I almost didn’t write this. I don’t really want to think about it or address it, but if I don’t think about it or address it, that doesn’t make the problem go away. It’s like the last little chapter in positive reinforcement training books that have to do with “situations where punishment may be necessary”. I think writers that include those chapters are secretly hoping no one will be paying attention by the time they get to the end of the book, but they know that it’s important to address the white elephant in the room. It’s like Carolyn’s $150 rule. We don’t want to talk about what happens when the damage is about to exceed that limit; instead, we want to focus on how to work it so that it doesn’t ever get there.
But sometimes, things get bad. Sometimes, situations don’t work. And that’s when you’re desperate for answers, so I feel that it’s important that there are some.
I don’t have any personal vignettes to assign to this post. I have never rehomed or surrendered an animal. I don’t think I ever could, although I tried, once. I tried to surrender my cat Apollo who is the most horrific animal I have ever encountered. But I couldn’t, because at the end of the day, he’s my horrific animal, and I think I may be the only one capable of loving him. Instead, I try to manage him, as best I can, and give him as decent a life as I can, while at the same time keeping him far away from Joe, who hates him, and Panzer, who has already tried to kill him at least once. When Joe asked me if I found a home for him, and I tried to skirt around the answer he said, “I knew you would never be able to do it. You just don’t have it in you; you aren’t that person.” He hugged my shoulders as he said it, and I love him all the more for that. Some people are not so understanding. Some people would refuse to continue living with my deranged cat, and I don’t think a lot of people would blame them if they met Apollo.
At the same time, I feel like part of the reason I haven’t had to surrender an animal is because I’ve been fortunate. I’ve been fortunate to still have a home and a job and a fiancé, and even though we’re not rich by any means, we make the mortgage, and we can afford to pay for the training that our dogs need. I’m fortunate in that I have a wonderful support network who puts up with my dogs’ crap (and there is a lot of it) even though they shouldn’t have to. I’m also fortunate that my dogs haven’t come with unbeatable or insurmountable behavioral problems for my particular situation. Maybe that makes up for my misfortune when it comes to canine health.
Some people, I realize, are not so fortunate. Sometimes, what seemed like a good fit goes utterly wrong. Sometimes, people put in all the time and energy on selecting the right organization, the right dog, they do everything they can, they feel like “they’ve done everything right”, and it just doesn’t work for them. Maybe they haven’t done everything right, but no one really does. What is important is that they have tried to the extent of their limit.
This seems to happen in the training circles I travel in a lot. It may be because most of the trainers I work with deal with serious behavioral issues, most commonly aggression. Many of the dogs that are seen by my trainers have bitten multiple times. As Kathy Sdao put it at a conference I attended, “The appointment to put Sparky down is next week, but we figured we’d try you first.” Those are the kinds of trainers I spend time with, because I don’t want my dogs to ever be in that situation, so I seek out the best and the brightest to give my dogs the highest chance of success. But it seems like, more frequently than I’d hope, I hear stories about clients of these trainers who come to them and say things like, “My dog has bitten my five year old son, can you help me?” To which the trainer responds, “Has he bitten before?” To which the client answers, “Oh yeah, lots of times, but it was never a child, and it was never quite this bad.”
The first thing I have to say to you is this, if your dog bites anyone, no matter how “not bad” you think it is, seek professional advice, immediately. Not two Tuesdays from now, now, pick up the phone and make a call. This is most likely not going to just “go away”. There is still hope for your dog, lots of it, but your window is closing and closing fast. I’m amazed at how many dog owners allow problem behaviors to persist and only choose to consult a trainer at the very last minute. Rehabilitation of any kind takes time, so reach out to the appropriate people while you still have both time and your sanity.
Too many times I have seen on groups, chats, forums, Facebook, you name it, people saying, “My dog is in quarantine for biting, can you save him?” or “My dog has bitten me fifty times, what can I do?” My answer is, get off of Facebook and get onto Google and find a trainer or experienced behaviorist.
Hopefully, if you find a good trainer, that will save you from ever needing the advice I am about to give. I realize that is not always the case and some trainers will even reticently recommend rehoming a dog. If this is speaking to you, here’s what I have to say.
If you found a good rescue or shelter that is legitimate, they are most likely going to want you to return the dog to them. Panzer’s contract actually says something to the effect of, if we have any intention on euthanizing him for behavioral problems we have to contact his rescue before and get their approval. That’s a responsible rescue. If you’re going to surrender your dog, don’t surrender the dog to just any shelter. Especially if you got the dog from a breed specific rescue or other no-kill organization, absolutely do not surrender the dog to a local kill shelter. First of all, I can almost guarantee you that that is not going to go over well if the rescue you got the dog from finds out. Second of all, it’s not the responsible thing to do for a dog that I’m sure you love (no matter how much he/she is driving you out of your mind and racking up your therapy bill).
Try not to get down on yourself, as much as you can. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and if you tried your hardest, there probably isn’t any more that you can do. If you haven’t tried your hardest, reconsider rehoming or returning the dog. But it’s not going to do anyone any good if the dog you rescued has to stay kenneled for hours on end because he/she is out of control, and you can’t put the time in, nor is it going to do anyone any good if you are putting your other pets or your family at risk of serious injury.
I do have a personal story here. As many of you know, Panzer is currently being rehabilitated for aggression toward strangers. He’s doing much better, but there is still a lot of fear there. Recently, my dad and my stepmom were over to celebrate Joe and my engagement. At first, Panzer did very well with them, not a growl out of him; he even approached both of them and allowed them to pet him briefly. When things were at a high point, and he was actively playing ball with my dad, I put him upstairs in the bedroom with a Kong stuffed with peanut butter and treats. I wanted to end the session of visitation on a good note, like his trainers always say to do. Later on, I got revved up on his success and wanted to bring him back down. Not thinking, I opened the bedroom door, and he bolted downstairs. It was like he’d never met these people. He growled and lunged and barked and jumped up on my stepmom. He scratched her up a bit, but fortunately, no one was seriously injured, and we quickly grabbed him and stuck him back upstairs.
I made a terrible mistake with him that pains me to even think about. From that moment on, I said I was first of all, going to be more careful, and second of all, not going to get so cocky with his rehabilitation. I told my stepmom that if and when they ever decided to come back, I would make sure to kennel Panzer. She, as an animal lover said to me, “That’s sad.” My response? “What’s sad is that I would put my family in danger because I want to believe he’s fixed when he clearly isn’t.” I don’t think it’s sad, I think it’s responsible, and what I did was sad. It was sad for Panzer, because he had ended on a good note, and I warped the experience. It’s sad for my stepmom, because now she is afraid of him when she didn’t have to be.
We all make mistakes; none of us are immune, no matter how much we want to be. But owning up to those mistakes and knowing what your limit is, is important. Fortunately, we don’t have guests all that often, so Panzer doesn’t have to be kenneled all the time, he is, in fact, rarely kenneled. It would be different if we had people over constantly or if there was someone in our family he aggressed toward. We can make it safe for everyone involved, if we are diligent, so Panzer gets to keep his forever family. Sometimes though, people have to make hard decisions.
If your new rescue suddenly up and bit your child in the face for no apparent reason, I don’t personally think there is any shame in returning the dog, just do it responsibly. If your new rescue sent your dog to the emergency vet, I don’t think there is any shame in returning the dog, just do it responsibly. If your new rescue counter surfs and chews up your favorite pair of shoes, I personally believe there is a lot of shame in returning the dog. Hire a trainer, go take obedience classes at Petsmart, watch one of the millions of free training videos online and work with your dog. If you are so compelled to return it anyway, return it responsibly and buy a stuffed animal for your next dog.
Everyone has their limits, everyone has their lines. Where you draw yours is up to you. It’s a personal choice, be prepared for a lot of people to disagree with yours, but if you’re going to surrender a dog, do it responsibly. Do the humane thing and try and give that dog as good a chance at a good life as you can. It is the very least you can do.