At what point?

I recently had to euthanize my 5 and a half year old dog because I was no longer able to manage his aggression issues. I reached my breaking point when he attacked and almost killed our cat, a cat he had lived with for over 4 years. It was one of the most difficult and heart breaking decisions of my life. In between waves of grief, I find myself struggling to make some sense of it all and keep asking myself, “At what point should I have known I was incapable of “fixing” my dog?” Here is my story. I hope that by sharing it, it might help someone else.

Prior to adopting my dog, I had experienced the heart ache of having to euthanize 2 foster dogs because of aggression. I have to admit, I always suspected there was something in their pasts that made them aggressive. I didn’t believe every dog with issues was abused, but did believe they were under socialized, neglected or subjected to aversive methods of training. And, I held their previous owners responsible for either causing or at least, not having worked on, their dog’s issues. I was fairly certain, it was the aggression issues that must have driven them to surrender their dog to a shelter, not the excuses written on the surrender form (had to move, didn’t have time, etc.). I believe it was because of the pain I felt in euthanizing these dogs and my beliefs about aggression in dogs that made me so determined to keep my dog from this terrible fate.

I adopted my boy when he was 4 and ½ months old from a local shelter. He had shown severe food resource guarding in his behavioral exam at 3 months old when he was surrendered. He was responding to the “trade up/exchange” exercises, so the staff felt, that in experienced hands, he was adoptable. As a volunteer at the shelter, with a quiet adult home, I seemed like a good candidate. He was an extraordinarily smart little puppy, food motivated and eager to please. The 6 weeks in the shelter had limited his social development, but he seemed to have held up reasonably well, and I had worked with him at the shelter with good results, so my husband and I took him home.

The first month was quite a shock. Prior to bringing our new puppy home, we had lost our 15 year old dog to illness. It had been a long time since we had a puppy and the energy level of our new guy was something we had never experienced before. Our best guess was that he was a mix of Border collie and field lab. If he could have reached the ceiling he would have been tap dancing on it. He was tap dancing on everything else. After a few weeks of multiple daily walks, training practice and play sessions, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with him so I enrolled him in a reputable daycare. This was in addition to formal training classes, daily walks, play sessions, and play dates with my daughter’s 3 year old dog.

The exercises from the “Mine” booklet were going well. I had also discovered that he had body handling issues with his feet, ears and mouth, so I was working on that, in addition to the resource guarding. I took him with me to pet store outings and everywhere dogs were welcome. Things seemed to be going well until about the age of 7 months when he lunged at a woman in a pet store as she walked by. I was stunned, but dismissed it. Then, it happened again in the lobby of the dog day care, then again while on a walk through our neighborhood and again, at the vet’s office when the receptionist made eye contact with him. It seemed random though because he was all wiggles and happy with most people and the daycare owners dismissed it too. I never identified a predictable pattern or cause.

At about the same time, he had started barking and urinating when people he didn’t know came into our house. I decided to bring in a professional at that point to work on what appeared to me to be fear aggression. I learned several new techniques utilizing desensitization, counter conditioning and incompatible behaviors. I was able to find an introduction process that worked well in the house, but it was the beginning of a life of management that became more and more limiting for all of us. He was kicked out of daycare when he was about a year old because he was “tipping” (his play was turning into fights) and he was showing a lot of barrier frustration at fence lines. He was also becoming very leash reactive on our walks.

After he was kicked out of daycare, I found myself needing to find new ways to meet my dog’s high energy needs. With his issues with strangers in our home, and the extreme leash reactivity, I tried to do it on my own, but became exhausted after a few months. I enrolled us in a reactive rover class. I was still taking other classes in dog sports and obedience, including tracking to work his mind as well as his body. We were never able to take the walls down in the reactive rover class, and I spent a lot of the other class time behind a barrier, but I did learn some techniques to better manage him. More importantly, I met a training assistant who lived in my neighborhood, who was willing to walk my dog at noon a few days a week, and pet sit for us so we could go on vacation. He continued to have regular play dates with his best friend, my daughter’s dog.

We had always had cats in the home and I was fostering kittens as well. The kittens were kept in separate rooms, but a foster failure joined our animal family when our dog was about a year and a half old. There were always other animals in the house; cats, foster dogs, my daughter’s dog. Our dog generally ignored the other animals, but every now and then our most social cat would approach him when he was eating or chewing on a nylon bone and he would curl his lip. I kept up with the resource guarding exercises, and he did not have issues with his food bowl, toys, beds, etc. with people, but he did go after the cat once when it approached him while he was eating. So, I started working on that too, but generally gave him space to eat and supervised time with his nylon chew bones. Over time, the cat could walk through the room while he ate and nylon bones could be left unattended on the floor. Beyond the one time he went after the cat, he had never shown aggression to our other animals.

And, so it went. I would take a class; engage a professional for help as new issues arose, including a specialist in dog aggression issues when our grandchildren entered the picture. Our dog would seem to get better about one issue or I would figure out how to manage it, but then a new issue would arise, like barking hysterically at animals on the TV, eventually even cartoon animals, or an old behavior would emerge, like lunging and barking at a random person walking down the street. He would get used to a dog and walk by peacefully, but then get hysterical at any new dog. I was never successful with counter conditioning/desensitization in a general way. To add to his fearful view of the world, he was attacked by loose dogs on a few occasions, which set us back for several months at a time. At about 3 years old, he turned the tables on these encounters and would grab the approaching dog by the top of the head and not release until the other dog was in the hands of his owner. I was concerned, but felt his behavior was reasonable as he had never injured the other dogs or redirected at me.

At some point, I just started walking him very early in the morning because it was less stressful. The protocol for introducing people who came to the home worked, but had to be repeated every visit unless it was a very frequent visitor and we invited fewer and fewer people into our house as the years went by. We kept windows shuttered closed so he wouldn’t bark at dogs and people walking by. We stopped watching TV shows with animals and kept the remote close so we could pause or fast forward in the event an animal appeared in a commercial. My husband and I would both jump when we went to the movies whenever there were animals on the screen; we had been so conditioned to our dog’s reactivity. Our lives kept getting more and more limited.

I never used aversive methods or equipment. I kept up on his training and I literally *never* went a day without taking him for a long walk and play session, even when I was sick. I took every precaution I could think of to protect him from negative experiences and to protect others from him. He had taken more training classes than any dog we had ever had. He lived and slept in our house with us and was never unsupervised outdoors. He was never left alone for more than a 6 or 7 hour stretch, and that was rare. He was a beautiful, smart, devoted dog and all I could see when I looked at him was that adorable puppy face. I made regular mental lists of all his good qualities and convinced myself he was getting better despite the growing list of limitations. It was devastating and traumatic the evening I turned around to see him growling and snarling like a wild animal with our beloved cat’s head in his mouth. I am happy to say our cat survived but he suffered serious injuries including deep puncture wounds near his eyes that almost blinded him.

I don’t know if someone else could have achieved a better result with my dog. I just knew as I looked into my cat’s and dog’s faces, I wasn’t capable of doing more than I had done and it still wasn’t enough. I don’t know if dogs suffer from mental illnesses or genetic defects that drive them to behave in unpredictable ways or at least, in ways that are incompatible with a household like ours. I am not trying to offer excuses to people who aren’t willing to try to work through issues with their companion animals. There are techniques that work. But, like me, as a society we are quick to judge people who have dogs with aggression issues and blame them.

I am not trying to indict the shelter, the trainers, the consultants or anyone else who tried to help me. I blame myself for not protecting my cat. I am not suggesting that shelter or rescue dogs are any more likely to have issues than dogs from breeders. I do wonder if some of us who are involved in rescue work don’t become blind to systemic limitations either in the dog or the people trying to help the dog. I don’t have an answer, because as I look back, I still can’t answer the question for myself; at what point should I have known I was over my head, faced the reality of who my dog was and acknowledged that he was a ticking time bomb in my home.

I offer my story in the hopes that it will result in more compassion for the people who find themselves in a situation like mine and compassion for the animals that can’t help how they see the world. I offer it to people who work at shelters, rescue groups, trainers and breeders, and ask that they try to be objective and honest at the most difficult times. In a strange way, I consider myself lucky. My cat survived and I was able to be there, with love, and hold my dog in his last moments. It could have been much worse.


Written by our guest blogger Cynthia Hiatt. Longtime shelter volunteer, foster and animal rescuer who has worked on the rehabilitation of many dogs, including her own dogs.

At what point?

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