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Though I have sworn off them in times of loss, I have always been a dog person. Cats are fine, I guess, but it says a lot that the one time I was fully responsible for naming a household cat, I called her Vermin.

Dogs are something else. They almost never cheat at cards. They are usually straightforward about what they want from you. Some have been known to bark at appropriate times. If they could be taught to rub our heads the way we rub theirs, they would be the perfect companions.

I’ve been around a lot of dogs. I had a job once as a kennel cleaner for a humane society back in the hometown of Visalia, a place where too many folks think it’s cool not to neuter their dogs. One summer, one of my main tasks involved euthanasia. It was not an easy job.

Later, I actually lived on the property of another humane society, this one in Chico. My first wife ran the place and we lived about 100 feet from the kennel. We did not need a watchdog of our own.

In order, the important dogs in my life were:

My grandfather’s pack of beagles, hunting dogs deep in the Adirondacks of Upstate New York. He called them all Mitzi.

The family dog when I was a kid, a neurotic cocker spaniel. We called her Mitzi, too. When we would come home, she would run around the yard in crazy circles until she collapsed, forgetting why she had started running in the first place.

Babe, a hound/shepherd mix with the world’s saddest eyes. A friend’s girlfriend said that if I didn’t take her, she’d go to the pound.

Spanky Garcia. He came from the Butte County pound. He was a lab/boxer mix with some funny biases. We thought the name might help.

Roger, a shepherd mix smarter than many people I see on TV. He was also a particularly strong swimmer. Butterfly as well as freestyle.

Ruby, the lab/blue lacy mix. One of nine from a litter delivered to the SPCA along with her mother. I wanted one of the chubbier boys but my daughter insisted that she was the one. She was the almost perfect dog. The only trouble was that she liked to explore the neighborhood, even when that meant climbing a seven-foot fence. And that she got old.

Zorro, the Queensland healer. He’s my neighbors’ dog, actually, but we fostered him for a couple years while the neighbors were living on a boat. His best quality is his contagious calmness.

Charley, the American bulldog/pitbull mix, the point of this essay, which is less breezy from here on.

I’m not entirely sure why I wanted an American bulldog. It’s probably the junkyard dog look combined with an air of general goofiness. Kind of reminds me of me, I guess. After Ruby had chased her last ground squirrel, I started looking for another dog, maybe an American bulldog, and a friend told me that a friend of hers was in possession of a pit bull that had been impregnated by a hulking American bulldog.

Like most people, I have never been a fan of pit bulls because, like most of you, I don’t like being bitten and I wouldn’t want my dog to bite someone else. However, because of my time in the world of unwanted dogs, I have paid attention to the debate over nature v. nurture in the realm of pits. Yes, quite a few pits have proved to be too aggressive, some fatally so, but the message from all those Save the Pit Bulls websites is that it is the fault of bad owners, not bad dogs. A large herd of people out there insist that if they are raised with a gentle hand instead of a spiked collar, they can be lovely companions.

So I went with Charley. I think he was 9 weeks old when we got him, large for his age but a cute as any pup, black with a white blaze. Charley had spent his earliest days with a couple of brothers and his mother, while the father was penned separately because he could get rough. Almost 140 pounds of rough. I understood that when I took Charley home. At least I thought I did.

Charley grew quickly. It was obvious he would need training, which I provided, and gentle care lest the tough side of his personality overwhelm the clownish side. He got the full soft-touch treatment, except for some corrective yelling when he was caught chewing things other than a bone. I can’t remember now if he chewed up two or three remote controls until he had finally trained us.

For most of his short life, Charley showed few signs of aggressiveness. In all, there were three episodes,  the third truly horrible. Some of you will want to stop reading now.

No. 1. Charley had gone out on a walk with a neighbor and her decidedly gentle dog. They came across the carcass of a ground squirrel and Charley wanted it to himself. I wasn’t there, but I understand the scuffle included Charley biting the neighbor dog on the neck. An alarm of sorts went off in the neighborhood.

No. 2. It was months later when another neighbor asked if she could bring her medium-sized, exotic breed, solid white pup over to play with Charley. Her dog had two smaller playmates and she wanted it to get to know bigger dogs as well. Charley was definitely a bigger dog by then. Just over 100 pounds of bigger.

They sniffed each other once and the smaller dog suddenly lashed out. It was like alligator wrestling, or a washing machine filled with black and white towels. It seemed like it took five minutes for me to pull them apart but it probably was about 30 seconds. I think each dog mainly got a mouthful of fur and, remarkably, no damage was done.

After that, Charley was clearly on probation, but there were no new offenses for weeks and weeks and the neighborhood alarm went off.

No. 3. I was off somewhere when I saw the text message from a third neighbor. She liked taking Charley when she walked her own dogs because he was lively and could get the others running. The three dogs all got along great. Until this day. The text message said something, “Royal, come home. I think Charley just killed Harper.”

I raced home but too late to be of use. The remains of Harper, the 50-pound husky, were being hauled away. Charley was oblivious. I learned later that all had been going just fine on the walk until the neighbor stopped to give the dogs a treat. Charley decided it was his and his alone. I never asked for a full account. I really don’t need that image in my head.  I consulted our vet and it was agreed that Charley really could no longer be trusted with other animals. Or people.

Harper was a sweet dog who did not deserve his fate. I still don’t know how I can ever make it up to his owners.


Though we are still grieving over Charley, an otherwise wonderful dog, and though I still sometimes look for him on the couch, we have brought a new dog into the house. She is a shy, little Dalmatian mix, a rescue. Her name is Daphne and I’ll let you know how it works out. No problems so far but it’s only been a week.

In the headline, I promised a message and here it is. I am not going to turn into an anti-pit activist or an anti-American bulldog activist, but I will not just go along with the “it’s not bad dogs, it’s bad owners” mantra that surrounds the bully breeds.

Animal shelters everywhere have a surplus of pit bulls and pit mixes. I don’t know if it’s because they are hard to place or if it is because too many pit owners are irresponsible about spaying and neutering their creatures. Some of both, I imagine. But I do know that I no am no longer resting comfortably on the nurture side of the divide, and that if anyone asks me if they should adopt a pit or an American bulldog or a pit-American bulldog mix, I’ll tell them there are lots of other dogs out there that need homes. And I’ll also tell them about Charley.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bill leone April 8, 2017, 2:16 pm

    Yes, Big Dogs need to be trained exceptionally well & watched Carefully at all times, especially around children. Pit Bulls, Dobbies & other large, muscular breeds should never be taken for granted. That is why, when any of the (6) grandchildren visit our house in Seaside, I ask my wife, Diane to never allow our two Dobermans (Rosa & Once’) to be alone with the children. Rosa & Once’ are Very well trained,
    & they have never, ever shown signs of aggression towards another dog or human, even though they have been poked, prodded & pestered by 3 or 4 grand kids at once; when they’ve had enough, they just get up & make their way to their sanctuary in the master bedroom, where everyone is advised to Leave Them Alone.

    Bottom Line: it is Everyone’s responsibility to report aggressive (Red Line) dogs to the police, Before
    they hurt or kill another animal or human.

    I’ve trained attack dogs in the backwoods of Virginia, after graduating from the University of Maryland with a BA in Behavioral Psychology, & I know Exactly how much damage a Big Dog can inflict on a person of Any size.

  • John Dalessio April 8, 2017, 2:43 pm

    Thanks, Royal, for the honest advice. I’m a dog nut, but I’ve never been tempted by the pits and other bull terriers. I just do not like the look in their eyes.

    But here’s a different kind of caution: The reigning king in our home is a (probably) mostly English Lab and either rottweiler or German Shepard. I got him off of Craig’s List. He was about eight weeks old and ours was at least his fourth home in those eight weeks. Shortly after, I tied him to a heavy metal table while in went into the market to buy fish for dinner. Even at his tiny size, he dragged the table to the shop door, where he was stymied by the fact that the door was smaller than the table. Also, when we had to leave him at home, he would make a well timed mad dash for the door. He was almost impossible to keep in.

    It’s now been twelve years and the tiny pup is a calm dignified 90 lb dog. He hasn’t rushed the door since he was about nine weeks. Instead he sulks. It’s like we died. As a result, we rarely travel together, and when we do, we hire a live in dog sitter. We would not risk boarding him.

    Moral: Even dogs with a calm, sweet disposition carry scars from a traumatic youth. No question that we would adopt him all over again, but forewarned is forearmed.

  • Jeanne Turner April 8, 2017, 3:31 pm

    Royal, I am so sorry this happened. I encountered lots of pits during the 6-1/2 years I volunteered in the SPCA clinic. Some seemed so sweet. Some had to have the owner muzzle them in order for them to be vaccinated. One could not be treated at all. Even the owner had no control over it. It appears to me that with pits it’s more than just “It’s not the dog it’s the owner.” Our dog trainer who trains dogs, breeds dogs, shows dogs and judges dogs at dog shows is very leery of pits. She says you just can’t tell when something is going to set one off.

  • ryan April 8, 2017, 4:01 pm

    ah so sorry to hear about Charley and Harper. it’s hard enough to put a dog down… must be terrible to do it when the dog is in otherwise good health. condolences all around.

  • Dan Turner April 8, 2017, 4:06 pm

    Pits bull were bred to fight, if I’m not mistaken. So, its not the dog’s fault when something triggers that behavior that has been bred into it to fight in such a way that it kills or badly maims another dog or a person. But, because of that behavior that was bred into the breed, they are just too dangerous to have around unless, perhaps, you plan to use it to guard property in an enclosed area when you’re not there and, at all other times, the dog is restrained or locked up so that it can’t get to other dogs or people.
    Years ago, I read that Denver had passed an ordinance banning pit bulls from the city and, if that is so, it was most likely due to a number of attacks that killed or maimed children.
    One of my patients, an anesthesiologist , was called in (this would be about 35-40 years ago) for an operation on a child who had been attacked by a pit bull in Salinas. He was about 55-60 years old and had been sitting in on those types of trauma operations for a long time. He said he never saw anything like what the pit bull had done to that child.

  • po April 8, 2017, 4:44 pm

    Sorry to hear that, Royal.
    I had to send a dog away once, an otherwise sweet australian shepherd that was not trained properly (by me) and become snappy when feeling threatened. Though the trip was permanent, it was just across states lines to my brother in law who also had an australian shepherd.
    Something broke in me that day, as I knew, I felt that I wronged him personally but that I also broke the key rule that binds man to dog and dog to man since the first stick was thrown and the first wolf chased it.
    I don’t dare imagine how you feel.
    But, I agree with John above, I just do not like the look in their eyes, speaking of pits and such.
    We are also legacy before we are nurture. We are our bloodline and its strain, its purpose and its habits, its impulses and its wiring. Biology is like every truth, it can be tamed but never suppressed. Pits and their iterations therefore are safe until they aren’t. And when they aren’t, the damage is very deeply done. And while this damage is still the exception and not the rule, the price for such exception is simply too heavy to bear.

  • Jean April 8, 2017, 5:41 pm

    Here’s to Daphne and the life you will share!

  • bill leone April 8, 2017, 11:33 pm

    Okay, I decided to clear the air with a little Internet Research. The bottom line is: According to the (CDC) research there is no such thing as Breed Specific Aggression in Dogs.

    Check it out, you will probably be quite surprised: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pit_bull

    Personal anecdote: when working as a mailman, at the tender age of 18 (1958), in Monterey, during the Christmas Holidays, I was greeted by many a happy canine at about every third mail delivery. Some of the dogs were very big (one German Shepard looked like he was over 120 pounds!), & some were very small. The most aggressive dogs were small, & the Only dog that every bit me was a Dachshund, who nipped my ankle, then ran away yelping when I turned around & yelled at him.

    • Dan Turner April 9, 2017, 11:20 am

      Pit bulls may not bite most often but, when they do, they much more often cause disfigurement because they don’t just bite (I don’t mean to minimize the damage that can be done by a German shepherd “just” biting you hand. It can sever tendons and your hand may never be the same again.), they clamp down, hold on and don’t let go. This can result in a large piece of flesh (think of your nose, one cheek and your upper lip) being ripped off. It doesn’t grow back.
      That’s why pit bulls are just too dangerous to have around. I guess they don’t do those sorts of attacks often enough for folks to become concerned enough to outlaw them – except, maybe, for Denver.

  • bill leone April 8, 2017, 11:51 pm

    Correction: “…. & the Only dog that ever bit me….”

  • Joanna Greenshields April 9, 2017, 7:07 am

    I’m so sorry Royal. I can only imagine how horrible that situation was for all involved. I have had Rottweilers for over 35 years. Most of them I have rescued. I trust them with my family but I’m always on guard. There are so many unknowns and the strangest things, to us humans at least, can trigger an attack. Like Bill, the only time I have ever been bitten was by a Dachshund. Smaller dogs may be more prone to nip but large, powerful jaws can kill.

  • bill leone April 9, 2017, 12:07 pm


  • bill leone April 9, 2017, 12:17 pm
    • Dan Turner April 9, 2017, 1:16 pm

      You can look at the research up the wazoo and pit bulls do more damage to people than other dogs, especially disfigurement.

  • bill leone April 9, 2017, 12:29 pm
  • bill leone April 9, 2017, 3:38 pm

    Regarding Statistics & “alternative facts” promulgated by the MSM:

  • david fairhurst April 10, 2017, 12:34 pm

    I feel for you Royal on this one.
    I think why some breads get a “bad rap” is because of the kind of people that want those kinds of dogs. My dad use to say what makes up a person (and I think it applies to dogs too) is 1/3 is genetics, 1/3 is environment (how they are brought up and what they experience) and 1/3 is God only knows (that little spark that makes all different. So yeah…I guess sometimes one 1/3rd can go bad enough and overwhelm and the love and training you put into them.
    We had a dog “gifted” to us, I think he was sent to us by Satin. Chow, Huskey, Lab. Mean as a Chow, strong as a Huskey and as hyper as a lab. Pretty dog, but…barked all the time, cashed everything, chewed everything (especially if it was a valuable antique). I swear I tried everything to no effect, it was then I figured some dogs, like some people are just born bad.
    Happy with the old MacNab/Border Collie “Barnyard” aka “Barney” the “beta” dog, going on 19 years of age and loved his way into a lot of hearts, except for the squirrels, they don’t like being chased back into their trees and they “chrip” and “chong” about it (but that is where “Barney” believes they belong and he works hard to keep it so).

    • Joanna Greenshields April 10, 2017, 10:30 pm

      Look at us all getting along. Politics brings the worst side of us out. More dog stories, happy ones please.

  • Jim Guy April 10, 2017, 3:07 pm

    I feel for anyone with a problem dog. I have a Doberman who is the sweetest pup on the planet, but he has no idea that he weighs 80 pounds and he is absolutely TERRIFIED of every other dog, somthing that was put in his head by the Australian shepherd who bullied him when he was a pup. Any encounter with a strange K-9 could end in fear biting. No dog parks for him, and every walk is an ordeal because of worries some idiot will allow his mutt to charge off leash. I can’t let anyone but his family around him. He’s a big sissy, but the operative word is big.