We all experience life circumstances beyond our control, loss of jobs, end of a relationships, illness, catastrophic circumstances…and if animals were only surrendered for those reasons, there would still be too many of them to re-home. We also live in a society where indiscriminate breeding is permitted; a throw away culture where shelters unwittingly encourage the surrender of animals, merely by their existence and the assumption that the animal left there will find a home. Personally I would like to write one big prescription for our society...one big pill that would compel people to think before they acquire an animal. Taking home an animal today without really considering where you will be personally in 5 years is stupid. To adopt an animal without considering your own longevity, as well as the animals, is just as stupid. When I adopted my last dog I considered that he would likely live anywhere from 10 to 15 years, I would be well into my 60s when he passed, I decided that he would be my last young dog, and by the time I was ready for another, it would be an elderly dog.
Although dogs live in the moment, react to their environment based on their understanding of it, and can quickly size up what will keep them alive and what will keep them safe; this is not to say that a dog can’t store memories or have the development of their wiring interrupted. Dogs are fully capable of making associations with their memories, good or bad…and often they make those associations for life. In 1990 I adopted such a dog, Bandit. He was a Black Lab German Shepard mix, who had both his front legs broken by the time he was 6 months old. Already past the age of one year, this un-neutered male was my first rescue, who had no concept of “sit” and possessed every bad habit from lifting his leg on the interior walls of my house, to fear biting. Bandit was terrified of moving cars, children on Big Wheels, men in uniform, work boots, and seeing my reflection in the mirror. Those were his triggers, but in my mind they were easy to manage, and I managed them very well. I made sure that any mirrors in the house were well above his eye level. There were no small children in my life and no chance of encountering a Big Wheel ever again. If I expected a delivery I put him in a safe place to avoid stressing him…and the boots could be taken off before walking in the house, while working on desensitizing him. The advantage I had was access to the people who had previously owned him. Bandit had belonged to my neighbor, they had never really been invested in him but, I could ask questions and get honest answers. This information helped me frame a picture of exactly how Bandit viewed his world…and for him it was a pretty scary place. Our first introduction was standing over the dead body of my pet rabbit Nicholas. However, I didn’t hold that against Bandit, I understood that it was his instinct that made him kill my rabbit. It was not indicative of an aggression issue; it was his prey drive, a manifestation of any dogs’ innate instincts to hunt for his food, which ironically he had to do often because of irregular or forgotten feedings. Bandit and I spent almost 10 years together and while he learned a lot from me, I learned far more from him. I learned about dogs in general, about perseverance, trust and complete unconditional love. I also learned that you can put forth your absolute best effort to rehabilitate a dog and sometimes all the love and dedication in the world is not going to change what is wrong. It is then you must ask yourself; is this something I can live with? Such was the case with Daryl.
Fast forward 20 years and 9 rescue dogs later, the rest of this is a story about a dog, a very good dog, who had the cards stacked against him before he was out of the womb. This is a tale of a dog that arrived in this world born of selfish and irresponsible reasons, as so many often are. His human counter parts bred their male and female with the intentions to sell the puppies along with drugs to their customers. Daryl’s home environment was one of feces covered floors, squalor and chaos. He, his litter mates and parents were taken to the local shelter after his humans were arrested. The children who lived in the home were placed into state custody. It is easy to stop and imagine what implications such an environment, might have on any puppy. At this point in my life I knew a little something about dogs and considered that the crucial months of Daryl’s life had been lost in circumstance. I knew that between 2 and three months of age there occurred a first ‘fear imprint’ period, had he experienced anything detrimental, it would likely have a lasting impact, as the wiring in his brain was still developing. As fate, (if you believe in such things) would have it, he was adopted for a brief period at around 4 months of age, into yet another irresponsible situation, eventually culminating in a return to the same shelter just a few weeks later. Daryl remained there for another 6 weeks before coming to live with me. By the time I adopted Daryl, I was home number 3, five if you count two trips to the shelter, and he was only 7 months old. He knew “sit”, “paw” and when told “down”, he hit the floor with such force it shook the walls. He didn’t go “down” in a relaxed state looking forward to what was next. He went down in fear and immediately turned his head to the side in anticipation. The first time I saw this I knew I had discovered one of his peccadillos, but felt confident that with trust and time he would come to anticipate a treat instead of being hit.
Soon after his adoption I took him to a state park with a friend and her dog. I thought our visit there would tell me a lot about him and it did. Not only was he on sensory overload, but Daryl became a growling and frightened dog when he saw a man wearing a ski mask walking toward us. Rather than continue to put Daryl in an environment where he would fail, I decided a less busy place would be best. On the way to our destination my friend of more than twenty years and I discussed his reaction to the guy in the ski mask. She was an experienced dog person, former handler and worked with boxer rescue, she thought it was a very telling reaction, but what was it telling? Over the next several weeks my assessment of Daryl was by all measurable accounts that he was well adjusted considering his rough start. We had been out hiking and walking, where he met strangers, both adults and children, as well as other dogs, some were well behaved, others not so much. In each case he was appropriate. Everyone who met him loved him and found him quite charming. He had no fear of having his nails cut. Two of my past rescues had to be muzzled and one required meds, for nail trims to be accomplished. Daryl would just roll over on his back and take it in stride. I could place my entire hand in his food dish and he would lick around my fingers. He allowed two of his feline housemates to eat from his bowl with him. I could take away his most favorite toys, his bed, his blankets effortlessly without reaction; he showed no signs of resource guarding. Daryl learned the first hour he was in his forever home how to “stay”. He soon learned to ring a bell to alert me when he had to go out, and became very adept at abusing it when he just wanted to stretch his legs. He learned to sit in front of a warm bowl of food on a “stay” and rely solely on my eye signal to step forward and eat it. And he learned all of these things within a 10 to 20 minute period. His intelligence was nothing short of amazing to me. I felt as if I had hit the mother-load of dogs, finally after years of rescuing physically and emotionally battered dogs the universe had rewarded me with Daryl.
In early spring on what had become a daily 2 to 4 mile hike and nearing the end of our journey, Daryl and I were both startled by a young black woman who came running off of the wooded trails. Upon seeing her Daryl immediately went into defensive mode, he became snarling and distressed. I chalked up his reaction to having been taken off guard, but did mention my concern to a friend. A week later, we saw the same woman, jogging on the opposite side of the road, as she approached us she slowed to a walk, Daryl had the same reaction. I began thinking about his adverse reaction and considered the fact that his original owners, the people who bred his parents had been both been black. And I thought about the man in the ski mask and how he had reacted to that. Maybe the two were unrelated, maybe not.
On November 9th 2012 I had a dog trainer/behaviorist come to my home to evaluate Daryl. He spent about 30 minutes in my kitchen with Daryl who was licking his beard and taking treats. By all accounts he felt that Daryl was of a sound mind and that he saw nothing to be concerned with. I shared with him our experiences with the ski mask and the encounters with young black woman. So the trainer/behaviorist had me take Daryl on a leash into the living room and sit on the couch with him. He put on the ski mask and his hooded sweatshirt, left the house and then re-entered, coming into the living room. And as I expected Daryl did not react well, it was actually worse than I had previously seen him. The trainer/behaviorist left the room, took off the ski mask and sweatshirt and returned to the living room and Daryl reacted the same way. He was unable to discern that the guy he had just been giving kisses to and taking treats from in the kitchen was back, and the scary ski mask guy was gone, so much in fact that he never took his eyes off the trainer and would not accept any treats from him and would not stop snarling and growling. It was apparent that Daryl had no off switch.
Was it the ski mask? Was it the dark skin? Was it both? Was his interpretation and perception of each, the same thing for him? Was he abused by the people who owned his parents? Had he associated unpleasant memories with someone with dark skin? Had someone started aggression training with him using a ski mask? I will never know for sure, but it doesn’t take much effort to connect the dots, that he had experienced something traumatic at some point along the way during his development and he hadn’t forgotten it. This could have been any dog, the fact that Daryl was a pit bull is irrelevant in this story, but it will be the lynch pin that some people will chose to focus on, I ask that you don't.
I could have done what many people do, go into denial and stay there, take the chance that nothing would ever happen, but denial has never been a comfortable place for me. In order to keep Daryl safe it would have meant avoiding running into people with a darker skin color than mine, or avoiding ski masks and possibly never wearing one myself. Daryl would have had a very limited life, as I would never be able to control who we might run into or the color of their skin. There would be no more hikes in public places, there would be no more waiting in a parked car for me, and there would be no more visits inside the pet stores. Daryl’s quality of life would be spun around in a 190 turn from what he had just spent the past 10 months living, and that was neither fair nor responsible. I owed it to Daryl and to his pit bull brothers and sisters across this country, whose owners fight tirelessly the bad rap that they have received, to let him go, and do so with dignity and love, knowing that the last 10 months of his life, and been the absolute best months of his life. On November 10th, 2012 Daryl died in my arms, I held him until his body was cool, kissed his colorless pibble lips one last time, laid him down and wrapped him in a blanket and said good-bye to the love of my life. Barely able to walk out of the vet’s office, I left him.
To be left with no choice but to end the life of my dog because he may have been mistreated as a young pup and left emotionally damaged; or perhaps irresponsible breeding resulted in faulty wiring angers me, which at present is equal to my sorrow. Every day I strove to make special for Daryl, even if it were only a few extra snuggles. I had a very conscious relationship with Daryl, had I not been so in-tune to him and aware, things may have tuned out very differently with a far worse outcome.
To say that my heart is broken is an understatement. There are no words in the English language that can begin to describe the depth of my anguish. I didn’t just love my dog; I lived my dog. To the jerk who accused me last year of being “bleeding heart who wanted to save every dog that came along”. To him I say...that I’m far from a bleeding heart, quite to the contrary, I am a realist. As a dog owner, I had to do one of the hardest things you will ever have to do, end the life of an otherwise healthy animal. And that takes a brave heart.