the hardest thing

We have come to a very difficult place with Bubba. The short story is that he bit someone last weekend. We were on vacation in a place where he’d never been, and the person he bit was a stranger to him. Fortunately, though it was a serious enough bite to break the skin and I’m sure very painful, she was as gracious and understanding as someone who was just dog-bitten could be. When it happened we were outside. I had him on leash and he was barking excitedly when this new person approached him, along with Natasha and two other friends with whom he is very familiar. As soon as she was within range he jumped and immediately bit her.

I was mortified when it happened, feeling so much guilt, embarrassment, anger at Bubba, and disappointment in myself for not preventing it. In hindsight I’ve run through a dozen ways that the situation could have gone differently, and I hold myself responsible for allowing the meeting to take place while he wasn’t calm. I should have heeded the warning he was giving by barking. He is often anxious when meeting new people. We tell everyone who meets him (including this time) to ignore him until he settles down and to turn their back to him and not pet him if he jumps. Normally after a moment he calms and sits and is ready to be greeted. It was unsafe for me to assume that’s how this would go.

I can point to lots of factors that contributed to the situation:
– Being in a new environment
– Enduring a long car trip the day before
– Stress over Natasha and I being separated and having other people around Natasha
– Wearing a different and less restrictive harness than the one he’s most recently been using (because he broke the metal clasp on his head halter earlier in the weekend while trying to get at a dog we were driving past in the car)
– The woman probably smelled strongly of her own dog
– Already being agitated when the group approached

On their own, these are all things that should be manageable, but together they pushed him past his threshold of comfort and self-control. These were some factors in play this time. It could have just as easily have been things like a motorcycle passing, a boisterous person, kids playing nearby, seeing another dog, or a host of other things. His potential triggers are numerous and hard to predict. Sometimes a thing that has never been a problem before will set him off, other times he cruises past something I’d assume he couldn’t handle. Here on this blog I’ve talked a lot about his challenges but mostly focused on his successes. It’s hard to understand the full scope without having seen him lose control and become a lunging, barking, single-minded blur of black fur. Seeing that side of him has always been difficult, and now that his reactivity has taken the form of aggression toward a person, we’re dealing with a much more serious matter.

Where we go from here is not completely clear. I have to acknowledge that despite all the love, patience, work, and lifestyle modifications we’ve made since bringing him home almost ten months ago, Bubba’s needs are more than we can confidently and safely manage. His limitations become our limitations. That means we can’t take him with us when we visit our families, or bring him anywhere there are likely to be loose dogs, or lots of people or kids around. He’s unpredictable, and regrettably, potentially dangerous when being introduced to new people. He is too stressed by new environments to be able to enjoy trips or vacations to unfamiliar places. Anytime we want to visit our families for more than a couple hours at a time, or go away for a vacation, he needs to have a dogsitter come stay with him at our house, that comes with another set of challenges for him and us. And maybe most painfully, as loveable as he is with us at home, we won’t be able to trust him around a baby or young child once we start a family.

For the rest of the weekend we let these realities start to settle in, and since returning home I have been working on figuring out what our next steps are. I’ve started contacting rescue groups and no-kill shelters but so far those avenues haven’t been much help. I also contacted the shelter he came from and was completely discouraged by that conversation. We are actually contractually obligated to return Bubba to that shelter if ever we are unable to care for him. To me that seems like a death sentence for him. I know this dog and fully believe that if he’s left in a pen around a bunch of other noisy dogs, he will never be able to show any of his positive qualities. Add to that a bite history and I can only imagine he would quickly be considered unadoptable. This is not a no-kill shelter. I don’t want to think of the possibilities. I explained all of this to the shelter staff and asked for help with identifying some alternatives, but the bottom line in their mind is still that if we feel we can’t keep him, we need to bring him back there and they “can’t make promises” about what may happen from that point. I just don’t see that as an option.

An ideal life for Bubba would be one where he has an almost always consistent routine with a few familiar places and people, no kids, no other dogs, and a patient owner who understands anxious dogs and doesn’t leave home often. These are the conditions in which he’d thrive and be his happiest. I believe something like that that exists for him somewhere out there. I also have to be honest with myself that we can’t provide that kind of life for him. I am angry with the shelter where we got him for not being more up front with us when we adopted him (we were told he was only four months old and that he was great with kids and babies, neither of which was/is true). I regret not learning more about dogs before adopting, because maybe I would have picked up on some of the earliest signs there at the shelter that he wasn’t the best match for us. I’m so sad to imagine not having this guy by my side every day, not having our morning walks or hearing him sigh while he sleeps by my desk at work. I do feel like a failure in many ways, in spite of all our best efforts and all of the hopes I’ve had for Bubba. More than anything, I’m committed to finding a better situation for him, and if I can do that I won’t feel like I’ve failed him.

The next steps are still unfolding. There is no emergency to get him out of the house immediately, but we’re actively working at it. I welcome any guidance or suggestions from people who are more connected or know more about this process than I do. In the meantime I am also looking into starting him on some anti-anxiety meds to help him manage himself better and give him the best chance as he moves forward. We’re still as committed as ever to providing him with patient and clear guidance and setting him up to be successful in whatever ways we can. There is so much more to say about the particularities of Bubba himself and all the factors that have led to this decision, and I am sure I’ll write about some of those things in future posts. It will be a long time before I’ve fully wrapped my head and heart around all of this.

A recent success on a happier day- Bubba on top of Mt. Chocorua in New Hampshire