I had a dog when I was a kid. I picked him out at a Petsmart adoption event, when I was in the third grade. My mom pointed to some puppies, and I said, “no, I want the sad dog.” His name became Buddy Guy, after the Blues singer, and his sad life turned into a very happy one. That’s entirely thanks to my mother. Like the warning stories go, eventually I lost interest in Buddy, and my mom was his dependable caretaker. What a good dog he was. He was a lab mix, with bad knees. So sweet and great with my sister and I.
I always assumed I was not a dog person after that. I had loved him, for a bit. My love for cats never wavered or waned, though. They had my heart, each and every one of them was just the most beautiful cat in the whole world. Not so, with dogs. They were a lot of responsibility, too dependent, and too gross (drool, smelly, yuck!). I thought I had learned they were not for me from my experience with a great dog (Buddy), who I fell out of love with too easily.
Well, when I was on my own, as an adult, and my husband wanted a dog, I, too, wanted a dog. Unlike him, I wanted a dog enough to pour over hundreds of internet adoption postings and email rescues about dogs. Research is fun! Also, depressing. There’s so many dogs out there in need of rescuing, and likely, never enough people to fulfill the needs. For me, I found a few dogs that pulled at my heart strings, and I went to see a couple.
One of the dogs I met was Baron. I didn’t meet him at an adoption event or at a foster home; he was at a boarding facility. He was Egyptian, I learned. About 1 year old (yeah, right, our vet later said 2+). Picked up off the streets of Egypt as a puppy, and flown to the United States (he had the paperwork to prove it). We don’t know who or where he was adopted to, but it didn’t work out. He ended up in a foster home, kept in a basement and fed cat food. He was pulled from that situation, and put in a boarding facility, living in a chain-link cage.
When I came to meet him, he was desperate for attention. He loved being out of the cage, and was so darn cute. I was warned he did not like men. I talked to Chris about him, and we decided to have Baron meet Chris. If that went well, we could talk more. When Chris met Baron, Baron submissively rolled over, and let Chris pet him. We took Baron home for a foster-to-adopt trial, and you know how that turned out.
We learned about Baron’s quirks. He submissively peed. He hated new people. He liked new dogs. He got along wonderfully with our first kitten, Suki, and then, later, our second cat, Louis. He was obedient. He was so sensitive. He loved when we came home from work, and was always so excited to see us. He was easily crate trained, and potty trained. Our biggest obstacle was always his deep mistrust of new people.
We had learned of a trainer that worked with difficult dog cases, and we reached out to him immediately. We worked with him weekly, and really focused on Baron’s behavior towards strangers. Once Baron warmed up to our trainer, he just loved him. That’s how Baron was. Once you were trusted, you were in the inner circle. He had play dates at the trainer’s house, and we continued to discuss his behaviors and use positive reinforcement to build his confidence.
Unfortunately, Baron bit another dog while at the trainers on a play date. The dog’s owner had come to the backyard gate, to pick up his dog, which frightened Baron. When the dog came whizzing by to greet her beloved owner, she bumped into Baron which triggered him to lash out. The bitten dog was unfazed, but the incident had occurred. Thankfully, for us, the owner was very understanding and kind. He had our contact information, but never reached out. We heard through our trainer that the dog was fine.
Our first trainer was our most successful one, and we really liked him. We would text him to check in, ask questions, seek advice. Even if he could no longer have Baron over, he was still helpful and cared about Baron’s well being. His prices were a bit steep to have individual sessions in our home, so we no longer actively saw him. We met with another trainer, closer to home, for individual sessions at her training facility. I continued to read Patricia McConnell, and books about fearful dogs. Baron’s behavior was improving.
We did take him on our honeymoon, after about a year of having him. Thankfully, we had found a wonderful dog sitter by then, who was willing to work with a behaviorally challenged dog, but we loved him so much and wanted him to be a part of our experience. The drive to my home town was 16 hours, and he handled it like a champ. We stayed over at a hotel, he handled that great as well! We arrived at my parents’ home, in St. Louis, and he met a lot of our friends and family throughout the weekend. Introductions were slow, and everyone was warned: this dog will not like you! He will be afraid, please take it slow! Please ignore him! It was so rewarding to have that weekend go well. To socialize him a bit more, to have everyone respect our quirky dog, and our dog learn to respect them.
Our honeymoon was just phenomenal. We went to the Smokey Mountains, and he was a champion road trip companion. He was so obedient, we could let him off leash near our cabin for bathroom breaks, without worrying (obviously he was still supervised!). We hiked the one dog-friendly trail and ended up taking him into a local brewery! We think the hostess assumed he was a service dog, but he sat quietly under the table while we had a flight of beers. He only bothered to growl at the table of big biker guys that was later seated by us. Having him with us was priceless. He was truly a part of our family.
When we got home, I was ready for a second dog. Having one was great, what about two? They could play together, and we’d have twice the fun! You think at this point I’ll say – boy, was I wrong – but I wasn’t! We welcomed Juniper into our home in October 2016, less than a month after being married, and she is absolutely wonderful.
Juniper is a coonhound mix. I’ve been told she could be pure bred (not that it matters), but she’s petite, at a whopping 50 lbs. Coonhounds generally grow to more like 80-90 lbs, or more! Chris had loved growing up with a black and tan coonhound, so I had kept my search strictly with hound rescues. Juniper was very cute, guessed to be about 1 year old, and her foster mom’s description led me to believe she’d be a great fit in our lives. I asked for more pictures and more information, and finally pulled the trigger. She would be transported from Alabama to Pennsylvania, and into our home! We adopted her before even meeting her, and it worked out better than I could have imagined.
Juniper is the complete opposite of Baron. She is overly friendly, she is overly vocal, she is consistently happy, carefree, and does whatever she wants. This girl has almost no fear, and is the silliest dog I’ve ever met. If you want to laugh a lot, get a coonhound. I’ve learned most hounds are totally goofy and free spirited. Nothing about her is restricted. When I scold her, she wags her tail. Nothing can get her spirits down. She also isn’t possessive of anything. Her bed, her space, her toys, her bones. We don’t have to restrict her from anything, because she will never prevent us from taking things or getting to close. She also has never managed to be 100% potty trained. Instead of free roaming the house, she can’t be trusted outside of her doggy room, unsupervised.
She made the best buddy for Baron. They were never quite “bonded,” per say, but they sure played well together. They could run laps playing keep away, and you could hear Juniper barking at Baron constantly. “Come back here!” “What are you looking at?!” “I’m just barking in your face ’cause I like to bark!” She’s noisy. He’s tolerant of her. She was in his inner circle, and was trusted. He set an impeccable example of obedience and following commands. She brought him out of his shell.
We took the dogs to the vet, together, one time, and witnessed a miracle. Juniper was letting the male vet tech love on her, and Baron got jealous. He saw the good that could come from being friendly and open to attention, and sought out the vet tech! No growling, no defensive stance, no usual Baron-meeting-new-people behavior. This coonhound showed him that people were good. In that moment, anyway. I called them my yin and yang pups. So different, but complimentary. And I loved them both to pieces.
Last summer, Baron started acting more aggressive. Up to that point his behavior had been improving, albeit he was still very far from where a normal, well-socialized dog would have been. I made a vet appointment to have a full physical and blood panel done. The first thing to check when a pet’s behavior changes is their health. Are they lashing out because they are unwell? Turns out Baron was healthy as could be. We had a healthy, mostly happy, aggressive dog on our hands. We continued to pour in effort to train him and build his confidence. Baron actually had a history of sporadic aggression. It had always been impossible to predict when he was in a defensive mood – if he was, you were no longer in the inner circle, and hopefully you knew it before he told you. Unfortunately, a few times we didn’t know. Both Chris and I got bit in the face, and on the hands a few times.
Thankfully, the bites to the hand never bled. The bites to the face did, but didn’t require any real intervention. We both have small scars to remember him by, though. My first thought when writing that is – just keep your face away from your damn dog. How could that happen twice? And worse, you’ll learn it happened a third time.
After Baron bit my face, I was afraid of him. I cried wondering if this was it for my dog, if nothing I did would help. It was before Juniper was in our home. But, if you let time pass, you find he’s still the same dog. The dog you fell in love with, and poured so much energy into. He’s still obedient, he’s still loving, he’s still sensitive. He’s still moody, but he’s never moody all the time. I’ll work harder, it’s only his first year with us. Excuses come easily. It’s easy to let time heal your physical and emotional wounds, instead of keeping the problem at the forefront of your thoughts. And then, a year later, you find your husband is now injured, and the cycle starts over again. After each bite, we worried, we called trainers, we googled, we read articles, we had serious talks. But we loved our dog and nothing terrible had happened. They were all superficial wounds, and the fear for my dog turned back into love and eventually, trust.
When something terrible did happen, I couldn’t take that same approach. Over two years of having Baron in our hearts and home, he finally caused real damage. Chris was sitting on the sofa, and Baron jumped up and curled up next to him. Baron was squished between Chris and the arm rest, a daily, if not hourly, position for him. This time, he was moody. He curled up next to Chris, squished against him, except he didn’t want Chris to touch him or bother him. Chris didn’t know that. When he asked Baron “how are you, boy?” and gave him a scratch on the head, Baron responded by biting his nose into three pieces.
Chris got 17 stitches that night. I cried. A lot. I knew I couldn’t allow time to pass without addressing this. I knew I couldn’t let my love for this dog endanger the people I loved. Chris knew that, too. I reflected on our time with Baron, thinking of everyone he’d ever met. All of our parents and siblings. So many of our friends. Our neighbors. People hiking the same trails we were. What if it had been one of those people? What if we couldn’t control the situation enough to prevent someone from making him uncomfortable, and thus aggressive. We couldn’t control the situation enough to keep ourselves safe, and we were his most trusted people. I felt so irresponsible. I felt immense guilt that I had ignorantly put my friends and family in such a dangerous position, so many times. I really learned what my dog was capable of, and that two years of training, behaviorists, vets, and love weren’t enough to make Baron a safe family member. I also felt guilt that I was considering ending his life. Above all, hadn’t I agreed to responsibly care for him, for all his life? That’s what pet adoption is, to me.
We scheduled Baron’s euthanasia for two days later. I cried to our vet. Chris wasn’t mad at him, nor eager to put down our dog. He was resigned to this decision, and didn’t want to give time for his emotions to change his mind. I had to agree.
This is the hardest part to talk about. Or think about. It’s been so helpful to confide in our friends and family about this decision. We have received understanding and support. But ultimately, I struggle immensely with ending Baron’s life. We both went with him. I sobbed when his consciousness left him. But, I was there with him. I will always think of that decision as a betrayal. Maybe it was the right thing to do, but I betrayed my dog and took his life. He trusted me, and loved me, to the best of his abilities. I wish that had been enough.
Juniper is unphased; I told you nothing could get her spirits down. She’s her wiggly, old self. Always excited to see us, tell us about everything, and get as many treats as possible. We had someone come check on her, recently, while we were out. Something we never had the opportunity to do with a fearful dog in our home.
I wish I could earnestly say life is easier, like there was a weight lifted without Baron around. But every accommodation to Baron was normal for us. Less a burden, and more just the way things had to be. I feel weighed down by his absence. I feel burdened by the memories of the vet’s office. I feel ashamed that I took his life. Every time I look at Chris, I know we didn’t make the wrong decision. But it probably won’t ever feel right.
We’re a one dog family, for now. I can pour my grief into loving Juniper. Making sure she is exercised and loved, and has the best life I could possibly provide. She has weekly play dates with our neighbor’s dog, now. I dropped her off at doggy day care for the first time, today. We’re running ~8 mi a week, which is increasing. We took for granted how much energy she and Baron exhausted on each other. The only real change is Juniper seems like she has more energy, and is more restless. She put on five, much needed, pounds. We bring her all over; we don’t have to worry about her with new people. She’s come to our friend’s house to play board games, and went to two NFL playoff gatherings, already. She’s really earned my nickname for her: Sweet Pea.
Recently, we’ve had Juniper start sleeping in our room. Another yin/yang moment. Baron used to jump on and off our bed so much, he was hard to sleep with. And then there was his tendency to get possessive of the bed, and growl at you if you tampered with that (so that option was revoked). Juniper sleeps in the corner, on the dog bed. All night. She is a champ at sleeping in (that is just wonderful for me).
We took her to a local brewery last weekend. The owner said if she’s good, we could let her off leash. We were a little hesitant, but the brewery is arranged so that we were in a separate space, so we gave it a shot. Wow, was she a dream. She stayed in our area, for the most part without any prompting or chasing. Surprising for a dog that follows her nose! She got to go back into the “employees only” section to hang out with the crew, smell some giant brewing vats, and hang out with the owner. She got to meet a ton of fellow beer drinkers, who loved meeting her. She was pretty darn good with sticking with us and not getting out of sight; listening to our commands and following us in and out of our space and to the bar. The kids there just loved her. She’s so sweet, giving little baby licks without being overwhelming. Boy, did that tucker her out! She immediately passed out when we got home and was noticeably tired for the next 24 hours.
We’re taking life one day at a time, and appreciating all ways that Juniper enriches ours.
I sat on this post for a while, having drafted, rewritten it, and tabled it. In posting this, I open myself up to some unpleasant comments, opinions, attacks. But what helped me most in this whirlwind was reading stories like this; knowing I wasn’t alone in considering our eventual outcome. That people out there deeply loved their dangerous pets, and also were looking for options, support, understanding. No dog so cared for is bad all the time. Even the dangerous ones – there’s a lot of stories out there (dig through article comment sections) about adorable, loving, family pets who did this one, really bad, terrible thing. And what can the owners do? What are their options? What is best for everyone? There’s also stories about a few, really bad, terrible things. How can I prevent this from happening, again? Can I ever completely trust my dog? Can I live with that; can I provide that restricted environment? Can behavioral training work, or is my dog afflicted in a biological way? I don’t think there are right answers (barring obvious brain damage, illness, etc.), and all options are hard when facing similar circumstances. I hope my story adds perspective, empathy, and compassion to the dog-loving community. I don’t forgive myself, but I can live with myself.