I am typing this post in the lounge area of the gym, hoping that being surrounded by strangers will help me to contain the tears of grief that sting my eyes and throat. So far, it’s working, but barely. Last week I had to make the hardest decision I have yet to make in my 40 years of life. I had to decide what to with Clover, our two year old dog, after she attacked Cooper the weekend that I was enjoying my first trip alone in over 9 years. Here’s what happened:
After we put down our almost 13 year old Rottweiler Shepard mix a little over two years ago, I knew I wanted another family dog. Because Bear had lived a long and happy life and right up to the tippy-top of her lifespan giving her size and weight (115 pounds!), saying goodbye was hard but still both her life and death were the best I could have hoped for as she fell asleep forever on the floor of our house as my husband and I cradled her. I missed her dearly but had no feelings of guilt or regret. It was inevitable and we only made sure it was peaceful and that she was not alone. Six months later, we adopted Clover from the Humane Society of Boulder Valley.
Clover was sweet and submissive but with a high level of stranger anxiety. She would bark continuously at anyone who came through the door or passed on the sidewalk. It was hard to break the trance, except with food. She was extremely motivated by food and would act like a trained circus dog if a treat was involved. This seemed great for training, however, we soon learned that this did not necessarily mean she would would do any of her tricks if something edible was not involved.
To make a long story short, Clover’s behavior became more and more unpredictable. After over a year of living with us, she became more aggressive towards our eleven year old cat. At times she would give the cat a wide berth and at others she would corner her, snarling and snapping until someone intervened. She had also started snapping at the children…not for any specific reason, just if they got in her space when she was resting and she would even bite me if she had found a string cheese someone had dropped and I went to take it from her. I knew things were becoming problematic. I did some searches on the internet and researched little dog syndrome—when little dogs are overly coddled and held by their owners and then become snappy at anyone who approaches “their person.” This didn’t seem to apply. I certainly didn’t walk around with Clover in a purse or even holding her. She did sleep in bed with us and was allowed on the couch. But no matter how strict or lax we were on those kinds of rules, her obsession with food continued, as did her dislike of people she didn’t know. She would even run out of the house and chase after people walking by.
While I was in New York doing work with my nonprofit, a life-changing event happened, and thankfully my husband didn’t tell me about it until I was home from my trip. He told me that one of Clover’s bones was in the middle of the living room floor. She wasn’t chewing on it and wasn’t even near it at the time. But Cooper walked over to pick it up and she launched herself on him from across the room, grabbing onto to his hand and not letting go, like a police dog practicing on a dummy arm. Even when Burton grabbed her, she didn’t let go immediately. As he told me the story, a black pit formed in my stomach and the post-trip elation I had felt vanished. Though Clover didn’t break the skin, Cooper did have several teeth scrapes on his hand and wrist. But I kept picturing him pretending to be a dog and picking up the bone in his mouth. What would have happened to his face? I felt sick. And oddly, I never felt a bit of anger for Clover. I felt very, very sad for her because I loved her so much and so did the kids. But something had changed and there was no going back.
The rest of the week was a gut-wrenching blur.The weight of responsibility to do the right thing for our kids and for Clover left me without an appetite or the ability to think of anything else. I looked at rescues that might take her but not being a “pure bred,” many wouldn’t even consider her. Several rescues only took shelter dogs on death row and would not take owner-give ups. Still others would not take dogs that have bitten. And I knew, based on her stranger anxiety, Clover would never be a good candidate for re-homing, whether from our house or a foster home she had settled into.
Finally, I talked to our vet and we discussed the options. We both worried she may be abused if she was adopted by another family who didn’t tolerate her nervous quirks around new people, or if worse, she snapped at someone. We thought of trying meds but when she checked her charts, we realized we’d already tried them when we first adopted her and they made her behavior worse. I knew we could not keep her with our children in the house and dozens of friends who come over throughout the year. I was crushed. I. Loved. That. Dog. She bit my child and I still adored her silly little face and her soft fur and the way she loved me. But my children came first and her safety came next. She would be traumatized by being abandoned at the Humane Society and that was the only option we had left. I couldn’t do it and imagine her sitting in a cold kennel alone and wondering where we were and left to an uncertain fate.
The vet and I decided we would put her down right then and there because I knew I couldn’t take her home and spend “a last night” with her, counting down the hours. The pain would be more unbearable than it already was. I held her and fed a treat with some medicine in it to help her relax and then the vet gave her a shot to sedate her. She snuggled on my lap as I sobbed, racked with guilt and fear, not knowing if I was doing the right thing but with the full support of the vet who had watched us struggle with training and socializing her for months when we first got her. Finally, she fell asleep. The vet asked if I wanted to stay for the final shot, but I had to leave to pick up Cooper and she had spent her last conscious hour in my arms. I knew she wouldn’t realize if I was there or not for the very end. I was so exhausted from the week of uncertainty and anguish that I left her sleeping peacefully, cradled in a towel by the vet, who she would never would have allowed to get near her had she been conscious. Euthanizing a healthy, vibrant little dog who brought our family so much joy, despite her unpredictable behavior, was the most terrible choice I have ever had to make and I will probably always wonder if I may have made a mistake and if there was something I could have done better to have prevented this outcome.
I miss you, Clover, and I know you never meant any harm. You weren’t perfect, but none of us are and I loved you every bit as much as I did my dog, Bear, who never hurt a fly. Love is complicated like that and if it wasn’t, this would have been a lot easier.
Thanks for hearing my story.