My husband and I like domesticated animals. We also like New York. For years, it seemed to us that these penchants were incompatible—small apartment, pet hair, close neighbors—and so we lived in the city pet-free for over a decade. When we had children, our desire for a dog, in particular, gained traction in the way that having children often propels parents to recreate their own best childhood memories for their kids. We both had dogs growing up—Muffin, my English springer spaniel, had floppy, soft ears that were perpetually soaked with the tears of my teenage angst—and we wanted our own children to experience the incomparable love of a loyal mutt.
In November of 2012, on the weekend following Hurricane Sandy, we visited the local animal shelter with the kids. We quickly found ourselves in the process of rescuing an aging cocker spaniel, who had been tied to a pole in a flood zone. He was about 13 years old. All of his teeth, except one, had to be pulled by the vet due to years of neglect. But the staff assured us he seemed friendly and good-natured. We named him Sergeant Chewbone.
After a few days in our home, Sargie went from calm and sedate to wanting to gobble the kids up whole with his gums. He guarded his food, he bared his tooth and growled; he lunged at our youngest child, and bit our eldest. We spoke with our veterinarian and with a couple of behavioral therapists. The consensus was that he was too old to train and a danger to the kids. We tried to find another home for him, but when he bit my husband with his single tooth and drew blood, we knew we couldn’t give him to the neighbors. This adoption story ends horribly: The kids and I said goodbye, and my husband walked him to the vet’s office where he was put down.
Two years later, we felt it was time to right a lot of wrongs, and so with great caution we decided to attempt dog adoption once more. We worked with Badass Brooklyn Animal Rescue, a local group with a strong record of placing animals in appropriate homes, a process that includes checking references and a home visit. Ultimately, they matched us with a one-year old Lab mix who was in the process of being rescued from a kill shelter in Georgia and transported back to Brooklyn.
We named him Sir Charles Shadowboxer. The rescue group required that we hire a dog trainer for at least one session. Jason Cohen from Canine Cohen Dog Training came the first day. He showed us basic commands, and how to start training Charlie to walk on a leash properly. But things started to go downhill pretty fast. On the second evening, as we were watching television with the kids, Charlie started to growl at our oldest son, Jack. We intervened with distractions, but he lunged at our 4-year-old unexpectedly. My husband began having horrible nightmares. I could barely move my head from left to right due to stress. We alerted our dog trainer and the rescue group of our situation.
Jason Cohen came over immediately to assess the situation. I honestly thought he was going to end up leaving the session with our dog, and we’d find ourselves with another failed adoption, having another heartrending talk with the kids. Jason stayed with us for three hours trying to determine the nature and extent of our dog’s aggression. He put a correction collar on Charlie, and showed us how to use it along with the positive reinforcements he had previously taught us. I still don’t know how, or why, or what happened during that three-hour session, but when Jason left that night, Charlie fell asleep with his head on our laps. We have not had a growling or lunging incident inside or outside since then, and he’s become intentionally gentler when he plays.
Our relief can’t be overstated. The difference between our two adoption stories has made me think a lot about what could have been different with poor old Sergeant Chewbone. Had we invested the money in a good trainer from the start, would things have gone differently for us? I don’t know the answer, but we wish we had done it the first time around.
Sarah Torretta Klock is a writer and photographer who lives in Brooklyn with her husband, three kids, a cat, and now, a dog.