Making the decision to euthanize our problem behavior dog

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So, on Friday 2nd January 2015, we did it. After months, years of deliberation, hesitation, frustration, doubts and angst, we euthanized Tycho.  As I write about it here, I am in tears. We’ve thought about it, and mostly gone around in circles in our minds about it for more months than I know to count.

Lore Haug, DVM, MS, DACVB of Texas Veterinary Behavior Services wrote in November 2011 in DVM360 (See the article here) that more young dogs get relinquished due to behavior problems than for any other reason.  She wrote that a family that have a difficult dog have one of 4 possible options:

  1. Live with the problem dog as he is.
  2. Re-home the animal to a more suitable environment.
  3. Attempt to rehabilitate the animal to an acceptable level.
  4. Euthanize him.

We eventually did Option 4.  Both my husband and I believe that this was our last and only available option.  Here is Tycho’s history, as I know it:

On April 17th, 2012, I was walking my little Kooikerhondje, Kira, in an agricultural field on Cook Campus at Rutgers University.  In the distance I saw a dog.  My instinct told me that this was a stray dog: he was skinny with very prominent ribs and pelvic bones jutting steeply above his backbone. He also had a serious limp.  A small tan colored dog, he looked so very needy but kept his distance.  I made the assumption that he must belong to somebody nearby.  I told myself that if I could still find him in this field two hours later, that I would try to pick him up then and see if I could find his home. Well, after two hours, I came back with my PhD Advisor and an undergraduate student to see if he was still there. And yes, he was.  He was not easy to catch, but I had some of Kira’s yummy treats on me to help the process.  We cornered him in the field, and got close enough to attach a leash to his collarless neck.  He came willingly enough once he realized that I had fresh turkey meatballs on me.

He came home with me that evening. We went straight to my local vet who scanned him for a microchip (none found), and looked at his limp and various gashes and open wounds on his body. He was unneutered and the vet estimated him to be about 9 months old at that time. It wasn’t easy to determine the causes of his injuries. For the first two days with us, he pooped gravel and dirt. I advertised.  Craigslist, dogs lost-and-found web sites, on campus, and notes pasted onto every streetlight pole in the area where we found him.  About 7 people responded to my advertising.  None of them could describe the dog I had in front of me, so he clearly wasn’t theirs.

Meanwhile, at home, this new strange little dog was telling us that he loved the warmth of our home, that my husband was acceptable to him as a human being, that he couldn’t stop mounting Kira (as I said, he was unneutered). That our cats were fair game.  For the first three days or so, he seemed like a lovely and sweet little boy (other than the mounting and the focused attention on the cats).  After two weeks, we made the decision to keep him.

After three months, his real colors started to shine through. The cats really were fair game. Clearly, his predatory drive was very strong. I had him neutered, and thank goodness, the mounting of Kira stopped. I took him to many obedience classes, where he either excelled if he could keep his attention on me, or was a disastrous nightmare that barked and lunged at random other dogs in the training room.  We had to abandon a number of class sessions due his disruptive behavior.

We started to take him places: the local towns and parks (never any dog parks), and he started to show some alarming tendencies: he would attack the ankles of any young man with black curly hair and wearing shorts.  Well, okay, we were profiling him, and had no idea if that assessment was an accurate one.  Later on, he started lunging and barking at any young man, then men of any age, and finally he started that behavior with women too.  We stopped taking him places, and started working on desensitizing and counter conditioning him to people on our local rural street under very controlled conditions.

Slowly, we started to work on him to see what his limits were.  Here is a summary of his prognosis:

He had pretty severe separation anxiety.  Actually, more isolation anxiety. At first, we couldn’t leave him anywhere, not at home, nor in the car if we needed to go grocery shopping or anywhere else.  Every exit doorway or crate or bed got extensively destroyed. I changed my life, not going out at all either. We still have to replace all these doorways and staircases in our home.  But with a lot of desensitization and counter-conditioning he came to accept that we would always come home.  What we never realized was that we always left him with Kira, our Kooikerhondje, thinking that the separation anxiety was behind us.  Then one day in 2014, we did leave him alone again, without Kira, for about 30 minutes.  The destruction was evident when we came home.  Clearly, we hadn’t really gotten his anxiety under control, we had just masked it over time, mixing up separation anxiety with isolation anxiety. If you don’t understand the difference, then separation anxiety refers to an attachment to one single person, so that even if other people/animals remain at home, the dog still suffers the anxiety.  Isolation anxiety/distress refers to those dogs that remain calm as long as anybody, and it doesn’t matter who, remains at home with them.

Our house had to be divided into an upstairs for the cats, and a downstairs for the dogs. Seven baby gates or barriers to close off our open-plan house. The lives of our three cats changed dramatically with their freedom essentially curtailed and their fear of him always evident. Tycho slept in our bedroom, in our bed, with us.  He demanded it, it made him feel secure and warm and happy. The cats, who used to sleep with us, were banished from the bedroom at night and our daily lives downstairs during the days.  Every evening he was taken upstairs on a leash, and every morning he was brought downstairs on a leash.  But mealtimes were oh-so-stressful:  he would bark and bark and bark whenever he heard the cats moving around upstairs.  Occasionally, one of our three cats would come too close, and a chase would be on.  We’ve always believed it was a matter of time before he would attack and kill one of our beloved cats.  In a more recent episode, he had the entire head of one of the cats in his mouth (my husband’s timely intervention prevented disaster). But what if my husband hadn’t been able to protect Lexie-cat? How would we get to accept that? The thought of that blame would lie squarely at our feet.

In April of 2013, we acquired a new 8 week old puppy, a beautiful Berger Blanc Suisse (White Swiss Shepherd). The introduction between Tycho and our new puppy, Dakota, was extremely carefully managed.  Dakota spent his first weeks inside a playpen, Tycho was not allowed in the same room.  Eventually, after about six weeks, we realized that Tycho was no longer acting aggressively towards the new puppy, but was increasingly curious about him.  And so they became fast friends. Sometimes the play was beautiful and even-handed, a delight to watch.  Other times it was too rough, but still not fighting.  We would then give them short time-out from play.  Soon enough, Dakota became physically larger than Tycho.  Tycho weighed 23 lbs, Dakota now weighs 82 lbs.  Dakota remains an unneutered dog for the time being, but has always shown a lot of submission towards Tycho.  Crawling, displaying his belly, licking Tycho’s mouth, hunkering down in front of him.

But as Dakota matured and reached 18 months of age, Tycho and he would have more serious fights.  These I had to break up, as it was clearly vicious and no longer rough-housing.  They still played many happy games together, but these “real fights” were phenomenally scary.  And in the last few weeks, Tycho had even attacked Kira.  My sweet little munchie, Kira.  At 20 lbs, Kira is all female, a light and sweet, sensitive and demure little girl. Again, I managed to break up those three fights with Kira.  But again, I felt that would never be able to forgive myself if something happened to Kira.

Getting visitors to the house was difficult.  Some people were relatively easy, the dog-savvy ones who knew how to adjust their own body language.  But others were scared and stiff and therefore in real danger of getting bitten.  My brother was one of those.  Over time, we knew which visitors were easier, and which ones we should just not invite over anymore. We were very conscious of the potential liability of his interactions with anyone or any animal.

We had a cleaning girl, Fleur, come to help me once every two weeks.  So once every two weeks, I had to schedule my time so that I stayed at home for that day, to protect Fleur. Tycho and I would lock ourselves into a room, and switch rooms as Fleur worked her way through the house.  Fleur was one of those people that really was scared of him.  He would bark and lunge at her from on-leash every time we had to pass her in the house for the whole two years and eight months that we worked on his rehabilitation.  My admiration for Fleur remains unbounded, as I know that very few people would have put themselves to the risk that she did.  Her trust in my ability to control my dog was a huge responsibility, and I feared the stress of those bi-weekly days.

I gave up doing my PhD, not only because of Tycho, but he was an essential part of the equation for making that decision. Instead, I pursued and educated myself on dog training.  I have even become a professional dog trainer because of Tycho, completing the KPA Professional Dog Trainer’s course.  I’ve since done many courses, written and passed exams, studied online, and read many books on dog behavior. And successfully started a very small business to train other people’s dogs.

It’s worth mentioning the trimming of Tycho’s nails.  They grew hard and fast. For months and years, I worked on desensitizing him to the clippers or dremel.  But once I reached the stage where I could touch his feet with the clippers for a brief second, we reached a stalemate. This was when he started to air snap at me. Air snapping was no accident: he was telling me clearly that if I did not leave his feet alone that he would bite me. He let me know in no uncertain terms that I was not to angle the clippers to touch a nail.  Progress became impossible. Full sedation at the vet would have become our only option, and because they grew so quickly and were so hard, that process would have needed to be repeated every 6 weeks to two months.

So, did he have a bite history? Yes, he bit me twice, one of those times was in my back when I was trying to protect one of the cats from him.  A nasty millisecond of time that left me feeling devastated. And another time, when we were working on nail trimming desensitization.  Also, the lawnmower man got bitten.  I was always careful.  The lawnmower men came on an irregular schedule, so I learned to listen out for their machines in the front yard, and be sure to keep Tycho indoors whilst they were doing their work. But one day, one of them went into the fenced back yard without first starting up the machines.  Tycho bit him on his shin.  The man was very kind, and never pressed charges.  Note: the dogs were only allowed outdoors if I was at home, and the door always stood open for them to choose whether to be inside or outside.  If I was away from home, the dogs were indoors.

So back to Dr. Lore Haug’s options:

1. We could simply live with our problem Tycho as he is.  By this time, My husband and I firmly believed that we had achieved significant amounts of behavior modification with him.  He was better in many respects e.g. we could now walk him in a town without repercussions.  But our home situation was at a stalemate. It seemed as though we had reached the limits of behavior modification for him, and weren’t able to get any further improvement out of him.  Our cats and both Kira and Dakota remained at serious risk.  Fleur remained at risk. Visitors remained at risk. Even Craig and I remained at risk, although we knew that Tycho loved us dearly, and we loved him too. More than any words that I write here can ever say.

2. We could re-home him.  Perhaps he would fit in better with another family.  But, ours was a good home; we have loved and treated him like gold throughout these two years and eights months. Many new adopters assume that rescue dogs have come from a bad background and that “lots of love” would simply make the world a better place for the dog, not realizing the “severity of the problems they are inheriting” (Haug, 2011).  Sure, he might have been re-homeable, but only as long as there were no other animals in the house, and without other animals, how would our rescuer have handled his isolation anxiety? Our rescuer would not only never be able to leave his house, but would also not be able to readily accept visitors either.  And it would still leave us open to ethical and legal constraints.

3. We could have continued with behavior modification protocols.  And medication.  Back in the first year of having him, I took him to see one of the country’s few veterinary behaviorists.  She put him onto Fluoxetine (Prozac). Later, after he bit me in the back we added Trazodone to the mix.  First, we decreased the amount of fluoxetine, but quickly realized that the reduced fluoxetine was making him more rather than less volatile.  So we upped his fluoxetine to the original dose, and added the full Trazodone dose to that. Beyond that, both my husband and I always carefully, lovingly and without ever scolding or punishing him, worked on the various behavior modification protocols.  As I said above, I believe that we had reached an impasse at the end: we had achieved as much behavior modification as we were ever going to get out of him.  For the last year, we have made no real further progress. Life at home was untenable.

4. Which left us with Option 4. Euthanize him.  Tycho passed away on Friday, at the vet’s office, held closely by both myself and my husband.  We are heartbroken because we grew to love this little guy from the bottom of our hearts.  When he was good, he was a wonderful little boy to be with.

My own life changed dramatically because of Tycho.  For reasons beyond Tycho, but that definitely include him as part and parcel of this, I had been previously been diagnosed with depression, but now also general and social anxiety, sensory processing disorder, panic disorder and a potentially developing agoraphobia.  I have been in ER twice during December 2014 because of this.  Going forward, I will be taking a hiatus from training other people’s dogs, because this has been too devastating. I will be concentrating on Kira and Dakota and the three cats.

Tycho, thank you for everything that you’ve given us.  Thank you for being the sweet and lovable dog that you were.  We hope that you are now in a better place, and you have definitely taken a large piece of our hearts with you.  And given us all of yours. I am so very sorry that we couldn’t do more for you. Be at peace, my little boy.

(I ask that if you feel compelled to write a comment on this blog that you please make it a kind one.  Any criticism, given my fragile mental state, may push me over the edge. So please don’t. I already know that there is nothing easy or happy about this whole situation).

27 thoughts on “Making the decision to euthanize our problem behavior dog

  1. Karen, I am so sorry to hear about Tycho. I know you tried hard to get him socialized and the pictures of him playing with Dakota were wonderful. It hurts, it always will hurt, but when you think of him and start to blame yourself, don’t. Remember what his life would have been like (how much shorter, how horrific if he had ended up with Animal Control or worse yet – a dog fighting ring) and rest easier knowing that you gave him the love he needed in his short life. Hugs to you and to Craig.

  2. Oh Karen, You are the most loving, caring person and mama that I know. If reincarnation is real, I want to come back as one of your pets. I know that this was an immensely difficult decision for you. But, it was the right one. He was a tortured soul. Know that he was not at peace. Allow yourself to be at peace knowing that he had the most amazing, loving family. He still couldn’t find happiness and comfort with all that he had. You did the right thing for Tycho not for you. I love you!!! XXXOOO

  3. I admire your strength. I’ve been in your shoes twice. It’s never easy, nor should it be.
    Love and light,

  4. So sorry for your loss. I sit here snuggled with my 7 year old Patterdale Terrier, Nellie, who exhibits largely the same issues as Tycho. Our Vet Behaviourist appointment isn’t for another 10 weeks, but I have battled with her for 6 years. I sincerely hope medication can help, because I don’t know what we’ll do if we can’t get some normality to her life somehow. I truly empathise, and I know Tycho had the best life he could have had with you.

  5. I’m so, so sorry about your loss. I stumbled across this article through a facebook group. I am in a very similar situation and fear that this might be the end to my pup’s story also. Thank you for being brave, putting so much of yourself into another creature, and best wishes for quick healing of your heart.

  6. bless you for having the wisdom to know when he’d had enough. it’s a brutal decision to make, I know, it cut to your core. but know this, you did all you could, loved with all your heart and in the end gave him the only true peace he could have. I thank you for that. my heart goes out to you as I feel your pain, I currently have a difficult dog that at times has taken my depression and thrown it into the deep dark depths of despair. I wish you wellness. it is time to heal yourself. my best to you and your family.

  7. Oh Karen, so sad to hear. Definitely, albeit sadly, the right decision. You and Craig are the very kindest and most big hearted of all people and Tycho had the very very best you could have given him. The very best. Please look forward and don’t look back, immerse yourself in Craig, Kira, Dakota and the cats. See your friends often. You will find strength in and from all of them. Lots and lots of Love, Evert.

  8. So sorry to hear of Tycho’s passing. There are times when, for certain dogs, letting them leave this world is the kindest, most compassionate choice. He was living in a world that didn’t make sense to him and that had to be pure mental torture every day. Peace to your family.

  9. I’m so sorry for what you’ve gone through. But thank you for sharing your story. Sometimes our best is still not enough. Sometimes the dogs are just too damaged. But Tycho had a wonderful life with your family, which is more than can be said for many.

  10. I am so so sorry. I just went through something similar with a foster dog. I hope no one makes any unkind comments and if they do please know that they just have not lived through what you have. I am a big believer that lots of love can do a lot but it cant fix all situations. I think it is awesome that you tried so hard for him for so long and that he got a nice couple of years with you.

  11. I cannot imagine working as hard and diligently as you did to manage this little guy’s behavior. I hope you give yourself a measure of grace and recognize that pets are different from people and that you made the responsible, although clearly difficult choice.

  12. Dear Karen, I came across your blog trying to find help for an analogous situation, contemplating euthanising one of our dogs because of behaviour problems. In your circumstances and ours, there really is not other choice. It is not fair on the other animals and it wrecks people’s life. But it is beyond heartbreaking. I don’t know how to find the courage, though I know I must. Your story has helped. All the best, Patricia

  13. I came across your story looking for ‘advice’ or any overlooked alternatives, as I found myself in a similar situation. It was only 2 days ago. I’m wrestling with rationale and guilt. Thank you and the commentors for sharing

    1. I am so very sorry for your loss. Take care of yourself and your family. And take it easy on yourself. Second-guessing is just too plain hard; you made the decision, it was not easy. I’ve no doubt that you loved your dog, and you tried your best for him or her, and nobody can ask more of you than that. Your dog has been released from a painful life, and you all feel a little bit safer now. Take the time to heal. It has taken me a very long time too, and I have had to make a point of riding the flood of my emotions, but not letting them drown me.

  14. I am going through this excruciating decision as our otherwise very sweet and loving pit mix has now bitten 2 kids. We love him with all of our hearts, but we do not trust him with our own kids, nor do we feel we can ever let friends into our house. While re-homing him may seem best, I am concerned, as you mentioned, that he will not be loved as we have loved him, or worse, surrendered to shelter. My heart is literally broken.

    1. Naomi, I should have reached out to you sooner. I am so sorry for the pain and trauma that you are going through to reach this decision. I hope you find comfort in the fact that you have been your dog’s best advocate, and that your love of him allowed you to see the dog underneath the bites as well as the seriousness of the bites themselves. There are no easy answers, but I hope you remember only the good things about him, and leave behind the guilt. You have done your best for him.

  15. I’m sobbing as I read this, as you’re describing our current situation / decision. I’ve not found many stories about saying farewell to younger dogs with behavioural issues. We rescued a 6 month old puppy that had been very badly abused by a previous owner. We have spent 6 years trying to undo 6 months of abuse & isolation and the impact to our lives had been immense, to reach a point where we have to medicate our dog considerably to get through day to day life. He is now mostly incontinent and we now recognise that his quality of life is impaired also.
    We love him dearly and this is the hardest decision of our lives, but ultimately we believe we have given him a happy, loving home and that as his advocate we need to be responsible for making this decision for the wellbeing of all involved (including the safety of an almost two year old daughter).
    Thank you for sharing your story.

    1. Elise, thank you for sharing your story too. These stories need to be told, and their heartbreak needs to be recognized as traumatizing to all the families involved. I am so very sorry for your loss.

  16. I had a dog for 7 years named Teddy. I had him since he was 6 weeks. Separated at birth from his mother and placed in the pound. He was aggressive from the beginning but I was my first dog I didn’t know any better. He bit many people in our family and strangers. He would not learn commands. It was almost friegtening having him out of the house. We all learned to adapt around Teddy. He was a big dog about 80 pounds. He was quarantined twice for but bighting. I would visit him every day when he was quarantined. My heart hurt watching him scratch away at the mattress on the floor in frustration trying to get out to his family. We were his family. I think of him as a little frankentine cute and loving but unknowing of his aggressive nature and strength. One day he bit my brother in the face. My brother had to have plastic surgery to see his lips and cheeks back together. It was a horrific attack. An accident. Teddy was protecting his food. My brother was teasing him. Our family was broken for both our brother and for Teddy. After 7 years Teddy had become a small member of the family. We ultimately had to make the painful decision to euthanize. This was in 2011, now 6 years ago. I don’t know why but I was reflecting on this experience just now and decided to google owners putting down pets for behavior. I too went through a series of mental health conditions and illnesses after this event. I think it caused a sort of post traumatic stress that bled into ma you other areas of my life. The ripple effect can still be felt today in some ways. You were not alone in your experience. Thank you for sharing your story. I hope your heart has found healing

    1. I am sorry for your experience Jessica. I’m especially sorry that your experience with Teddy happened as he was your first-ever dog. Most dogs are good dogs, and most people are good people. I hope that you haven’t lost faith in all dogs, and that you have tried again to give your love to another four-legged beauty. Tycho will be in my heart and mind forever, as he has changed my life so very much. I hope that he was sent to teach me something new, and I hope that I learned the lessons he taught me (at least, I believe he and I did come together in that way). I am a better person because of Tycho, and that may be true for you too. Here’s to healing for both of us! Thanks for writing.

  17. Thank you for this. I’ve been struggling with my labs severe separation anxiety for the past seven years- we rescued her when she was five- and we’ve tried a behaviorist, training and medication. Nothing has worked. We’ve decided to put her down this Wednesday and it’s the toughest decision I’ve ever made. Your article and your strength has given me support through an incredibly hard time. Thank you.

  18. My husband and I had to make this decision 3 months ago with a dog that lived with us for 7 years. He was a dog I fostered through rescue and wasn’t adopted. Although he could be sweet at times, he would change behavior on a dime and bite at us or growl and jump at our other dogs for no reason, then jump up and kiss us. It had to be stressful for him as something just wasn’t right in his mind. Our biggest mistake was letting it all go on too long. We were prisoners as it was basically impossible to have anyone over and hard to go out of town as he could never be boarded or have a new pet sitter. Having him with us so long made it harder and I still cry sometimes thinking about him when he had good days or when I see a picture of him lounging in the sun. Even though you know you’ve done your best and more than many others would have, it still beats you down somedays to feel the guilt. Reading your page and the comments and knowing others can understand gives me at least some comfort. Thank you!

  19. thank you so much for writing this. we have been living with a dog with severe separation anxiety for 8 years. nothing has helped, he can’t be left alone for even 5 minutes to go to the mailbox. we have been struggling with the thought of putting him down for almost 2 years now. I feel like a horrible person but we are trapped in our own home and it is causing myself, ex-husband and son so much anxiety of our own. This is the only thing I have ever found online that makes me feel like I am not the most horrible person in the world.

    1. I am so sorry, Jen. I understand and respect your decision. Malena deMartini-Price is a well-known sep-anx person who may be able to help you. Please google her. Yours is such a long-standing case of eight years that I’m not sure, but if anyone can help you, it would be her. Whatever decision you take, I, and the people who read this blog, will always know the tremendous love you have for your dog, and know that your decisions are in love for your dog, your family, and yourself. These are the hardest of situations. I wish you well. Hold yourselves tight.

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