It wasn’t long after we’d lost Oliver – the best dog ever – that I found myself at the Humane Society on a Monday morning in the fall of 2003. As a newly minted professional dog trainer and someone committed to finding a rescue, I had an inside track on some new puppies that were coming in. I took one look at this litter of what looked like Cattle Dog mixes, and decided on the red one with adorable spotted legs.
Did I Make the Right Decision?
I paid the fee and put her in the front passenger seat for the short ride home. She immediately “came undone” and started the high pitched yelp that would become her trademark vocalization throughout her life. One part “bird call”, another a painful piercing sound that could send people running in the other direction, I should have turned the car around right then and brought her back. But, I didn’t! I proceeded home with this adorable screaming pup and a lifetime of lessons – an education, really, on what to do with an incredibly smart and somewhat complicated dog. I had no idea, at the time, what I was getting myself into.
As a puppy, she was fast to learn. She loved her crate on her own terms and even continued to try to get into it even after she’d outgrown it. If I put her in there and closed the door, the screaming would start, almost immediately. It took all the strength I could muster and intense patience to crate-train her. She was an extremely affectionate dog – which is how her name was selected. Dolce is “sweet” in Italian. And, while one of her nicknames was “Miss Lickums”, she was not a cuddler. She preferred to be at a distance. I would sit at the head of the bed and she was always at my feet. Another of her trademark behaviors is to lie on her bed facing away from me, and, every 10 or 15 minutes she’d lift her head and look toward me to say “are you still there?” I’ll always remember that endearing quality.
Dolce went through every class I did to make sure she got well trained and properly socialized. After all, come hell or high water, she was going to be my training assistant. She seemed to do extremely well in each basic obedience class at every level. She even learned our ZEN exercises, became my ZEN Master and amazed everyone with her ability to stay focused. She quickly learned to play “patty cake” and would thrill children with that trick. Anything to do with food and she was more than happy to perform at the drop of a hat. Then one day, in our Advanced Meet & Greet class, one dog got a little too close while demonstrating a proper “sniff test”. The dog took some hair from her tail and this started my life with a hyper vigilant and often overly reactive dog – just the type of dog I helped as a regular part of my work.
Shit Happens - even when you're a dog trainer!
I did my best to be cautionary with her – to redirect her behavior and avoid incidents where she or another dog would get hurt. I tried my best to counter-condition and desensitize her but never knew what would set her off. Almost channeling my deceased mother who would love who she loved and take an instant disliking to others, Dolce would fiercely love certain dogs and respond just as negatively to others. There was never a pattern I could follow or a way of anticipating when she would decide to attack.
On one occasion, while working with a client and her miniature schnauzer, I let Dolce out of my car to “go potty” and the client’s dog emitted a low growl of warning. It was enough to incite Dolce to go into full-on attack. She went after the poor dog and after I pulled her off once, she went back again for a second round. After refunding the client for the training and offering to pay for the vet bills, I seriously thought about putting Dolce down. I thought long and hard and suffered guilt over the attack and grief about what could, potentially, happen again. People often forget that dogs are animals and as such, even domesticated ones are closer to wild than any of us would like to believe.
Oh Crap, She Has a Prey Drive!
Shortly after this incident, Dolce had her first of two ACL repairs. On three legs while standing on our back deck, and in only 15 seconds, I saw her chase down a squirrel, grab it, shake it and kill it. I realized at that moment that Dolce, like many companion dogs, had a strong prey drive. I probably knew it before this incident, but never wanted to admit it to myself or anyone else. I saw how much she loved Mabel, a five-pound Yorkie mix, who was one of her dearest friends. I also saw Dolce embarrass herself on a regular basis whenever she’d see Wallace, a Cairn terrier on a walk with her owner screaming her signature yelp for the world to hear. For Dolce, it was a very specific trigger that would lead her to react badly. To this day I’m still uncertain of what would actually set her off. It has caused me both embarrassment and a great deal of sadness.
Dog's Lives Are Too Short for Me!
About a year and a half ago, during a procedure to remove what I thought were benign fatty tumors, she was diagnosed with cancer. We took her to the best canine oncologist in the area and started oral chemotherapy. It was unsuccessful and the tumor continued to grow. I made a decision to stop the treatment and let her live her life out naturally. Since then, the tumor has more than quadrupled in size. It probably weighs about seven or eight pounds. She’s on a great deal of pain medication for her knees that are now quite arthritic. The tumor protrudes grotesquely on the outside and is probably just as large on the inside – pressing on her rib cage – resulting in labored difficulty breathing. For a great while now she’s been unable to enjoy walks or other once enjoyable activities. While she still eats like every meal is her last one and enjoys a good chew on a bully stick, I believe her quality of life has been greatly compromised.
So, the decision has been made. Tomorrow, we will be euthanizing my sweet Dolce. She will be missed by many especially her Labradoodle companion, Justice, but she’ll be leaving this world with her dignity intact. I waited too long with Oliver and pledged to never let that happen again. Today she has had some of her favorite foods – leftover pizza, sliced ham from the specialty market, red peppers (her favorite) and some other things later tonight. In dog heaven she can eat unlimited amounts of food without some human there to tell her “that’s enough.” Her human friends have stopped by to give her a last hug and get the ever-flowing kisses from Miss Lickums. Today, in the life of this dog, it’s been a very good day. Tomorrow, we say good-bye!