Mourning the loss of an “easy” dog


I know a couple who adopted a shelter dog, and, some six months after that fact, have decided to give the dog up following an incident with the dog. The wife took the dog to a friend’s house, and due to a lot of factors (that were entirely predictable to anyone knowing much of anything about dogs, but apparently, undreamed of by the inexperienced owner), the adopted dog attacked the dog who lived in that house. The resident dog and her owner both required treatment for punctures –nothing major, not surgery or anything drastic. But the entire event was traumatic enough that the owners can no longer imagine living with their (aggressor) dog.

It’s very sad for me to hear about, because the dog is an only dog, is very affectionate and well-behaved with her humans, doesn’t share the house with other dogs or cats or anything but adult humans, and yet, because of this episode of easily preventable dog-dog aggression, is about to lose her home and be returned to a shelter, where she may or may not be given a chance to find another family.

The couple has been offered services by a trainer who worked with them shortly after they adopted the dog – and declined those services. They don’t want to “work with” the dog, they just want her gone, as soon as possible.

I was thinking about this, and a conversation that I had once with a close relative came to mind. Her daughter suffers from schizophrenia. My relative has struggled for over a decade to get help for her daughter, as doctors have struggled to find medications that give the young woman some peace from the paranoia and voices that plague her, and enable her to distinguish reality from delusions – or at a minimum, resist responding to those delusions. My relative once told me, one of the hardest parts of dealing with her daughter’s illness is letting go of the image of the perfect girl her daughter had once been – extremely bright, communicative, creative, and athletic. She told me, “It’s not that I can’t deal with the illness; it’s that I find myself constantly mourning the loss of the person my daughter was before the illness.”

When one of our dogs develops a serious health or behavior disorder, mourning the loss of our image of our relatively carefree, healthy dog is often the first step that we need to take in order to get on with the treatment. Whether the dog is going to require lifelong testing and medication for a thyroid disorder or diabetes, or surgery and rehabilitation for dysplastic hips, or management and training to deal with a budding aggression issue, the first step is accepting this new reality: The future with that dog is not going to be as cheap or easy as one hoped.

The big difference, of course, is that it’s somehow an option for people to not only decline to treat their dog, but also, give up on it altogether, whereas one can’t walk away from a child in need of treatment so easily. And sometimes, I really hate this difference.

I would be more understanding and compassionate toward these people if they couldn’t afford the training or management tools, or had no time to invest in the project, or had other vulnerable parties – another dog, or cats, or small children – that they needed to protect. But all I have heard is that it’s too traumatic to consider.

I’m not dismissing the idea that witnessing (and having to break up) a dogfight is traumatic. It’s also humiliating and upsetting to suffer the judgment or anger of the owner of the victim dog in a dog fight. And it’s very uncomfortable to feel guilty for failing to pay enough attention and prevent something bad that your dog does. In my lifetime with dogs, I’ve suffered every one of these feelings. They are not fun.

But dang it . . . it’s still your dog.