WATERVILLE, Maine — Could Dakota, the husky slated for euthanasia after killing one smaller dog and biting another, be rehabilitated and live out a peaceful life if given another chance?
Probably, say some Maine canine trainers with decades of experience working with dogs, including some with checkered pasts.
“Most dogs can be better,” said Chris Fraize, who owns Kittery-based Canine Solutions Training Services. “I would bet I could rehab him, but can’t know for sure because I haven’t seen him.”
Fraize and his staff often work with dogs that have been aggressive toward other animals or people, and some have been labeled dangerous by the state.
“We get bit a lot,” Fraize said during a phone interview Tuesday.
The fate of Dakota, a 4-year-old husky, has been in limbo since March, when a judge ordered that the dog be euthanized after it got loose and bit a pug on the neck. Less than a year earlier, Dakota had mauled and killed a shih tzu terrier owned by the same neighbor.
After the fatal attack, Dakota was declared a dangerous dog. Under state statute, if a dog that’s been deemed dangerous attacks again, as Dakota did, it must be put down.
The case garnered national attention in late March when Maine Gov. Paul LePage pardoned Dakota. District Court Judge Valerie Stanfill ruled April 11 that state law requires that the dog be put down, and didn’t place any bearing on the pardon. The District Attorney’s Office argued the governor didn’t have authority to pardon a dog because the dog was never charged with a crime.
Dakota received a reprieve in the final hour, when an appeal was filed with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court as Dakota awaited its death at a veterinarian’s office. That court will ultimately decide Dakota’s fate.
Fraize takes issue with the governor’s pardon. He worries that the governor’s intervention will “set an ugly precedent,” prompting more owners of dangerous dogs to turn to his office for help. With that second chance, some of these owners might still not get their dog the behavioral help it needs, meaning it could continue to be a risk.
Fraize said there’s a chance that if Dakota isn’t put down, he could be rehabilitated, but it would take hard work by a dedicated owner.
“It’s a case-by-case basis that has more to do with the people than it does with the dog,” he said. “Our motto here is it’s not the dog, it’s you.”
Helping a dog overcome these sorts of behavior issues takes persistence and patience.
Olivia Dooley of Portland adopted Toby, then a 9-month-old shelter dog, two years ago. He was rescued from a kill shelter in the South and brought north.
After a few months, Dooley began to notice Toby was aggressive around other dogs who came in or around her house, sometimes lunging at them. During a visit to the beach, Toby chased a child in a way that startled Dooley.
That’s when she decided to look for help. She and Toby have been working with Fraize at Canine Solutions for more than a year. It has taken a strict training schedule to help both her and the dog get to a place where they’re both more confident and can manage the behavior problems. Now, Toby is calmer around other people and most dogs.
A lot of the work has centered around keeping Toby focused and helping Dooley realize the importance of a leash and not being scared about what her dog might do.
“It’s been a year,” Dooley said, “and, for me, I think it will be a lifetime of change.”
Dakota’s current owner, Linda Janeski, adopted the dog from a shelter after the second attack, but has said she wasn’t aware that there was a March court date to decide whether Dakota should be euthanized. Both attacks happened under the watch of Dakota’s previous owner.
The rehabilitation process varies from dog to dog depending on whether they’re dominant, fearful, trusting or territorial, according to Fraize.
How trainers work with each dog depends on everything from the dog’s genetics to what environments it has seen in the past. Fraize said he has seen vicious chihuahuas and pit bulls disciplined enough to work on a police force, but that the common denominator among most aggressive dogs is poor ownership.
“If you can’t educate the people then there’s no hope for the dog,” he said. “Everyone thinks they’re a dog expert today.”
George Quinlan, a semi-retired trainer based in Alfred, has been working with dogs for 46 years.
“Dogs aren’t born mean,” he said. “In most cases, the dog’s had improper social skills reinforced or been agitated by somebody.”
Dogs, like most other animals, become aggressive out of fear and frustration, Quinlan said. One troublesome example is “fence-fighting,” when one or both dogs run along opposite sides of a fence, barking at one another. That repetitive process can rile up both dogs, cause frustration, and escalate to violence if owners don’t intervene.
The trick to stopping that aggression is helping the dog cope with the stimuli that spark its on-edge response. Repeatedly exposing a dog in a safe environment to the things that scare or frustrate it can help it realize that there isn’t any danger and no reason to become agitated.
But every dog’s situation is different. Some might become aggressive because of a medical problem that’s causing them discomfort, Quinlan pointed out.
“Any dog can get into trouble, even the nicest dog, if it’s been in the wrong environment and situation,” he said.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.