This is a little different than what I typically post, but it was an assignment for a workshop I was teaching and I felt it was worthy of being shared.
The day we brought him home he was perfect. He was so small with bright blue eyes that could captivate any onlooker, his soft speckled brown hair was meant to be touched. He was the perfect addition to our growing family; a red merle Australian Shepard, just eight weeks old. We named him Azure, for the blueness of his eyes and my affinity for antiquated words that I hoped nobody would know; it was our secret his name being the most generic of dog names Blue but hidden in the mysticism of prose from the Greats (i.e. Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley and Chaucer). But most of the time, we just called him “Bug.”
We had done all the research on the breed we could find on the internet, spoken with people who had Aussies that they loved and who loved them; high energy, intelligent, protective, they like to have a job to perform, great for agility training were the descriptions provided. We did not take pet parenting lightly. Although I was a full time student, and a heavy part time employee working between twenty-five and thirty hours a week, we believed as a unit we could make this work, and we did for a while.
Pet parenting is different than human parenting, although we did not have to provide accommodations for a daily caretaker, we could leave him home alone for hours and nobody was going to come and arrest us. There was no real fear that he would try to use the microwave or oven while we were away. Yet pet parenting is similar to human parenting because when the pet is introduced to the family unit there is an unspoken contract between pet parent and pet that says, “I promise to keep you safe, and I promise to love you no matter what.” That contract alone can be quite a challenge, as Azure would, in time, prove to us.
When he was about four months old, we took him to puppy training. He did well, learning all his basic commands; sit, lay down, off, stay, leave it, take it. And we added some of our own; that’s enough thank you, hut-hut hike, crawl. He knew the difference between “the green toy,” “the rope toy,” and of course the most important “racquet ball.” He loved them all equally for different reasons and different forms of stimulation they provided.
At about a year old, Azure’s temperament shifted. This adorable puppy we brought home and I loved with my whole heart, had a dark side which would emerge in random outbursts; snarling, biting, growling were all becoming frequent responses to negative stimuli in his environment.
To say that Aussies are intelligent is a gross misrepresentation. They are like MENSA smart. Similar to humans, with great intelligence comes great neurosis. Unlike humans, we cannot communicate with them to determine the exact nature of their neurosis. There are no real treatment plans or medications which have been shown to work.
The contract to keep him safe and love him no matter what was still intact. Calling on any resources I could find, I was learning that this job performance was the quintessential Aussie trait. This is why they are herders, this is why they are work dogs on farms. It seems Azure was such a perfect Australian Shepard that his status as family member in a small house with a small yard was somewhat debilitating to him and his mental health.
After a couple instances in which Azure acted out aggressively toward unsuspecting victims; a friend who moved her hand from her hip to her side and another who sat down next to him and looked at him, we enacted rules in our house to keep both him and guests safe when they entered our space; no eye contact with the dog, do not pet the dog, he might come to you at which time you may let him sniff you, but do not pet him. We were attempting to introduce him to people without the threat he perceived people to be, and these were the triggers we identified. When we had an HVAC company come into our house, I put Azure in the car, because he loved to ride in the car which simultaneously provided him with a refuge and the HVAC workers with a normal level of safety. Again, I kept the contract to keep him safe and love him no matter what, but at what point were these house guests not safe either? And at what point is enough enough?
At a year and a half we discussed having him euthanized. I refused. I cried, “You will not kill my baby.” We readjusted our plans. After looking into rescue options, which were not really options for us, having a human bite history in which skin was broken, there are no organizations in our state which would accept him. So, we hired an animal behaviorist charging 100 dollars an hour for her services. In one meeting we simply discussed his behavior while he was tucked back in his crate behind a closed bedroom door. The next, we worked very slowly on introducing him to someone knocking on the front door and entering the house. We were able to determine how wide his comfort zone was, and for a thirty-five pound dog living in a 1200 sq. ft. house it was about eight feet. Nowhere was safe for him if a stranger were to enter. Yet, the rigorous therapy seemed to work for a time. Still, the behaviorist and veterinarian had both told us, he was dangerous. I vowed to keep my contract.
We kept him for another year. Sometimes, I would take him on a run at night when I was sure there would be nobody around. Despite his extensive training and relatively good leash manners, people do not always understand the inappropriate nature of approaching strange dogs; for him, a second was an eternity. I lived in constant fear that something would happen, and my baby would be taken away from me. To euthanize him was, to me, the ultimate admittance of failure; that I had failed as a pet parent, that I had failed him, that he had failed me, and absolutely without a doubt that I had broken the contract.
Late September of 2013 Azure was in an altercation with another dog. A Jack Russell named Flash. He suffered some minor injuries, a puncture wound to his front leg and ear. Flash was okay as well it was not a mauling, but Azure’s attitude over the next couple of days was at its worst. My partner called me to tell me he would not get out of bed to get water or go outside. He growled at her when she approached him. She called me and asked if I could check on him. I entered the back door, unsure of how he might react. From the kitchen I calmly called him, “Hey Bug.” He limped off the bed and down the hallway to greet me. He allowed me to examine his injuries with no sign of aggression whatsoever; this was my dog. This was the dog that I knew and loved. This was the dog that licked my tears when I was sad, who woke up with me in the morning. The dog who faithfully ate the garbage if I did not take it out. This was my baby, and he was no longer safe, but I did love him no matter what.
We had another heated argument about having him euthanized. “He isn’t safe,” she claimed, “He can’t have a normal dog life.”
“He doesn’t need that life. He doesn’t need to go to the dog park or play with multiple people to be happy. He is happy. He is fine.” I fired back.
“He is dangerous. It is just a matter of time before he hurts himself or someone else.”
And that was it. All of my defenses were depleted. He was not safe. He was dangerous to himself and to her. Anyone within eight feet was at risk of being attacked for any reason, particularly if they moved their hand or made eye-contact with him. I promised to keep him safe, and he was no longer safe my line had been cut. I had to make the decision to do what was best for him, which defied all logic and emotional reasoning I had developed in the last twenty-seven years of my life.
I loved him so much, I called the veterinarian. It turns out, one cannot just make an appointment to have their pet euthanized without speaking to the vet directly; which is great because there is a lot of senseless animal euthanasia at least the veterinarian we had chosen is in accordance with the contract we had made with our dog. The vet and I played a game of phone tag for two excruciating days. Finally, we made contact. He was not at all surprised. Azure’s eminent death was scheduled for two days later.
On the day of, I got him ready. I put his leash on him without a muzzle and told him to get into the car. He was so happy. We drove to the veterinarian’s office. I handed the leash to the assistant, and as she walked him toward the bend in the hallway I said, “Bye Bug.” He stopped, turned his head, cocked it ever so slightly, nodded, and kept walking. I had held my end of the contract to the very last day. Although he had been in some precarious situations, I, the pet parent, had always done my best to keep him safe and love him no matter what. Despite the cycle of human grief which flowed in the months following, I guess, deep down I knew we had made the most responsible decision that could have been made both safely and with love.