We Adopted a Pit Bull Mix — Who Turned Aggressive on Us

The shelter didn't say Marley might be aggressive. We loved him, but we had to bring him back.


After we lost Rudi, our rescue LabradorBulldog cross, to old age, we immediately felt lost without a “Big Doofus” in the house, so we decided to rehome another rescue dog. Some people say it’s disrespectful to the memory of your animal if you replace him too early, but there are thousands of poor souls in shelters and rescues who need you now. I know Rudi would have been okay with it.

In the U.K. there is an epidemic of backyard breeders, mostly for bully breeds, who make large amounts of money. We wanted to give a home to a bully breed, and felt sure that any dog would thrive in our home through positive reinforcement, socialization, and love. We have many animals, including dogs, cats, and chickens, as well as two roosters rescued from the cooking pot!

I searched shelters online and fell in love with a puppy advertised as a 12-week-old Dogue De BordeauxMastiff mix. I drove to West London the next day with my Pomeranian, Barney, to meet him. He was already three times the size of Barney, but it was love at first sight. I knew he was probably not a Mastiff as he did not have the wrinkles, but my heart took my head out for a walk.

The staff told me that the puppy — who we’d decided to name Marley — had “uncertain origins,” and that they wanted him rehomed outside London, where bully breeds are used by young men as status symbols.

They also explained that he might have to be placed on the Dangerous Dogs Register when he was fully grown.

Some background: The Dangerous Dogs Act was introduced in 1991 following a spate of highly publicized dog attacks. This breed-specific legislation makes it a criminal offense to own, breed from, sell, or even give as a gift a Pit Bull Terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino, or Fila Brasileiro without a court exemption. “Dangerous” dogs are classified by physical appearance and “type,” not necessarily breeds.

With the benefit of hindsight, we were naive. I trusted the shelter to place a dog with us who could grow up in an extended pack of dogs and cats. Staff hinted that Marley might have Pittie-type origins, and that it was illegal in the U.K. to rehome such a dog. The shelter got around this by describing puppies as Staffies or Mastiff mixes.

What also stuck in my head was the reinforced message that if we returned Marley as an adult he would be automatically seized by the police under the Dangerous Dogs Act, and a court could order his destruction. Marley’s potential for aggression was never mentioned. All the emphasis was on his appearance.

We were committed. We did some initial research on the consequences of adopting Marley, but it did not change our minds. He needed a home. The following week we drove all of our other dogs to meet Marley. The introduction went well, and we left with Marley, bound for Kent and the start of his new life.

Marley had already been castrated, which I found odd. My vet had told me that it was best to neuter dogs around five months to enable them to mature mentally and physically. On reflection I felt the shelter was hiding some concerns. We have had several puppies over the years and had them all castrated after they had developed their personality and had some maturity.

I work part-time because of bouts of chronic depression, so our animals are lucky to have someone around most of the time. Marley thrived and became one of our dear family straight away. But from the start, he was very stubborn. I tried for several months to make him sleep in his basket with no success, so we got him an old chair and he slept downstairs with the pack.

Shelter staff called constantly, requesting weekly visits to see how Marley was doing. We had rescued many dogs and had never had this level of contact. On one visit, the staffer kept saying, “They all have those eyes — can’t you see it?” It was at this point we realized Marley was a banned Pit “type.”

We took Marley to puppy classes, but it was a constant battle to control his behavior and barking toward other dogs, and I could see the staffers were anxious when he was there. It was a very small village hall with more than 20 dogs. He was very tall and weighed 80 pounds.

We accepted Marley as the Pittie he was, and concluded he would be fine in a rural setting. We would put him on the Dangerous Dogs Register if we had to, and muzzle him when we were out and about. He was part of our pack. We have a massive garden and fields all around that are lovely and quiet.

Marley was properly socialized from day one. He curled up with our cats and small dogs and us on the sofa every evening. He had boundaries and discipline like all our pack, big or small. He was accepted and accepting.

He had also grown up with my nieces and nephews, who adored him, but one day he growled at my niece, Ellie, in her house, after being fine with her in the car.

When Marley was nine or 10 months old, I took him and our Collie, Osca, for a long walk. After crossing the road to the fields and letting them both off the leash, they went for each other and began fighting viciously. I managed to grab Marley’s collar and kick Osca in the ribs, which switched him out of his state of mind. I had no other choice, as Marley wanted to kill Osca. I relayed all that had happened to Rob when he got home. We were both very concerned.

The next warning sign came a few weeks later on our annual camping vacation in Cornwall. On a coastal walk, Marley was surprised by some people and turned into the Hound of the Baskervilles. It frightened the hell out of us; the people stood there in shock and said, “Glad you have that thing on a strong lead.” He spent the rest of the holiday chained to our camping van. We had lost all trust in him.

As Marley grew to adulthood, he displayed dominance and aggressive behavior when he could not get his own way. When he was just over a year old, he went to bite me. He tried to attack the Pomeranians and the cats, and when my dad came to stay, he snarled and growled and would not let him pass. I immediately took Marley out of the house and allowed him back in when we had all sat down.

Marley’s behavior was very worrying, but again Rob and I made excuses for him. He was given his bed in the kitchen with a bone for a few hours. He was never chained up. I asked my dad to hand-feed Marley as a positive reinforcement, which worked. My Dad tried to tell me that Marley was dangerous, but I did not listen. I believed it was a situation I could fix. I did not tell the shelter, because I was fearful for Marley’s life. I loved him dearly.

When Marley decided that Osca was unwelcome and attacked him three times in a day, we realized we could not continue managing his aggression. We had to think of ourselves and our other animals’ welfare. Osca was wounded badly, and Marley was confined to the kitchen. We knew that sending Marley back to the shelter would probably be a death sentence.

What I am about to write I do not condone, but we were out of options. We let an ex-police dog trainer use a shock collar to try and modify Marley’s behavior. This worked fine when the trainer was present, but as soon as he left, Marley went looking for Osca in full attack mode. We managed to pull him off, but Osca was badly wounded. I was so scared of Marley by this point that I asked Rob to take him back to the shelter the next day.

Rob and I were devastated. I will never forget my partner’s kindness to me that day, and I know how dreadful it must have been for him. Marley was left at the shelter with a dubious future. As he and Rob sat waiting for a staff member, Marley barked aggressively at anyone who came near.

We did not enquire what happened to Marley afterward, but his prognosis was not good under the current legislation. I’m sorry, but I preferred not to know.

I wrote this for our Marley Mu Mu, Mr. Marley Bone. I needed to tell our story. I adored him, and I fought to get him into our home. Rob and I made several trips to satisfy all the shelter’s adoption requirements. We wanted to show people that bully breeds are unfairly stigmatized. We wanted to give him a home where he had fields to run in off-leash, and be judged not by his type but by his behavior.

I take issue with the shelter, who knew he was probably a Pit Bull, but still placed him with us in a multi-animal household. I also always felt they never properly discussed possible behavior problems; the emphasis was on what he looked like. British shelters have their hands tied by the current legislation, which I think is ambiguous and wrong. The shelter just wanted him out of their system before he was detected as a possible illegal type.

I see many Facebook posts condemning people, blaming the owner and not the dog. I cannot agree. Rob and I are well aware of the correct ways to raise a happy, confident dog, but we ultimately had to admit that our nurturing would never win over Marley’s natural instinct. We adored him, but we had to let him go.

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