I euthanized my healthy dog yesterday.Technically, he was not my dog. He was my foster dog for a rescue organization. But he was with me for three years as a very loved part of my family. And technically, he was not healthy.
Arnold was a Teddy Roosevelt Terrier with a history of neurological development-stunting isolation, beginning somewhere around abandonment as a puppy in subfreezing temperatures. Eventually, he came into our rescue as an extremely conflicted, fearful dog who practiced offensive aggressive behavior as a defense. He was understandably too much for the first foster home and death on the vet’s table was next for him unless another foster home would take him in. At that time, I was a Rescuer and a Fixer who had “fixed” aggressive behavior with various methods over the years. I took Arnold in, took things slowly and quietly, and gave him choices and control over his own body. He gave me appeasement behavior instead of the reported flesh-ripping behavior, so I felt encouraged.
For some deeply personal reasons, I had the need to – and the hubris to think I could – fix him. My old definition of “fixing” was to make a dog normal. You already know how this story ends. The middle part is where I learned that “normal” denies the dog his individuality. The middle part is where I learned that not all dogs can be “fixed.”
In my quest to make Arnold normal, I used positive reinforcement training, TTouch, raw and other diets, calming supplements, confidence building exercises, anti-anxiety medication, and more. I consulted with professional trainers, veterinarians, animal healers, and actually paid an animal communicator a great deal of money for what amounted to no help at all. At one point, for one issue, I even tested punishment – which backfired, of course. I used a lot of management for the safety of humans and dogs, but, as everyone with challenging dogs knows, management eventually fails.
It was increasingly obvious that Arnold’s brain processed information much differently than other dogs, even other neglected, highly anxious dogs. He behaved like a dog with PTSD with little ability to retain new information, and medication mitigated that. He also had “episodes” where he would sit with bugged eyes, licking his lips, swinging his head from side to side. The other dogs would immediately leave the area and I gave him all the distance I could until he went to sleep and awoke as his usual self. I never figured out what in his external environment triggered those episodes. If the source was his internal environment, the vet and I never figured that out, either. He was clearly unadoptable and a liability, but the rescue organization stood by me as I hopefully asserted that he would be adoptable in specific circumstances, given more time and more work by me.
The second time Arnold attacked my older male Rat Terrier and continued attacking his surrendered belly, my dog rescue dogma was finally shaken. But I had gone from a beginning of not really liking this challenging dog to really loving the sweet little soul he was beneath the dangerous behavior. So it still took me months to see that my insistence on keeping this one dog alive was harming my other dogs, people close to me, and myself. I cannot say whether it was harming Arnold. He had learned to play. He became more calmly affectionate and had more happy moments as the rest of us became more and more limited.
Yesterday morning, Arnold had some fun nose work sessions in the living room with cardboard boxes and his favorite reward, Nathan’s cheese and beef franks. Arnold loved nose work. Afterward, it took four times as much of the pharmaceutical cocktail as originally prescribed to get him to a state where he could be taken to the vet clinic without being terrified. At the clinic, he was still responsive after a high dose of anesthetic. Maybe it’s my grief talking, but I’d say that he did not want to go.
I did not want him to go. Not like this. The rescue and I had looked into other options and we were left with this one. This one leaves him as a memory of the last gentle pets behind his big, soft ears as he slipped away from this life. This one leaves him as an imprint on my heart and an empty collar that smells like him. This one is horrible.
If it’s true that dogs go back to spirit when they die, Arnold is, at long last, free. I hope that’s true.