A is for Atticus

In his ‘DogTown’ book essay, Best Friends trainer Pat Whitacre discovers ‘the beautiful truth about dogs.’ December 29, 2009
By Best Friends Animal Society

I suppose, when people examine their lives for pivotal moments or characters, by definition they find themselves looking at beginnings and endings. Armed with that perspective I really must start with A and tell the story of Atticus. After a visit to Best Friends in 2003 helped me discover a way to channel my love of animals into constructive action on their behalf, I began to volunteer at a local shelter in my hometown. I knew a thing or two about behavior, I told myself. I would help the dogs with "issues" become more adoptable.

The shelter staff seemed appreciative — or at least, polite — in their amusement. They were quick to offer suggestions of some "issues" dogs I might work with. After all, many of the more "challenging" dogs exhausted volunteers in short order. They often were left till last if they got any interaction at all, which tended to make the situation worse. Who was at the top of the list? A beautiful 80-pound German shorthaired retriever named Atticus. He was fairly young, maybe three or four years old, healthy, and energetic. Atticus did not have a mean bone in his body, but anyone who went into his run or took him out for a walk emerged feeling like they had gone three rounds with Evander Holyfield. He would jump, push, pull, shove, ram, drag, wag, or otherwise abuse your body until you escaped his enthusiasm.

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In truth, Atticus had many qualities that made him a good candidate for training. His friendly nature minimized any risk of aggression. His high activity level produced a lot of different behaviors that I could try to reinforce. The only real question was whether I could figure out what rewards he would respond to. As I got to know Atticus better, the answer revealed itself: Just getting to go and do things was reward enough for him.

Atticus made quite respectable progress. He began keeping his feet on the floor when I entered the run. He would sit to be leashed and wait for a signal to go through the gate. He spent less time dragging me on the leash, partly because of his training, and partly because we jogged for three miles each day to start our outing. After all, sitting in his run 23 hours a day provided little outlet for his enormous energy. Having bragged about his progress, I should mention that these improvements were largely confined to his interactions with me. He had not yet generalized his new behaviors to other people. They did not behave like me, so he assumed the old way of doing things was the way they wanted him to behave. Just because he had to put up with one person who behaved strangely was no reason to think everyone else had lost their minds at the same time.

All this so far is prologue. The important part of this story is that one winter day a man and his 10-year-old son came to the shelter to adopt a dog. This shelter always had lots of nice, easy dogs from whom to choose. So, of course, they went right to Atticus’ gate and fell in love at first sight. The staff explained his history and foibles to the gentleman as diplomatically as they could. Atticus was not considered the best choice for a family with children under 16, since adult volunteers found him overwhelming. But, as the saying goes, "the heart wants what the heart wants," and the man and his son were not easily deterred. In keeping with the time-honored technique of dealing with an impasse by handing it off to someone else, the staff politely introduced the man and boy to me. They explained that I had been working with Atticus, that I knew him better than anyone else at this time, and that I would be happy to bring him out so that they could meet him. I sensed impending disaster. As mentioned before, Atticus did not expect to use his new behaviors with "normal" people, so his high-energy antics could be on full display. I suspected that the dog weighed as much as the boy. Did I mention that it was winter? I thought so. The play yard we used for introductions was covered in snow.

The young boy wanted to walk Atticus first. I wanted Dad to try, but I was outvoted two to one. As Dad and I watched, the boy proudly took the leash. Almost immediately Atticus took off at a full run, dragging the boy behind him. I glanced at Dad to catch his reaction. To my surprise, he was smiling! I turned back around, and instead of seeing the poor lad facedown in the snow I saw the youngster with both legs locked stiff, remaining upright, skiing behind Atticus as the pair zigzagged back and forth across the lawn! He was having the time of his life. Dad looked at me and said, "He’s perfect. Can we have him?"

Therein lies the beautiful truth about dogs. One man’s problem dog is another man’s joy. With the best intentions, we at Best Friends try to help dogs become more adoptable. We encourage behavior that would seem to open more doors to potential homes. But, in the end, the more pertinent goal is to find the right match between home and dog. I still believe there is value in helping dogs change some of their behaviors, but I realize that the value inherent in their individuality should not be underestimated. In this case, the "magic" happened not because of my efforts to shape Atticus into some generic adoptable dog, but precisely because of the unique qualities that made him Atticus.

(From the new National Geographic book, "DogTown: Tales of Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Redemption." To learn more about the book, visit the online National Geographic store.)

The new season of "DogTown" premieres Friday, Jan. 1. Learn more about the series here.

Written by Pat Whitacre

Photo by Best Friends Staff

As part of Best Friends’ 25th anniversary in 2009, our goal is to double our membership, so we can double our efforts to bring about a time when all companion animals have a forever home. What can you do to help? Give the Gift of a Best Friends membership to family and friends.