Massamiliano Dell’Acqua lazes elegantly on a velvet chaise lounge, surrounded by plumped-up pillows and looking like a Roman emperor. Bedecked in crystal-studded neckwear, he glances toward the pool and dangles two enormous paws over the chaise’s side and snuffles with contentment. He’s right at home.
The 8-year-old, 110-pound Rottweiler — “Max” for short — shares his Rancho Mirage abode with cosmetic dentist Dr. René Dell’Acqua and her husband, Joe Fleischaker. The pair adopted him from the Humane Society of the Desert in March after seeing him on the runway at Le Chien, the doggie fashion show held during Fashion Week El Paseo.
“He is the most loving, caring, feeling, emoting dog,” Dell’Acqua says. “He’s so calm and is just this big love bug. It’s like he’s been here his whole life.”
With several of rescued pets already — Labrador Coco and shih tzus Isabella and Chloe, all from the former Indio animal shelter, plus a stray cat they took in — the couple hadn’t planned on adding a family member.
“He was a big surprise,” Dell’Acqua says. “We did not expect to get another dog. We had just adopted three dogs about a year ago, and our 7-year-old son, Joey, saw him at the fashion show and wanted to take him home.” At first, Dell’Acqua says, she thought Max was someone’s dog, until her son convinced her Max was up for adoption. But she still hesitated.
“Then he came out on the runway,” she recalls. “We were sitting there in the front row, and he came along, hobbling a little bit with his back legs, limping, and he looked a little bit sad through his eyes, and my heart started to melt. I looked at Joe, and I said, ‘No, no, no,’ but my heart said yes. I was still trying to not make it happen. We got home that night and Joe told Joey we were going to get the dog, so I said, ‘OK, we’ll go meet him.’ Well, the minute I say, ‘OK, we’re going to meet him,’ you know it’s over.”
Max’s road to happiness was long and rough. In fact, he was to be euthanized at a shelter last year. He had sat for weeks waiting for a new home, and he had several strikes against him: He was very large, he had health issues, he was older — and his time was up. That’s when Malinda Bustos, the Humane Society president, stepped in to save his life.
“He was in a county shelter, which euthanizes for space issues,” Bustos says. “I have a soft spot for Rottweilers, because sometimes they seem to be a little misunderstood. I’ve had Rottweilers all my life, and currently have a Rottweiler. They’ve all been rescues. It just seems like they’re such a discarded breed. “I got a call from a local county shelter stating that there was an older Rottweiler that no one seemed to have shown too much interest in. So I drove down and rescued him.”
Bustos dubbed him “Jambawaya” and took him under her wing. When she saw him, she says, “It looked like he was going to take a little work and a little TLC. He was about 40 pounds overweight, and definitely had some eye issues.” He suffered from entropion, a condition where eyelids turn in and the eyelashes irritate the cornea. Once he was at a healthy weight, the Humane Society got him the necessary surgery and enlisted Lori Carman of Dream Dogs to work with him on obedience and house training.
“We had Jamba for seven or eight months,” Bustos says, “and we took him to the Le Chien fashion show, which is a fundraiser for the Humane Society presented by Palm Springs Life, and Jamba was showcased as available for adoption. And René happened to be in the audience, saw Jamba, and called me the next morning and said, ‘I have to meet this dog.’ So she did, and she brought him home and he became part of their family.”
That meeting, Dell’Acqua says, sealed the deal.
“We went to meet Max, and I did not expect what happened,” she says. “We got to the Humane Society, we walked into the office, and he got up, came straight to me, and started licking me. And I looked at my husband and said, ‘I guess we’re taking him home!’ He was so calm when we sat on the floor with him; he was just so happy to have everybody loving on him. We filled out the paperwork and went and got him the next day.”
He was unsure on the ride home, she says: “We took a picture driving him home and you can see the nervousness in his face, almost like, ‘Where am I going? What’s going to happen now?’ When I look at that picture, it makes me want to cry. But within minutes of being here, all the dogs were a family. They just all kind of meshed.”
Dell’Acqua takes her other dogs with her to work (they hang out in a separate, private space adjacent to her dental practice), so the couple planned for Fleischaker to take Max to work with him in Orange County. “He was going to be in my office and sit next to me at my desk,” Fleischaker says. “We have a place out there, so he would stay there when I was there, and I would bring him back here when I came into town.”
That didn’t work out, Dell’Acqua says. They noticed a small growth on Max’s side and wanted their veterinarian to see it, and to see if they could fix his limp. Max had surgery for the growth a few days later, and the doctor determined that he also had issues with his anterior cruciate ligaments. Dell’Acqua then broke the news to her husband that she simply couldn’t bear to be away from Max: “Two days of him being here with me, and I called Joe and said, ‘You’re not taking this dog to work with you,’” she says, laughing. “This is my baby.”
Now, all four dogs pile into her little Fiat to head to work.
“I think it took Max a little a while to realize he wasn’t leaving,” she says. “I don’t think he knew that he was here forever. As we exercised him purposefully to work up his strength, we saw him become more and more playful to the point that he gets up on his back legs and jumps now. He couldn’t have done that when he first came to us. So it’s really cool to watch and heartwarming to see the progress. I would say right now, I don’t know how much happier he could be,” she says. “And now he swims in the pool and loves it — he’s like a water buffalo.”
They continue to see more positive changes in Max: “I’m a very loving person, so helping him become more mobile and helping him get back to his really happy self was fun for me and enjoyable to watch. Two weeks ago, he started playing with toys. I have a friend who’s a psychologist who told me that you know your animal has healed from whatever sadness they were suffering when they start to play with toys again. And I cried.”
Their, daughter Aubrey, and sons Courtland and Joey love him, too: “Max sleeps in our room, but when Joey’s here, he wants Max to sleep with him,” Fleischaker says, “and Max will crawl up on the bed and cuddle with him. He loves Joey.”
Dell’Acqua became interested in rescuing pets a few years ago when she saw Facebook postings about animals facing euthanasia in shelters. She and her husband decided to adopt a shelter dog for Joey’s birthday. They visited the Indio animal shelter intending to bring home one — and ended up with three.
“The two shih tzus, Chloe and Isabella, were in the shelter for six weeks,” she says. “They had not been adopted, partially because they came as a couple. I took them to the park, and they were so sweet and so loving, so I asked my husband if it was OK to take two instead of one.” While at the shelter, a little 4-month-old Lab puppy caught her eye, too.
“On my way walking out — you know how the cages are all lined up — she was the third cage in, and I looked over and saw her. I love big dogs, but they’re a lot of work compared to small dogs, and we’re busy, so it wasn’t even in my scope of thought. I stopped at the cage, and I said to her, ‘I love you, but I can’t take you home.’ She was looking at me and it was like she was having a conversation with me with her eyes.”
She asked her parents to adopt the Lab puppy, but they were unable to. The family visited the two shih tzus again at the shelter while waiting for them to get spayed. “We were playing with the two little ones with our children out in the park, and one of the volunteers brought Coco, the Labrador, out to exercise her. I asked them to put her in with us, and she and the two shih tzus played together like they had been friends forever, and I said to Joe, ‘How can we leave her?’”
Their path also had some rocky moments. Chloe had been pregnant when she was spayed — Dell’Acqua wasn’t told ahead of time and was a “basket case” when she found out, she says. The dog took a long time to heal mentally: She was shy, fearful of men, and had been repeatedly bred, according to the veterinarian. Over time, she began to open up and play with toys, and she and Isabella, a happy-go-lucky type, are inseparable. Chloe has learned to love and trust Fleischaker, seeking him out for snuggles.
Coco, for her part, also didn’t know what a toy was, but “when she realized that they were neat and they made noises, she took four of them at the same time and lined them up on the couch.” She now walks around with several toys in her mouth much of time: “She’s a toy hoarder!” Fleischaker says with a laugh.
“They’re all such special animals,” Dell’Acqua says. “They all had such different stories, and they all had their own healing. Every single one of them is my favorite. I love them all for their own different, special things that they bring.”
The experience of adopting pets has changed her perspective forever.
“I am adamant about rescuing animals,” she says. “I had never rescued before I went and got the first three last summer. I don’t want to sound like I’m overstating the case, but the experience changed my life, in that it changed the way I feel about buying that dog from the breeder. I was shocked at what I saw at the animal shelter. Shocked. It brought me to my knees; I was crying. I just couldn’t believe that these dogs didn’t have homes. And the three dogs we adopted opened my heart and my mind up to this whole world of rescuing animals.”
“And when we rescued Max, it was such an amazing feeling to know that we rescued an older dog. People want puppies. They don’t want an 8-year-old dog that they’re only going to have for two or three years. He was an older dog. He limps a bit. He has special needs. But adopting him has filled my heart. Not only is this dog bringing so much to your life, because he’s your companion, and your friend.
“You’re giving them so much and they deserve it,” she adds. “They never did anything to deserve being dumped. You bring them into your life, and you’re giving that dog something. But that dog is giving you so much more than you could ever give. Adopting a dog is much more than just bringing an animal into your house. It’s a life-changing emotional event that brings so much joy on so many levels.”
How Max Got His Groove Back
Lori Carman, owner and head trainer at Dream Dogs in Indio and one of 80 Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Training-certified trainers in the world, works with the Humane Society of the Desert and was charged with Max’s (formerly Jambawaya’s) training.
“Jambawaya came in as a big love; he just didn’t know anything,” Carman says. “He was probably put in somebody’s back yard and didn’t have a lot of attention. He wasn’t scared of new things, but he didn’t know how to appropriately respond to them. He was kind of like a bull in a china shop — just rushing up to investigate everything, but not knowing what human boundaries are and how to approach things in a calmer state.”
Carman began giving treats to let Max become familiar with her, and then worked on shaping his behavior.
“I always start with hand signals and always use positive reinforcement. I don’t use choke chains or pinch collars,” she says. “Then I worked on getting him out and about, walking through the facility, taking him out into events, and working with him and other people in new environments so he became a confident dog.”
When bringing home newly adopted pets, it’s important to let them acclimate, she says.
Here are some of Carman’s tips:
Keep things mellow
“Keep the environment as calm as possible, even though you’re excited about bringing your new friend home. When you first bring home a dog from an institution, you don’t want to have all your friends and family over and overwhelm the dog. The dog needs about two weeks to comfortably get into a routine and learn the new surroundings and other animals and people. Hand feed so they’ll get used to taking food from your hand.”
Teach them to sit as a go-to behavior
“Put a treat to the nose and lower their heads slightly back at a 45-degree angle, and that will force their bottom into a sit, and then you give them the treat. Then you start asking for ‘Sit’ for everything — before you pet them, before you give them eye contact, before you feed them — so that they learn sitting is a tool that works for everything.”
Ignore bad behavior
“Ignore jumping, barking, etc. Just walk away from it. No ‘Down, ‘Off ,’ or yelling. That is all attention, and so the dog will continue to do it because that works for the dog.”
Look at things from the dog’s perspective
“A lot of the dogs that come out of the Humane Society have been in some sort of institution for a majority of their lives, so being in a household environment is new to a lot of them. Watch their body posture: Are their ears down, or do they seem scared? If they’re scared, back off. Don’t force them into doing anything they’re uncomfortable with. If they’re growling, take a look around and see why they’re growling. That’s the animal telling you, ‘Hey, I’m upset. I need some information,’ as opposed to yelling at them.”
Give them space
“Dogs really don’t like to be hugged and kissed, so pet them nicely. Putting your face into a strange dog’s face — even one that you’re taking in as your very own — they may see that as aggressive. They don’t understand the hugging and kissing, so working with them in their language is the most important thing to do and to use positive, humane training techniques.”