I have been battling with myself about whether or not I wanted to share this guy’s story, but I think that there are just too many important details of his story that people need to hear and could benefit from.
His case hit me at a tough time. Most days, I love this job, and I love this little community that we have created through Summit K9. But some days, this work is really hard. It is emotionally and physically draining. And it involves some really challenging decisions that peoples’ and animals’ lives literally depend on. Decisions that are full of grey areas and what ifs, with a hundred variables that make predicting the future and weighing your options a tricky business indeed.
Archer came to us as a client dog, whose owners were struggling with his reactivity and other related behavior problems. The problems were escalating, and were weighing on his family’s day to day life, taking a significant toll on their mental health, relationships, finances, and potentially even their physical well-being, if things continued on their current trajectory. They brought Archer into their home third hand. With the best of intentions, they took him off the hands of a friend to remove him from a bad situation as a very young puppy. He had already changed hands previously, so they knew nothing about his origin story, or his lineage. Like many families with younger kids, they decided that they were ready to enrich their lives by adding a family dog. Unfortunately, as Archer began to mature, red flags began to pop up. His behavior was challenging and over the top. His family tried to do right by him, and provide him with early training and enrichment, but they struggled. By 7 months of age, veterinarians prescribed him with anti-anxiety medications in an attempt to help him settle at home. By 10 months, things had escalated and the medications did not appear to have made any impact on the issue. He had begun growling at the kids on occasion, was territorial of the house, and extremely reactive to strangers and strange dogs.
By the time we began private in-home lessons with Archer, there was already a steep climb ahead. They had experienced one minor bite incident to a neighbor reaching towards him through a cracked doorway, and another attempt to a friend entering the house unexpectedly while Archer was loose in the home. By the time of the latter incident, the owners realized that they were in over their heads, and that they had a dangerous situation brewing that they were not prepared to address. The demands of this type of dog are great, and it is a lot to ask of anybody to take that kind of responsibility on. When most people bring a dog into their lives, they are looking for a companion that they can share their lives with and enjoy in a way than improves their well-being, but when owners bring a dog with these kinds of issues into their homes, they find themselves in the opposite situation; isolated, stressed, and emotionally exhausted. Cases like these are also very expensive to attempt to fix (we’re talking in the thousands of dollars), unless you happen to be highly skilled in training dogs already. Gaining those skills is expensive and time consuming to begin with, which is why working with a quality dog trainer is never a cheap or quick endeavor, so even highly skilled dog trainers have paid to prepare for these situations, in one way or another. Experience and skill in the industry take an inordinate amount of time, effort, and money, and people living normal lives quite frankly don’t often have unlimited amounts of those resources, nor should they need to in order to fulfill their role as a responsible pet owner.
The phrases “it’s all in how you raise them” or “it’s all in how you train them” never fail to trigger me. Sure, training and early structured socialization can have a huge impact on behavior, but they are not the only factors, or even necessarily the most important ones. Genetics play an absolutely massive role in behavior and temperament of dogs. This is not incidental. We have spent thousands of years selectively breeding dogs for certain desirable traits, which is why you see specific breeds being chosen to do specific work. It’s the reason why gun dog handlers choose retrievers and spaniels, why sheep farmers choose border collies, and police forces choose German Shepherds and Malinois. We can’t always predict what exact traits will surface for each and every dog, but through selective and responsible breeding, we can have a really good idea of what the likely outcomes will be.
When we look at cross bred and/or irresponsibly bred dogs, however, things get a bit murkier. The results of breedings become less predictable, and instability in temperament and unexpected physical issues become more likely. What the dog will mature into is truly a gamble, and while we can steer dogs in certain directions through training, we cannot change their genetics outright. Even following training, a nervous dog will still likely be easily spooked and an anxious dog will likely still be quick to mentally spin out, in the same way that a confident dog will likely be unflappable in most situations. Training can help us teach our dogs to cope with certain environments and scenarios in healthy ways, but it may never fully “fix” the issue at the core, in the same way that therapy can help someone cope with their anxiety, but may never fully dissolve it.
Circling back to the Archer situation, I touch on these details because they are extremely important when considering the owner’s predicament. People, especially on social media, have a tendency to lack a considerable amount of empathy when they hear about a dog being rehomed, surrendered, or euthanized due to behavior problems. They assume (usually wrongly) that the owners were terrible pet parents, who simply didn’t try hard enough to find a solution, or provide the dog with enough love. These people have usually never owned a truly challenging, unstable, or dangerous dog, and know nothing of the risks and struggles that this kind of situation truly entails. So much shame and guilt is thrown at the owners by people who know nothing of their journey, and those words are often echoed in the minds of the owner long after the commenter has forgotten they were typed or spoken. These exhausted and struggling owners are a daily reality for us as dog trainers, and it upsets me immensely to see the amount of unkindness shown to these struggling people when they realize that their best option involves saying goodbye to a beloved family member in one way or another.
When Archer’s owners realized that they could not provide the kind of structure and long term training required to address his escalating issues safely, they were faced with an impossible decision. When we run into situations like these, we meet with the owners to map out the realities of the options on the table, and give them room to make the decision they feel is right for their family. If a dog has bitten or attempted to bite a person, they are generally left with 3 options.
Keep the dog, implement strict management procedures, and invest in a significant amount of training. The owner’s expectations must be realistic, with the very real possibility that the dog may never be safe to be around the public or even loose in their house, but they are willing to work at it and get as far as they can possibly go. They recognize the risks of keeping the dog in the home, and they are willing to accept that level of responsibility and liability.
Rehome the dog or surrender to a shelter. If the dog is human aggressive, I always strongly discourage this route. It is an option, but in my opinion, it is usually a highly unethical one, as the owner has decided that the risk is too great for them to carry, but not too great to hand over to shelter staff or future adopters and that adopters neighbors, friends, and family. The added stress of rehoming can cause an upswing in the problem behaviors, increasing the likelihood that there will be another bite incident (or multiple) during the rehoming process. The dog undergoes a significant amount of stress, multiple people are put at significant risk, and often the dog ends up being euthanized anyways, just after a great deal of suffering by all involved.
Euthanize the dog. This is the saddest and hardest option, but sometimes the kindest and safest for all involved. It is an impossibly hard decision to make, but it ensures that no others are put at risk, and the dog leaves this world in the hands of humans that it loves and trusts, never knowing the stress and anxiety of the shelter or the confusion of rehoming.
When we met with Archer’s family, I outlined these options for them, and told them that the decision lay with them. They knew that option one was off the table. Their lives just didn’t have space for that kind of commitment. With two kids, full time jobs, and a limited amount of disposable funds, the cost of long term training was just too great. Though they loved and wanted to do right by this dog, they simply did not have the skills and resources to work through the problems with a dog this advanced. Option two on the surface seemed ideal, but finding a safe placement that wouldn’t put others at risk was unlikely. There is not an abundance of skilled dog trainers waiting to take on project cases with bite histories. Rehoming dogs like Archer is a challenge, and the people who can handle these types of cases are few and far between. Option three was a possibility, but such an impossibly hard decision, especially with a dog that was only 10 months old.
Archer had been working with Tarah, one of our trainers on staff, so I asked them to bring him out so I could handle him and evaluate him. After working with him, I now shared the family’s conflict more intimately. He was enthusiastic, food driven, and quite frankly, just a lot of dog. He was a bit nervy and over-aroused (he shot out of the door with his teeth chattering at a million miles an hour), but he learned quickly and was willing to work to figure out what I was asking him for. He was what I would categorize as an “advanced dog.” He wasn’t outright dangerous, but required educated handling and training in order to be safe. In the wrong hands, I could easily see him escalating to the point of posing a threat to safety, and he had already proven that this was a potential outcome.
I chatted with our rescue partners, Operation Freedom Ride, to see if they had an experienced foster available to take his case and house him while we completed training with him. They didn’t. I was out of options, and I spent two nights tossing and turning, trying to puzzle out a solution for him. I couldn’t let it go. In what was one of my weaker business decisions, I decided to take him on and cover his boarding at Green Valley K9, our partner kennel for our Board & Train program. They agreed to offer us a discounted rate for us to keep him kenneled there, so long as we were handling all of his care. It felt like a gift. Through this arrangement, Archer’s family would officially sign over his ownership to Operation Freedom Ride. Both Tarah and I would donate our time to his care and training, and we would take the following weeks to see if we could reboot his structure and training enough to make him safe to be homed with a typical foster. If he reached that point, he would move into the hands of Operation Freedom Ride. If, after a good amount of time and training, he still posed a significant risk to human safety, we would take him in for euthanasia, knowing that we had at the very least tried our best to exhaust every option for him first.
Pick up day for him was hard. Watching his little humans say goodbye and cry at the loss of their first dog was heartbreaking. Though the relationship was no longer a healthy one, there was still so much love there. Nobody present at that scene would dream of accusing this family of ignoring the needs of their dog, or selfishly choosing to abandon their pet. It was simply not the right fit; everyone involved was a victim and nobody was at fault. Sometimes, these situations just happen, and you would be surprised how common this scenario is.