I put my dog down yesterday. He was not sick. He was not old. I rescued him over 8 years ago when he was only 2 months old. And I put him down to rescue him again.
Sutter would have been one of the 4 million dogs euthanized in a US shelter that year. But instead, he and his litter mates were rescued by Pound Puppy Rescue, a local puppy rescue. Just days old when he was brought into his foster home, Sutter and his litter mates were bottle fed until they could eat on their own.
Sutter was the most beautiful dog I had ever seen. Deep red coat and amber eyes. Naturally athletic. We were unsure of his breed but a DNA test told us cattle dog and boxer. His herding and hunting instincts were interminable. And from the very moment I got him, something was ‘off’.
I socialized him at home with friends and other dogs until he was fully vaccinated. Then I took him to the dog park 5 times a week, the beach, work, dog friendly restaurants, puppy school, agility training, nose work class. Despite all these efforts, Sutter was hyper vigilant. Never relaxed. Always on edge. He put a dog at the dog park in the hospital. He bit a child riding by on her tricycle. He bit people in our house, the cleaning lady, the gardener and a fireman. He chased the postman down the driveway baring his teeth. Amazingly none of these instances were reported, but Sutter’s freedoms were restricted. I rescued Sutter and it was my job to keep him safe. Inside our home with our family, Sutter was a dream. He never chewed anything. He wasn’t needy. He was affectionate. And quiet.
After my divorce I moved into an apartment, and hired a dog walker. I gave her very explicit instructions. About two weeks into her job, she called me to tell me that Sutter bit the apartment manager. Two days later, Sutter bit a dog. Sutter had three days to find a new home. I managed to find him a place to stay until I could move. I was not giving up on my dog.
Sutter was a management issue. Walking him became more and more stressful. Crossing the street when people came towards us. Pulling him away from children who wanted to pet him. As I became more vigilant, Sutter fed off the energy and got worse. Walking him was no longer fun, it was a chore with the thought, “What’s going to happen next” constantly going through my head.
I tried everything: trainers with an iron fist, muzzles, and thunder shirts, medication. Nothing helped. He growled at everyone that gave him a sideways glance. He lunged without warning. He air snapped. But all the while at home, he was a great companion, goofy happy and chill.
Last week, our elderly neighbor was walking by, and as her back was turned, Sutter lunged, knocked her to the ground and bit her. No warning. What would a dog who has been loved his whole life, have to fear? What is going through his head that makes him so insecure and defensive that he would do this? Again, luck was on my side and our 84 year old neighbor made it through unhurt.
I talked to experts and trainers, veterinarians and shelter staff. Sutter had no chance to be rehomed; it would just transfer the liability from my home to another. I could limit his freedoms even more. Only walking him in the dead of night. I could put a muzzle on him at all times. But then the question of quality of life comes up. Quality of life for him. Quality of life for me.
All this time, for the last 4 years or so, the thought of euthanasia has loomed in the background. And to be brutally honest, a bit of relief would seep through the heartbreak when I thought of it. Relief at not wondering when the next time would be. Relief at not worrying about getting a call from the police or animal control. Relief at not being at risk of a lawsuit. Relief at avoiding the distinct possibility that Sutter could badly hurt someone. Of all the people I spoke with, only one told me not to consider putting him down. Because I would never forgive myself; because I would feel guilty for the rest of my life. That, to me, is a selfish reason not to do it. How would I feel if Sutter put a child in the hospital or killed a dog? The guilt would be unbearable. The guilt that I didn’t do something sooner.
So yesterday, I spent the day with my boy Sutter. I made him a scrambled egg for breakfast and he had the last bite of banana. We took a long walk along the coast, and I let him sniff every blade of grass, and eat whatever tasty morsel I would usually pull him away from. I let him look for mice in the scrub. We watched hawks hunt for their breakfast and stared at the ocean. He rolled in the wet grass and jumped up smiling at me.
Then, we took him to the vet. We went into the quiet room and spent some time with him. The tech came and gave him a shot that made him sleepy. Even then he was strong, he refused to go to sleep and jumped up several times, walking like a drunk. We finally convinced him to lie down on the blanket. We pet him and kissed him and gave him treats and hugged him and told him we love him so much. The vet came in and injected him with some bright blue medicine, and his breathing and heart slowed down. His eyes remained open and we talked to him gently, telling him to go to sleep. Then he was gone.
My pain was excruciating, and it still is. And maybe my friend is right. I may never forgive myself for playing God and deciding Sutter’s time was up. And the rescue volunteer in me is calling myself a hypocrite of the worst kind. How can I save a dog, only to euthanize him when he was still so vibrant and healthy?
I will likely struggle with these thoughts for many years to come. And I will always miss Sutter, the little puppy that I rescued. But in the end I know I saved him from himself.
Update – one week after posting:
It’s been a week.
I am reeling from all the support I am getting from strangers far and wide. I wish I could respond to each and every one of you, and I hope that those whom shared their own stories can feel my big, virtual hug.
I didn’t write my story to share it, I wrote it for myself. Catharsis. And it was cathartic. But then I got to thinking, despite the sensitive topic, perhaps there are others who have gone through the struggle, who are going through the struggle, who may have to go through the struggle. I had no idea so many people put their dogs down for reasons similar to mine. And some people were forced after a final harrowing incident. People have been sued. People spent thousands of dollars digging themselves out from the aftermath of their dog’s actions. Dogs have been taken away by animal control and euthanized by the authorities (my biggest fear).
I was playing Russian Roulette. But with a big red dog.
I am also reeling from some of the cruel and hurtful comments. I know I opened myself up by posting my story on a public forum. I was actually a bit wary as I clicked the ‘publish’ button on the WordPress site. I voluntarily made myself vulnerable to the rude, cruel, condescending, judgmental, holier-than-thou people that I know are lurking about. But still, my open wounds started to bleed.
To the people who asked why I didn’t just buy a house with a big yard: What a nice idea. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country. Buying a house with a nice big yard for Sutter would cost at least a million and a half dollars. Even if I could afford that, in a practical sense, a nice big yard is not all that a dog needs. When I was married, I had a nice big yard. Sutter never went out there unless he had to go potty. He would rather hang out on the couch inside.
To those that asked why I waited so long to put him down: The situation was not as cut and dried as it seemed. Sutter did make contact with multiple people and dogs, but the incidents were always spaced apart by months or even years. After each incident, I tried new remedies like a muzzle, medication, a new trainer, better management. I admit I was in denial, and I admit that I let my guard down. He seemed to be calming down and getting much better. During the last incident with the old lady, Sutter was seemingly ignoring her altogether. He was sniffing something off the path, and she was walking by on the other side. Sutter lunged and jumped after her as she had already walked by. He was lightening fast and there was zero warning. I regret that this happened with all my heart. And I am so lucky that the lady was okay even though she fell on her face. That was the wake up call. The thought of Sutter being taken away by animal control, and the recollection of all the past incidents, and the recommendations of several trainers, behaviorists, the vet, my attorney, family and friends, led me to the conclusion that enough was enough. I had already moved once, and I recently bought my condo. I loved Sutter with all my heart, but the realization that someone could be hurt very badly, I could be sued, I could lose everything, was a dark cloud hanging over my head.
Why was he allowed so close to people? Why did we let him come into contact with anyone on the walks? As someone stated, it is impossible to control the world. Do you realize how many off-leash dogs are around all the time? And how many toddlers run around wild, not listening to their parents’ calls to come back?
To the people who said we should just keep him inside at all times: Sutter loved his walks. He would stand at the door, wag his tail and smile, waiting for his walks. I walked him. A lot. At 8 years old he did not need as much stimulation and exercise as he did as a young dog. But I walked him a lot to keep his energy down. I got up at 5am every morning and took him out for 45 minutes, rain or shine. Then after work, I took him for 3-5 miles. Every day. Sutter would no longer thrive had he been on house arrest. And he still needed the exercise.
What about a muzzle? For a dog like Sutter, quality life would surely suffer. He was a highly sensitive dog, and a muzzle bothered him to the point of catatonia.
And yes, I know that cattle dogs are not for everyone. And yes, I know that cattle dogs need free space to run and play. They are working dogs and need to be kept busy. Sutter was abandoned in a box mere days old. I had no idea what his breed was when I adopted him. He had a short nose and floppy ears. At about 4 or 5 months old, his ears popped up and his nose got long. Even if I knew he was a cattle dog, I could not predict that I would get divorced and be forced to move out of my home. Things happen to people. And I did everything I could to keep him with me, even when he bit the apartment manager and got evicted.
What about medication? Sutter had blood work done and medical exams and there was nothing ‘wrong’ that the vet could detect. We tried anti-anxiety medication which did absolutely nothing. We tried sedatives which did nothing until the dose got high enough for him to be a zombie. Neither were good solutions.
What about finding a home with lots of land or a no-kill shelter? I wonder if any of the people saying I should have just found a new home would have taken on a 60 lbs, high energy, unpredictable dog who lunges and bites dogs and kids and people without warning. And as for ‘no-kill’ shelters…very few of those really exist. Even ‘no-kill’ shelters kill. They kill when a dog is sick or aggressive, to make room for others. A sensitive dog like Sutter, scared of loud noises, not happy around other dogs and strangers – what would his life be like locked in a cage like that? I honestly don’t think just being alive is enough. Doesn’t one also have to experience joy?
I was accused of not spending enough time with him. I was told that he needed to be with me 100% of the day, every day. How dare I leave him at home when I work. I was berated and told that I was the cause of his anxiety and violence. People hoped that I didn’t have children, and said I should be sterilized. I need a “kick up the backside”. I saw comments like ‘every dog can be trained’, ‘you didn’t try hard enough’ and that I have just given permission to the world to kill healthy dogs. Someone told me that they hope I see his face every day and suffer. I lied to my dog, gave him a great day, then killed him. I am a piece of shit. I am an asshole. I am useless and worthless. I will go to hell. The dogsnobs blog dedicated a whole blog post to me, my bad decision, the mismanagement of my dog, and what an idiot I am. Selfish, evil bitch. I should go fuck myself. And my favorite, from dear Star Mitchell: I should go kill myself.
So yes, I am grateful for all the support, but I am a human being with feelings and the desire for people to respect and be kind to me. Of course, with the events of last Monday, I am grieving, regretting, questioning, wishing I could go back in time. So for now, I am going to lick my wounds, and take a walk to the coast, where my Sutter Puppy and I walked every day.