Finding a Mastiff’s Inner Kitten

by Danielle Hanna



I wasn’t there when Mojo, a young Mastiff, arrived at the shelter where I used to work. But my co-workers told me the first thing he did was offer to remodel our boss’s face. He was quickly deposited in a kennel with orders issued never to open his door if you were alone in the building.

Mojo was surrendered by his owners. They’d fallen for the cute puppy, but when he grew up into a dog-shaped lion … “We just can’t handle him,” they said.

I got to meet him the next morning. When I walked past his kennel, he lunged at the door. His back was as high as my hip and his head was the size of a spare tire. His bark was like an explosion. Definitely a ten on the Richter scale. I’ll admit … I didn’t know I could jump that high.

My co-worker Kristie had been at work an hour earlier than me. Now, I know all dogs love and adore Kristie–and I know Kristie don’t take no flack from no dawg–but I was pretty surprised to see her lead him to the outdoor exercise yard without getting eaten.

“He likes treats,” she said.

You hypnotized him, I thought.

Still … I loaded my pockets with treats. All morning long, every time I walked past Mojo’s kennel, I just tossed him a treat. Didn’t look at him. Didn’t try to threaten or challenge him in any way. Just tossed him a treat. Eventually, I started saying, “Hey, Mojo, just me,” just before I came into view so he would know it was me–with another treat.

Worked pretty good. By the end of the morning, Mojo had quit barking at me. He actually started quirking his head in anticipation. And I even ventured to give him a quick glimpse and a smile. (I still swear Kristie hypnotized him to earn his trust as quick as she did. Either that or a night in the cooler and the first face in the morning softened him up a bit.)

Next morning, I loaded up my pockets with treats first thing. As I ran past Mojo’s kennel to let some other dogs out, I said, “Hey, Mojo, just–”

Grrrrrrrrooooooof! He hit the kennel door like a battering ram. I’m pretty sure I felt the building vibrate.

I stopped right where I stood. Gave him a second to see it was me. But he kept snarling and charging the door. Seriously? Yesterday we were best buddies. (Mostly.) And today? He’d heard my voice. He could see me. I must have reeked of Milkbones and Beggin’ Strips. And he was having kittens. (Figuratively speaking.)

Okay. Now he was just pushing my buttons. Barking ’cause he liked to see how high I could jump.

Nobody at the shelter ever put up with that kind of behavior. And the sooner Mojo learned that, the better.

I lifted my face and met his eyes. I didn’t crowd his space or stand over him. I didn’t even frown. I just looked him in the eyes. Just to demonstrate that he could bark and snarl all he wanted, but I wasn’t afraid of him. (Okay, it didn’t hurt having a door between us.)

As far as scolding went, my course of action was about as bad as being spanked with a daisy petal.

So I was really surprised when Mojo started backing away. Still barking. But there was a different tone to his words now. “Wait … no … you’re supposed to jump and run away. This isn’t working right!”

And then … he peed on the floor. Right where he was standing.

“That,” I said, “was pathetic.”

He hung his head in shame the whole rest of the morning. But he got lots of treats, too. He even started taking them from my hand. By the end of my shift, I walked him down the hall to the exercise yard for the first time–Kristie on stand-by in case it went bad. But it didn’t. He sauntered along beside me with big, lazy strides and wagged his tail to see the outdoors. I felt like I was walking a lion! One of the most thrilling experiences of my life.

Now that I knew I could stand in the same space as him without losing an arm or a leg, I started his training. It was clear to me now that he was massively insecure (everything about him was massive), and obedience training would show him where the boundaries were, and hence how he could interact with humans with confidence.

He picked up “sit” and “down” in no time flat. And considering his size, I figured “heel” was a smart command to learn, too.

His next lesson was liking Darrell.

Darrell says he went to the dogs when he retired. He’s still out at the shelter every day, heat, cold, rain, or shine. If anybody could polish Mojo’s socialization skills, it was Darrell.

If only Mojo would come around to liking him.

I’d put Mojo out in the yard, and Darrell would sit in a corner trying to be small and non-threatening. “Hey, Mojo. Sure, there’s a good dog.”

Mojo would take one glance at Darrell, then look up at me with his cookie-sized eyes and rub my legs like a giant cat. “Make him go away,” he’d whine.

So. Pathetic.

Mojo's first walk

Mojo’s first walk

The first time Mojo went for a walk, it was on two collars and two leashes between Darrell and me. I was there because Mojo still didn’t trust Darrell. Darrell was there because Mojo would have dragged me across the county if he’d gotten the notion.

Gradually, Mojo got used to Darrell, and from there he improved exponentially, gradually accepting the rest of our volunteers and staff. He excelled so well in obedience, I eventually trusted him enough to take him for a walk solo. It really was like walking a lion. So. Amazing.

I was awfully sorry to see him adopted. I mean, I know that’s the whole point of a humane society. But there are those few special furkids you’ll never forget. I hear he’s a big lover now. And that’s the way it should be. The real Mojo.

6 thoughts on “Finding a Mastiff’s Inner Kitten

  1. Hey Danielle, great memories! Imagine all the unwanted dogs and cats that you had positive contact with over the few years that you worked at CDHS. I hate to be a pessimist but, there are thousands of dogs and cats that don’t get ANY chance like the chance those lucky animals got from you. Is that thought defeating to you in any way? I think about society and the people that work at CDHS for the good of the needy animals. Then I think of where, how, and most of all why, do all those needy animals keep coming? It’s like the people that pick up trash along the highways EVERY summer, then there are just as many and just as dedicated people that litter? When will it end? I have lost compassion. I’m exhausted over puppy-mills. I don’t recycle anymore. How does it end? You can send me a bill for this mental / emotional treatment appt. Ha! I read your positive blog then read somewhere else about animals being mistreated. It never ends! Sorry, but had to express! Larry

    • You’re absolutely right, Larry. It does feel like an uphill battle. And when you step back and look at the entire problem, you realize there’s absolutely nothing you can do.

      I just believe in doing what I can in my own sphere of influence. I help the animals around me, and I talk to people I know about pet rescue. Maybe I’m only making ripples and not big splashes, but it IS a big splash in the lives of the animals I’ve been able to help. Our message does keep growing. Too slow, but it is growing.

      You can expect my bill in the mail. Haha. Just kidding. Thank you for airing your thoughts. They need to be said and they need to be heard.

  2. Thanks, I needed that. A quote from Arthur Ashe that may apply, ” Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Thanks again, Larry

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