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  • Devan

When Training Isn't Enough

TW: Euthanasia

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 mo