Saturday, October 16, 2010


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.


  1. It pains me to see dogs like Taylor placed in "forever" homes. I mostly work with fearful, stressed, reactive and aggressive dogs. A lot of the dogs I work with are rescues who are in so much emotional pain that euthanasia would have been the kindest option.

  2. i have worked with many dogs who had serious issues; mostly they were reduced considerably while in foster care, but that did not mean that they were "normal" dogs when they were placed.
    one woman, an RN with 2 children, said she "fell in love" with a semi-feral stray who had only been in the foster-home for THREE WEEKS - this dog, Sherlock, would not eat in front of humans, drink water in the same room as humans, or willingly void in front of humans - altho he would sometimes involuntarily urinate when highly stressed; let me re-phrase that, as he was ALWAYS highly-stressed, "when he was stressed beyond coping", he'd leak.

    so... this single-mum living with her mum assures us she will do everything; she lives within walking distance, she loves this dog, it all sounds promising.
    then she GETs the dog - sees me just once, for a 45-min chat [10-mins to the park-bench, 30-mins sitting there, talking, 10-mins back]...
    and she stops returning phone-calls 2 days later.
    she stops answering e-mails the day after that.

    3-weeks later, the dog is still [according to her mother, the kids grandmother] living in the RNs bedroom, AWAY from the family, under the bed; he emerges only to toilet on a leash.

    yup - she really "loves" him. that adopter bamboozled us all; poor dog.
    refusing to help the dog is NOT 'kind' - B-Mod and calmatives could have made this young dog, under 6-MO, a much-happier animal with some time and effort. WAREHOUSING an animal is not enough, IMO.
    it was the only time this rescue ever placed such a dog so quickly - and they learned their lesson, sadly for Sherlock, too late for him.
    never relinquish a dog before they are well begun on rehab, and reasonably stable; possession is nine-tenths of the law.
    JMO and IME,
    - terry pride

    APDT-Aus, apdt#1827, CVA, TDF

  3. The sad part is-we take dogs into our lives and homes and they must live with us, not the other way around. 99.9% of dogs can do this. But what to do about the rest? Is "any" life better than no life? I don't think so.

    For me, personally, I would rather live a life of quality versus quantity. There ARE worse things than death.

  4. Living in a constant state of fear and high anxiety isn't comfortable, it affects the health of the dog. Beyond all else we owe it to our dogs, to think about THEIR quality of life. If their anxiety and fears are so great that intervention with drugs and behaviour manegment does not give them the ability to be comfortable in their own skin, then we are harming them. They deserve better then that, and sometimes the only humane and loving decision is to let them go through euthanasia. Certainly passing the problem on through repeated rehoming is cruel and unusual punishment.

  5. Thanks folks. These are the kind of things that I would like people to consider about HOW they rescue. Considering the number of people doing it, we need to start to think hard about how it is being done and how it effects the dogs when they are placed in situations where they should not be placed. I see many dogs who are essentially beaten without a stick. there are many dogs who just should not be making it into homes.

  6. But how do you convince people of this? How do you convince those six or more people who saw 'Taylor' and didn't notice his gender? People who probably went home at the end of the day feeling good and patting themselves on the back for saving another dog? People like 'Mike', who don't really care about the dog?

  7. Well share the blog. You write and you read and you insist that the dog be central to your work. You point out when the end doesn't always justify the means. You square your shoulders, and you accept that sometimes, when you believe that something is wrong, you stand up and you say something even though it isn't popular or appealing. The home children needed people to stand up and say something and eventually they did, and things changed. Things will change. I am working to make sure they change in a way that is good for the dogs we serve.

  8. Many do not understand that the lack of socialization and introduction to novelty as a pup has a permanent affect on a dog. They believe that 'if only' they found the right surgeon, physical therapist, drug, supplement, herb, past life communicator, that they will unlock the healthy dog cowering (or snarling) beneath the fear. The offers of quick fixes are myriad and who can blame people for 'hope' and wanting to give an animal a chance?

    People are always going to want to save, to help, to believe that change is possible (at least I hope so). They need the information and tools, so that they can be the most successful and humane as they can be in their work with these dogs.

    The tough decisions may never be easy to make, but knowing that we did the best we could with what we had, may at least help us sleep more soundly at night when we acknowledge the damage of that left side.

  9. Well put fearfuldogs. One point to consider is that as practitioners of behaviour modification, we should strive for the same thing that the medical profession dogs and "first do no harm". When we place dogs with serious issues are we certain we are not doing more harm? Because I think that some of the time, we are placing dogs in harms way when we place dogs with behaviour issues. The other point I would like to make is that when we make difficult choices, some of the time, we should not strive to make those choices easier. We should not for instance make euthanizing an animal an easy choice or an easy task. It is a permanent choice, and there are dogs I know who have died in my arms that I could probably fix today if I knew then what I know now-and it MUST be difficult for me to live with those decisions, or I am not doing my job well enough. Change is often possible, yes, but if I ask "can I keep everyone safe in this situation?" and the answer is no, then I think that choosing to not work with an animal and instead to euthanize, is likely the more humane option.

  10. I agree with Fearfuldogs and suenestnature and their comments, especially the "first do no harm".

    I have a dog that could have fit Taylor's behavioral description to a T. She was a puppy mill breeding dog who ended up at a seeing and hearing org for her puppies and then was scheduled to be euthanized. Her foster mom fought for her to be placed in a shelter - the one where I volunteer.

    I'm not going to lie. When I offered to foster Daisy, it was because I knew she would never do well in a home with a family and would likely end up being euthanized because 1) most people don't know how to work with a dog like this, or 2) would just plain not want a dog like this. Of course, I realized pretty quickly that she would need a lot more work than a simple fostering of a month or two, so I adopted her.

    I don't regret it. In fact, I feel lucky to have found her. Yes. It took a lot of time, patience and work, but she has made amazing progress. She approaches people willingly now. She is curious, affectionate, loving, fun, wags her tail often and loves belly rubs. But, I know that if I had not found her or she had not ended up with someone of equal knowledge, background and dedication, it may have been better to euthanize her. I say "may" because sometimes we label a dog as unable to recover when the truth is with the right person they can make amazing progress.

    Daisy would never have made the progress she has made with me if she had been living with a family with kids or an owner with no knowledge of dogs and/or dog behavior/training. Unless the family or person was using as a resource and actually followed the advice, or that of a certified trainer or behaviorist, then placing a dog with them would be cruel.

  11. Hear hear - a breeder client of the vet clinic begged me to take on a dog that was an 15mth old X show dog, being re-homed for the sin of missing a tooth – a no no for his breed in the showring! I was told he was a real schmoozer of a dog; the photos of him sent me appeared to show this.
    The breeder specifically begged me to take him because at just one year of age he had already ruptured a cruciate ligament and she wanted him to go with someone that would know what he needed (as a Vet nurse/tech, I was it!) I didn't really want another big dog (he's a Rottweiler, I already had one); I didn't feel I really wanted to go through all that again.
    But my partner begged me, especially as the breeder said she would have to euthanize the dog otherwise. I warned my partner this new dog may not be as good as my current dog, I knew the time and effort I had put into that.
    Right from the start, I could see I was going to have problems. The move for Chevy was extremely traumatic. I wasn’t able to organise things as I wanted. I wanted to be able to take delivery of him (he had a 4hour plane ride to get to me) on a Saturday morning so I could have the weekend to settle him and get to know him. I took delivery of him 9.00pm on a Tuesday night straight from the plane, bundled into my car without any introduction, whereas I had to take him on a further 45min car ride to my home, desperately, unsuccessfully searching for an open dog wash as he stank. Due to the smell, I couldn’t have him in the house, so I was forced to put him in our garage (under main roof). He started to howl the house down, so I gingerly introduce him to my older dog. Fortunately for all, they took to each other straight away.
    Things did not go easy with Chevy – both the breeder and his former owner never took into consideration how he might have felt about the upheaval in his life. He is a sensitive soul and he took things badly, his whole world had been turned upside down and his person had let him down.
    It took 18months for us to be able to touch Chevy without him flinching and a further 8 months for me to be able to touch his paws without him growling or pulling away. But through gentle massage and perseverance we did manage to get through to him and gain his trust. We have worked hard in conjunction with trainers and behaviour specialist vets and although he is not perfect Chevy has come a long way.
    We still have issues with him and other dogs – he is terrified of other dogs initially, as he gets attacked seemingly without provocation. His preferred response is too flee but because he is on a lead this option is taken away from him; he is forced to go on the offensive, so people just assume he is an aggressive dog – disbelieving me when I say he is terrified and could they please stop their dog from running up to him. Once he is assured the dog means him no harm he is a perfect gentleman, but with Chevy these things take time – which we often don’t have.
    People suggest on a regular basis, Chevy must have been abused by his previous owner – I don’t believe this to be so (depending on your definition of abuse I suppose). I just believe his personality, needs and wants were never taken into consideration, and the fact that he is a Rottweiler has also worked against him, with assumptions he should be a “big tough dog”.
    After 4 years, we love him dearly; he loves a cuddle from us now – he is not perfect but he has many fans – initially people are afraid of him but once they get to know his sweet nature they fall in love with him.
    It could have turned out so bad for him in the wrong hands and the reality is, I don’t believe he was ever cut out to be a show dog due to his insecurity and anxiety!

  12. Another scenario for consideration:
    Very fit Matured aged lady expressed a desire to get a labrador puppy. The clinic suggested an adult dog would be better suited, as it had been 20 years since the lady had a puppy and our experience has shown people of this lady's age struggled with puppy training. She also wanted to be able to take pup immediatly for very long vigorous walks for the owners benefit (not the puppy) which we knew would not be benifical to the pup, potentially causing joint problems.
    Client ignored advice, getting a lovely young puppy, but immediatly complained the housetraining etc was too much for her to handle. Many phone calls ensued with advice for handling the situation, when the next problem occurred due to the excessive exercise being given to the pup (and inappropriate diet, as had been advised by breeder!). Again the owner did not follow our advice of diet change, rest etc, prefering to take the breeders advice, who claimed the vet (us) didn't know what they were talking about and the same breeder incidently took the pup to a "chiropractor", promptly recieving an incorrect diagnosis (diagnosed a shoulder problem!)
    As a result of the excessive exercise, inappropriate diet and genetics (although the breeders stated they NEVER had any problems in 20years!)and wrong diagnosis, the owner finally followed our advice, took to a specialist orthopaedic surgeon and had surgery to both elbows (our original diagnosis).
    Now having to be confined, after initially trying to confine the pup on diagosis and now post surgery, the owner is again not taking the puppy's needs into consideration, expressing exasperation due to its "lack of manners, and poor lead walking skills" - in the eyes of the owner it is the puppy's fault, without taking anything into consideration of the pups health both physically and mentally and the fact due to its health problems it is not receiving appropriate training!