For years, prior to buying our house, Mark and I coveted a dog. Because we both like bigger breeds, our living situations (apartments or urban settings with no yard) had prohibited it. We’d sit around talking about the possible breeds (Rottweiler? Great Dane? Golden? Greyhound?) envisioning games of fetch and long walks in the park. In time, we agreed on a Rhodesian Ridgeback
and as soon as we settled into our home, we began our search in earnest.
In June 2001, we met George through the Rhodesian Ridgeback Rescue Organization’s New York contact. He was 5 and, we were told, “not good” with other dogs, but otherwise “a big mush.”
He came to our house for an afternoon and we fell in love. At 120 pounds, he was big for the breed, and somewhat aloof (classic Ridgeback), but after sniffing us both he came over and gave us a lean, which is his way of saying, “I think you’re cool, now pet me.”
A week later, Mark picked him up and he moved in permanently.
But the relationship wasn’t as blissful as we imagined. He was not just “not good” with other dogs. In reality, he turned vicious—lunging and snarling—at the mere sight of them. He didn’t listen and rarely came when called. He couldn’t walk on a leash and he stole food off counters or tables. He was skittish and nervous and panted anxiously whenever we took him anywhere new.
We blamed his previous owners for failing him by not socializing or training him properly. More so, he seemed afraid a lot of the time. He’d cower if we raised our voice. We wondered if he’d been abused in his previous home and decided minimally he’d been neglected.
A month after he came to us, he growled and snapped at me when I tried to pry an emery board he was chewing out of his mouth. Startled, I contacted the Rescue Organization’s contact who told me George was just trying to find his place in his new “pack.” She e-mailed me some exercises to do with him, such as feeding him by hand and making him wait for food, along with the name of some local trainers.
I worked diligently with him on the exercises, and things got better, but for one reason or another, we never contacted the trainer. And this is where we began to fail him.
George’s behavior was unsteady. The vast majority of the time he was good-natured and mellow, choosing to lay around the house and looking up at us with his big, sweet, chocolate brown eyes when walked into the room and thumping his tail on his bed. Mark and I called him our third couch because he was just a big, lazy, tranquil guy who laid around dreaming most of the day.
We had a lot of fun too. Before we had kids, Mark and I took him to the beach one warm December day and the three of us ran up and over huge mountains of sand. The memory of that day lingers as one of the happiest of my adult life.
Our cat, Oscar, would sit on George's bed - smack in the middle - forcing George to curl up far to one side with his butt hanging off.
And there was no where - absolutely no where - he'd rather be than laying with his massive head in Mark's lap while he slipped into a deep, happy sleep.
But other times, his Alpha nature shone through. He’d literally push us out of the way trying to get in the door first. He’d snatch food right out of your hand if he had the chance and every now and then there would be a growling incident because one of us was trying to make him do something he didn’t want to do.
I gradually came to mistrust him and when Peanut was born I told Mark flat out that if he ever bit her, I’d have him out of the house before the sun went down.
When the girls were babies, I watched them like hawks around George. I feared one of them would crawl over and try to pull up on him, or fall on his bed and he’d bite them. In my active imagination it was always a terrible bite to the face with blood and stitches and permanent scars. Fear kept me motivated and they were never left alone in the room with him.
But as time went on and they got more in control of their movements, I relaxed. It became a non-issue because in all honesty, neither Peanut nor Loaf paid any attention to George. His reputation as a big couch held firm. He bored them and they ignored him for the most part, which was fine with me.
Two weeks ago yesterday, I was working at home and had to participate in a conference call with a client. Mark wasn’t home, so I put in a video. With the kids entranced on the couch, I retreated to the dining room to take my call. I could see them, but I was also furiously taking notes.
The call went long and apparently Loaf got bored and decided to get off the couch. I don’t know what happened exactly, but suddenly I heard a fierce bark/growl followed by horrible, panicked loud crying.
“I have to go,” I said calmly to my client. “I think my dog just bit my child.” As I clicked the off button on the phone I could barely hear my client saying, “GO! GO!”
I ran into the next room, heart in my throat, remembering all of my visions about shredded cheeks and stitches and blood.
Scooping her up, I carefully examined her face. Red and stained with tears, but otherwise fine, I squeezed her tightly to my chest and brought her into the kitchen so I could sit her on the counter and look her over more thoroughly.
I immediately found the ring of teeth marks on the outside of her elbow. Seeing the raised, purple, angry-looking marks, I began to sob right along with her. The guilt, the horror, the panic of the whole thing came flooding in, along with enormous relief. The skin isn’t even broken. It could have been worse. So much worse. We were lucky.
Since then, George has been sequestered dawn until dusk. The last two weeks have been a series of agonizing discussions and deliberations in my house. What to do? What to do?
My own words echoed in my head: If he ever bites her, I’ll have him out of the house before the sun goes down.
In reality, it wasn’t so easy.
We debated all our options. I called five different rescue organizations (no one called me back). I sent e-mails to every dog lover I know. We debated whether George, already neurotic from being abandoned by one family, could survive being given up again. We thought long and hard about possible ways to keep him sequestered every day, all day in our home.
But in the end the same questions kept haunting us: What if? What if he jumps the gate that we’d been using to keep him in the bedroom? What if we forget to put him away one time? What if one of the kids climbs the gate to get to him? What if he bites again? What if next time we aren’t as lucky? How would we ever live with ourselves?
In the end, we decided to take his life peacefully, on our terms. It was not easy, opting to euthanize a healthy dog, even an 11-year-old dog with a belligerent streak.
There is guilt.
A lot of it.
I have euthanized many animals in my life, all of them very sick and/or very old. This feels different. It’s not as black and white as it should be. I mean, George bit my child – the child who above all I am committed to protecting. This should have been clear-cut.
But it wasn’t. Because I keep coming back to how every master, us included, have failed George in some way. By not being hard enough, firm enough and at times loving enough. By not training him and guiding him. By not teaching him. By being too tough sometimes and not tough enough others. George never really got a fair shake in life.
Don’t get me wrong. I think he had a happy life here. I know he felt deep affection - and he gave it back to us. He had love and food, water and shelter, play time and lots of walks. But without the training and guidance to learn his place, the rest proved to be pretty inconsequential.
I hope wherever George is now that he’s happy and safe. I hope there are no thunderstorms or leashes, but rather lots of sunny spots to lay in and a bowl always full of fresh meat. Above all, I hope he finally gets a home where he is given the guidance he needs to show his caregivers what a wonderful, amazing, loving, special dog he is and can be. Always.