[Content warning: Discussion of animal euthanasia.] Nothing about this column is going to make you happy, and I apologize for that, but this might be one of the most important things you read as a dog owner. (That probably sounds very self-important, but it’s the topic, not the author.)
I think I have mentioned in other articles that I was a director of an animal rescue for about a decade. This experience taught me that if you have a rescue dog as opposed to a rescue puppy, chances are your dog experienced something negative – anything from benign neglect to deliberate abuse – before they came to you. In the right homes, the vast, vast majority of those dogs will go on to thrive and overcome what they have experienced.
This is about the ones who don’t. Let me tell you about two of them. Their names – and a few details – are changed because it just seems like the right thing to do.
Leo was a lab/hound/pit/everything mix who was confiscated at the home of an animal hoarder. I will simplify his medical situation because it was very complicated. In a nutshell, he had terrible mange that he never really recovered from. We tried everything, vet after vet, treatment regimen after treatment regimen, but poor Leo’s skin problems would always come back. While Leo was getting treatment, he was in a variety of foster homes where he would behave well for a while, but then would start to become aggressive and compulsive around the time the skin problems would recur. The foster homes – all highly experienced – simply couldn’t manage him, and it was tearing them up to watch him suffer.
Leo’s problems escalated as he went from home to home until finally one of our most experienced fosters, who had come out of retirement to try to help Leo, made us face the fact that he wasn’t going to get better, that we wouldn’t be able to find a foster home for him, and that, more important, he was a miserable, compulsive, increasingly dangerous dog. The other director and I made the decision to euthanize him. We accompanied him to the vet clinic and I watched as the other director held him in her arms and petted him as he fell asleep, and stroked his back as the final shot was administered.
Hyacinth was an exquisite bluetick coonhound we got from another rescue we had never dealt with before. She was petite for her breed, and was very reserved. We placed her with a lovely, tender-hearted single woman who was devoted to Hyacinth. Hyacinth never really warmed up to her new owner, and at one point her owner contacted us reluctantly to tell us that Hyacinth had bitten her on multiple occasions, and that she and her trainer had never been able to determine her triggers. Hyacinth’s owner reluctantly sent us a picture of her arms after one attack – they were covered with bruises and punctures. It looked like she had been beaten with a pipe. She agreed to return Hyacinth to us, even though it broke her heart. We put Hyacinth in the homes of two of our most experienced fosters. In the first, Hyacinth clashed so much with the dogs in the home that the situation could not be managed. In the second, Hyacinth charged at her foster and bit him so close to the femoral artery that I still shudder to think about how close a call it was.
We made the decision to euthanize her. Hyacinth’s favorite foster and I went to the vet’s office and watched as she reluctantly fell asleep, terrified and fighting even as she sat in her foster’s lap. When she died, I looked at her face. She didn’t look like the same dog. She looked relaxed and peaceful. Even as we sobbed, we knew that we had done the right thing by Hyacinth.
Based on these and similar experiences, we developed a set of questions to ask ourselves when making the decision to euthanize a dog for behavioral reasons. They were quite simple:
1. Is there someone who will stand up for this dog? These dogs need someone who can give them a safe and permanent home for the rest of their lives, no matter what happens. They need homes where the owner can manage the animal’s behaviors so that no one is in danger, and so that the dog has some semblance of a normal life according to our rescue’s standards (i.e., an inside dog who receives regular vet care, exercise and interaction with their human). Such homes are extremely rare, unicorns even, and even if they do exist, chances are pretty good they are already managing a dog that no one else could handle.
2. If, for some reason, the person who could stand up for this dog can no longer do so, what is the likely outcome for this animal? Despite our best efforts, life sometimes throws a curveball – the safe haven adopter might become ill or physically disabled, or have to dramatically change living environments. Would we be able to find another home for this dog? If so, what would happen to the dog while we waited to find this unicorn owner? Would they be bounced around from home to home, until the inevitable severe biting incident occurred? What is the likelihood that the animal would end up in quarantine for biting, wretched and alone, until they were euthanized? (That kind of ending is common when troubled dogs are shuffled around, unfortunately.)
The last one is the most important question of all, and the one that inevitably cemented our decision.
3. Is this dog happy? Is this dog fearful or compulsive, or basically happy with some bad behaviors? The reality is that there are some dogs who don’t ever feel safe. Whether it is due to some fluke in brain chemistry, or the aftermath of abuse, life is a terrifying and bewildering prospect for such dogs most of the time. Even the most loving and devoted human can’t change that. The best they can do is try to reduce the dog’s exposure to the things that frighten them.
We realized that in such tragic cases, our obligation wasn’t always to find them a home. Our obligation was to keep them from suffering. There were fates worse than death for such dogs, and one of them was living in a world where they were always fearful. Another was making sure that they did not die alone, by the hands of someone who barely knew them, all the while terrified and wondering why their human had abandoned them.
We have a moral obligation to help a dog transition out of life in as peaceful and comforting a way as possible, and to be there with them when it happens. It is part of the promise we make to these dogs when we met them, the promise that all dog owners make: that we will keep them safe and act in their best interests, and that when it is necessary, we will let them go.
Author’s note: If this story hits home for you, I’m so sorry. It is almost impossibly painful. Remember, though, that if you are capable of such great love for an animal, you are equally capable of great strength and bravery on their behalf.