It has taken me a lot longer than I thought that it would to bring myself to write this post. If you have followed our previous Instagram content and blog entries, then you may remember us sharing Archer’s case.
I wanted to try and follow his journey in real time and shed light on the realities of attempting to rehab and rehome a dog showing early signs of severe aggression. Very quickly, I realized that I was not in a place to keep up with editing videos and writing well constructed updates on his training. As we moved further into training, a variety of factors prevented me from sharing more details, and it has taken me some time for me to really reflect on the experience and consider my full thoughts and feelings.
I considered slimming this post down to just the main points that I hoped to communicate, but I think it is important for people to gain a full perspective of what this kind of experience really looks like. This is a long, detailed entry, but one that honors the experience of many dog owners in a way that is not often publicized. It is a hard story to write, and likely a tough one to read, but it offers perspective on an experience that is too often hidden due to fear of judgment and misunderstanding.
In early October, we made the incredibly hard decision to euthanize Archer due to his behavior. For the first couple of months following that decision, I just wasn’t ready to touch those memories and unpack all that had happened. It was still painful and brought up an awful combination of sadness, loss, guilt, shame, and failure.
For the first few weeks of our work with Archer, things were looking really promising. He presented so many wonderful qualities that I was hopeful that with the right combination of structure, management, and training work, we would be able to help him gain confidence and work through his aggression towards humans. He was pushy and rude and easily overstimulated, but he was also extremely affectionate towards his trainers and smart and driven for training work. He learned new behaviors remarkably quickly, and we were able to build many, many skills that we would be able to implement to help him through his issues with people down the line.
There were a couple of red flags along the way, but nothing so severe that we could easily disqualify him as a rehome candidate. At one point, he lunged at Tarah during training over a piece of kibble. It was unclear if there was true intent behind it or if it was more of a miscommunication in training, but we filed it away as a consideration. A week or two later, I had a similar incident with him when I scattered food in his crate. I was in a rush at the time, and in retrospect, I knew that I had set him up for failure, but he gave what I would categorize as a “warning” bite to my hand. It did not break skin, but did bruise and again posed a red flag to be seriously considered as we moved forward. I worried about it, but I mostly blamed myself and felt so much shame that I had made what I felt was a stupid mistake.
As we continued, his obedience continued to improve, but other behaviors posed problems. While he could handle some quiet time in the crate, he was getting more and more vocal in the crate and would have intense outbursts where he would cry and scratch at the door. He was nowhere near ready to have safe freedom in the house, and was visibly distressed when spending longer duration in the crate.
The boarding bills began to stack up, and I worried about whether we could afford to continue the
work that we were doing with him. I was covering all of his care costs, and spending a significant amount of time each day training and caring for him. Only Tarah and I handled him, meaning that we experienced very little break from the responsibility. As the financial and time burden became heavier, AJ agreed to keeping him at the house for a few weeks while we continued training. This is something that I know stresses AJ and posed a potential for conflict for us moving forward. He was supportive and understood the position I was in, but I was now spreading the burden of Archer’s behavior and the liability of keeping him to someone who did not sign up for this.
In a week or so, we reached the point in his training where I felt ready to begin working in introductions with new people. Even if the problems weren’t totally resolved, we would need to at least have strategies in place to effectively and safely introduce him to new people so that he could transition to an adopter or longer term foster home in the near future. Now that we had built so much obedience work, he was ready to begin learning how to appropriately interact with strangers.
As usual, AJ became my first guinea pig. I love having AJ assist, because he carries a calm energy that settles even uncertain dogs and he has a great natural feel for how to interact with them. It always makes me a little sad that he isn’t more interested in training work, because he is so naturally good at it. We did a low and slow introduction in our backyard, with Archer muzzled. Everything went exactly as expected without a hitch. Within a few minutes, he was approaching AJ with confidence, soliciting attention, and being his generally dopey, goofy, lovable self. We finished up that day feeling really hopeful that things were turning a corner. If we could generalize the experience that we had just engineered with many people, we had a good shot at creating solid new introduction strategies, counter conditioning his perception of strangers, and teaching him a safe behavior to complete if he were to become nervous or overwhelmed.
Later that same week, I decided to work on the same routine with my mom. This time through, we saw a much different response. We followed the same routine, taking things nice and slow, and he showed really promising signs for the first part of the session. His body language was loosening up, and he was approaching her to solicit attention. My mom, getting more comfortable with him, looked down at him and went from giving him a treat to petting the top of his head, and he immediately flipped and came up at her and attempted to bite. Had he not been wearing a muzzle, I am certain that he would have been successful. It is extremely scary to have a dog come up at you like that, and my amazing mother trusted me enough to continue working him through the session. Even after the tense interaction, we were able to end on a high note with her walking him nicely on lead without incident.
However, I left that session with a heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach. He had recovered well, but I couldn’t get past how easily he had flipped. Later, I watched the video footage, and it was easy to point out the mistakes made. My mom asked “that was too much, wasn’t it?” right after the incident happened, and I saw errors in my own handling that could have prevented the scenario as well. I felt ashamed that I hadn’t successfully engineered the session for a better outcome, and I felt a lot of self doubt. It made me question my abilities, and dented my self confidence. I felt out of my depth, and out of options. I knew that I could have done better, but I also knew that if this interaction was still a likely outcome after weeks of work with skilled handlers, the odds were extremely high that it would occur with a foster or adopter with less knowledge and skill to draw from.
Mistakes happen, even with experienced trainers, but they happen a lot more with inexperienced handlers. This experience made it clear that there was very little room for error, and this concerned me deeply. My mom had moved too fast, but she had done what probably 95% of people would do on instinct in the exact same situation. And all it would take would be one foster or adopter getting too comfortable and going through that same scenario without a muzzle, or a leash breaking, or someone entering the home unexpectedly to result in a serious injury. And I couldn’t carry that.
Over the weeks since Archer had begun staying in our home, his trouble in the crate had escalated. This heavy decision was now living in my house, and I felt the weight of it. I never felt that I had given him enough exercise, enough time, enough attention, enough training. The more stressed that I became, the worse my handling became. It was so colored by anxiety, frustration, and worry that I found myself avoiding time with him. He was not thriving and was under almost constant stress to some degree. I didn’t want to rush into any decisions, but I came to the realization that he was barely living. He was existing, and his existence was not the pleasant, warm, fulfilled existence that it should have been.
My own life had taken a serious toll over the past weeks. My mental health had tanked, and I found myself avoiding working not only with Archer, but my own dogs and clients. Almost all of my time was spent either caring for Archer or worrying about it. AJ, my family, and my friends were getting a stressed out, minimized version of me. I wasn’t attentive to my business, I wasn’t there for my employees in the way that I should have been, and I found myself frequently rescheduling appointments because I just didn’t have the energy to help other people through their training work. I was moody and easily frustrated and always edgy and sensitive. I felt constantly guilty, and I had no escape from the pup that was struggling the next room over.
I was not okay, and I knew I had my answer.
As a last resort, I did a little digging to see if we could find someone who specialized in this kind of behavior modification that I could trust and that would be willing to take him on. Bluntly, he was a liability, and I would not hand him off to anyone that I didn’t feel had the skill set to handle him and responsibly rehome him. Unsurprisingly, we did not find such a match.
You might ask, why didn’t you put out a post on facebook or connect with other rescues to see if they would be willing to take him on? In theory, this sounds like a great option. Why not let someone else decide whether or not they are willing to try to work him through his issues? In reality, the number of individual owners or even rescues that are equipped to safely handle a dog like Archer are extremely low. And the vast majority of skilled trainers and handlers that would be capable of safely handling a dog with Archer’s problems don’t want to add that too their plate.
If you have the skills and knowledge to work through cases like this, you understand the incredible commitment you are making and the liability and risks you are accepting into your life, and most people, when faced with that decision, won’t accept that. For the most part, the people online claiming that they would take a dog like Archer, or shame people for rehoming or euthanizing dangerous dogs, have never worked with a serious behavior issue and do not have the skills necessary to do so. And in my opinion, an even more important consideration is the fact that bringing an aggressive dog into a home does not exclusively pose risks to the person who chose to adopt the dog. More often than not, the people and animals most at risk are the adopter’s neighbors, community members, friends, and family members who had absolutely no say in the decision to bring the dog into their life. The person who made the decision to take on the dog is not the one most likely to be injured if things turn sideways.
This is why I almost never recommend rehoming dogs with a bite history, and generally do not assist owners in finding new placements for aggression cases. I see post after post after post online of owners trying to find new homes for dogs that have bitten people, and while I empathize deeply, I cannot support passing that kind of risk off to another person who likely doesn’t understand the commitment that they are making and the risks they are taking.
For me, these risks were just too steep. The weight of ending Archer’s life would be a heavy one, but it would be a lot less heavy than the weight of another person or dog being maimed because I was unwilling to make the call. At this point, I had to ask myself the same question I ask every client that approaches us for aggression cases. What would it take to make the euthanasia call? Is it after the dog has broken skin? Is it after the dog has bitten a child? Is it after the dog has caused someone to go to the emergency room? Is it after the dog has killed another dog? I have read many, many accounts from owners who have shared their behavioral euthanasia stories, and the ones that haunt me are the ones who say they regret waiting until true disaster struck.
Trying to help a dog through these issues is a kind and noble thing, but it is important to figure out where the line is ahead of time. It is so easy to rationalize each occurrence and wait too long to make the call. It is so easy to say “it was my fault, if only I had done XYZ, it wouldn’t have happened.” You forget that having to tiptoe around your dog’s triggers and walk on eggshells in your own home is not normal.
Tarah and I gave Archer a happy last day, full of attention and play and hikes and donuts. We tried to
make it as enjoyable and stress free as possible for him, and supported each other through this sad and surreal experience. We went into the office with him and held him as the vets completed the procedure so that he would be as comfortable as he could be and in his final moments, wouldn’t have to be alone with the strangers that he already feared.
I was ashamed, because at the time, I felt a weird mixture of numbness and relief. The weight of having to make the decision and the stress of knowing that he was unhappy in the only safe situation that we could give him was finally gone. I had a sense that I had gotten my life back, and it was a very strange mixture of feelings of relief and guilt for feeling that relief. I wasn’t happy about the loss, but I finally felt that I could return to some semblance of normal.
This experience was incredibly difficult, and it took me months to recover. As I write this, I have relived the whole roller coaster of emotions again. I’m shaky and on the edge of tears with a hard lump in my throat, but overall have recovered and am finally beginning to return to really enjoying running the business and working with clients and their dogs again.
For me, my biggest takeaway from this was a profound level of empathy for dog owners navigating similar experiences. This story is nowhere near unique and plays out all the time. It is so incredibly hard, and there are no right answers and nobody holding your hand and making the call for you. Living with aggressive dogs is an unnaturally difficult experience, so for anyone reading this, I urge you to approach anyone you know that is facing this issue with kindness and understanding. Check yourself before you comment on social media, or make comments about owners not trying hard enough before making the call.
Even seemingly innocuous comments can be hurtful for someone who is already struggling, so please think deeply before inserting your opinions. Even at our final appointment with the vet, we explained the situation to the technician, and she responded with what I am sure she thought was an appropriate comment, saying something along the lines of “It’s sad when people bring home dogs and don’t commit to them.” I was so overcome with the rest of the situation, I didn’t fully unpack the content of what she had said at the time, but later, it bothered me. These owners had made the responsible call. They were not equipped with the skills to safely provide for this dog. To gain those skills would have required a massive financial and personal commitment, and most people are not in a position to make that. It isn’t fair to hold people to a commitment that they made without having any way to understand the full magnitude of the one that they were making.
It’s a sad story with no happy ending, but it’s a reality for many, many people. It is an impossible situation, but one that should be approached with empathy and a willingness to understand.
As trainers, it is our responsibility to educate and advocate for dog owners. There are dogs that are not safe to live in typical pet homes, and we hold a responsibility to help owners navigate this kind of decision. It is my hope that others in the industry provide the support owners need to make these difficult decisions. If you or someone you know is struggling with this decision, please feel free to email us if you need support. There is also an excellent Facebook group called Losing Lulu dedicated to providing emotional support for dog owners that have gone through behavioral euthanasia. This is an isolating and lonely experience, and this group provided much needed perspective.
If you made it this far in the post, I appreciate you sharing a piece of this journey with me. Thank you for supporting us. Be kind, and give your dog a little extra love today.