An aggressive rescue dog is now calm, happy, and affectionate thanks to a special formula: patience and chicken nuggets.
Found as a stray running loose on the streets, the large dog, named Magnolia, was brought into a San Francisco shelter by an animal control officer. The Belgian Malinois—a breed typically used by police—behaved so aggressively that none of the shelter staff could touch her for weeks.
But little by little, Ms. Salazar—an experienced trainer who comes with her own “fair share” of severe dog bites and even hospitalizations—earned the dog’s trust, and now Magnolia has been placed in her forever home.
Magnolia arrived at the shelter back in January and was in such a disturbed mood that no one in the kennel team was safe entering her enclosure. They had to feed her from a distance and couldn’t even remove her leash.
“This large dog,” said Ms. Salazar, “was baring teeth, lunging and growling, and trying to bite. It was very severe and intense.”
Another dog trainer came to look, and his opinion was that Magnolia ought to be euthanized since nothing could be done with her. But Ms. Salazar, who started in the dog care industry 20 years ago, recognized that the root of Magnolia’s problem was fear. Picking up on clues such as flattened ears, a tucked-in tail, and backing up—it was clear to Ms. Salazar that the dog was terribly scared and nervous.
Her first strategy was to slowly start feeding treats like chicken nuggets and hot dogs. “Something really tasty, because they only have kibble every day. I really want to give them something special, because I’m trying to form that relationship,” Ms. Salazar said.
To start with, the animal lover would just sit with her, avoiding facing the dog directly by turning away or turning her back to appear less of a threat. Gradually, during these weekly sessions, Magnolia started to growl less and relax a little more. By the third session, there was a big transformation.
“This time,” Ms. Salazar said, “I was walking towards the kennel, and she came right up, tail wagging a little, sniffing.”
Opening the door to the kennel, Ms. Salazar sat outside. Very cautiously, Magnolia walked out to get her treats. Rather than trying to pet her, Ms. Salazar simply sat and respected the dog’s space. After a while, Magnolia began bringing toys for her new friend to throw, then excitedly playing fetch. Next, she started rubbing up to show affection. From then on, they were best friends.
“A lot of people think I’m rewarding aggression; the dog is growling and biting, and I’m rewarding them,” Ms. Salazar said, going on to explain that fear-based aggression is different from raw aggression and needs handling in a sensitive way.
“A lot of trainers, I feel, or handlers, would go in and try to leash the dog and start correcting her if she tried to bite or run away. There’s this idea that we need to control these dogs and that we need to come in and show them who’s boss. But by allowing Magnolia to make the choice as to whether she wanted to interact with me, it actually made the progress that much faster. If I were to have forced myself on her, we would have taken 10 steps back.”
What’s beautiful, says Ms. Salazar, is that once one person shows love, care, and understanding, it opens the door for everyone else.
First, she started walking Magnolia with her fiancé, animal control officer Nathaniel Valenti, whom she met at the shelter several years ago. Aware that the shelter couldn’t hold the dog indefinitely, the couple took the step of taking Magnolia home to live with them as a foster.
Once she was out of the shelter and into a home environment, Magnolia blossomed. The young dog—a tooth inspection told them she was approximately 18 months old—went everywhere with them: meeting family members, running errands, and even accompanying them on a camping trip. Everywhere she went, Magnolia behaved impeccably.
“Someone had clearly worked with her—she responds brilliantly to commands,” Ms. Salazar said.
One couple from Southern California stood out. After driving down to meet them and give them a chance to interact with Magnolia, the team knew their rescue pup would be happy and safe with this family. A couple of weeks later, they met halfway, and Magnolia—now Nala—arrived at her forever home.
Saying goodbye was extremely hard.
“We cried; we cried before it happened. It’s happy tears, it’s always bittersweet. We could not be happier that she found the best home,” Ms. Salazar said. “This was the place she was meant to be all her life. We were the ones that just made that connection.
“I do think about the times where we lost because we don’t win every case. With Magnolia we were fighting against the odds; there were people who thought we could never do it with this dog, but we showed them together, and it took so many of us: the staff, the manager, my fiancée, my family, his family, the adopters who said, ‘Yes, we’ll give her that chance.'”
Ms. Salazar keeps in touch with Magnolia-Nala’s new owners and is enjoying watching her Southern California life. The lucky pup lives with two other dogs and goes running every morning with her sporty family. By nature very loving, she’s a little slow to warm up but when comfortable, becomes sweetly affectionate.
“She loves snuggling in bed, and spending all her time with her people,” Ms. Salazar said. “She’s very high energy, playful, and confident outside, in new environments. She loves exploring.
“She’s thriving there. She gets all the exercise and affection and opportunities to just be a dog and be herself. She loves her new owners, and she’s bonded very, very strongly with them.”