At a crossroads with Lollie


There is a difficult decision on my mind tonight. One that I hope no one else ever has to make but one that I assume some of you have made before. The decision about when the time is right to euthanize a pet. I’ve made this decision before. I’ve “released” a pet from their pain in old age and in illness. They were difficult decisions made easier by the knowledge that I was, in a twisted way, helping them still. They were suffering, their end was near, I was simply easing their exit.

This decision is different in every single way.

My dog Lollie has been difficult from 6 months of age on. That is when, in pitbull lingo, her “fight turned on.” She began fighting dogs for balls at the dog park. Then it was fighting dogs for getting too close to her. Then it was fighting them for no reason I could figure out. So we stopped going to the dog park. Then she began fighting with friend’s dogs who she had known all her life. Then the dogs in our own pack. But back then I was younger, had more free time, didn’t work outside my home and had an inflated sense of my power and ability to control outcomes. I believed I could “cure” or “save” or “fix” Lollie so I did everything I could to learn all I could about her. I began to be able to anticipate her reactions, nearly all of the time. And I became good at stopping the attacks, nearly all of the time. But it was those times in between, when I wasn’t astute enough or fast enough, that she would harm another dog.

At first, it was mostly noise and spit, just a dominance display, nothing more. I told myself this to calm my fear. I decided that if she ever drew blood, then I would have to do something about it. Then in a few of those exchanges her tooth nicked an ear, a lip and blood was drawn. “She didn’t mean to bite” I told myself, it was just an accident. I became even more vigilant and stopped bringing her around other people’s dogs all together. I told myself that she inhibited her bite. She never tried to really harm a dog, she was just reactive. Then she had an exchange with a dog she knew for years at our dog training club. She appeared to want to greet the dog so badly. She was all wiggles and softness, low to the ground and polite. My friend and I agreed to let them sniff noses – the first contact Lollie had ever had with another dog at the dog club. As soon as Lollie got close enough to sniff, she lunged, with a snarl, and grabbed a hold of the other dog’s muzzle in her teeth and did not let go. I had to yell in her ear “DROP IT” over and over until she finally released the dog. No blood, but still that experience shook me. Clearly there was something going on for her that I did not understand. So we stopped going to the dog training club.

Time went by without anything but a random, unnecessarily intense reaction from her toward our other dogs. I would stop it and although she appeared to “sulk” for a few days it would blow over. It was a relatively peaceful time. Then last year I started working outside the house. The hours I spent away from home increased again this winter as I began training for a marathon. Whereas in the past I would only leave for 2-3 hours, I was gone from the house from 5-7 hours at a time. Then, three months ago, my son begged that we keep one of the dog’s we fostered and I relented. I never thought Lollie would allow him into the pack but somehow she seemed to understand that he was staying and she would have to accept it. We keep them separate and only one slight skirmish has occurred thus far. But things have gotten worse in another way. About a month ago I was getting ready for bed when I heard a terrible sound. At first I thought it was a low flying plane, it was loud and sudden and angry. Then my brain registered it was a bad dog fight. I flew downstairs to see Lollie attacking our dog Bella who was in a crate (she was sleeping in one of the crates where I had removed the door.) She had no way out and Lollie was biting her legs and face. I stopped the attack and as I looked at Bella’s sore face with two puncture wounds, the long scratches on her legs I decided to move the line a bit more. Clearly this was an attack, clearly she did bite, but still, was it that bad? “Ok,” I said to myself, “I will just crate Lollie when I’m gone and keep her separated from Bella at night.” But that attack scared me. It was becoming difficult to predict what would set her off. And even more difficult to rationalize the attacks to myself.

Lollie sleeping

Then just last night the worse attack yet happened. I was out brushing the dogs. It crossed my mind that I should probably put Lollie in the garage and brush her separately, but it was so calm and peaceful out under that tree and I was just enjoying the moment. Lollie wasn’t really even participating, she was off by herself. I called our other dog, Hermes, over to me and as he was approaching Lollie put herself in front of me and turned away from me to face him. I knew that this spelled trouble so I said firmly, “GET” to move her away, and that’s when she lunged at him. It took all of 5 seconds. Five seconds for me to get up and run the three steps over to her and yell “LEAVE IT”. She stopped the attack then but it was clear he was hurt. He was limping and I could see she had bitten him on the legs in several places. But the wounds seemed relatively minor, not even puncture wounds so I brought him inside. But I kept seeing blood. He was licking and licking his legs in various places and blood was covering his legs. However, when I searched his fur I could find nothing. I called the vet and he offered to look at him even though it was two minutes to closing time. By the time I arrived, the ace bandages I had wrapped around Hermes’ legs were soaked with blood. There was blood spattered over the walls of the back of the SUV. It was terrible. I brought him in and we all just looked at him, trying to understand where all this blood was coming from. That’s when the vet said, “Could she have gotten his tongue?” and sure enough, there was a dime sized flap of skin, about a quarter inch thick, hanging on by a tiny bit of skin. It was way back on his tongue, and not obvious. But it was bleeding badly. Thirteen stitches later the bleeding had stopped. I brought him home.

Lollie as a puppy

I had never articulated it directly. Never said, “if this happens then…” but always I had it in the back of my mind that there was a limit to what I would allow from Lollie. I would hear other stories of aggressive dogs wounding resident dogs and think “That I would not accept.” I would hear how the owners would spend hundreds of dollars on stitching up the victim of the attack only to have it happened again. And again. And I thought, “I will never be that sentimental. If I cannot keep my pack safe with Lollie in it, she will have to go.”

So now I stand at that abyss. I see now how much easier it was to say “I will not accept that” than to do anything about it. I understand now more deeply why I kept moving that line in the sand, why I kept tolerating increasingly more dangerous attacks. Who wants to admit that the dog they’ve raised since puppyhood has to go? Who wants to see this perfectly healthy, beautiful dog in the prime of her life killed? Who wants to see all that work, all that love just thrown away? What was it all for? Why? Why has it come to this and is there any way at all to avoid this? She’s the only dog in the pack who understands me when I say, “go find Ryan.” She’s the only dog who listens to me as I guide her to finding the ball. She’s the only dog who plays Frisbee with me in the winter, who will jump and twist for it. She is in so many ways my best trained dog. But there is such a cost for having her. So much anxiety. I am always worried, watching, aware of her and the potential for harm. I am always trying to anticipate and think through and avoid situations that could lead to attacks. And they are getting more and more violent. And harder and harder to anticipate. I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a huge part of me that would be relieved beyond belief if she were no longer with me. But how to get her to not be with me is the question. I have to kill her? Really? It has to come to that? I just can’t figure out how to get from here to there without that happening. I wish I could see into the future. I wish I knew what to do.

And this attacked crossed that line. I find myself trying to find a way around it, a way to rationalize it, but I cannot.

Lollie as a puppy

A puppy with a biting problem

Most puppies are mouthy but they rarely bite to draw blood.

Most puppies are mouthy but they rarely bite to draw blood.

I’ve been working with a very sad case of a puppy who bites when frustrated. Ordinarily, that isn’t that unusual as all puppies need to learn (and therefore be taught) to tolerate frustration. They need to learn patience and self control much like people need to learn those skills. They are the foundation of what we consider “manners.” When young puppies are very frustrated, it is normal for them to bite. However, all puppies who are healthy and have been raised with their mama and littermates have a natural respect for those in charge. And they all learn something called “bite inhibition.” They learn to hold back from biting full strength, and to use a bite only as a last resort. Their mama teaches them by her reactions when they do bite too hard or too quickly – she swiftly puts them in their place, usually by a nip of her own and a hard growl. And as puppies play together they learn that a hard bite stops play and that a soft bite lets it continue. Through these daily interactions all puppies raised well learn this important social skill.

Puppies learning how to inhibit their bite so that play can continue.

Puppies learning how to inhibit their bite so that play can continue.

Not this little puppy. At 2 months of age this puppy would bite hard enough to draw blood, whenever it was even a bit frustrated. By the time I saw him at 4 months of age, he was confident in his ability to boss people around and bit frequently and with very little provocation. He bit me three times before I even knew what had happened, and that isn’t a common occurrence for me! What is so sad is that this sort of behavior in a puppy so young is highly unusual – to the point of being considered abnormal. It suggests that something has gone very wrong in this puppy’s neurological development or upbringing. I suspect that a large piece of the puzzle is that this particular puppy, even though he is registered with the American Kennel Club, was purchased at a pet store. It is likely that he wasn’t a product of one of the notorious puppy mills, but he could have been. It is more likely that he was taken from his mama and littermates far too young – I’d guess at about 3 or 4 weeks. And his mama is likely mentally unstable herself. It is such a sad story. The family who owns him loves him dearly but the pup has bitten everyone, and there are young children who live in the home. It is my strong opinion that this dog should be rehomed, if there is a home who could work with him. But I strongly suspect that this pup will likely have to be euthanized.

puppies learn how to playSo, please, I cannot stress this enough, please do not purchase puppies from pet stores. Adopt a homeless puppy from a shelter or a foster home (H.E.L.P. is a great resource!). If you must, use a reputable breeder. Make sure they insist on keeping their puppies until they are at least 8 weeks of age. Make sure they keep them in such a way so that they have frequent contact with their mama. And make sure that they are willing to (and interested in) making any problems like this one, right.

It was time for Brandy to leave us

Brandy: Sunbathing in April 2004

Brandy: Sunbathing in April 2004

Brandyleft us just over a week ago. It was her time, she told me so in many ways. I could see it in her eyes, her behavior, her abilities, they all said to varying degrees that she was done. I’ll spare you the details of her declining health. She passed quietly in our home, with the kind and gentle assistance of our vet. Euthanizing Brandy at home helped to bring closure for our family and our pack. Bella, Hermes, and Lollie passed her one by one, sniffing her body curiously, knowing she was gone. Kristin and I wept as Ryan asked lots of questions. The vet and his assistant who made the house call were caring, compassionate, respectful, and professional – as they were when we put Sadie down five years prior.

I kept reading and hearing that when it was her time, I would know. And they were all right. The topic had been a frequent one in our home for months, increasingly so in the past several weeks as evidence mounted that Brandy’s time was near. I wavered as I took in the information she presented to me. I really wasn’t sure until I was sure, if that makes sense.  But once I knew I didn’t hesitate or look back – it was her time.

I miss her but oddly not as much as anticipated. I guess I had a long time to think about her decline and had come to terms with it gradually. These past months I spent more and more time sitting quietly next to her, gently petting and stroking her head, neck, and back the way she liked. As Brandy aged, she was very reactive to sudden moves or any kind of jostling so I moved slowly and deliberately. She would relax and slowly lick her front paws and occasionally my hand or arm as I pet her. It was in those moments too that I knew she was ready. On her final day I came home from work early to pet her like she likes. She was stoic, guarded, with a long stare that seemingly told me she’s ready. My timing was perfect.

Brandy is gone in body but not of course in memory. I loved this poem authored and read by – of all people – legendary actor Jimmy Stewart on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The poem is called Beau, the name of Stewart’s dog: