Roberts: A Frat’s Best Friend?

They’re ideal for Instagram pictures and cuddling, but there’s a darker truth behind fraternity-owned dogs.

by Regan Roberts | 5/11/17 12:50am

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Source: Courtesy of Rossina Naidoo

After midnight, the party in the fraternity basement had simmered to a dull roar. Most bedroom doors were shut so the brothers could get some sleep.

I was about to head home from a third floor room when I heard a faint noise from the hall. It was high-pitched, and I thought at first it could be someone crying in the bathroom at the end of the hall. I opened the bedroom door and found a 1-year-old goldador puppy at my feet. The dog was engaging in his nightly routine: whining as he walked his rounds, literally begging for a door to open. I let the pup in. The dog walked right past me and leaped onto the sofa, curled up and went to sleep.

With nearly 10 dogs living in fraternities right now — Gamma Delta Chi’s three, Kappa Kappa Kappa’s one, Phi Delta Alpha’s one, derecognized Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s two, Sigma Nu’s one and Theta Delta Chi’s one — we have all had our frat pup experience. Whether it’s during the first month on campus flocking for Instagram-worthy pictures with the puppy or at a party where a dog is tied up in the yard or upstairs in a house, we’ve all interacted with these dogs. At a time when administrators and students alike are turning a critical eye to various campus “norms,” the frat dog culture appears to be underdiscussed. The prevalence of fraternity dogs is a relatively Dartmouth-specific phenomena. Friends from home rave about how our dogs have Instagram accounts. It strikes them as remarkable, considering they’ve never heard of so many “frat dogs” elsewhere.

Over time, I got to know Titus, the goldador who came to that third floor GDX bedroom, from his best attributes to his triggers and problems. While Titus was the perfect hiking companion and always up for more fetch, he also suffered from outbursts of aggressive behavior. In one more severe incident, he greeted another goldador puppy so violently that the puppy was rushed to emergency care to staple its ear back together.

Especially for a lab-golden mix, Titus was exceedingly territorial and consistently found himself in dog fights. In these terrifying scuffles, Titus had no consistent master to turn to for guidance or discipline, because his owner — the fraternity brother tasked with the dog’s primary care — had since changed his mind about taking the dog with him upon graduation. The gaggle of brothers who happened to be present for his more aggressive incidents would responded as best as they could in the moment. But Titus was quickly making a name for himself as a dangerous animal, and there was a point in time where even I believed there was no hope for the dog. I thought his patterns were too consistent, his lashing out was too extreme — he would eventually succeed in killing a puppy if the right people did not happen to be around.

I spoke with Ryan Bullock ’16 about his experience growing up in a household that raised more than 10 foster puppies of various breeds. Bullock’s greatest takeaway from providing for puppies — from bichons to bloodhounds — is that a dog’s behavior boils down to nurture, not nature. Bullock said that historically, dogs were bred to serve a specific, innate purpose, such as fowl-retrieving for labradors or sled-mushing for huskies. Beyond that enhanced propensity for a certain skill, a puppy is a clean slate, ready to be raised into positive behavior through training and care. Positive and negative reinforcement — the former, being rewards for good behavior; the latter, verbal discipline through coaching or controlled reprimands — are, when underscored by love and care, essential in raising a healthy and happy dog.Domesticated dogs are blank slates at birth, like machines awaiting programming. Bullock believes that the primary factor in a dog’s developmental stages is time, explaining that time must be flexible and ample, during which the single, dedicated owner can provide undivided attention to the animal to establish consistent care and training. Not only does a dog require consistency in learning to sit on command, for example, but the owner must spend time observing the dog’s behavior and offering consistent corrective training, such as teaching the dog to keep out of the street. Bullock said “these teaching moments are critical,” because the owner must observe the dog in its free time to curb the formation of any bad habits, too.

So what happens when a dog lacks the key conditions mentioned above, such as time, consistency or an established primary owner? Dogs are forced to navigate unknowns, with their confusion only compounded by the overwhelming stimulation of music, garbage and strangers in a fraternity. In dogs, aggression is the coping mechanism for managing confusing environments and situations. According to Bullock, fraternity dogs’ confusion results from inconsistent reinforcement. A dog’s owner is responsible for knowing where the dog performs well as well as the dog’s personal flaws.

Over time, a dedicated owner can easily name improvement points for his dog. Knowing the dog’s individual needs is critical to providing the owner with the ability to avoid potentially catastrophic situations for the dog, Bullock said. The dog reads confusion as a threat. When the dog enters a confusing situation, the dog falls back on what it knows: its instinctual response to a threat. A switch flips to survival mode because the dog does not know how to navigate the situation as an owner would want.

Imagine that you are taking a class, but instead of the course being taught by one professor, you are expected to learn from 30 professors simultaneously. These professors vary in patience and friendliness, and they often offer conflicting messages on what is due and when. Some reward you for the exact work that others deem a failure. Confusing, maddening — a structure doomed to fail. Frustration makes us irritable. Feeling out of control elicits anger. The environment inherently offered by the structure of a fraternity is insufficient for a dog’s healthy development, regardless of the owner’s love for the dog.

“A well-trained dog in the same situation would not behave aggressively,” said Bullock, of Titus’ desperate behavior. “Proper positive and negative reinforcement would have given the dog the proper tools to know how to behave in that situation and not feel so threatened by the puppy in the first place. Even with well-trained dogs, though, the owner should know the dog’s triggers and work to avoid them, primarily for the emotional sake of the dog but also for others who could be endangered if things go poorly.”

In college, we experience love as enjoyment. With maximum freedom and minimal responsibilities, we spend our time making memories and enjoying those moments. It is difficult to anticipate the investment necessary to provide for a pet, when love demands a new form. Love, with an animal as well as with a child, is selflessly giving and providing for its needs.

The responsibility of caring for a service dog, for example, is immense, Staci Mannella ’18 noted. With a dog, you get what you give. For Mannella, that is imperative. She explained that if her service dog, Smidge, did not provide her the service of getting her from her dorm to her classroom, she would not be able to function on campus. Smidge is the epitome of a well-trained, obedient dog, yet Mannella also noted, “the closest Smidge will ever get to a fraternity is the [Kappa Delta Epsilon sorority] sisters-only room.”

As a dog owner, Mannella needs to know Smidge well enough to know which situations could trigger her to feel that her comfort or safety are threatened, she said. Mannella works to avoid those situations at all costs.

“I do not take her into fraternities because I know it’s an environment in which she won’t do well,” she said.

Being a dog owner is a two-way street, requiring Mannella to invest in Smidge’s needs so that she can perform essential services, Mannella said.

Mannella and Smidge offer a high-stake example, but we find the same “two-way-street” dynamic in all dog-owner relationships. When a dog lacks consistent love and discipline, it cannot provide love in return or perform. In some dogs, “performance” means fetching tennis balls, returning to an owner when summoned and not running out of the yard.

For the lonely goldador with no feeding schedule, no bed and no owner to rely on, the coping became severe. Titus suffered from violent outbursts as a function of his upbringing, not his personality. At his core, Titus was no different than any other lovable lab: a gentle animal with no malicious intent or desire for aggression. Dogs don’t come out of the litter aggressive or unable to greet puppies without attacking them in desperation. Titus’ responses were the best way he knew for navigating his confusion.

Because a dog has a clean slate, it is the owner’s responsibility to build a structured life for the dog. In this way, the environment, in combination withbasic training, allows the dog to feel as though it can succeed. We can imagine the kind of mental state a dog must enter when it has no confidence in being fed that day. We cannot blame Titus for lashing out in aggression when he did not have a single owner but an assortment of people who provided for him occasionally — and in different ways.

Although a dog’s behavior is a direct function of nurture, it is unfortunately the dog who will be held accountable for any misdeeds. According to residential operations associate director Bernard Haskell, the College has no grounds to interfere in the fraternity dog situation. Only when three police reports are filed against an animal will legal intervention proceed.

This exact escalation occurred with a tragic end in 2010. Louis Concato ’14 was a freshman when he and some friends walked through the front lawn of the now-derecognized Alpha Delta fraternity. Some leftovers from a barbecue were on Concato’s pants, and the ketchup attracted AD’s golden retriever to his leg. Concato greeted the puppy, moving to pet the pup, when the dog suddenly latched onto his leg, sinking his teeth in. The dog ripped through Concato’s jeans and into his calf muscle. Concato was hospitalized for several days as a result of the injury. Because this was not the first violent incident involving this specific golden retriever, the dog was immediately put down.

This could have been Titus’ fate. A year ago, I would have guessed that was his inevitable end. However, one member of the fraternity interfered. Knowing that Titus was going to be left indefinitely at the fraternity, Sawyer Whalen ’16 volunteered to take Titus home with him just days before 2016 graduation.After a few rounds of de-worming meds and a little dieting, Titus is healthy in his new home. He proudly struts his toys around the house and has his own bed to retreat to as a safe space or nap spot. Now, he frequents doggy daycare and dog parks where he fetches and frolics without incident among other dogs and puppies. This incredible turnaround was achieved without any hired training or time-intensive intervention. By building a structured world around Titus and offering him consistency, he can now successfully navigate the lay of the land. In this home, he is one happy dog.

Bullock raised concerns about reconciling the chaotic, busy life of a college student with the needs of a young dog. The demanding schedule of a college student does not realistically provide a student with the bandwidth for proper dog parenting, he said. Meanwhile, accountability — for both dog and owner — is the chief concern during the first two years of a dog’s “puppy” life.

The “it takes a village” mentality can make the responsibility of dog ownership appear more feasible, but when was the last time a group project successfully shared a workload equally? When all responsibility inevitably falls on the dog’s legal owner, the owner is still just one person of hundreds with whom the dog interacts each day. Any positive or negative reinforcement received in the dog’s limited time with its owner is immediately undermined by the dog’s interactions with others. It is this inconsistency during the dog’s developmental stages that prevents it from learning rules about its world, and fraternity dogs end up generally undercared for and undertrained.

Are the dogs being abused? Rarely. Are the dogs surviving? Mostly. Are the dogs living a life with consistent love and discipline? In a fraternity, the answer will always be “no.”

The physical health of fraternity dogs is just as vulnerable as their psychological development. Bodie, a black lab — less than 2 years old — was put down after three malignant tumors were found. Moose, Bernese mountain dog, was paralyzed after a car accident at just a few months old.

But some fraternities make more positive decisions. I adopted a Siberian husky when GDX, the fraternity that owned Riggins, determined that leaving the fraternity environment was in the dog’s best interest. These stories seem to be treated as isolated outcomes, but there must be a solution across the board.One member asked GDX to vote on a proposed solution: Assign the dog owner to live in a designated room in the fraternity throughout the entire time the dog lives as a frat house dog. That way, the dog can establish a relationship with its master, develop a consistent daily routine and feel loved in an established space. This proposal was voted upon — and rejected. Seniors and juniors did not want to surrender one bedroom to an underclassman. Evidently, the benefit of maintaining all bedrooms for upperclassman members exclusively outweighs the benefit of a consistent living space and owner relationship for the communal pet.

The College conducts inspections of the Greek houses for fire code compliance and other safety regulations, but there exists no dog-oriented regulations, Haskell said. There are no criteria by which to hold a fraternity accountable for the environmental factors — including chemicals and garbage — that influence their dogs’ lives. In short, there exists no pass/fail grade as to whether the house can safely or humanely foster a dog. Even if a benchmark existed, there is no current College policy granting leverage for the school to enforce repercussions.

Fraternity members used to joke that Titus always avoided eye contact, being too obsessed with the tennis ball or fraternity members’ leftovers to pay students much attention. When I let a crying Titus into that third floor bedroom for a place to sleep, he blew right by me and didn’t look back.

The sad reality is that Titus emotionally distanced himself to cope. He was in survival mode, but can we blame him? Why become invested in relying on one brother when he is never around and, one day, is no longer your self-proclaimed owner? Why trust people, who are so confusing and beat you and praise you and feed you in unpredictable ways?

Bullock put it best, saying: “There’s nothing more sad than looking into a dog’s eyes, and you just don’t see a dog there.”

Roberts is a member of the Class of 2016. She currently lives with two former fraternity-owned dogs.

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Correction Appended (May 11, 2017):

A previous version of this column misstated the number of dogs currently living in fraternities. The column has been updated to reflect this change.