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Welcome to Shelter Life at the East Bay Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

We began as the Oakland SPCA in 1874. Today, the East Bay SPCA includes two animal shelters and three clinics in our community.

This is our day.


Tuesday, August 16, 2005

CHOMP

When I imagined getting bitten on the job, I always assumed it would be from a large, scary dog in a large, scary situation. Last Saturday was the first time in my three years working at the Oakland SPCA that I got bitten.

My assailant? A fluffy white poodle. His massive weight? Eight pounds.

Rollo had come into the shelter as a collection of knots and burrs. He was clearly frightened, and he tried to bite several people during our routine intake procedures. When L., another canine associate, decided to take on his grooming needs, she had to muzzle him to keep herself safe. Still, he was a tiny, adorable little dog. Aesthetically, he was highly adoptable. Maybe his snapping was really about the pain his mats and tangles were causing. If we cleaned him up and gave him a safe place to stay, would Rollo come around?

Again L stepped up to the plate, offering to foster the poodle in her home for a week. The shelter manager approved, and Rollo went home with L that night. He is the dog featured in a previous post entitled "So Good".

Over the week, Rollo seemed to blossom. Not only did his new haircut make him look healthy and happy, but he was doing well in L's home. He was co-existing with her resident dog and cat. While he barked whenever anyone came into the house, he would then approach, sniff, and go his own way. All signed pointed to Rollo deserving a second chance.

Because his stress levels went up in the kennels, he still couldn't be safely walked by volunteers. Management and L began coming up with ways to find an appropriate home and get him adopted without kenneling him. Obviously, Rollo would need a disclaimer and we would make very sure whoever wanted him understood that when frightened, Rollo could (and would) snap. But, in the right home, we thought he would make a loving companion.

During all of this time, I had become one of the people who could walk and pet Rollo. I was "in". Or so I thought. L's foster week ended Friday night, and on Saturday he was in our back kennels with some treats on his door for people to toss in. He seemed to be more at ease. Instead of huddling in the back of the kennel like he used to do before, he was standing at the front, body relaxed, tail up.

Passing through the back kennels with a few extra minutes, I offered Rollo several treats. He took them tentatively, and I made a mistake. I took two more treats and got into Rollo's kennel with him.

I bent down, feeding Rollo first one treat, then the other. He stood in front of me, his body still, his tail motionless. These are all bad signs and I should have noticed them. But, still feeling convinced I was one of Rollo's pals, I extended my left hand and touched him lightly on the cheek beneath his right ear.

He turned his head and bit my left finger. Then he bit my right thigh. Then he bit my left lower pantleg. It was a zig-zag pattern of bites that felt as if it had come out of nowhere. It was at this point that I realized, too late, how very far I'd pushed my luck.

I stood up, turned, and left the kennel. I knew he'd broken skin on my finger, and my thigh was throbbing. I was furious at myself and kind of embarassed. If I had been watching the events as a third person, I would have clearly seen Rollo's warning signs. I'm a dog trainer. That's part of my job. However, an average dog owner would have done just what I did: tried to make friends and gotten bit.

After filling out the incident report and the several other forms that get filled when dealing with a bite, I was still feeling awful. Rollo would have to be euthanized. His bites were not a fearful dog getting away from a frightening situation. This was an attack. Multiple bites, strategically placed. My finger was bleeding and a bruise the size of a plum was forming on my right leg. Rollo was dangerous.

In my line of work, I expect that bites will occasionally happen. When a client adopts a dog they do not, and should not, expect to get bitten by their new pet. We will never know what Rollo would have been like in a permanent home. We know his behavior in the kennels was worse than his behavior in L.'s house, but a dog who bites multiple times, for whatever reason, cannot be deemed adoptable.

On Monday, Rollo was euthanized. I believe it was the right decision, but I can't help feeling guilty. Indirectly, Rollo's death was my fault. If he had never bitten me, would Rollo have gone out into the public and hurt somebody? Or would we never have known or seen the pontential he had within him? Were the bites ultimately good luck or bad luck? I don't know. I don't think I ever will.

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