Impossibly tough decisions and sadness

I can’t put this off any longer.  It’s a heartbreaking topic, and I have to write about it for two reasons:  The first is that writing about it helps me to process and understand and eventually accept it, and the second reason is to make others more aware of how difficult and worthwhile and joyful and heartbreaking animal rescue can be.

On May 12, I made the decision to euthanize my foster dog, Coalby.

One minute he was a beautiful, vital, wiggly, soft, furry boy and the next he was a lifeless body.  I made that decision.  I gave the word. I killed him.  Well, I didn’t actually kill him–the vet gave him the injection, but I put his euthanasia in motion so in my mind it might as well have been me pushing down the plunger on that syringe.

In case you’re wondering, yes, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  And yes, I felt indescribably terrible about doing it.  I cried for days and am still crying about it better than a month later.  It’s no small decision.  It’s a horrible weight on my heart.  I made the decision to take the life of a living being who was dependent on me for food, shelter, love and guidance.  He trusted me and I sent him to The Bridge.

Coalby was at the local animal shelter when he came to Cocker Companions Rescue on October 3, 2008.  He was a gorgeous dog, and young and healthy, to boot.  He was picked up as a stray, and had shown significant aggression toward other dogs while he was in his own crate, so we were very cautious with him.  We didn’t have any foster homes available who could take him, because everyone had either other dogs or cats  (or both) in their homes.

However, OUT of the crate, he was a beautiful, wiggly lovey-boy who wanted to play with tennis balls more than anything else in the world.  He was an athletic dog, very energetic and active, a truly happy guy with an endearing habit of turning his head to listen to people when they talked to him.  Although he had some issues, he seemed to be a very promising young man.  Because he had acted aggressively toward other dogs, Coalby ended up living in boarding until October 28, which is when I decided to foster him, to see if we could learn more about his behavior and get him accustomed to living in a real home.

My four kids were amazingly receptive and welcomed Coalby with open paws.  (Belle, Riley, Skipper and Gigi are wonderfully patient and kind dogs, and have been so accepting of all the foster dogs that have come through our home–I owe them all a tremendous debt of gratitude.)  I kept Coalby separated from the rest of the herd for part of the day, and allowed them to mingle occasionally when I was home to keep an eye on everyone.  Coalby was still very possessive of his toys, so we decided to pick up inside toys, and let them play with outside toys in the yard where there was more room and less opportunity for anyone to feel cornered or challenged.

Since Coalby was a beautiful all-black cocker, he was very popular on our Petfinder listing.  He got a lot of attention, but his toy possessiveness and intolerance for other dogs gave many would-be adopters pause.  Finally, in November, he got noticed by a woman who wanted to bring a fun, athletic young dog into her and her husband’s home.  We emphasized Coalby’s need for ongoing training and EXERCISE to manage his tennis ball obsession, and they agreed with our plan for him, insisting that they’d follow through with continued training and exercising Coalby to help wear him out and keep him calm.

Then in the middle of April of this year, Coalby’s petparents contacted Karen back, telling her that he had been aggressive with people outside their immediate family, and that they didn’t feel capable of managing his aggression.  Karen and I were both shocked because of all Coalby’s quirks, he had never shown aggression toward humans.  We couldn’t say for certain that we knew him well enough to rule out aggression to people, but he hadn’t been at our house for very long, and we hadn’t had any visitors while he was fostering here.  We wanted to know more about what was going on–and of course if he was aggressive toward people, we’d do the right thing.

When Coalby’s petparents brought him back to us, I was surprised at the difference in his personality.  Instead of being the happy, outgoing, engaged boy he was back in October, he seemed detached from anyone and everyone around him, preferring to mouth his tennis ball instead of approach people for love and petting.  Okay, we figured that he was pretty traumatized at leaving his adoptive home, so we gave him a few days to settle in.  He didn’t show any aggression toward any people right away, so I brought him back home to hang out with us for a while and see what was going on.

Over several days, Coalby seemed to loosen up a little bit and we started seeing the happy, lovey boy that we knew from before.  He was still obsessed with his tennis balls, however, so we were careful to keep them away from the other dogs.  And then one night, Coalby growled when Rick tried to pet him while he was eating.  Rick said later that he didn’t know if it was a real growl, or if Coalby was burping.  After several more similar incidents, we accepted that Coalby had changed in some way over the past several months, and not for the better.

I decided to deliberately try to provoke him, and tested Co-Coal with some yogurt to see if I could get him to growl while he ate it.  I had my hands all over him, petting him and rubbing him all over while he slurped up vanilla low-fat yogurt, and even took the bowl away and gave it back several times–he didn’t make a peep.  I reported this to Karen with great relief.  “Coalby is still a good boy!  He didn’t challenge me even with a bowl of yummy, lovely yogurt on the line!”

Then, later on that day, I tested him again while he was eating his regular kibble–and got a real, serious growl this time.  That’s not good.  A rescue dog can’t be aggressive toward humans over anything, ever.  Over the next few days, Coalby started to guard his food, or his toys, or just his ex-pen.  We’d reach down to pet his head and he’d growl as if we meant to take his tennis ball, and fix us with that scary “thousand yard stare.”  Or even scarier, he’d whip his head around as if to snap at us without even a warning growl.  So we tried to find out if Coalby had a ‘trigger’ that we could reliably use to cause the aggressive behavior.  If we could identify a trigger, we could then remove that trigger and avoid any further aggression.

Does it happen when there’s food around?  Does it happen when there are toys around?  Is it just tennis balls, or is it all toys? Is it food in general, or is it particularly yummy treats?  We tried taking just tennis balls away, then we tried taking all toys away…we tried every combination we could think of, and unfortunately we couldn’t nail down that behavior to any one element.  Coalby was becoming more unpredictable by the day, and he didn’t have any problem with challenging Rick and I.

Who knows what happened in his little head?  Maybe this was the real Coalby coming out, and we just didn’t have enough time to get comfortable with him before.  Maybe this was just the way his viewpoint of the world was changing as he aged.

The only reason I can find for how we could have missed seeing this behavior in him is that he didn’t spend enough time with us to truly relax and let us see his true nature, which was alpha male through-and-through.  Karen and I agonized about what to do with him.  I could still see his amazing personality (he really WOULD cock his head to the side when he listened to you!), but I was becoming more and more afraid of him.  It was impossible to tell when he’d allow you to pet him, and when he’d stiffen and snap if you reached toward him.

I know that the first time Coalby stayed with us, my dogs were very cautious around him, and darling little Gigi was traumatized by his extreme alpha presence in the household.  She showed me her fear when she looked me in the eye and wet on the carpet right in front of the door to the deck.  But I honestly thought that she was more upset by the presence of a new dog in the household, as she hadn’t been with us for very long herself.  I should have seen her fear and recognized what frightened her, but I wanted to believe that with the right home and the right training and enough exercise, that Coalby would thrive.

Karen and I talked about Coalby at extreme length;  well, she talked and I cried and blew snot bubbles out of my nose while I blubbered.  I really, truly wanted Coalby to be a safe, dependable friend, but I couldn’t keep him with me and I didn’t have the expertise to work him through this behavioral problem, anyway.  Karen said that Coalby MIGHT be salvagable if he could live and work intensively with an experienced trainer for a year, maybe longer…and that trainer couldn’t have any other dogs or cats, and probably not any kids, either.

We don’t know anyone like that.  And knowing all of Coalby as we now did, we couldn’t adopt him out to anyone else who was any less experienced with dogs.  We decided to send him to The Rainbow Bridge, so that he wouldn’t actually get to the point where he hurt someone.

Talk about a terrible weight on your heart.  A horrendous responsibility.  Taking a life, even for these reasons.  I know there are worse things than death, especially a peaceful, easy death.  If Coalby had been adopted out to a less-than-enlightened family, he might have been beaten to death as punishment for biting a family member.  Or he could have been sold on Craig’s List as a bait dog for dog fighting.  Or he could have been dumped in a remote area by someone who didn’t want the responsibility of an aggressive dog, ending up poisoned or hit by a car or attacked by a coyote or shot for sport by callous kids…

I told myself that we’d rescued him from being an unwanted stray, and that we’d given him a second chance to have a happy life with a family, and that’s all we could do for him.  But there was just something in him that didn’t allow him to live peacefully alongside humans and other dogs, and for everyone’s safety he needed to go home to The Bridge.  In that way, we’d save him once again from being an unwanted stray.

It’s such a huge responsibility.  It would have been so much easier on Karen and I if we had been able to just send Coalby somewhere else and say “SOMEBODY will take care of him and do the right thing by him, even if it’s not us.”  But we know what he’s like, and we know what could possibly happen to him if he got into the hands of someone else who wasn’t as mindful of his well-being.  And we know that working in rescue means very often having to make these tough decisions, and taking responsibility for ending a life mercifully.

Karen and I were there with Coalby when he went to The Bridge on May 12.  He had his tennis ball and a tummy full of Zuke’s Peanut Butter Treats, and Karen’s and my arms were around him.  I held his little face in my hands and rested my forehead on his, and told him I loved him.  When he went limp it felt like my soul was being torn out of my body, but somehow it hurt worse than that ever could.  I hope he forgives me.  I hope that he’s whole and happy at The Bridge, and that he’s having fun with all our other furkids who’ve gone there before him.  And I hope that when it comes my turn to go to The Bridge, that he remembers me and cocks his head to hear me call him, and that he brings me his tennis ball to throw for him.

Comments are closed.