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March 10, 2004

Life with Dozer, and without.

This is the most difficult post I’ve yet made on nonfamous, about one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make. I should say “we,” because of course David and I have made it together. I think it best just to say it up front: we’re having Dozer euthanized Friday afternoon.

It’s hard not to use the phrase “put to sleep,” which sounds so much easier. Even euthanized is a bit of a euphemism—a “good word” for a “good death.” Who is to decide when death is good—to play God, even for a dog? That said, I’ve always been quick to argue against prolonging the lives of pets with serious physical problems. Keeping an animal in pain alive for sentimental or emotional reasons just strikes me as cruel. I had never considered the calculus involved in deciding when a pet’s mental health has become part of the equation, until the past few weeks.

Friends and frequent readers of this blog know all the details of Dozer’s sundry adventures—his adoption from Stockdog Junction rescue, his leap from David’s six-storey balcony (which he miraculously survived with barely a scratch), his various escapes, and all the rest. At the root of all of this is the fact that Dozer has never truly seemed happy or calm or secure in our home (or his own skin). This is a dog that jumps when I pet him, even if he is curled up next to me.

We’ve had Dozer almost a year now, since he was about five months old. We knew when we adopted him that he had been poorly socialized, but were told he would likely improve with time as he bonded with us. And he did improve somewhat. For a time it seemed he was becoming less skittish, less prone to startling, and better bonded to us. (Of course, he still neurotically destroyed any bed or toy we gave him; during the day he hides under our bed, and woe to trailing linens or any spare shirt that found itself near his neurotic jaws. He was never a “cute puppy chewer,” seeking out items that smelled like us—it was another nervous tic that we could never stop.)

After the New Year, this trend quietly reversed itself. It may have started when we had to give him steroids for severe skin allergies, followed quickly by a horrible stomach bug evidenced by a huge mess in the hallway. He was on a lot of medication there for a while, and perhaps that affected him. He had always been well housebroken before that, but we began realizing that he was peeing inside (eventually, and maddeningly, even when he had just been outside). He stopped coming downstairs to the family room when we called him, and when we would come up on the sofa with us he would jump down if we moved suddenly. He started cowering away from his in his bed when we brought his food in. It was pretty heartbreaking.

We tried last month putting him on anti-anxiety meds, but if anything this made things worse. When we went to Vancouver with my Mom when she visited for her birthday, we thought it would be easier on him to have someone house-sit instead of boarding him. Poor Julie Welch—without getting into the gory details, let’s just say that didn’t go very well.

At this point, we both agreed we couldn’t keep him. He wasn’t happy—and in fact seemed terrified much of the time—and we were stressed and frustrated. We had long noticed that he seemed to do better with some women than he ever did with us. We begin to feel certain that he had been abused by a man at some point, as little else would explain how disturbed he was. (Or perhaps as an Omega dog, maybe Dozer was unsettled by David’s and my coexistence as well-paired Alphas.) So we emailed Debbie at Stockdog Junction, and waited.

The response we got back was unexpected—she raised the possibility that Dozer wasn’t “salvageable.” That word gave me a chill. What did that mean? In the world of rescue, I imagined, there always had to be someone better with dogs, or more patient, or more willing to have their home turned into a dog run. Right? Debbie was going to talk to a behaviorist.

The answer, after a delay and some prodding emails, was that Debbie and not one but two behaviorists have said he should be euthanized. I was reeling at the news, but as we began to think about it we recalled that our vet had had said almost the same thing a few months before. (When we called to talk to our vet this week, nobody at the office was surprised why we were calling.) Debbie felt like there was too small of a chance that anyone would be able to handle him, and that the stress of bringing him back into the rescue environment would be too hard on him. (I must say, I think he might do well there among the other dogs—he does like other dogs—but the long-term prognosis is poor.) Nobody wants this poor little neurotic dog to be traumatized any more than he already has been.

The day after we got this email, I had my moment of realization. I was working in the yard and Dozer was out, doing his customary laps around the house. When he was ready to go in, he hopped up on the porch and started turning circles (as he does when he wants in or out). He just kept turning circles until I took off my gloves and turned to let him in. Just the fact of my looking at him, from ten feet away, was enough to make him pee all over himself and the porch. I almost cried—if he was that frightened of me, I just didn’t see how it would work.

You'd be right in pointing out that we are giving up on trying to place him with someone else, forfeiting the chance that we could keep him until some kind soul showed up to rescue him again. That would mean leaving him in his crate any time we are not actively watching him—he’s just gotten too destructive. (Of course, he would stay in his crate all day if we let him, but it just doesn’t seem like a quality life for a dog.) And if nobody came to take him by May, he would have to endure weeks of houseguests followed by weeks of boarding—something we know would not be pretty. Finally, the harder we thought about it, the less optimistic we were that someone else could do much more than we had. Even if there was some improvement, would Dozer ever approach the level of happy and well-adjusted? And could we visit on someone else the heartbreaking failure we're experiencing now?

My dad raised the good point that Dozer’s behavior put him in harm’s way many, many times in his first year… there is every reason to fear that he could get startled on a walk and get away from us again. He could get hit by a car, randomly abused, or starve to death. He pretty clearly has no survival instinct. That should have told us something right there.

We’ve been reading a lot about rescue and the inevitable role euthanasia plays in it. What we decided in the end was that taking him to the vet and staying with him as a massive dose of painkillers puts him under. That is the only kind of peace I think we can give him, but it’s going to be an awful thing to do.

Reading about dog rescue makes it clear that we humans invest a lot of faith in our ability to love and care for broken, vulnerable things. This is an important part of our humanity—but so is knowing when to let go. I’ve spent many years of my life locked in ridiculous situations by my belief that I could save something or someone—a few doomed relationships, a faltering company, even a benighted city I thought I was destined to enlighten. I’ve learned a lot in the process of hanging on, but my life would be much the poorer had I not learned to find the limit where selflessness became martyrdom. (Martyrs may do good for their respective causes, but they don’t generally do much for the people they claim to be suffering for.) We just can’t imagine Dozer’s doggy life being better in two months or in six if we just hang on, and on the other hand we can imagine life with a normal, happy dog that will thrive in our home.

There are things broken that we can’t fix, and that—as much as the prospect of missing the little red dog with “refugee eyes,”—is what moves me to tears. We cry in rage at the limits of our ability to fix the hurts of the world, our inability to make whole what has been smashed, to ease what little suffering we actually see in our cloistered lives. If I thought long about the tragedies bigger than a dog’s life (and a dog’s death) I should be devoting time and money to, I’m sure I’d be embarrassed. But right now I’m going to cry for Dozer without shame, and hope to God we’re doing the right thing.

Posted by jay at March 10, 2004 04:53 PM | TrackBack
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