This blog is harder than you think it’s gonna be
There’s a thing about animals, and it is this: An animal in an unbearable situation shuts itself down to cope.
So you get horses like Takota, who–still recovering from long term undernourishment and circumstances in which he didn’t thrive–was expertly assessed as super thoughtful, super eager to please. (Well, he IS eager to please.) And I totally get that, I don’t judge that–it’s exactly how he presented. Only when he grew healthier, had his new routines, his new safety, his new mental freedom, did his true anxiety come out. [He’s doing very well now, a year later and on a magnesium calmer. Still very much himself, and starting to blossom into the horse everyone thought he could be.]
And you also get a dog like Benjy.
In six months of his known history, Benjy went from pack dog to loose dog to Shelter1 to Shelter2 to Home1 back to Shelter2 (not housebroken, DUH) to Home2 for only a month before his separation anxiety made clear it wasn’t a good match, no matter how he was loved. (And he was. Very much.) We connected through a caring breeder, captivated by his description as a gentle, quiet dog who would fit perfectly into our pack for his golden years.
He was managed there until we could get him here, so we’re his seventh major transition in those six months–a journey that started with the loss of his pack (for good or for bad), the loss of his premolars/molars (kept all his fighting teeth, unfortunately), and the loss of his testicles and therefore all the hormones to which he’d been accustomed for the first twelve years of his life.
I knew the moment Benjy arrived that gentle and quiet weren’t the right words for his withdrawn and anxious nature. No. He was desperately anxious, eye-poppingly anxious. He was easy to handle because he’d shut himself down in self-defense, not because he was relaxed about it all–and his adorable smile was more from the changes to his face from his missing teeth than an active expression.
But it was an inward observation, not a spoken one, because that didn’t mean he wasn’t gentle or quiet in the long run, or that he wouldn’t be the perfect fit he’d seemed for our pack. And he’d just been through a long trip. He needed time.
But not very much.
When I wrote my Benjy welcome blog, he’d been here less than 48 hours, but had met all the pack in a careful, appropriate fashion, and everything looked great. Greater than great. Just like Alice and Rena before that, the pack said, “Oh, you’re a Beagle. Come on in!” and Benjy did.
But the day after I published that blog, he turned on them all. One at a time, from behind, striking like a snake.
And it was only the beginning. Calming aids, careful reintroduction, great success…and a week later, he trapped sleeping Dart inside a dogloo and beat him silly. Increased calming aids, super careful reintroductions…even better success and progress. They played together; Benjy had moments of delightful goofiness. I was training him only lightly for manners, giving him games so we could connect. And the day after we all had a marvelous evening in the yard together, he again trapped Dart in the dogloo and extensively beat the crap out of him while I helplessly tried to break it up from the outside.
It was bad.
And this is where you all have to trust me: It wasn’t normal. None of it was normal. It was a flipping switch. Jekyll & Hyde. Not training, but behavioral glitch. And I knew the moment I rushed Dart, bleeding, into the house, that Benjy would never be in that yard with the other dogs again.
(Dart was much better off than feared–those ear and facial nicks bleed ferociously when a dog is high on adrenaline. Imagine being Dart–sleeping in cozy safety, and WHAM! Suddenly fighting for your life, trapped in a small space. Plenty of adrenaline. His back was wrenched but I kept him on NSAIDs and restrictions for five days and he came out of it.)
So I could tell you details about the weeks after that, hours each day spent establishing a life structure for Benjy, training and management and hand feeding him every morsel of food in exchange for his good behavior. I could tell you about his extreme responses, and how the carefully introduced muzzle made him crazed, how the merest hint of rain flipped his uber-anxiety switch and how he escalated to threaten Mr. Other.
I could but I won’t, because it’s too hard. During that time I spoke to over a dozen experts, from experienced trainers to profoundly educated and experienced behavior resources. Not because I hoped to salvage him a space in my pack–that door was closed. But because…
What now? Where now?
For a 12-year-old super anxious dog who’s glitching in the best of circumstances? Who’s already been through so much? Who can’t live without his pack, can’t live WITH his pack, and can’t make it in a Beagle-savvy training home? Surrendering him would only be passing the problem–the very big problem–along to someone else. And it would be the cruelest possible choice for a dog like this to go back into the system.
On all this, all my experts agreed.
For the past month, I’ve spent nearly every waking and most sleeping hours on this situation. The conversations. The consultations. The options. The decisions. The logistical nightmare of keeping him separated from from the others, the hours spent working with him and knowing I wasn’t reaching him. There’s been no writing, no office maintenance, no training, no daily perma-PT. Don’t even ask me about the agility trial that occurred in the middle of it all.
After Benjy threatened Mr. Other, I stopped all efforts to ameliorate his behavior. It wasn’t normal. It wasn’t sane. And it wasn’t going to be affected by training, or stopped by the layers of calming tools that had, in fact, already changed/relaxed his overall demeanor greatly. At this point, I considered him on behavioral hospice, but I wasn’t the only one involved. This dog had come to me with the trust that I would provide him with the best possible retirement.
So while I worked through all the options, consulted even further, and moved the conversation forward, I gave Benjy the very best time I could. Not that he was truly happy–not isolated from the other dogs, a situation he felt so keenly that he slept on the rocks lining the divider fence to be close to them–but he had some good moments. And eventually it couldn’t have been more clear, that all options were clearly not options at all. I called the vet clinic.
And it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
But it wasn’t about ME. It was about saving Benjy. From himself, and from a world he could no longer navigate.
Benjy left us on a beautiful spring day with sunshine breezes still tickling his nose, his previous owner crooning into one ear via the phone and me crooning into the other.