I have, extremely recently, been faced with the overwhelming lesson of what it means to responsibly care for a dog. I made the decision to have my veterinarian euthanize the love of my life, my best friend, and my spirit animal – Johnny. What may come as a shock to some, is that I had to make this decision when Johnny was five and a half years old, due to increasing aggression.
I rescued Johnny when he was seven months old. He was scrawny, his nails were too long, he was shedding too much, his eyes were on the sides of his head (hammerhead dog), and he looked defeated in a crate where he hung out on the weekends waiting for the love of a home. He looked at me with piercing green eyes as he layed there, unmoving, and I was instantly attached. As soon as I got him out of the crate, he was a new dog – super excited, jumping around, ready to go. I told the lady who ran the rescue that I wanted him, but she said I could not take him until I had a note from my apartment complex saying they allowed the breed on his paperwork – an American Staffordshire Terrier mix, Amstaff for short. If you have experienced the world of bully breeds, an Amstaff is never allowed to live anywhere. I went home and got angry with anyone who told me I would just have to find another dog that I liked. Silly giver uppers. When you know something in your soul, you have to go for it. Giving up on little hammerhead green eyes was not an option. I formed a plan and decided to call the rescue woman back, pitching my idea. She agreed and with overwhelming joy I showed up to meet her in the middle of nowhere to get my very specific buddy.
I worked at a dog daycare at the time and was friends with two certified dog trainers as well as being surrounded by co-workers who knew and understood dogs. I was ready for this. I was going to do this the right way. Step one – socialize. So, I started bringing Johnny to work with me. What a dream. Wasn’t I the best dog owner ever? I could bring my new BFF to work with me every day and he got to play with friends and go home exhausted.
Lesson learned: Not every dog can mentally handle the stimulation of a yard full of dogs. Johnny was fine for months but eventually, it was too much for him. He started acting out and his anxiety manifested in aggression. Although, an overall minor aggression in the big picture of Johnny’s life, it was painful and upsetting. Johnny could not play in a big group of dogs anymore and I was saddened that I would have to leave him at home while I worked all day in a place that had a ‘bring your dog to work day’ every day. Once this happened, I jumped right on the dog training* bus and was ready to face this new issue head on.
After working with a trainer, and now a person very dear to my heart, Johnny had a few really good, incident free, years. For a while, I took him everywhere with me – we road tripped together, we went to dog friendly breweries or shops together, we visited friends together. Anywhere he was allowed to go, he went with me and I often chose to stay home with him rather than go somewhere he could not.
Lesson learned: Positive Reinforcement training builds confidence in your dog and deepens your relationship. The trust that Johnny had for me began from the start but strengthened tremendously during the training techniques and years to follow. Johnny felt like more of a person than a dog to me. We understood each other. He trusted me with every piece of himself. It was up to me to always do what was best for him, no matter what.
Then, within the past year, signs started showing up again. Some were subtle. A great infographic to refer to for some insight is below.
But shortly after, some of the signs were more obvious – growling, snapping, hunting, biting. He was becoming anxious, but this time it was worse. The training was not working anymore. Removing triggers did not work. Removing stimulation was not working. Something had changed in his brain and it was out of my control. This is the part I have the most difficult time grasping. I have never accepted anything as out of my control in my entire life. Until now. And that left me with both the biggest choice and no choice at all.
All I’m going to say is, within a week of each other, Johnny got in two dog fights very different from each other. Both unpredictable and unique to what I had ever seen him do before and both with dogs he had a history of friendship with. After incident one of that week, I had an instant gut feeling that I would have to put Johnny down. I had NEVER even considered that before, yet all I could hear in my head was “Oh my God, am I going to have to put Johnny down?” so I finally said it out loud. My partner was shocked to hear those words come out of my mouth and even curious as to why THAT was the incident, of all the questionable actions, that changed everything in my mind. My answer is that I don’t have much of an answer other than a deep, gut instinct and the sudden awareness that he was no longer as predictable as he used to be to the person that knew him best – me. This all happened so fast that I was simply devastated and at a complete loss with this thought weighing on me night and day. I had zero acceptance of a life without Johnny and I think that is why incident two rolled around six days later and sealed the deal. There was no denying it after incident two. There was a brutal understanding of what love, safety, and surrender meant. Every reason I had to keep Johnny alive, was a selfish one.
The thing is, with Johnny, I never gave up. Johnny had a history of dog aggression that was managed quickly at a young age. Even when it seemed to start showing up again in the last year of his life, I swooped in and got into management mode immediately. Even after he had bitten a person and gotten in a minor dog fight, I still did not consider euthanasia. I researched the exact scenarios, I called my dog trainer, I contacted another dog trainer I knew and trusted, and I set up a plan to manage this with my knowledge of the exact triggers and a responsible approach. The hope in dog aggression cases, is that if it is predictable, there is a potential that you can safely manage it so long as the dog and the owner’s quality of life is considered. I never, ever gave up on him. But, I did surrender when it was the responsible, selfless, and loving choice to make.
I knew Johnny like you know a piece of yourself. I spent the past five years knowing him, snuggling with him, observing him, training him, playing with him, adventuring with him, testing what worked and what did not with him, and dedicating my life to making sure he was taken care of. But at the end of the day, Johnny was an animal – a topic I will cover more next week.
Johnny pulled me through some massive years of heartache. He gave me a reason to get out of bed some days when I may not have otherwise because I knew I had to feed him and let him out, no matter what I was going through. He licked away countless, countless tears. He was the perfect snuggler, especially when I needed it most. He was hilarious and holds the title of Number One Bootscooter in the World. He was my first priority, always, and love of my life. I did the absolute best I could have possibly done.
Of all the losses I have suffered in my life, this one has by far been the most painful. Yet, it has also been the most powerful lesson in both trusting myself and surrendering.
None of this was Johnny’s fault, or mine.
*Side note about dog training: I am huge advocate for Positive Reinforcement Training and for a lot of informational links on that you can click here. Had I taken an alternate approach in training, such as treating aggression with aggression or dominance training, I wholeheartedly believe Johnny would have gone downhill fast, rather than giving me five full, beautiful years.
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