Guilt

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We often read discussions of whether dogs experience guilt; we’ve published a few, too. But here is a twist I don’t think I’ve ever seen discussed: A dog owner’s guilt over something related to their dog ownership.

Many of us who are old enough to have owned dogs before the advent of positive-reinforcement-based dog training – yes, this was before cell phones and when candy bars cost just a quarter – probably feel some amount of guilt and/or shame about how they trained dogs in their youth. There is a term that describes us – “crossover trainers” – those of us who started training dogs with choke chains and collar “pops.” This was the norm for anyone who wanted a well-trained dog who would walk on a loose leash, once upon a time. (It’s hard to fathom how different and wonderful it must be for trainers and owners who are, say, 30 years old or younger, who came of age in the dog world when positive reinforcement was the norm.)

Things I feel guilty about

Me and Tavi in 1977

I think back to the dog I was allowed to keep for my very own, starting when I was about 13 years old, and who lived with me into my mid-twenties. He was a half-Kelpie, part-hound-mix, dog-aggressive and, it seemed to me then, hard-headed. Frustrated by his many attacks on other dogs and not knowing anyone who knew any better than me, I physically punished him for his many transgressions. I know now that all of that punishment only hardened his negative feelings about other dogs – and far from correcting the issue, it made his hatred of other dogs worse. This was a lifelong conflict between us, and I never found a better way to deal with the behavior. Forgive me, Tavi, I honestly didn’t know any better.

My heaviest burden of guilt has to do with the death of little Tito, a Chihuahua-mix who was sort of dumped on my husband and me by his niece some years back. I didn’t really want another dog at the time, and Tito didn’t really want new owners, either. It took us all a long time to get to know each other; he was a prickly little tough guy. He didn’t like to be picked up, he was a ferocious resource-guarder, and he generally just kept his own council. Over time, though, we got used to and accepted his tough-guy independence and we all actually grew quite fond of each other.

A couple years after we had finally accepted that Tito was a member of our family, he was mortally wounded by a dog I was fostering. It took me nearly a year to process and understand what happened and to write about it; as penance for the ignorance that led to Tito’s death, I still tell the story to anyone I know who is considering fostering an aggressive dog. It’s not that dogs who display aggression can’t be rehabilitated – they certainly can. But people need to know what they are getting into, and need to protect their own families (human and canine) from getting hurt in the process. I didn’t protect Tito, and he paid for my ignorance with his life. The dog who attacked him was euthanized following the event – and this death, too, is on my hands. I am not sure when or if I can, or should, forgive myself for these deaths.

Accidents can happen to the best of us

I know two different people who accidentally backed their cars over (and killed) their own dogs, each of whom was sleeping in the driveway. Two! Both of those people were understandably wracked with guilt about these horrible accidents.

I have another friend who will never forgive herself for letting her dog off-leash to chase some birds, who were covering a huge grassy playing field at a college. But the dog chased and chased and wouldn’t come back, and eventually chased them across a busy street and was hit by a car. Despite almost immediate emergency veterinary care, he died at a veterinarian’s office less than an hour later. My friend is almost pathologically careful about letting her current dog off-leash, which is good, but I’m sorry that she still suffers about her former mistake.

Dog ownership is a huge responsibility; their lives and health are fully in our hands. Guilt over the things we’ve done wrong, I guess, helps keep us alert to the possibility that we might make other mistakes, that we have to be more careful with these precious lives. And, as the saying goes, when we know better, we can do better. Sometimes I just wish learning some of these lessons wasn’t so hard.

What do you feel guilty about? Maybe others can learn from your mistakes.

34 COMMENTS

  1. I still feel guilty about “putting our first dog down”. We found him on the street in Mobile AL and loved him dearly. When we moved to Huntsville from Fairhope I tried to do some due diligence on finding. Good vet and settled on a small practice. When our dog got to the point of no return I called this vet to come to the house and put Della down. He came but did not administer a calming shot first and Della cried out when she was euthanized. Horrible cries. They still haunt me today

    • Oh my gosh, I am SO sorry this experience happened. This makes me cry to think about. (((hugs))) It’s a tough decision to make and then this happens. 🙁 I know no words will make this better…

    • Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the day I said goodbye to my old friend. He was a rescue; a Yorkie. Every day he thanked me for being his friend. He was and is my heart dog. I knew one day I would have to say goodbye. No amount of preparation really prepares you. I was so lucky to have a good vet to prepare me. I wasn’t rushed. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but as sure as he was my respected friend I knew one day this time would come. We had 12 wonderful years together, but age and illness cut our time short. It was my duty as his owner; parent and companion not to let my Bentley suffer his kidney condition anymore. He was strong and loving, so I was brave through to his last breath. But the pain doesn’t go. Especially as he became my assistance dog and aided me in my wheelchair and disability. I never trained him, he just took the job! Thank you for sharing your story, so I could tell mine.

  2. Our first dog (early 70’s) was a first class resource guarder who we responded to with punishment. She bit my mother-in-law and a friend’s child (not seriously, thank goodness) and we still didn’t get it. I guess we were lucky those were the only incidents. Our next dog, while earning several obedience titles, was always kind of “flat”. I often wonder how she might have blossomed with positive reinforcement training. Our next three dogs have been much more fortunate.

  3. Growing up out in the country, we had a beagle mix dog. My friend and I were playing with Bernie when he took off across the highway. Like in slow motion, poor Bernie was hit by a car. He survived but was paralyzed in his back legs. 🙁 My parents decided that he should be put down. He was a super nice dog. 🙁

    Another guilt was when I was moving to a new state and the apartment I was moving to only allowed one dog and I had two. I had to rehome one. BUT.. my cocker spaniel went to a good home with a family of 10 kids at the time. The oldest boy wanted a lap dog of his own. (The family ended up having SIX more kids…) I feel like at least I found her a good home where she’d get LOTS of attention. She loved kids and I was single. But still, how does one pick which to keep? It was a tough one for sure. Both dogs were awesome. My schnauzer lived to be 14, and he moved four times with me, not caring where he was provided I was there. 🙂

    And my final guilt was also when I was growing up, there was a cute little black dog that someone had dumped out in the country. I couldn’t convince my mom that we should pick him up. He kept looking at all the cars, hoping his owner came back. He ended up being hit by a car and died. 🙁 I still feel SO BADLY about this. On a more positive note, now I DO pick up dogs that look lost and bring them to a no-kill shelter, depending on where I find this dog OR call the owner if they have tags on.

  4. “Dog ownership is a huge responsibility; their lives and health are fully in our hands.” It certainly is. I have regrets over my earlier dogs (pre-2000’s), all of whom I loved dearly. I now know i could have done better by them, much better. Really appreciate your honesty, Nancy.

  5. I have lived and loved over 20 dogs in my 70 years and probably made 10X that many mistakes. And yes I feel guilty, especially for the earlier ones. But they are DOGS, and I know that they love and forgive me, which is why I believe they are so much better than humans. If they had thumbs, look out, world!

  6. I had a toy poodle, years ago, she had a liter of 5 pups they were 5 wks old. I let her out that morning to potty, I turned around to grab my coffee and before I could reach her a German Shepherd came into the yard and got her. She run back to the door and expanded like a balloon. I run her to the closest vet and towards evening they said she was fine and I could take her home. She died one hour at my feet . I have never gotten over that terribly day. I have felt guilty for not watching her better. All my dogs I’ve had since then, I’m very pertective.

  7. Thank you so much for this honest article and all of the people who commented. Brought big tears to my eyes thinking of my earlier dogs and what I have learned from them. I too did some of the choke collar training and punishment for negative behavior. I’m endlessly appreciative of what they taught me and other ways of training sought out as I have gotten older. My current fur kids live quite the lush, happy, extremely well loved and cared for lives as a result. Spoiled is an understatement but they deserve it with their endless amounts of love they give.

    • I was just thinking how spoiled our current (and previous two) fur kids are too!! Electric dog door that raises up when they approach, a carpeted ramp to the backyard. Steps next to the couch, a ramp next to the bed. Steps next to my work desk for the cat to easily get to her window perch. I’ve worked from home for the last two years. One of our dogs was adopted at the age of 5, but she must have had a really good life because her manners are amazing. (I think her previous owner may have gone to a nursing home.) Our other dog we’ve had since a pup. I do feel guilty because we didn’t socialize him. He’s fine with people in our house though, just that he’s scared of outside people.

  8. Speaking from my experiences–catholic upbringing, always had dogs (one seriously fear aggressive), daily shelter volunteer for years, weekly dog training classes for decades–guilt is useful in that you learn, do better, are more observant & kinder–in short, you modify your behavior. Every trainer I know has taken on a dog that they were sure they could help, but couldn’t. Let the guilt go. Thank you for sharing what you learned. I have bookmarked this.

  9. I was looking at the dogs in a shelter. All of them were anxious yappy dogs except for one huge Chessie who sat quietly and looked in my eyes. He had a nice collar with the tags missing and was fit and well groomed. I supposed he’d been stolen or lost on a vacation trip. I told him his people were sure to find him and that I would call in a few days to see and adopt him if he was still there. We left each other with that understanding and I told the shelter. So it was a Friday and I didn’t call until Tuesday. They had put him down. “Too big to get adopted.” Just a records’ glitch, I guess. Why didn’t I call sooner! Why wasn’t I pushier? That was about 30 years ago, and when I look back, he’s one of our beloved dogs. Just breaks my heart to think of him. He trusted me.

  10. I’m nearly forty and was definitely raised and taught by my parents that the only way to train a dog was to beat the crap out of them. I’m horrified to this day about my two childhood dogs had suffered by my parents and by extension us children. I had my epiphany in college and discovered the positive training that is both clear and humane. I still feel guilt. My last five dogs have only love and positive reinforcement just as they should. (Yes, my father was an abusive man and I had to unlearn everything that I was taught, but learning to train my dogs through love helped heal me in ways I’m grateful for.)

  11. I’m glad you asked about guilts. I have many of them, one of which is the same as Kathy Cockrill.
    One time when I had to put down a dog the sedative prior to the euthanasia reacted to make the dog hyper. Then when the vet finally did administer the final drug, the dog would not die. He refused to go and the vet had to give him another shot before he actually passed. It broke my heart.
    Another time, I took a dog to my regular vet to be euthanized and they had a NEW RULE. They would only allow the dog to be brought up to the owner AFTER the sedative was given. Stupidly I finally allowed them to taike the dog. A few minutes later I heard scream after scream from him. I went down to the room where they had him and he was at the end of the rope scared out of his mind. I realized he was either terrified or having hallucinations so I calmed him as best I could and demanded they give him the fnal drug right away. Meanwhile the “receptionist” came down and told me “You aren’t supposed to be here”. I said “I know and I’m not leaving”. Poor soul had been a relatively recent rescue that was too and I think was terrified of being away from me alone and not knowing what was happening to him. Actually, t hat was the case with both the previous dogs above; recent geriatric adoptees that were truly aggressive and I could not manage that aggression. They were both sick dogs and I was trying to heal them before I could do much training.
    The other guilts I have are that I usually waited one day too long after the dog was in pain to call the vet. Ikept hoping he would be better the next day as often they were. But the look in t heir eyes on that last day when they told me it was time to go was never to be forgotten. I should have called the day before. My guilt with all these dogs will never leave me. All the dogs I had were “older, generally sick rescue dogs that I hoped to make the last days/months/years happy, secure and comfortable with the best vet care money could buy. ALmost every dog had quite serious temperament or behavioural problems that I was able to fix with loving kindness. Each dog was unique. Each dog came with his own usually terrible background that had to be overcome with kindness. Each dog broke my heart when he went over the Rainbow Bridge to play with his friends.
    My heart was broken with each of my 13 dogs I adopted in 20 years. THey die much too soon but it does make room for another rescue.
    My current rescue was 10 years old and he now is 11 and seems quite healthy aside from some issues I can manage.

  12. Thank you so much for writing this! Your words couldn’t be more timely for me. We recently adopted an adolescent coonhound, and I’ve been working with a wonderful trainer who has helped us navigate dog reactivity, pulling on the leash when walking, lunging and barking at passing cars, obsessive barking at rabbits/birds/squirrels, demand barking during human meal times, counter surfing…so many issues!!!! By utilizing positive reinforcement and counter conditioning, I’m seeing our dog’s behavior improve so quickly, and it fills me with such joy!

    But I often think back to one of our previous dogs who also had issues with dog reactivity and leash pulling. I worked with a trainer for a year using choke collar techniques. Consequently his leash pulling never improved, and we just accepted that walks were a frustrating experience. He was so intelligent and eager to please; he would have thrived with positive reinforcement training. I think of him almost every time I set out with my current dog, wishing I’d had these wonderful tools back then.

  13. I feel guilty about so many dogs… Most of all about those who used to live with me and my ex-husband, who beat them and my little son, badly because he thought that it is the only good method to make them well-behaved. Now I can’t understand how I could tolerate that!

    One of them had been hit by the car because I kept her off-leash – she was obedient after my husband’s training, as I was aware! Another one stayed with my ex-husband when I escaped with two kids to another country. He moved and left her with the people who let her walk not more than 15 minutes a day, and she became very sick when one day my father found a good woman with a big yard out of the city who took her. She was so happy to run from her prison where she stayed for years – at the end of the day, because of me! It has happened more than 10 years ago, but when I recall it I start to cry, as now…

    Maybe partly because of all the above, I decided to help the dogs and their owners to understand and love each other. In the country where I used to live people still use choke and prong collars a lot, and I’m trying to do my best to explain in my blog the modern methods of dog training and the science behind it. And with my current dog, I feel guilty just because I can’t play with him all the time he wants 🙂 I pray it will be my most guilt from now.

  14. Every dog I’ve ever adopted settled in smoothly from day one. Then I got Joey, age three. I thought I had adopted the worst dog in the world. In the first two days, he bit the resident dog, Roxy, twice. He terrorized the cat. He lifted his leg on the bottom shelf of my bookcase. He almost succeeded in grabbing a block of cheese off the kitchen table. He howled in the middle of the night. He chewed up some of my clothing. He was terrified of everything–walking across the threshold, riding in the car, being touched. I thought, I can’t take this, so I took him back to the shelter. When I handed him back, he tried to follow me. His nails scraped on the floor, he tried so hard to stay with me. I felt guilt but also I felt sad and cried all the way home. For the next six days I thought about what I had done–he was abandoned again. I talked to a couple of trainers and my vet about his behavior and after six days I went back to get him. He was still there. When he saw me he looked in my eyes and wagged his tail. He remembered me. The vet prescribed two weeks on Trazadone. Joey slept for a couple of days almost around the clock, and by the end of the two weeks, he was a different dog, ready to start working on his fears with training, positive reinforcement and bags and bags of treats. Someone had once loved this dog enough to work with him because he walked beautifully on leash and never jumped on people. Now it’s two years later, and he has turned out to be the best dog I ever had. And he’s even made friends with the cat.

  15. My 10 year old dog stopped eating and drinking and wouldn’t come in the house but stayed in “his corner” outside under the dining room bay window. I went out with a leash and made him come in. Then I brought him some water and coaxed him to drink. He didn’t want to but did to please me. Then he vomited. Alarmed I rushed him to the animal emergency vet where he was kept overnight. The next evening around 9pm I got a call. They knew what was wrong. Cancer. I wanted to get him right away so he could die at home in his own bed. My vet knew a vet that would make house calls for euthanasia. But the emergency vet clinic said they didn’t want to release him until he ate something. I *should* have gone there immediately and demanded they release my dog. Instead I allowed the vet to have her way. I had a restless night, called in sick to work the next day and set my alarm for 5:30 am so I could be at the vet at 6am when they opened. Just as I had finished dressing at 5:45 I got a call from the vet that he was fading. I said I was already on my way and please for him to hold on until I got there. I was there in 10 min. but he was already gone. To this day I believe that he held on for me until I would return, but when I didn’t he thought I had abandoned him and decided to die. I will live with that guilt the rest of my life. He was my forever dog. I should have gone to get him the night before instead of listening to that vet. But I learned my lesson and I will never do that again. I hope that vet learned her lesson too. When an owner wants their terminal dog back, release them. No dog should die alone away from their family. It is what breaks my heart about the current pandemic crisis. Reading of owners with old, terminal dogs who have to drop them off at the vet for humane euthanasia but can’t go in to be with them. Or can’t decide whether to send their dogs off to die without them or keep them home and in pain. I was too compliant. I should have fought to bring Caesar home and I didn’t. I should have read the signs better and not taken him in but waited until the next day for my own vet. He should have died at home in his own bed with me beside him. Like Ramses did. And like Diana pawPrints will when her time comes.

  16. Oh, Nancy. Your editorial hit me right in the heart. Now that I know better, I do better but the specter of guilt is always there. Thanks for letting me know I’m not alone and for giving all of us a way to connect.

  17. My first dog as an adult, Gabby, rescued some 20+ years ago, had fear aggression. I let some heavy handed obedience instructor tell me the only way to “fix her” was to use a prong collar and be the alpha in the house. It only made her worse. I took her to every trainer and behaviorist over all her with me, but she was never safe being around other people. It was a challenging 16 yrs to be on guard to be sure she never bit anyone, but, she had a lovely life of 17 years, living the last several years ruling the roost on my small sheep farm in Oregon. Though I know carrying around guilt is useless, I still fight it every day. My elderly father has a wonderful rescued, 9 yr old black Labrador as his ESA at his Assisted Living facility. Shadow is calming to Dad & all the other residents there. Unfortunately, Dad treats Shadow like one of his Police K9s he trained in the 1970’s. It took me years to get the choke chain away from Dad (including the one he used to whack Shadow on the rear end when he wasn’t following his instructions), to use a Gentle Leader to prevent Shadow from pulling (instead of yanking him thru the air as a correction), and the other old fashioned techniques that bordered on abuse. Even now, he still shouts at Shadow over the smallest things. The only saving grace is that Shadow is in love with Dad, never cowers in Dad’s presence, or shows any signs he is unhappy with Dad