no easy solutions

It’s been a month and a half since Bubba’s bite incident. We’ve spent these weeks connecting with rescue groups, shelters, trainers and other “dog people” in hopes of finding a more appropriate home for him, all with little success. Three people have expressed interest in him so far, and none have been appropriate enough to get past the initial phone call. Two of the families had kids, and one woman thought he’d make a good companion for her in-laws who are in their 70s (they later decided they weren’t ready for a dog).

From trainers and rescues, we keep hearing the same things; “it’s very hard to find a home for a dog with a bite history,” “take him to obedience training,” and “have you considered putting him down?” being the top three responses. I am not criticizing these responses or the wonderful people who have offered us feedback, but it is discouraging and ultimately of little help. We have worked with trainers, starting right when we brought him home when he was seven months old. He has completed training classes and we work with him daily on obedience. His behavioral issues, anxiety and reactivity/aggression, have always been present and seem ingrained rather than a result of improper training efforts.

A few good things have come around over the past month, including identifying a great dogsitter. A friend of ours who is fantastic with dogs has stayed with Bubba a couple times, allowing us to go away for Natasha’s birthday and to visit family. It’s been a relief to have time alone together, and to be able to do so knowing that Bubba is in great hands and will be tired and happy when we come home… a real game changer for us. We have also decided to cancel a few weekend trips we had planned with Bubba this summer because it seemed like too much to handle. Our time at home has been peaceful.

We also followed the advice of some friends and trainers and got a D.A.P. (dog appeasing pheremone) collar. This is like a flea collar that emits a calming pheremone and supposedly helps take the edge off for some anxious dogs. We’ve been using it for about a month and I think it’s been partially effective. I do notice Bubba being somewhat more laid back, but ultimately it has not changed his core behaviors or triggers, just made them less exaggerated sometimes. We haven’t tried prescription anxiety medication and I don’t know if we will. A consult with an animal behaviorist, which Bubba’s vet requires before starting meds, is almost $500. Everyone I have talked to about using anxiety meds on their own dogs has said it hasn’t resulted in big changes, so I am hesitant to go down that road.

I am really concerned that Bubba is continuing to develop bad behaviors, and I don’t know how to change that. As he has gotten older he has become more aggressively defensive, I’ll call it. If someone approaches him when he feels contained (i.e. in his crate, behind a gate, or sometimes just on leash) he reacts by lunging and aggressively barking or snapping at them. This has happened when someone walks up to my desk, especially while I’m on the phone or otherwise distracted. It’s happened at home when people have walked in front of his crate. It happened the other day when a kid came up behind us riding a scooter on the sidewalk. The behavior has worsened and become more frequent over time. I’m afraid that he’s learned it’s a successful way to get rid of things he doesn’t want to deal with. We know he’s capable of biting, and I am afraid that these “warnings” could develop into a bite-first-ask-questions-later response… or perhaps would have been actual bites if he’d been able to get to the person. 

It is one thing to have a dog that is not okay with other dogs. It takes planning around how and where you can hang out, limits what routes to take on walks, and it reduces options for dog care. All of that is annoying but manageable. It’s another thing all together to have a dog that acts aggressively toward people… even just sometimes. “Sometime” could be any time, and the target could be anyone, even in our own home or neighborhood. Now that the bite is no longer theoretical, it’s scary not knowing if or when it will happen again. His potential to continue this behavior with someone else raises some big questions for me about the safety of rehoming him even to the best placement imaginable.

So here we are, in not much of a different place than we were a month and a half ago. We continue to look for the magical experienced dog owner with a big heart and time to invest in a guy like Bubba, because what are the alternatives? We can keep him with us for a while longer, but as time goes on it feels both harder to keep him and harder to think about saying goodbye. We always have the option of bringing him back to the shelter where we adopted him in hopes that they could find another placement, but in the likely event that they are unsuccessful, they will put him to sleep. I am beginning to see why so many people have brought up the option of euthanizing him ourselves, which is still not on the table at this point.

I feel a lot of anger about this. I am angry at the shelter where we adopted him for not doing behavioral testing on him before allowing him to be adopted. He was only in the shelter a few days and hadn’t been through a full intake process when we met him. I am angry that we were mislead about his age at the time of adoption (he was 7 months old as opposed to 4 months which is what we were told). I am angry that they told us he was “great with kids” when that is so clearly not the case. All that said, we adopted Bubba and when problems presented themselves early on, we could have brought him back to perhaps be adopted out a few more times, or put to sleep as a younger dog. We decided to keep him and work through those challenges. Only it feels like we haven’t been able to work through much, rather we’ve been stuck “in” the challenges and they have increased over time.

I also feel defensive and personally responsible for the situation. I believe, as many folks do, that dogs take on the energy of their people. It’s possible that despite all my best efforts, I have somehow contributed to teaching Bubba these problematic behaviors that are ultimately becoming his undoing. My heart is heavy knowing that his fate is in my hands, and failure to either continue safely caring for him ourselves or to find him a successful home means death.