If you’ve watched only just one episode of the “Dog Whisperer”, starring Cesar Millan, you became aware rather quickly that the fundamentals of any good pack leader include the ability remain calm and assertive if the face of aggression. And, to stand your ground.
Still, if you walk into a stranger’s home and come face-to-face with a good-sized Staffordshire Bull Terrier, more commonly known as a pit bull, one that’s obviously disturbed by the intrusion and letting you know about it, the urge to flee is hard to resist.
That’s why Michael MacLellan advises to simply ignore the barking and to not look Zeus straight in the eye. It seems to work.
“I’ve always had pit bulls,” MacLellan said. “I’ve had them since I was a kid. I could’ve gone with any kind of dog, though, I guess I’m a ‘dog person’ in general. I just seem to have a way with animals.”
Which has turned out to be a blessing for Zeus, a 5-year-old pit bull who landed in the Friday Harbor Animal Shelter about a year ago, languishing for attention but rarely receiving the amount that a highly sociable, relatively young and obviously intelligent animal like it requires.
Then along came MacLellan and girlfriend, Elizabeth Clark, a dog person as well.
“He’s really smart and really good with tricks,” Clark said. “He needs someone who would keep his mind busy. He has a working dog kind of personality.”
Zeus is a bit of a softy, too, she adds, it shows when he cuddles up with a favorite blankie when he takes a nap.
“He’s definitely a ‘little dog’ in a big dog’s body.”
Clark and MacLellan recently brought Zeus home as a foster dog after about two weeks of taking the once-abused and ultimately discarded dog for walks near the shelter nearly every other day. The Animal Protection Society’s Jan Murphy could tell right away it was a good match, and that what she heard from a friend of MaccLellan's dog-whisperer like abilities might just be the ticket for the emotionally malnourished animal.
"He had a difficult time with new people and with new dogs," Murphy recalls of the days, weeks and months after the dog was first dropped in the shelter's lap by its former owner. "I distinctly remember when the guy that brought him in said that he would take him out and shoot him if we don't take him. You could tell he was really leery when he met new people, he would growl a lot at people, but once he got to know you he was fine."
The patient got with the program almost from the get-go, she said.
"I watched him interact with them, and Mike and Elizabeth weren't in the least bit intimidated by all that, and you could tell that Zeus really wanted to please them," she said.
Still, Clark and MacLellan are quick to point out that neither are solely responsible for the transformation that's underway, one that they both hope will stick, lead to a permanent home and a rewarding future for their new-found friend.
Up until about a year ago, the couple had two pit bulls in their lives for more than a decade; sisters, named Brittany and Babe. Brittany succumbed to cancer about a year ago and died. Clark said that Babe, who, at the age of 12, mostly shuffles along now at a methodic pace (and is fond of wearing a costume-pearl necklace, deserves a good share of the credit in bringing the younger, much more exuberant dog along.
Older, wiser and the product of respectful and caring home, Babe contributes an important element into the equation that neither MacLellan or Clark -- their patience and discipline notwithstanding -- ever could.
"She's showing him how to be a dog, showing him what dog's do and how to behave," Clark said. "I think he's learned a lot from her. He's had a complete attitude change since he's been here."
Although they may toy with the idea, Clark and MacLellan have resisted signing on for the long-haul. By fostering the dog at home, their intent, at least at this point, is to raise the animal's self-confidence, provide it boundaries, structure and environment where it feels safe and secure, thereby giving Zeus the best chance possible of being the kind of dog that someone like themselves will be willing to take a chance on.
"He's really a great dog and he deserves to have a great home," Clark said.
After years of neglect, if not alright abuse, MacLellan believes that Zeus wound of in the shelter with his faith in people shattered. And, he said, that's what needs to be nourished and restored.
"It's really a matter of trust," he said. "He was abused for so long, I think he lost his trust in people. He just needs someone to tell him what's right and what's wrong, that this is okay and that's not okay, and to give him lots of love."