The burden of euthanizing an aggressive dog
Yesterday I read a painfully poignant post by Phyllis DeGioia about her dog, Dodger and her decision to put him down due to his aggression (“Euthanizing Aggressive Dogs: Sometimes It’s the Best Choice“). Her words were not only powerful because they came from her own experience, but also because they so clearly articulated the conflicting emotions and guilt one feels when faced with euthanizing a dog due to aggression.
Societally, it is so much more acceptable to euthanize a dog for old age or illness than it is for a dog with behavioral issues. And yet, many a pet owner has had to face making this type of decision. I admire Phyllis for her courage in writing about her decision to euthanize Dodger.
In 2011, I wrote about a dog park friend who had to make this difficult decision after her cream-colored Golden Retriever showed serious signs of aggression at just 11 months old. After trying to resolve the issues herself, then seeking out a trainer, and finally taking Sally to a veterinarian animal behaviorist at the University of Minnesota, she was faced with two options, constantly supervise and manage Sally around her two young children or put her to sleep. The veterinarian made it very clear that Sally’s aggression was not something that would ever get better. It was not her or her husband’s fault. There was simply something wrong with her wiring. And so, she made the difficult decision to put her to sleep. I cried with her as she walked with Sally one last time around the dog park. It was a heartbreaking a decision, but I supported her.
Sometimes something just goes wrong with a dog. He is born with genetically bad wiring or is mentally ill or has suffered so much from abuse, that euthanizing him is almost a kindness rather than a cruelty.
I feel for the pet parent who has ever had to make this type of decision. It’s never an easy one. There is so much guilt, shame and fear. Guilt because you feel like there was something more you could have done or that you somehow failed your dog. Shame that others will think you a bad pet owner. Fear at what might have happened if you hadn’t made such a difficult decision.
I used to be one of those people who thought every dog could be saved, but my experience as a shelter volunteer has taught me otherwise. Probably one of the most difficult decisions I ever had to make was to recommend a dog I loved, one I had worked with for weeks, be put to sleep. His aggression had reached such a level that even I, the one who loved him most, became afraid of him.
Phyllis’ own words from her experience with Dodger summed up exactly my last experience with him – “Being attacked by someone you love is a visceral slam to your gut. For a short while, rational thought is gone. It happens so quickly. Your body shakes, and your heart pounds as the instinctive fight-or-flight response is set off.” My recommendation to euthanize him was not an easy one, but I don’t doubt my decision to do so. Sometimes, the most difficult decision is the right one.
Reading Phyllis’ piece made me think of one I had recently read on Patricia McConnell’s blog titled, “Love, Guilt & Putting Dogs Down.” Although Patricia’s post was addressing the guilt we all feel as pet owners when we have to say goodbye to beloved pets, I think these words were particularly applicable to those who must make the difficult decision to put an aggressive or damaged dog down.
“It is easier to believe that we are always responsible (‘if only I had done/not done this one thing….’) than it is to accept this painful truth: We are not in control of the world. Stuff happens. Bad stuff. As brilliant and responsible and hard-working and control-freaky that we are, sometimes, bad stuff just happens. Good people die when they shouldn’t. Gorgeous dogs brimming with health, except for that tumor or those crappy kidneys, die long before their time. Dogs who are otherwise healthy but are a severe health risk to others end up being put down. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and it hurts like hell. But please please, if you’ve moved heaven and earth to save a dog and haven’t been able to… just remember: Stuff happens. We can’t control everything. (Difficult words to dog trainers I know. . . Aren’t we all control freaks to some extent?) You didn’t fail. You tried as hard as you could. It’s okay.” (“Love, Guilt & Putting Dogs Down“, by Patricia McConnell, The Other End of the Leash)
If you have ever had to euthanize a pet for reasons other than illness or old age, I feel for you. You carry a burden that is more difficult to bear than most. It’s hard enough to euthanize a pet when they are ill and you know that you are easing their pain, but harder still to do so when it involves dog aggression or mental illness. Shame and guilt might be feelings you have, but they have no place here.
Sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes doing everything you can to save a dog is just not enough. You did your best. You did not fail.