Warning: this won’t be an easy read if you love dogs; you may just want to wait for the next post. On the other hand, if you’ve ever uttered the phrase, “It’s just a dog” – please go away. (And if you are a trainer, please don’t tell me what ‘should’ have happened. It’s done. I still trust our vet / animal behaviorist / trainer implicitly and I am very grateful to her.)
My beautiful boy Chance is dead. His life lasted just two weeks under two years. On Saturday morning, I nodded my head, crying too hard to say the words, and he died. I have to live with that.
I’ve written before that I’ve never known a dog like him. Terms we heard from different trainers and vets were reactive and fear-aggressive. When you look those terms up, they’re most often used to describe a single behavior: leash reactivity, dog on dog aggression, etcetera. Chance was that way about everything: food, other dogs, all humans besides Paul and me, large vehicles, me leaving, anything that moved suddenly, flashlight beams and reflected light. Even as a tiny pup, the sheer extremes of his reactive states were astounding; he’d fling himself through the air, shrieking, impervious to pain, to voices, to anything but his fear.
We loved him anyways, me all the more because I believed I could teach him that the world was not frightening. I believed in him. We joked a lot about him, called him our special needs boy (he was) and Paul, from early on, affectionally called him ‘broken.’
Clicker / positive reinforcement training was miraculous. It gave me a way to connect with him, to (often) distract him from fear. It ended his food aggression and let him calm most of his indoor fears. He loved it. It let him show us his happy, goofy, mischievous self, though I could only share my joy in that part of him through social media. In person, he barked and barked at people to make them go away. Last spring, he had a period of regression, and our vet recommended a calming drug. That also really seemed to help him. Just a month ago, he and I were enjoying perfect, calm short walks. He could watch people from a distance without reacting, and I truly believed he was nearing recovery.
Then something happened. Not a single incident, but a spiraling. First, there was a sort of limbo period when he could’t seem to learn anything new, though he was still eager for ‘school.’ Then, he began to refuse to leave the yard, then to refuse all training. Then, he attacked a friend who was visiting my studio: he burst through a door that was not quite closed and went straight for her. I got between them and was bitten (not the first time, not the worst bite, and not something I couldn’t deal with, except for the fact that the bite was undeniably meant for her.) After that, though there were still lucid periods, it got worse and worse. He obsessively clung to me more than ever, stopped going outside unless I was there, wouldn’t let Lupe or Paul near me, and tried to attack every human he saw, not just barking anymore, but with teeth bared. Our vet said there were only two options remaining at this point: to put him on heavy drugs and keep him indoors, or euthanasia.
Even though I truly respect her, even though every trainer I’d spoken with from the beginning warned me that what was happening was indeed a possible outcome, I just could not accept it.
So, as a last resort, I contacted the excellent no-kill shelter he was adopted from, prepared to surrender him. I told myself they would rehabilitate him; he would go on to a good life with someone who was a much better trainer than me. The shelter referred us to their trainer, who specializes in reactive dogs. We took him in. I won’t describe the horrible scene. The sweet goofy boy I knew doesn’t deserve to be remembered that way. The trainer gently but firmly told us what I refused to hear before: his behavior was not simply due to some early bad experience. It was a mental issue, something in his brain. He would never be able to be fully rehabilitated, he would always be a danger. She said she had helped hundreds of dogs and that this was only the third time she’d had to say it, but she couldn’t even recommend the drugs as an option. He was broken. I nodded my head, and he was killed at the no-kill shelter.
I grew up with stories about noble collies who went mad, whose owners had to shoot their beloved beasties themselves, with Old Yeller, with romantic sad tales that tug at the heart, elicit poignant tears. There is not one redeeming shred in the reality. It is shattering. It is impossible to reconcile the sweet being who once slept on your lap, who joyfully, playfully woke you every morning, who gazed lovingly into your eyes, with the raging, mouth-foaming, unreachable embodiment of pain you see before you. Underneath the horror and denial beats the dull, inescapable voice of the law: dogs cannot harm people. Dogs cannot harm people. You nod your head. Then you break too.