Pet Tales: An unwanted pit bull puppy passes the test

The little red-nosed pit bull gazes forlornly from a crate in photographs taken at the Pittsburgh airport.

“It was very emotional,” said Robin Gaydos-Behanna, recalling how she said goodbye March 9 to the puppy she had taken care of for three months. She had no way to explain to the dog she named Red that the canine was leavin’ on a jet plane that would take her to a better life.

The future did not look bright for the puppy and six litter mates found in Clairton on a cold December day. They appeared to be about 5 months old and were starved and skinny with no food, water or shelter. They and their father were picked up by an animal control agent.

Fortunately for them, the agent was Ms. Gaydos-Behanna, who says she has never euthanized a dog in the seven years she has been an animal control officer. At her Gaydos-Behanna Kennel, which moved to Clairton a year ago, she nurses them back to health and trains them before adopting them out to new homes.

She knew that Red would pose a special challenge. She is sweet and non-aggressive with people and dogs and smart and eager to please. But Red is very high energy with what trainers call a “high drive.”

Red needed an experienced dog owner who could keep her busy and give her a full-time job. Those kinds of owners are in short supply. Ms. Gaydos-Behanna said some agencies will work with high-drive dogs, but they “will not take pit bulls.”

She turned to Annette Sexton, a Mount Washington resident and trainer who often helps Ms. Gaydos-Behanna with “difficult” dogs. In 30 years as a dog trainer, she said she has found only two shelter dogs that had what it takes to be a working dog.

One was a “giant corgi on stilts” who ended up in Utah working with FEMA as a human remains detection dog. Red is the other one.

Ms. Sexton videoed the test she set up for the 28-pound pit bull. It was a kind of obstacle course with boxes and furniture stacked up in a shaky pile. She hid a ball in the middle of that mess. In the video, a tail-wagging Red runs around and over and through the obstacles until she finds the ball. 

“Red was beyond my expectations. She is untrained  but knew what she was doing,” Ms. Gaydos-Behanna said.

For a pit bull to become a working dog, “you need focus and drive but zero aggression,” Ms. Sexton said. She sent the video to more than 30 people, including breeders of working dogs, search and rescue groups and trainers. Only three agencies will take shelter or rescue dogs, she said. But Red lucked out.

A Washington state company responded that its trainers would take her and train her for seven months to be a detection dog, finding bombs and/or drugs. The company won’t allow Ms. Sexton or Ms. Gaydos-Behanna to name them because they don’t want people dropping off dogs at their facility. 

The photo of Red’s sad face peering out of the crate at the airport was posted on the Gaydos-Behanna Kennel Facebook page. The 40-picture photo album is titled: “Red — from unwanted to wanted.”

There are currently 12 dogs in the Gaydos-Behanna Kennel still looking for homes. They include five of Red’s litter mates, who all get along well and play together, and her father, who seems to have the same intelligence and drive as Red.

Ms. Gaydos-Behanna began working as an animal control agent seven years ago with just one municipality, Elizabeth Township. Since then she has been hired by Clairton, White Oak, Liberty, Braddock Hills and Whitaker. She’s also a certified (and unpaid) humane police officer affiliated with the White Oak Safe Haven Animal Shelter.

Most animal control agents don’t pick up cats, but she added felines in 2015. Earlier this year, she took in 100 cats from an apparent hoarder situation. She has found homes or rescue placements for all but 12 of them. 

Ms. Gaydos-Behanna has low-cost spay/neuter clinics for cats. The next one is March 29. The cost is $50, which includes vaccines. Email to reserve a spot.

Linda Wilson Fuoco: or 412-263-3064.