007 AASAR (No DAC Reporting)