The Trouble with Angels

Sometimes God sends us an angel in a dog suit.

I first met Albie last spring. She was an out-of-control, rowdy one-year-old pit bull heading for trouble. She had house manners, but was becoming an increasing problem outside for her disabled owner. She was violently unfriendly with other dogs and nervous around men, but I was called in because she was a strong leash-puller. Her owner, Debbi, had been injured when Albie pulled her right off her feet.

Now, I had trained my own dogs before and taught obedience classes. I was considering hanging the private trainer shingle when I met Debbi. I offered to test my skills as a trainer on Albie at no charge.

You see, Debbi suffers multiple physical and emotional disabilities. Albie was a gift from her mother, who picked up two adorable pit bull puppies from a Winnebago County, Illinois shelter. At that particular time a baby pit bull was not what Debbi thought she needed, given her emotional issues and all. But Albie was one of those naturally sympathetic dogs who knew instinctively what to do to rouse her from depression-induced recumbency, clown her out of a crying fit, and offered her own body for stability when Debbi had trouble standing up or moving around. But her increasingly “bad” behavior was jeopardizing Debbi’s ability to keep her in her small apartment. I had a vested interest in keeping a pit bull out of trouble, as they lived in my town.

When I met Albie for the first time, she blustered a bit at the door, but Debbi did a decent job of keeping her under control and I didn’t perceive her to be a true threat, which she wasn’t.

Like many pit bulls, Albie was a natural clown. She liked to watch TV, and would become downright silly over her favorite shows and personalities. She had her favorite toys that she liked to carry around with her as a security blanket, and she’d go absolutely ga-ga over people that she and Debbi liked. I adored her instantly.

Once I established a rapport with her, I fitted her with a training collar and put her on a leash, and we had our first lesson in door manners. She was already pretty good about letting the person exit first, but once outside she tried to forge ahead. A couple of quick U-turns on my part was really all it took for her to understand what walking on a leash was all about.

Albie was a trainer’s dream. She’s the kind of dog that makes one look like a genius. We exited the parking lot and had a lovely walk on a loose lead. The neighbors’ jaws collectively dropped and Debbi was practically in tears because they thought they’d seen a miracle. But my being able to walk her wasn’t the issue – she would have to walk with Debbi, who couldn’t do the quick turns. I spent a few moments coaching Debbi on how to hold the leash loosely, attached a second leash to Albie’s collar, and Debbie, with her 4-footed cane, walked Albie calmly for the first time. As unbelievable as it sounds, Albie never pulled on that leash again.

Debbi had done an good job of teaching Albie some basic commands like sit, down, stay, wait, go to bed, mostly in Spanish. I was sure glad that I was studying the language, but I found that Albie would respond to English as well. What we needed was to teach Albie to respond to her commands everywhere, not just at home. Debbie had also started her on things like opening drawers, which Albie saw as a fun game. When Debbi showed me that, I realized that it was her dream for Albie to be her service dog. Seeing Albie’s devotion to her, her willingness to work and her capacity to learn quickly, I felt that this dog had the potential and desire to be one.

Most of Albie’s problems were due to a lack of socialization, both to new environments and to strange dogs. Most of those issues evaporated quickly, once she learned that she had nothing to fear and that her job was to focus on her handler. She was picking up a lot of nervous energy from Debbi, and my job as the trainer was to teach Debbi how to be her dog’s emotional leader. Debbi was highly motivated in this respect and was emboldened by her new role. It was amazing to watch the two of them grow together.

Debbi was most concerned that Albie would not be controllable in public places, as she had a history of going ballistic in places like the pet supply store, so we scheduled a few outings. She needn’t have worried. Albie’s training stuck. I was so impressed with Albie’s turnaround that I ordered her an early Christmas present – a beautiful red cape with “Service Dog in Training” patches.

We taught Albie to pick up things that Debbi had dropped with play training. It took very little reinforcement to achieve reliability. Albie wasn’t highly food motivated — she was quite content working for praise and play.

I accompanied Debbi and Albie on their first trip to the doctor’s office together. Albie and I rode the elevator for a while to get her accustomed to that, and she learned to navigate a narrow hallway with medical equipment. Everybody loved this beautiful dog that responded to Spanish, and she quickly learned to take everything in stride. Debbi learned to lead by example, and that by keeping herself calm, Albie stayed calm. I was surprised, though, when Debbi called me the next week to tell me that she had taken Albie to a therapy session, and then to the grocery store. This dog (and this owner!) had come a long way in just a few months.

I picked up Albie a few times and took her Christmas shopping with me – noisy, crowded stores were a challenge for her, especially being away from her mommy. We practiced out-of-sight downstays and recalls, “help me” (stability) and “give it to me” commands. Debbie started taking Albie with her everywhere, as Albie became calmer and more reliable on every trip. There was no question in my mind that Albie would be a wonderful service dog.

I was hoping to have Albie certified, but Debbi’s situation changed suddenly in mid-January and the two of them were forced to move out of Illinois. Certification isn’t a requirement for service dogs — it’s pretty much on the honor system, according to the law. But it was something that I wanted as a test of my training skills, and I felt it would make life easier for the two of them. But it wasn’t going to be so. I heard from Debbi a few times and she had been taking Albie with her everywhere. Then we lost touch for a while. I knew that Debbi was very grateful for my help with Albie and she was concerned about how she could pay me back for my work with her. I didn’t care. My payback was knowing that the two of them would have a long, happy life together, and that a formerly wayward pit bull would be out there practicing perhaps the most important and persuasive ambassadorship for the breed. Still, I wondered how the two of them were doing.

But the trouble with angels is that sometimes they’re called back home earlier than we would like. I honestly believe that when we meet a real one, we’re only allowed to touch them for a moment.

Yesterday I got a phone call that I never would have expected. Albie had suffered from digestive problems since she was a puppy, but was enjoying a mostly symptom-free existence while I was working with her. After they moved, her symptoms returned and she suffered an increasing amount of disturbance and pain. I’m not sure of the condition from which she suffered, but it was apparently incurable. Albie had to be put to sleep just a few days ago. Debbi is devastated. I am, too. And I’m sitting here trying to understand how such a young and apparently (to me) healthy dog could have her expected lifespan so severely shortened. But that’s often the way with angels.

But while I was talking to Debbi, something she said told me that Albie was still fulfilling her role as a service dog. Debbi is determined not to fall apart. “Albie didn’t like it when I got upset,” she told me. “I’ve got to keep myself together for her.”

Debbi asked me just to see to it that Albie is remembered, and to tell her story to those who will listen, and especially to those who need to hear it like politicians who would ban all pit bulls or declare them all “dangerous” or “vicious.” In many cities, counties, states and even entire countries, merely being a pit bull is a death sentence, especially if one winds up in a shelter. Albie was one of the lucky ones, like my pit bull, Piglet, who is also a shelter survivor. Albie survived to give love, joy, support and special meaning to the life of someone who faced many challenges, and who is facing many more because of the loss of this wonderful dog.

There is no such thing as an inherently dangerous breed of dog. There are a few aberrant individuals, there are even more who get into trouble because they just aren’t taught not to. And there are some that are angels, even in pit bull wrappers. I feel honored that I was chosen to help this one spread her wings and fly.

Now it’s time to fly home, little Albie. You will be remembered, and you will be missed.

(Tracy Doyle is a writer, researcher and dog trainer in Boone County, Illinois, and is an unofficial pit bull lobbyist on her own behalf. She received nationwide press when her deaf pit bull, Piglet, landed the leading role in the movie “Dog Jack,” filmed last summer and still in post production. She has recently served as the Director of Training for the Northern Illinois Dog Club of McHenry County, Illinois, and is the Executive Director of the Deaf Dogs Education Action Fund.)

Tracy from IL