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:
- Live with the problem dog as he is.
- Re-home the animal to a more suitable environment.
- Attempt to rehabilitate the animal to an acceptable level.
- 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).