Recognizing One Pit Bull’s Potential

October 6, 2021

Katie P. has fostered many dogs for different animal rescue organizations, but Tessa, a two-year-old pit bull she fostered for the ASPCA, was a unique case.
“There was just something about her,” says Katie, who recognized Tessa as highly intelligent, sensitive, and gentle. 
Within a week, Katie and her boyfriend Perry decided to adopt Tessa. 
“She has so much potential,” Katie says. “And there are such misconceptions about pit bulls. The reality is Tessa is sweet, loving, and loyal.”

Meeting Tessa's Needs

Before she was moved to the ASPCA Adoption Center, Tessa had been at Animal Care Centers of NYC (ACC) for just over two weeks. 
“She was a stray who displayed high levels of fear,” says Rachel Maso, Director of Behavior for the ASPCA Adoption Center. 
Specifically, Tessa was afraid of the leash and would lie still on the ground, showing her teeth when presented with the leash. Sometimes, she would also grab the leash so intensely that staff were unable to walk her.

Tessa was originally relinquished to Animal Care Centers of NYC (ACC), where their Behavior Team began to address her issues. (Photo courtesy ACC)
While it’s hard to know what motivates leash grabbing —and it’s likely different for each individual dog —the behavior may help a dog feel more in control of their environment, according to Rachel. 
“Often times, this behavior is a result of lack of stimulation or anxiety,” Rachel says. “So, fulfilling a dog’s needs can make a huge difference. If their needs aren’t being met, they find their own ways to comfort themselves. And they don’t always make the best choices.”
The ACC Behavior team worked hard with Tessa to help her overcome her issues, and once she started showing social behavior toward people, they were able to walk her. On February 3, staff from the ASPCA Behavior Team met Tessa and transported her to the ASPCA Adoption Center where we hoped we could continue to work with her and help her find the right home.

Enrichment and Exercise

Rachel’s team set Tessa up in a quiet area of the ASPCA and provided plenty of enrichment while she settled in. 
“We gave her lots of healthy chews and puzzle toys to help her burn some of that nervous energy throughout the day,” says Rachel. 

Tessa with Stephanie Klami, an ASPCA Matchmaker.
Because she didn’t thrive in playgroups with other dogs, Tessa received multiple exercise and training sessions each day with the Adoption Center’s Integrated Care Assistants (ICAs) and Behavior Specialists.
“She learned to control her impulses by playing fetch, how to make eye contact when her name was called and how to leave and drop items from her mouth,” says Rachel.
While walking Tessa short distances on a chain leash (to deter her from biting it), staff offered her treats for walking without biting or looking at the leash. 
“As the weeks went by, we progressed to longer walks on a regular leash, and provided a treat only a few times per walk, like when something made her feel a little anxious,” explains Rachel. “We wanted to be sure her new behaviors would stick and that an adopter was prepared to support her when she had moments that triggered the old behaviors.”

Left: Tessa spent time in the office of Rachel Maso, Director of Behavior for the ASPCA Adoption Center. Right: Tessa smiles during a photo session.
Staff from the Adoption Center with a range of skill sets practiced walking Tessa with guidance from the Behavior Team, and Tessa’s progress impressed everyone. After her entry into the Adoption Center, Tessa met Katie and Perry.

Reinforcing Better Behavior

Katie and Perry have experience dealing with multiple breeds as well as behavior issues like insecurity and aggression.
At their first in-person meeting, behavior specialists showed Katie how to walk Tessa and when to reward her. 
“Katie helped transition Tessa’s new behaviors into a home environment and reinforced them in real world scenarios,” Rachel says. “We knew it was a good sign when she asked to take Tessa hiking after just a few days.”
 Katie and Perry officially adopted Tessa on April 12, knowing the ASPCA Behavior Team would continue to support them if they had any challenges.

Above and below: Tessa, now Harley, in her new home.
“She’s intelligent and food motivated; it only takes her two tries to remember a trick or command,” says Katie, who corrects Tessa’s leash grabbing in a positive way. 
“If she tugs, we make her sit and look at us for a treat or praise,” Katie says. “We hold her leash in a way that she can’t pull or bite it.”
At home, Tessa is sensitive to her surroundings.
“One time I overcooked something by accident and she alerted me that something was on fire,” Katie says. 
Tessa loves football, frisbees and her flirt pole, an interactive training toy, according to Katie, who has also employed a trainer and enrolled Tessa in sports agility classes. “Both mental and physical exercises are so important. She’s gifted in finding things.”

Advancing to Ambassador

Katie and Perry love having a pit bull as a pet, though they’ve experienced first-hand the misconceptions about the breed. The couple live in a quiet New Jersey neighborhood near parks and green space—and lots of other dogs.
“Sometimes people are afraid of dogs like her—with their boxy heads and muscular bodies—even though she’s so sweet and gentle,” says Katie. “We’ve shared her story with everyone, and she has a great reputation in our community. Everyone knows her now. She’s come a long way.”

Rachel says the stigma placed on pit bulls means they often languish in shelters and have increased chances of developing behavioral challenges.
But Tessa, now re-named Harley, has become a positive ambassador for her breed. 
“She educates people that pit bulls are wonderful dogs and pets,” Katie says. “When people say they’re considering adopting one, it’s really warming to hear.”

Adds Rachel, “Tessa was such a misunderstood sweetheart. Adopting a pit bull is an opportunity to enrich your life and save theirs. I’ll always have a very special place for Tessa in my heart.”