DEAR JOAN: We think our pit bull/black Lab mix dog is about 10 years old. We were his second rescue.

From his birth to about 4 years old, he was used as a "bait dog" for a dogfighting ring. He cannot be around any other dog without wanting to attack, his way of defending himself because he thinks the dogs will attack him first.

The person who rescued him from the shelter didn't do much better with him. He was kept outside all day while the owner was at work, then put into a bedroom at night. He received no attention, no walking, nothing.

Carter, a pit bull-lab mix was used as a bait dog in his younger days.
Carter, a pit bull-lab mix was used as a bait dog in his younger days. (Courtesy of Shani Crossler)

Carter has been with our family now for about 5 years now. He's incredibly smart, sweet, obedient and very well taken care of now. Our vet thinks Carter will live until at least 16 years old. We are thrilled by this. The problem is that I've been working with Carter for about a year, taking him on walks, and he's doing better by not attacking other dogs, but he still wants to get at them every chance he can. He knows he'll disappoint me if he does, so he does try to pull back if they are far enough away from him.

I've been told he can never be rehabilitated to get along with other dogs, but he does very well with humans, including children. It takes him time to trust someone enough to not pull away when they try to pet him.

Is there truly no hope for Carter to get along with other dogs? We would love to take him to a doggy park or be able to let him off his leash and play ball with him at the park. We take him everywhere with us we possibly can, and he's becoming more socialized, but it's obvious he hasn't forgotten his days as a dog fighter and likely never will.

I just love him so much and want him to have the fullest life he possibly can. He deserves it so much given what the first half of his life was like.

Shani Crossler

Bay Area

DEAR SHANI: Thank you so much for taking in what many people would consider a "damaged" dog and giving him the love and care that all pet companions so richly deserve. You're doing an amazing job with him and have accomplished quite a bit.

Can you go further with him? Yes, certainly. All dogs are capable of learning, no matter the age. However, I don't think you will ever be able to completely eliminate Carter's instinct to strike out before another dog can do it to him. Those early lessons he was taught are too ingrained in his psyche. All creatures have a fight-or-flight instinct; Carter's will always be to fight.

You may be able to get him to a point where he will play nicely with another dog, but if a move or action triggers an old memory, his instinct will override training. I'd be cautious with him around children, too. Their exuberance could also put Carter on the defensive, which to him means being on the offensive.

Don't worry that Carter is missing out because he doesn't get to go to the dog park. A friend of mine, who is a nationally recognized expert in dog behavior, absolutely hates dog parks. You may know the personality of your dog, but you can't know how other dogs will behave, or if they are current on shots and flea treatments.

It's much better to play with Carter in your fenced and secure backyard. Keep working with him and keep giving him all the love that you can. He sounds like a great dog, and you are already doing the best you can for him.

Contact Joan Morris at jmorris@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read the Animal Life blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/pets.