I’m not entirely sure for whom I’m writing this, other than myself. I have no clue if it will make sense; I have a tendency to over think most things, especially where my dogs are involved. But I have a lot swirling through my head in the aftermath of putting Meesh to sleep. So here goes.
I have been thinking about damage.
Damaged dogs: Dogs born damaged, dogs who have been damaged by inadequate or ignorant husbandry/ownership. And damaged owners. Owners who have been damaged by struggling with damaged dogs.
I’ve had dogs come to me with damage. Some from poor care and ownership, some from bad breeding, some from breeders who casually informed me that “That’s the way the breed is”. My most recent struggle was with a dog who was perhaps a combination of not ideal ownership and the acceptance by breeders that “That’s the way the breed is”. I’ve heard all the words…”aloof”, “can be suspicious of strangers”, “takes time to warm up”. What I saw was a dog bordering on paralyzed by fear.
After 8 years of meds and micromanaging his life and careful desensitization and counter conditioning, Meesh’s brain finally gave up the ghost. What had been fear become terror. His tendency to flee became biting. I made what I considered the humane decision and euthanized him. What happened to me afterwards is what I need to write about.
I am flat. Empty. Spent. Not entirely due to Meesh, but I suspect an accumulation of damaged dogs in my life. My foster dogs from two different rescues, being the person who decides when a dog needs to be euthanized for one of those rescues, having lived with separation anxiety, noise phobias, genetics that lead to behavioural issues. You get into a habit…you just forget when you are up to your waist in alligators that you are there to drain the swamp, as the saying goes.
I’m tired. Tired of all the snake oil out there for “fixing” aberrant behaviour. All the beliefs that if you love them enough, are enough of a leader, are patient enough, use enough pheromones or special protocols or equipment, that the dog will be fixed. There often are no fixes with dogs that are hard wired for some of these aberrant behaviours.
And I’m mad. Mad that dogs seem to have become so fragile and breakable. That we don’t take seriously the stresses of living with us. We ARE their niche. They HAVE no choice. We owe it to them to be more knowledgeable about what we should and should not ask them to endure. That we shoot for more than just having the dog cope. We need to look at behaviour as more than just “dog bites” or “dog does not bite” when we assess the quality of life of some of these damaged dogs.
I don’t know why dealing with a behavioural mess wears me out more than a medical mess, but it does. Some of it, I think, is you WANT to believe you can fix the behavioural stuff. You DON’T want to euthanize an otherwise healthy animal. And those decisions get much harder when the dog doesn’t actually put anyone at risk for injury.
I spent a long time hoping that with my careful skills I could help Meesh live in the world. And in a very very small way, I succeeded. He could live, sort of, in a very very small world. This also meant I lived in a significantly smaller world. It meant I had to try and figure out if he had any quality of life in that small world. It also frequently led me to believe that his life was pretty good when I suspect it was merely adequate. It certainly could have been much worse, but man, he deserved much better than what he ended up with…..and we were only able to make so much progress….and then we plateaued. And just managed.
When I euthanized him, my first and foremost emotion was relief. For me, for him. I could contemplate being someplace over night. I could maybe travel again. My husband and son could be in the house without having Meesh at the top of the stairs yelling at them.
My other two dogs didn’t shift behaviour that much, but I saw signs of relaxation in them that I didn’t even know were missing. They had both always lived with Meesh. Now I do see them more relaxed. Less barky. Less aroused.
Meesh was damaged, likely from the genetics of his breed where fearfulness seems to be ‘normal’, but I am also damaged. I don’t want to ever have to live like this again, wavering between thinking he’s fine when he maybe isn’t. Spending too much time trying to figure out how to make things better without having to euthanize him.
As a culture, we are so careless. We hand over dogs to unsuspecting people who then struggle with behavioural issues they weren’t expecting and aren’t adequately prepared for. Even if you are able to deal with it, it leaves a mark. We leave these struggling owners open to every flimflam artist with a new “protocol” guaranteed to fix whatever behaviour issue. We may put folks in a dicey liability situation. The care for some of these dogs can rack up the bills in a big way: veterinary behaviourist consults, behaviour expert consults, meds, gates and crates and and and. While money isn’t the only consideration, it is still a consideration and we do owners a big disservice when we don’t acknowledge that. As breeders, we need to stop downplaying aberrant behaviour. We need to stop finding innocuous words to describe what can be serious behavioural abnormalities. When a breed shows a consistent tendency towards aberrant behaviour, the appropriate response is not to shrug. If you want to breed fearful dogs, then for the love of God, be honest about that. Don’t talk about being aloof or suspicious or needing time to warm up. Let the purchaser know that they will have a dog that may never ever accept anyone but you. That you may be in for years of managing this dog and his/her environment. That much of your life with be dictated by what this dog can and cannot handle.
As rescuers, we need to be more upfront about the likelihood of a Thai street dog easily acclimating to life in a downtown high rise condo where he/she will be expected to cope with dog parks and all the other aspects of living in a home in a city. We need to not tell adopters that “love and patience” will fix these dogs. We need to stop putting out sob stories that tear at the heart, but neglect the reality of living with some of these dogs. I get why folks bring in dogs from overseas and I am sure they believe that they are doing the right thing. Where I struggle is when the rescue isn’t even remotely able to properly assess these dogs and then set about to fix the dog by any means necessary. I’m tired of adopters of some of these dogs being afraid to euthanize a dog that has given them a level 4 bite. Or killed another dog.
As owners, we need to be vigilant. We need to scrutinize breeders, rescues and the dogs they are putting up for sale or adoption. We need to get our heads in the game and be realistic about what we can and can’t live with. We need to understand what we may be dealing with in the long run. We need to ask questions of trainers and behaviour consultants. We can no longer assume that a glitzy website means someone knows what they are doing. We need to keep an eye on our own desperation to fix a dog that may not be fixable. We need to understand that management is just that - we are managing - and that often isn’t enough and almost always fails at some point.
In the midst of letting Meesh go, I had a bunch of emails and PMs from folks struggling to make a decision about euthanasia with their dogs. In all cases it was about physical illness, but folks reach out to me cause “You’re so good with death”…..there’s a label for you….Mistress in the Art of Death.
And I’m actually happy (not the right word really) to help talk folks through this. It’s an essential part of making that very hard decision. But man, I’m worn pretty thin. I wish we talked more openly about euthanasia and the impact of some of these dogs on the owner’s quality of life.
Will I be fine? Sure. Eventually. But I will have a lot of hesitation in taking on another dog, knowingly or not, that has behaviour issues about which I’m not absolutely clear. I don’t want a dog where there isn’t a lot of joy in ownership.
And I always come back to the line I have tried to keep front and centre in my work with my dogs: Being alive isn’t the same as living. I’m not sure that Meesh actually did live. And that breaks my heart.