This post is part of a series discussing euthanasia for behavior. Find the first post here and all of the posts here.
Making the decision to euthanize your dog for behavior is incredibly difficult. It’s a decision that only you can make – but you don’t have to make it alone. In this post, we’re sharing O and his human’s story. O and his human are very dear to us, and their story is an important one. We hope that it will provide some comfort to anyone who feels isolated or guilty as they make a decision about euthanasia.
It’s taken over three years to be able to sit down and actually let myself feel all these emotions. The story is long, but necessary to understand the decision. I hope you can find something you need by reading on, as I have from so many others before me.
“O” was my first foster dog. I always wanted to foster and rescue. I had dogs growing up, but they were little Yorkies whom I loved nonetheless, but I knew a rescue dog was what my heart always needed.
When I first moved out on my own into a small condo, I began following the photography of a girl who worked for a rescue in my area. That quickly turned into following that rescue organization and searching for a dog that would be perfect for me to foster and hopefully adopt.
One night, scrolling through the rescue organization’s Facebook page, I saw him. “O” was this skinny, malnourished, yet happy puppy who was around 6 months old and my heart melted into a puddle of mush. This was it.
His background wasn’t great. He had been found by local police in a “not so great” area, tied to a doorknob by a leash, and sitting next to two dogs who had already passed away. He was skin and bones, and his owner was reportedly mentally unstable and constantly on the police’s radar for various reasons. I reached out to the rescue the very next day.
The first week was a dream.
Four days later, I was told that he needed to be taken to the vet to be neutered. No problem; that’s necessary. I dropped “O” off that morning and my mom picked him up for me in the afternoon because I was still at work. She stayed with him until I got home and I expected to see a groggy puppy. Nope! “O” was charging around, jumping when he wasn’t supposed to be, ripping and roaring through the condo.
After that day, “O” never really seemed to be able to settle down again. Everything changed. I remember incessantly googling things like “can neutering change my dog,” and “will my dog act crazy if he’s in pain?” I called the vet’s office and told them that “O” was acting quite differently. By then he had started nipping at my hands every time I was sitting on my couch or if I was sitting on the floor with him. He started chasing my cats with what seemed like an increased need to actually harm them; very different than his previously playful demeanor.
The vet’s office prescribed a pain killer and said the behaviors might be from pain, but no matter what, he should settle down in a few days.
A few days came and went and “O” never settled down. I would later learn that this experience was likely just scary enough to set off all the genetic things that weren’t quite right in “O.” Over the next month or so, things only got worse. “O” was actively seeking out my hands to nip at them and the nipping got harder and harder. I had scratches up and down each arm. I was afraid to sit down on my couch. “O” began lunging at my face, especially if I was crying from all the stress. He never laid down anymore. I had to begin locking my cats in a room whenever he was out of his crate. He constantly wanted to be outside, and I was no longer able to control him during walks because he was barking and lunging at everything that moved.
I was at a complete loss.
The only thing that I knew to do was contact a trainer. A friend referred me to someone she knew, and I set up an appointment for as soon as possible.
The trainer began the session, and within 5 minutes “O” had a choke collar around his neck. He taught me that “it’s just the sound” that makes dogs listen and behave properly. He had me practice walking him around my neighborhood, pushing his hind legs down to force him into a sitting position, and “correcting” my foster dog with nearly every movement.
It was going well.
Then, a dog. “O” took a particular liking to this dog. The trainer wasn’t having that. He promptly “alpha rolled” my boy and held his muzzle shut right there on the pavement until the dog was out of sight. I remember the fear. I could tell. Even if I didn’t know any of the other signs at that time, I could tell by the look in “O’s” eyes, he was terrified. We only had 2 more sessions with this trainer, during which he instructed me on how to alpha roll my dog and wave my hand over his face until he didn’t nip at me anymore, as well as when to force him into his crate and “lock the door tightly” whenever he nipped me.
Needless to say, none of that worked and it wasn’t anything I liked doing. Again, things got worse. Nipping and lunging got more intense. Nipping eventually broke the skin and left my hands a bloody mess. We were both so broken, and that trainer still had 5-star reviews everywhere.
6 months passed and we continued to struggle.
After a particularly rough evening, I began googling “behavioral training for dogs.” There we go. That’s what I should’ve done the first time. Katelin Thomas to the rescue.
I think it was something like 64 times that “O” lunged at me during our initial consult with Katelin. He hated me, but I still had to try. I had asked the rescue to find another foster for him at least 10 times by now. The answer was always “we’ll post his picture on the page” and then silence. So, this training had to work. I was invested.
Katelin worked up an entire treatment plan. We could do this.
“O,” Katelin, my mom, and myself worked tirelessly for 2 years. Hours upon hours of training and educating. Late night enrichment walks in the woods away from other people. Swimming classes with behavior specialists. Frozen Kongs, treat boxes, puzzles, mats, agility equipment; anything to work his body and mind. So. Much. Liverwurst. Trips to the Michigan State Vet Clinic to meet with a behavioral veterinarian. Medication change after medication change until we were up to 3 medications 3-4 times per day and then dealing with reactivity around taking that medication. Learning every helpful command and mastering it. Endless complaints from neighbors about barking and running they could hear in the condo. Having to walk through the back door of every building so that we didn’t, by chance, run into any other animals. Muzzle training that I wish would’ve worked. You name it, we did it to keep that boy as happy and safe as possible.
Until one day when the elevator door at the condo opened and there was a strange man standing there. We had never had a problem with this before and we always kept him on a very short leash. “O” lunged and broke skin on his hand. After that, “O” was officially asked to be removed from the condo, so he went to stay with my parents. That was 15 months after he entered my life.
I began tirelessly searching for homes. Putting offer after offer in and all were turned down. I was so stuck. My mom worked with “O,” but I still went over after work every night to help him run out some energy and put him in his crate for the night. You see, when I said “O” never really settled down after his neutering, he truly never did. He never laid down for more than 5-10 minutes at a time unless he was in his crate. He would constantly pace around the house, want to go outside and come back in at least 20-30 times per day, and follow whoever he felt ‘safe’ with. It was a full-time job, but it was worth it to us.
“O” stayed with my parents for 7 months. Every day was hard. Things got better before they got worse. We had days where “O” seemed like he was on the road to recovery, and then days where he bit the neighbor and he snapped at everyone in the family. No one except the 3 people who lived there and me were allowed in the house. ‘Beware of Dog’ signs had to go up all around the property to try and avoid a lawsuit if “O” bit anyone. The doorbell sent waves of panic through the house.
Euthanasia was something I tearfully heard about when we were about 6 months into training. In my mind, you only did that when a dog was old, and it was ‘their time.’ It was the humane thing to do then, but not when a dog is young and full of life. I put it to the very back of my mind and swore I would never do that. I would go live on a farm first if I had to.
As the days went on, “O” became more and more unhappy. He rested even less than before, he started refusing all medication, he rarely got excited to see anyone anymore. With this, he also became more and more dangerous. He began lunging at the crate door when we would try to close it, snapped at random times, and found it hard to settle even in his crate. It was absolutely heartbreaking. This wasn’t a good life for him or any of us anymore. I was selfishly keeping him here for me and so that people wouldn’t judge me. The guilt was unbearable. I finally made the decision to let it all go and give him the peace he deserved and worked so hard for. You see, it wasn’t us putting all those hours of work in, it was him. It was always him who had to try the hardest. I was done making him work so hard just to continue to be terrified of the world.
“O” was 2 and a half years old when he finally found his peace. That day was, and still is, the hardest day of my life. I let him sleep in the bed with me that night and it was the best feeling. We woke up and administered the first horse tranquilizer. We had a vet coming to the house and since this was a stranger, “O” needed help calming down before she arrived. It took 4 horse tranquilizers for him to lay down and be calm, but he still wasn’t sleeping. I held him and told him how sorry I was that I couldn’t make everything better for him. So incredibly sorry and broken. I told him to meet me at the rainbow bridge and that no dog would ever mean as much to me as he did. I told him that he would finally be happy and be able to run free. I told him not to be afraid anymore and to go find my grandpa and uncle who were waiting for him wherever he went.
Just like that, my boy was gone to a better place than here.
The guilt stayed with me for about 2 years. The anxiety started about a month before he was even gone and is still something I struggle with.
I thought over and over about what a monster I must be to have done this and even more to feel relieved after it. I had a lot of healing to do. Every time I would see a dog or hear one barking, I would get flashbacks and my face would flush. I analyzed every single dog I saw and pointed out their fears to anyone who would listen. Then, I would feel even more guilty because I could see that they had fears but were still living a normal life.
It took years to talk myself through it. Yes, all dogs have fears. That’s normal, just like with humans. But when those fears impact quality of life both for an animal as well as their human, things are quite different.
As I sit here, 3 years later, I have another very good boy at my side. I tried about a year after “O” left me to adopt another dog, but it was just too soon for me. So, I waited.
Life went on, I slowly healed, I got married, and now I have a 5-month-old puppy who licks my face as I tearfully write this. I’d be lying if I said I don’t sometimes think I’m the problem or that I’m just cursed with dogs. Every bark, growl, frozen stance, chasing of the cats, wanting to go outside more than normal, and lunge on a walk scares the hell out of me. I never realized how much of that is normal when it’s done for a different reason. Even writing those things makes me think “oh gosh, maybe there IS a problem.” But, there’s not. He’s perfectly happy and loving. He’s young and is learning about the world. He has fears and thanks to “O” (and Katelin) I know that liverwurst makes everything better. His fears are normal and can be worked through. When he gets spooked by something, he runs away from it rather than toward it with an open mouth. All these signs I’ve often wished to forget are helping me raise a happy dog and I’m thankful. It’s easy to get stuck in feeling like a monster, but it’s so much better to choose to be grateful for the dog who likely made you who you are today.
Love you forever and always, “O.”