Based on my Instagram feed, it’s very obvious that I am OBSESSED with our pit bull, Chunk. We’re going on two years now with this velvety loaf of wrinkly fur and though I can’t imagine life any other way, to say it was all sunshine and rainbows from the get go would be a half-truth. Yes, there was an instant connection when we first met him, but bringing Chunk home was a wake up call in what it meant to be a rescue adopter, a pit bull advocate, and just generally a responsible pet owner in the city. But, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Chunk has quite the story prior to his adoption that I haven’t shared in detail here before and I want to start at the very beginning. (Usually I
let beg Chunk to write his own posts, but I figured this is a touchy subject for him, so I told him I’d take this one. He said, “Fine, whatever.”)
In June 2013, three months before Mr. S and I met him, Chunk (then known as Chukie) was a ward of the NYC AC&C (aka the city pound). Due to their limited government funding and inability to turn away any animal surrendered or found, the NYC AC&C is a kill shelter. We will never know if Chunk was an owner surrender or found as a stray on the streets, but what we do know is that after spending two weeks at the AC&C and contracting kennel cough, Chunk was part of the kill list scheduled to be put down the next day.
A bit of background – Chunk doesn’t do well with other large dogs. I’ll explain more about his anxiety and reactivity to other dogs later on, but knowing what I know about him now combined with the fear and loneliness of being in a place like the city pound, I imagine Chunk wasn’t the best dog in show at the NYC AC&C – what with approximately 20 other pit bulls in kennels surrounding him. I can very well see how/why he would be passed up by potential adopters, probably feverishly pacing and angrily barking in his kennel, agitated by the smells and sounds of other dogs around him. It’s likely that if Mr. S and I saw Chunk at the AC&C, we would have passed on him as well, searching out a calmer, quieter dog.
But, as the AC&C staff knew (and we would eventually learn), Chunk’s behavior around large dogs is in no way an indicator of his behavior overall. He’s very affectionate with humans, leaning into belly scratches and preferring to sit right on top of your feet as if saying, “You’re not going anywhere, keep scratching.” These lovable characteristics are probably why when he was scheduled to be put down, a volunteer at the AC&C made a special Facebook plea to save Chunk.
Thanks to that somewhat-new fancy “Shared memories” feature on Facebook, Mr. S and I were recently able to see and re-live all the support that Chunk received that night. Literally over 200 comments of donations and offers of help came from all over the country, all working the rescue networks to find a way to save him from the kill list. I learned a lot about the rescue process while researching the adoption process and commend all the efforts of these organizations – I imagine it is endlessly frustrating to know you can’t save every dog. In a place like NYC, it’s not enough to just have the funds to be able to rescue a dog from certain death, you also need the space. And I don’t have to tell you that in NYC, space is not easy to come by. Rescue organizations don’t have the luxury of a yard to temporarily house two or three dogs at a time, so each rescued dog needs a willing and confirmed foster before it can be pulled. Also consider that in NYC, the majority of rental buildings don’t even allow dogs and the few that do usually have restrictions on size, weight, and sometimes even breed. Eventually the Bully Project was able to secure a foster home for Chunk and rescued him at the eleventh hour. Donations were used to treat Chunk’s kennel cough, then he was placed into a loving foster home for two months before Mr. S and I found him via Petfinder.com.
Meanwhile, Mr. S and I got serious about adding a dog to our humble studio abode that same summer. And while we didn’t limit ourselves to a certain breed, we weren’t exactly gung ho about adopting a pit bull either (their reputation preceding them). All our research told us (and we firmly believe) that there are no bad dogs, just bad owners, but that meant adopting an adult dog from a shelter was a bit of a gamble. Our dog’s breeding, history, and background would always be a mystery and we feared there would be no way to untrain any aggressive tendencies. (We weren’t interested in puppies – I’m not down for that house training life).
But one night, while hanging out at a friend’s apartment, we got to meet and hang out with our first pit bull up close and personal. His name was Massi and he had been recently adopted. Our new friend said that it was love at first sight when she saw him online and drove all the way to NJ to pick him up. And though he was massive, there was nothing to be afraid of – he was just a gigantic, gray hunk of slobbering love. He’d cozy up to me on the couch only to steal away my Coach ballet flat and prance around the living room as if it was his most prized trophy. “HEY, THAT’S COACH!” I yelled as I snatched it away from his mouth. He gently relented, seeming to understand the difference between Payless and Coach, but it was just a few minutes before he was circling my footwear again. He was such a goofball, immediately endearing himself to us. In one night, Massi managed to debunk every negative pit bull theory we had ever heard, and so Mr. S and I finally started considering a pit bull for ourselves. Good thing too, because pit bulls make up the vast majority of adoptable dogs in NYC.
We started out at the AC&C, visiting every weekend to see if we made a connection with any of the dogs there, but picking out a dog directly from the shelter is tricky. It’s tough to judge a dog’s temperament in such an extreme situation, so we also turned to the internet to see if any of the local rescues had our future pup. NYC rescues generally get their dogs from the AC&C and had the added bonus of being able to observe the dog in a more normal home environment, thereby giving potential adopters a more accurate and complete assessment of its personality.
We had a similar reaction to seeing Chunk’s ad on Petfinder – a gut feeling that he was our dog, just from a few pictures. And our meet and greet with him passed with flying colors (the adoption process is a two way street and Mr. S and I were being evaluated as capable adopters as well). The fosters and Bully Project had nothing but glowing remarks about Chunk’s temperament but did note that he needed to continue training to work on his leash manners and that he sometimes didn’t get along with other large alpha dogs (small dogs and even submissive large dogs were usually fine). Thinking back to that evening now, I recall the fosters and Bully Project representative tensing when they saw a large husky cross our path during our walk*. I was holding Chunk’s leash at the time and one of his fosters grabbed it firmly and pulled Chunk in the opposite direction. I figured she was just leading us on the normal walking path and thought nothing of it then, but it was a foreshadowing of what was to come. Leaving that meet and greet after a few hours hanging out with Chunk and his fosters, Mr. S and I were on cloud nine – we couldn’t believe we had finally found our perfect dog.
One week later, Chunk officially moved into our apartment with us. We were ecstatic and took him for a late night stroll to the park, giddy with disbelief that he was actually ours. We knew he had to work on his leash manners (our adoption fee to the Bully Project included three training sessions with a dog trainer that had been previously working with Chunk), but for the most part he acted just like any other dog in a new place would – eagerly pulling, sniffing, and peeing on everything.
The next morning, we woke up with grand plans to head to the dog park. Finally we’d be able to actually go inside the dog park, rather than just watch all the fun from outside! Images of Chunk playing with other dogs in the park danced through my naive little head. But first, our Saturday morning ritual: a bagel and coffee run. Mr. S and Chunk waited outside the deil while I ran in to grab our breakfast. As I exited the deli and turned the corner, a large black lab dog walked by the spot where Mr. S and Chunk were waiting for me. At first sight of the black lab, Chunk’s reaction was instantly vicious – lips snarled, pointed canines bared, clawing and lunging so ferociously that I thought he might get loose from Mr. S’s hold. And the barking was more violent than any I’ve heard before. It wasn’t the “Hey, hi, who are you, let me smell your butt” barking we got at the meet and greet. It was “FUCK YOU, I WILL RIP OUT YOUR THROAT, I HOPE YOU DIE A THOUSAND DEATHS!!!!!!!” barking. People stopped in their tracks, anticipating a tragic incident was about to happen, every pit bull stereotype they had heard was about to be confirmed right before their eyes.
I froze in fear – all I could do was watch in horror and wonder what happened to the cuddly, lovable oaf we had adopted and who was this monster dog with such large teeth looking like it wanted to kill something. Luckily, Mr. S had his wits about him better than I did, but no amount of soothing words, firm commands, or yanking on his leash made a dent in diverting Chunk’s attention. Finally, at a loss for what else to do, Mr. S hoisted 66 lb Chunk into his arms, cradling him like a baby. And whaddya know, Chunk went suddenly quiet and limp. It was like magic. The scared unfocused look in Chunk’s eyes was still there, but the wild outburst was over. Mr. S and I looked at each other wide-eyed, silently screaming “WTF was that?!? Did we just adopt the dog version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?!?” After a minute or so, Chunk calmed down, the offending black lab finally out of sight, and the three of us swiftly headed home to avoid further scolding glares from passers-by. Needless to say, we never made it to the dog park that day.
Chunk’s edge wore off by the time we made it the half block back to our apartment, lazily lying down at the foot of our bed. I, on the other hand, was still very much on edge and questioning whether or not we had made the right choice in adopting Chunk. I hate to admit it now because I love that dog to pieces and I cover Chunk’s ears every time I tell this part of the story, but that morning, I seriously considered if we should return him. An aggressive dog was exactly what we were trying to avoid, and while I was fairly sure Chunk would never direct any of that aggression towards us, there would be no way for me to physically overpower Chunk the way Mr. S did. Not to mention, the whole episode was very scary. I posed the question to Mr. S to see what he thought. I could see the concern on his face, but clearly Mr. S is a more compassionate human being than I am because he said, “Look, he’s been through a lot in his life and these past two days have been a big change for him. Let’s give it more time.” From his response we can infer (1) Mr. S was destined to be a nurse, (2) Mr. S will be a great dad one day to a human baby (he already makes Chunk buy him Father’s Day cards) and (3) Mr. S is going to heaven and I am going to hell.
I agreed, knowing full well that we were already so smitten with Chunk that returning him would be more heartbreaking than anything else. As other pit bull owners can tell you, when you bring home a pit, you become part of an unofficial community of pit bull advocates. We not only owe it to Chunk, but to the entire breed, to make sure that nobody has a reason whatsoever to promulgate the existing negative stereotypes associated with pit bulls (or any of the so-called “dangerous” breeds – German shepherds, rottweilers, dobermans, etc.). When a yorkie or a pug behaves badly, it’s a cute isolated incident, but when a pit bull or a German shepherd behaves badly, it’s a matter of public concern and a reflection of the entire breed. Whether that’s fair or not doesn’t matter – it is our reality. (I get it, I get it – bigger dog, bigger damage – but in my opinion, no matter what size dog you have, you have an undeniable responsibility to control and manage your pet.) And like Massi did for us, we wanted Chunk to be an upstanding example of his breed to erase any doubt of their suitability as a loving pet. After his outburst that first morning, we quickly realized what that meant – a firm commitment to correcting his leash aggression issues.
“Leash aggression” was the term the dog trainer, Kate, used when we first contacted her. She had been working with Chunk while he was in foster care and was very familiar with the scene we witnessed outside the deli. We set up an at-home training session with her and in the meantime Googled the crap out of “leash aggression.” There was much to learn…
Coming up, the trials and tribulations of Chunk’s training and how his mortal enemy became his best friend.
* To be clear, I don’t believe that the Bully Project misrepresented Chunk’s temperament to us. He is loving and gentle and makes us laugh every day. The phrase “leash aggression” had been used during the meet and greet, but neither Mr. S nor I fully understood what that meant. We didn’t expect Chunk to get along with all dogs, but we also didn’t realize how severe his issue was or that being on the leash could be a trigger for aggressive behavior. That said, we had realistic expectations going into the adoption process. We knew we wouldn’t be getting a perfect dog, but saving a life was important to us so we were willing to put in the work. And I’m so grateful that we did because I can’t imagine not having him in our lives.