Walworth, N.Y. - If you were to ask Jordan Copie today, he would say that his 4-year-old English Bulldog, Tank, is everything he would want in a pet dog. Tank is obedient and listens to commands.
However, this wasn’t always the case. Back in 2010 Tank viciously bit Copie on the face when he was trying to give Tank medicine for an ear infection.
“Tank ended up putting 41 stitches into my face,” said Copie. “They were both internal and external. It was about a 2-hour procedure with a plastic surgeon at Strong Memorial Hospital to get it fixed.”
Copie said he knew something had to change.
“It was very scary for my wife and me,” he said. “My wife was constantly scared of Tank. She was constantly nervous and didn't want to interact with him much because she really didn't know what he was going to do next.”
At that point, the Copies were engaged and knew they wanted to have children. They knew they couldn’t have children with Tank still in house.
“It was never an option, but it's the most common thing we heard,” Copie said. “Lots and lots of friends and family saying, ‘You got to get rid of him. You got to get rid of him. You need to give him to someone who can control him.’ At that point it wasn't an option. We had no interest in getting rid of him. We had to find a solution we had to find a solution out of necessity. It wasn’t getting rid of him or euthanasia.”
That brought the Copies to Positive K-9 in Walworth. They hoped master trainer Melissa Cocola would be able to change Tank.
The center has been opened for 17 years and Cocola specializes in rehabilitating aggressive dogs. Owners either bring dogs on their own or by court mandate.
“There are several dogs who have either killed or injured another dog or serious injured a human,” Cocola said. “Laws are changing rapidly when it comes to aggression. Generally if someone goes in front of a judge for the first time, they make it mandatory that they go through training. So I get a lot of court-mandated cases as well as evaluating for court cases.”
Dogs are generally trained for about four weeks. Cocola said in 17 years, she has only ever worked with six dogs she felt could not be rehabilitated because they were so violent and dangerous. Those dogs eventually had to be euthanized.
When it’s up to the owners, Cocola said more and more people are turning away from the option of euthanasia.
“I know initially when someone witnesses a family member or someone they love being injured by a dog, they have a knee-jerk reaction to euthanize the dog,” said Cocola. “But by the time they pick up the phone, they want help.”
Sandy and Anthony Ciaccia have a 4-year-old Boston terrier, Sophia. Sophia has bitten Sandy before but the last time, she bit her to the bone and had to go to the hospital.
Her husband was so upset and angry, his initial reaction was euthanize Sophia.
“My husband was thinking that we would have to put her down, but this is not the time to be putting the dog down,” said Sandy Ciaccia. “She’s too young. We love her.”
Anthony Ciaccia is battling cancer and nurses told him losing a pet at this time would be too traumatic.
He admitted that putting down Sophia would have been the wrong choice.
“I need her,” he said. “I need my wife and I need my dog.”
Sophia is now in training at Positive K-9.
According to Cocola, her training methods differ case by case. However, with each dog she tries to find out what motivates them. Sometimes that’s food or praise. Then Cocola tries to break old habits and form new ones.
For example, Tank is food motivated and would be very protective when it comes to his food. If anyone came near his food bowl, he would become very aggressive.
In order to break this habit, Cocola would call Tank away from his food bowl, make sure he was watching as she went to the bowl and add better food. Tank eventually learned not to be defensive when it comes to his food because it could mean something better would be coming.
As for Sophia, she would get hyperactive when the telephone rang in the Ciaccia’s home. At Positive K-9, they are desensitizing her to sounds of telephones ringing by playing several ringtones, many times.
While there are no guarantees, Cocola said she does believe most aggressive or dangerous dogs can be rehabilitated.
“I do see a lot of tears,’ she said. “People do feel hopeless everyday. I'm very honest about what I think the success of each case will be and what it's going to be to maintain the training at home.”
It’s been close to two years since Tank has been home from his training and Copie said he’s a different dog.
“Tanks is night and day,” Copie said. “Not just from our perspective but from everyone's perspective. He is very submissive and follows commands.”
The couple now has a 4-month-old baby. They are happy that their family can be safe together.
“This experience has changed our lives with Tank,” Copie said. “The responsibilities of having a dog like Tank can be very challenging at times, but it's worth it and fulfilling.”