Five months ago, when I adopted Champ, life looked like this:
He pulled heavily on his leash. He hard stared, then jumped and lunged and barked at many people while on leash.
The following things wound him up:
a knock at the door
a minor injury
wiping him down with a cloth
training basic obedience with positive reinforcement
any kind of consequence including “no” and a squirt bottle
other dogs playing too hard
anyone in any uniform
homeless people (which triggered massive barking and lunging)
When he got wound up, he would start tail spinning and/or nibbling hard enough to hurt and in more extreme cases, reverted to jumping at people, usually their faces.
He was also a world-class cuddler and lover, was great with dogs, housebroken, didn’t chew, and was crate trained. I could see even then that he was loyal to a fault. A congenital brain problem and past trauma had combined to create the above list of triggers. It was a mighty list, but he was smart, he wanted to be good, and his loyalty made him try incredibly hard. We got him on medication, and started full time training.
With a lot of work, three weeks ago our life looked like this:
He walked beside me on a loose leash through crowds, dog-friendly stores, and past homeless people. I started work on basic service dog training, and with his “in training” vest on we spent hours at a corner chair inside a busy Starbucks, where people were constantly within a foot of where he lay. He continued to lay, calmly. One guy with a big backpack startled him into two barks, but he calmed down and eventually ignored the man.
He was still wary of some people, but would take treats and decided that most people were okay for being petted. He was still leery of uniforms, but no longer barked or lunged; he just kept an eye on those people while sitting beside me or walking on his loose leash. He went to the vet and, for the first time since he was about 10 months old, allowed someone to give him a physical. He even let the vet and the techs pet him, and wagged and squirmed happily.
He stood calmly for baths (which once would have triggered near-biting), he was excited to get pets when strangers came through the door, he could play without getting aggressive, he let me examine and treat minor wounds even when I know it hurt him a little (ie, peeling off scabs and putting on hydrogen peroxide, once having to put goo in his ear for an ear infection, etc). The only thing that wound him up was when someone new came over; after he’d gotten his pets he’d often go outside to tail-spin, and sometimes if he couldn’t calm himself down I’d crate him for ten minutes until he regained his equilibrium. He NEVER lunged, barked, or pulled toward other people. He could be with me in crowds and be perfectly calm and relaxed.
I could even give a consequence, as much as a quick poke in the ribs if he was really naughty (like trying to bite and pull at my fence, which he had an odd affinity for). Except for needing a little extra time to check out new things (and biting the fence), he’d become the perfect dog. I was actively looking for a home for him. I had even started using him for work, because he was so good with everything.
Two weeks ago, we were standing on a sidewalk chatting with a client. Two dozen people had walked by, easily, when a woman with a purse walked past us. He lunged for her, grabbing her purse (and her skin, which his teeth mostly slipped off of) and refusing to let go. I held onto his leash, picking it straight up so that eventually he’d release. He did, and after many apologies the woman continued on her way. She was, thankfully, understanding.
I thought perhaps he’d regressed a little; I’d slacked off taking him in public for a couple of weeks. I decided to take him out with me more often while it was cool and he could be in the car (which he loved).
Tuesday my parents were here. They’d been here for a few days, and he knew them already. However, he started acting oddly with my dad, whom he’d previously quite enjoyed. I made a mental note.
Wednesday he went to work with me. We were meeting a client at the vet, and I got there early. I had Champ in the waiting room, just hanging out and getting treats. He was super excited to go inside, and was happily taking treats. One of the receptionists came around to give him more. We were chatting, he was taking treats, she was not trying to pet him or even really look at him. He took yet another treat from her and, with no warning, lunged and bit her hand. Again, he refused to let go. She managed to drag her hand out and shimmy out of her sweater, and I finally got him to release. Her sweater had a large hole, and her hand needed stitches.
That was the second attack without warning or provocation in two days, after months of calm, relaxed, perfect behavior. In fact, he’d never bitten anyone before — just scared the daylights out of them, or nibbled hard enough to frighten.
Warnings that dogs are going to bite vary from the obvious – lunging, barking, growling – to the subtle – lip licking, whites of the eyes showing, hard staring. Champ had done none of these. He had simply, in both cases, attacked. You can’t train a dog when you can’t predict what will set them off, and in both cases, there was nothing to set him off. I started to realize that something in his brain had changed, and it might be time to put him down. He was, officially, unsafe.
This was made more obvious over the next days. He began to get aggressive with my dogs, even his favorites, for no discernible reason. He’d never shown aggression toward my dogs. He began to get aggressive toward me; not attacking, but growling and being possessive of bones, toys, and even his food bowl. He’d never shown signs of possessiveness, either.
At one point he was in his crate, and when I went to say hi to him, he stood up and started snarling. I said, “Oh, Champ,” in a disappointed tone; I knew answering aggression with aggression (“No!”) would, in his case, only make it worse. He started snapping toward me, tail down, his whole body shaking. Still snarling and snapping, he peed himself.
Another day, after getting home, I went to take Doc out of his crate. Champ ways laying about five feet away. I opened Doc’s crate door, and Champ started to growl at me. Doc ducked out, and Champ lunged forward. I had an x-pen sitting there, and grabbed it and slammed it between Champ and I, using Doc’s crate as another wall. A moment later, Champ started shaking all over, and rolled to show his belly. I hadn’t yelled at him or scolded him.
Those were the worst periods, but it was clear at other times he was in distress. A few times we’d be cuddling on the couch, and he’d start growling. Those times I was able to hush him and soothe him out of it. He began to mouth again, to get wound up at simple things. One day I touched his tail, a sensitive spot that hadn’t been sensitive in months. He turned around and mouthed me furiously.
Brains develop for the first 2-2.5 years in dogs, possibly longer. When you have a young dog with congenital problems, things can change in many ways during that time. Or perhaps it wasn’t bad brain development. Maybe Champ was having micro-seizures and something in his brain got damaged. There are probably a dozen things that could have gone wrong, and there’s nothing we could do about it and, often, no way to even know what happened.
Regardless, he’d become dangerous, unstable, and vastly unhappy. He was degenerating as I watched. I had him put down as soon as I could. It’s never easy to euthanize a young, healthy, sweet dog, but sometimes it’s all you can do. And perhaps it was the only way Champ could tell me that the was ready to go.
I love you, Champ. I hope your next life brings you a better chance.