As dog lovers, we often sit and look at our dogs, and wonder. We wonder where they may have come from when we don’t know. We wonder what they think. We wonder a lot of things about our dogs and often these musings allow us to make choices for our dogs, in their best interests.
Imagine for a moment that you are a veterinarian on call for a local emergency room. One night, in the middle of the night, long after the lights are out for almost everyone else, you are called in by the hospital to attend to a dog who was hit by a bus. The dog has no collar and no microchip is evident, so no owner is known, and the local humane society has been called.
When you arrive at the clinic, and you come into the surgery, the dog is standing on the exam table and a tech is holding the dog’s head to keep him from moving around. You approach the table and look at the right side of dog. The dog is standing and although the dog is a bit wobbly, he is conscious and standing on his own four feet. What you see is the most beautiful dog in the world. In your mind’s eye, this is the dog you have been waiting to meet for your whole life. When you were a child, this is the dog you imagined you would spend your life with. The dog is apparently young, and has a shiny, healthy coat. You ask the tech if an owner has been found, and no one has appeared, but the humane society has said that they will take care of the bill. Based on seeing the right side of this dog, you decide that you will do anything you can to save this dog. You are buoyed just by seeing this dog-he is your ideal, perfect dog.
Of course, you cannot treat the dog without a careful examination, but this is looking good; after all, although the dog is a little wobbly, he is conscious and standing up on his own. You pull out your stethoscope, and hang it around your neck and walk towards the dog’s head. You come around the table towards the dog’s left side, and you see a whole new story. On the dog’s left side, you see lacerations and abrasions, and the dog’s coat is dull and full of dirt. You see broken ribs sticking through the once shiny coat, and the abdominal cavity has been laid open, and you can see the dog’s intestines, bloated and bruised-you think to yourself “wow, this is serious”.
You can see that although the dog is standing on his own feet, he is not actually weight bearing on his left hind; how could he? There is a compound fracture of the left femur, and one end of the bone is jagged and broken and sticking out of the leg. His hip joint is skewed in the wrong direction and you wonder if his pelvis has been broken too. Although there is very little blood in evidence, you can see from his swollen belly and thigh that there is a lot of internal bleeding in the abdomen and in the hind quarters. You are suddenly sick with the realization that this is a very, very badly injured dog.
Taking a breath, you begin your exam. Gently, you touch the dog on the head and notice that his left pupil is blown wide open-surely a sign of some head trauma. You run your hand gently over this dog’s back and he flinches and starts to sway a little. The tech reaches out to steady him on the table, and for the first time, he cries softly in pain. The wimper, and a fleeting look on his face tells you that even though the right side of this dog looks normal, this dog is very stoic, but feels every injury. You carefully lift up his lip, and look at his gums and notice that they are pale, almost white; a sign that the dog is in shock. “Poor boy”, you croon, and his ears flick enough to tell you that he hears you, despite his condition. When you listen to his chest you can hear the bubbling and gurgling of lungs filled or filling with blood and his heart is beating unevenly and weakly. Palpating the abdomen is out of the question; you already know that there is likely massive internal injury out of sight.
To save this dog would take hours of painful surgery, and thousands of dollars. If the surgery were successful, the dog would wake up to face weeks and months of painful rehabilitation. Even with the best of care and a caring person to help him to recover, it is unlikely that this dog’s quality of life would be very high.
With tears in your eyes, you look at this dog and you ask again, “Has an owner been found?” and the answer is still no-without a collar or a microchip, no one can be called. “I am so sorry” you say, to the dog, to the tech and to the universe at large. You turn to your drug cupboard and pull out the narcotics book and the bottle of drugs so that you can humanely end this dog’s pain by ending his life.
“We didn’t think there was any hope” the tech said quietly. You nod as you draw off the drug to sedate the dog. It is too hard to even agree in a case like this-this was the perfect dog, the dog of your dreams and you are going to help him to die with dignity.
When injuries are physical and apparent, the decision to euthanize is clear. The decision to end suffering makes sense to most of us. No one would fault the veterinarian for killing this dog, the dog of her dreams. The problem comes when the injuries are not clear. The problem comes when the injuries are emotional and invisible to the naked eye.
When the injuries that a dog arrives with are not easily seen, as is often the case with shelter dogs, it is hard for people to remember to look at the left side of the dog. We wonder, but we don’t know about the dog’s history and background. Recently a client brought a dog to me to evaluate. The client knew that something wasn’t right with his dog, and he wanted to know that the dog would not bite his family.
Let’s call this client Mike, and the dog Taylor. Mike arrived with his son, thirteen year old Adam. Adam held the leash and led Taylor into the training hall. I asked that Taylor’s leash be removed for me to see what Taylor was going to do while I talked to Mike about the dog. Mike had found the dog at a local shelter, where the dog had been imported into Canada from Louisiana. The dog was supposed to be a Meremma, a rare breed of livestock guardian. She is lovely, Mike said, but something is not quite right.
Off leash, Taylor began to race around the training hall, stopping at the two doors and digging to try and get out. She was in constant motion, running with her tail tucked and her eyes wide, the epitome of a fearful dog trying to escape some unknown demon. After fifteen minutes, she stopped running and hid under a table. I pointed out to Mike that the dog was fearful, in fact terrified. “Will she bite my kids?” was the only question that Mike asked. I could not tell him one way or another.
My assistant caught Taylor and we began to examine her physically. Taylor cowered when we touched her but allowed us to handle her without overtly protesting. Taylor’s eyes drooped, and a veil dropped over them; she disappeared into her own world. As I made my way from the head to the tail, I reached under her fluffy fur to feel her belly, and found a penis! Taylor was not a girl dog, but a boy dog! Mike had been told at the shelter that Taylor was a female, and when he went to the bathroom, he squatted, so Mike never suspected that Taylor might be a male dog. The left side of this dog included looking closely enough to know his gender.
After our examination, Taylor remained crammed into the space where the wall meets the floor, looking for all the world like he would like to just disappear. He would not take treats. He did not respond to his name or to any requests to move away from the wall. When touched, he would draw away as much as he could without actually leaving his position. For the remaining hour and a half of our consultation, Taylor remained in his spot, and as he relaxed, he fought against sleep, attempting to remain awake to keep an eye on his environment.
At home, Taylor would not eat or sleep in front of the family. He was described as a delight to walk; he never pulls on leash, although he is difficult to catch in order to get to go for a walk. On walks, he will sometimes freeze and refuse to move if a dog or person comes into his view. Taylor doesn’t bark at home; mostly he likes to hide under a table in the living room, away from any frightening stimulus. Out of doors, Taylor dug himself a shallow hole in the garden and spends time curled up in the shade in his hole. When the family spends time together, Taylor leaves the room. If either of the family’s children reach towards Taylor, he carefully avoids being touched.
With a dog like Taylor, when you look closely at his “left side” you can see a dog who is profoundly suffering. You can see a dog who is terrified and terrorized by living in a home with a normal family. When you look closely, you can see the painful rehabilitation that will need to occur-months of either flooding (living with the family) or careful desensitization (although it was recommended, the client was only worried about the dog biting and did not agree to the protocol). This soft and gentle dog has been condemned to live with his fears, regardless of how he might feel about it.
Taylor had been picked up as a stray in Louisiana, taken to a shelter there and accepted into their program. This means that at least two people saw him there. Someone decided to transport him to Ontario, which means that at some point a licensed veterinarian examined him. He was put on a truck, which means that someone handled him there again. Someone drove the truck. The truck had to cross the US/Canada border, and presumably a border guard had a look at him. When he arrived at the shelter in Ontario, someone off loaded him into a kennel. He was in the kennel for at least four days, which means that someone had to have fed him, watered him and walked him. Of the six or more people who had contact with Taylor, no one looked closely enough at him to even notice his gender! No one asked Taylor who he might be and no one took the time to match him with an appropriate final home, or to consider that forcing Taylor to live in any family home might be cruel.
When we look closely at the left side of the dog, we are going to begin to have to ask ourselves the questions that the veterinarians ask when they see a dog like the one you were asked to imagine. Can Taylor be rehabilitated to the extent that he will be a confident, happy, family pet, content to live in a suburban townhouse complex? Maybe. In the hands of a qualified, dedicated trainer, we might be able to make this successful, but it would take a lot of time, and a lot of support. It must always be remembered in a case like this that while the dog is recovering, he is going to suffer, just as a dog who is hit by a bus would suffer. And just like a dog who has recovered from being hit by a bus, a dog like Taylor will carry the scars and pains and irritations for the rest of his life. The dog who was hit by the bus will most likely always feel a twinge when he moves a particular way, and Taylor will most likely always have ghosts who haunt him.
We wouldn’t ask a family to do their own surgery, but we ask them to do an equally complex task when we place a dog like Taylor into a family like Mike’s. The implications of professionals who do not look at the left side of the dog are profound. We are hoping that they will recognize the dog’s needs to begin with. Mike did not; his only concern about his dog’s strange behaviour was that his children would not be bitten. When we place a special needs dog into the hands of a family, we are hoping that they will rise to the occasion and develop and implement a behaviour modification program. Mike could not understand that Taylor might be suffering even if he didn’t bite the kids. We are hoping that the family will have the skills and resources to deal with Taylor’s needs. We are hoping that the family will have the ability to make the hard choices on behalf of the dog, including euthanizing him if his quality of life is compromised.
As trainers, kennel staff, veterinarians, technicians and others who are in contact with dogs who are behaviourally compromised, it is our responsibility to always, always, always look at the left side of the dog. It is our responsibility to make sure that we place dogs into homes that are appropriate for them and that can meet their needs. It is also our responsibility to recognize that sometimes the left side of the dog is so profoundly injured that placing the dog would be cruel, and that the only humane thing to do is to help the dog to escape the invisible pain.