Updated: May 25, 2021
Making the decision to euthanize your dog for behavior is incredibly difficult. It's a decision that only you can make - but you don't have to make it alone. What started as one post on the topic has quickly turned into a series of posts - there's just so much to cover. In this post, we'll discuss the culture around euthanasia and how we can work together to offer support to people who are struggling to make the decision.
First, I want to tell you Junebug's story and why I am so passionate about this topic.
Junebug came into Detroit Animal Care and Control as a stray. I pulled her out of her kennel one day to move her to a different part of the building, and she had what appeared to be a seizure in the hallway. So, of course, I took her home as a foster. She had about five seizures within the first 24 hours with me. Within a few days, we had her on phenobarbital, which almost completely stopped the seizures, allowing Junebug to live normally. I was totally in love with this dog. She was a big puddle of mush; affectionate to the point that, honestly, she kind of drove me crazy sometimes. Everyone who met her absolutely adored her. As she started feeling better, though, her behavior started to change. The seizures were primarily sparked by high arousal, and before the meds, it's like she knew that she had to stay calm to prevent the weird thing from happening to her - she would frequently self-soothe in exciting situations until she had regained her composure. Without the seizures, though, she didn't have to self regulate anymore, and her behavior became much more impulsive.
After a month or so, Junebug went to a new foster as I prepared to leave the country for a month. They reported that she was displaying "aggressive" behavior - primarily jumping up and mouthing - and wouldn't settle down. I have to admit that I broke one of my own rules here: I didn't take them very seriously. The behavior they were describing wasn't aggressive, just impulsive, and they were brand new fosters. I still kick myself for not intervening further at this point, though I know that it probably wouldn't have changed the ultimate outcome. Junebug bounced to another foster who absolutely adored her and planned to adopt. We didn't hear much from them and assumed that no news was good news.
A couple weeks after I returned from my trip, we got a call from the foster. Junebug had bit a child in the stomach without a predictable trigger. They were no longer interested in adopting Junebug, so she came back to me, and I was left to make a decision about her future. Based on the circumstances surrounding the bite (and other bites that hadn't previously been disclosed), the behavior the fosters reported, the behavior that I saw once she was back in my home, and the lack of resources that a municipal shelter has to treat a dog who is potentially suffering from a neurological disorder, I made the decision to euthanize. I sobbed in the parking lot when we arrived at the shelter, held her in my arms as an ACO (a good friend that also loved Junie) administered the "juice," and spent the evening a total mess.
I think about Junie every day. She was one of four fosters that I opted to euthanize in about a nine month period, but hers was by far the most devastating. She was a GOOD dog, and I loved her so much. But her behavior was dangerous, not clearly predictable, and the resources it would take to keep her and those around her safe just weren't available. Her death gave me purpose, though - to help individuals and organizations with the tools they need to make euthanasia decisions without judgement.
Dealing with the guilt (or lack thereof).
If you have ever made the decision to euthanize for any reason, even medical issues, you are probably familiar with the sense of guilt that can come with it. Making a decision on whether someone you love lives or dies doesn't feel right. When you're euthanizing an otherwise healthy dog, that guilt tends to multiply. You may worry that your friends, family, or community will judge you. Will they think you took the "easy" way out? Will they think that it was your fault, or that you didn't try hard enough? Will you feel like you didn't try hard enough?
It's okay to feel guilty. It's also okay to not feel guilty, or to feel a sense of relief once the decision has been made. And it's okay to feel guilty for feeling relieved. It's okay if making the decision to euthanize actually feels quite easy, like the obvious answer.
Living with a dog who is struggling with intense behavior problems is HARD. It's exhausting. When you have to arrange your life around your dog, rotate the animals in your house, lose relationships over your dog, prevent people from entering your home, break up fights or deal with bites, and on and on.... it is 100% normal to feel relieved when you no longer have to do those things. Even if your heart is shattered into a million pieces, a little bit of you may feel a bit lighter. And that's okay.
So how do you feel better about it?
I wish there was a black and white answer to this, some step-by-step guide to letting go of guilt. I still feel guilt over Junie, even though, logically, I know that it was the right decision. I'm not sure if that little voice in my head that says "you could have tried harder; you could have kept her, you could have kept her safe" will ever completely fade. But I can say that there is one thing that has made the guilt easier: talking about it. Are there people who think I made the wrong choice? I'm certain there are, though no one has ever said that to my face. More than anything, though, I've received an outpouring of support. In a later post, I'll compile some resources for finding support from people who understand what you're going through.
Remember to take care of yourself. Feel your feelings, but also take the time to process them and move forward. Do something to honor your dog; go on an adventure, visit their favorite place, create a piece of art, light a candle, volunteer to help other dogs, write a long series of blog posts (🖐) , or simply think of all of the things that you loved about her. If you feel yourself going to a dark place, reach out to someone for support (if you don't have someone to reach out to, my email is at the bottom of this post, and I'm always happy to listen to your stories). You don't have to go through this alone.
We have to start talking about it.
So many people never share their story for fear of judgement or criticism. It's a vicious cycle. We don't talk about it because we don't want to be met with judgement, but by not talking about it, we're not giving those people the chance to understand what we're going through, which increases the likelihood that they're going to judge us. I think it's high time that we stopped that cycle.
Ending the taboo.
Euthanasia is uncomfortable. Those of us who are around it all. of. the. time. tend to forget that. A few months after Junie died, I ran into an acquaintance who had met her and asked how she was doing. Without thinking, I blurted out "oh, she was euthanized." The woman's face dropped and she stood there in shock for a few seconds, not knowing what to say. When we parted ways later that night, she gave me a hug and told me that she will never forget Junie. To be honest, I felt awful - I could tell that it put a damper on her night - but her kindness was sincere and meaningful. Do I wish that I had been a bit gentler in my delivery? For sure. But do I regret telling her? Not at all. Pretending that it didn't happen, that it's not a decision that people are making every day, doesn't mean that it's not happening.
Because it is happening. Dogs die every day for their behavior. Sometimes it's people who have to make that decision for their own dog that they love; sometimes it's shelter staff who recognize that a dog is not safe to adopt out in his current state (in a later post, we'll explore euthanasia in a shelter environment and how the decision can differ). When nobody is talking about it, it's easy to forget (or to never know in the first place), just how often it's happening.
The only way to end the taboo is to talk about it. If we treat it like a big secret, like something that someone should be ashamed of, the general public is going to continue to judge while the people who make the decision to euthanize continue to feel ashamed.
You might be surprised by how kind people can be.
People can be cruel, that's no surprise to anyone. There are certainly people out there who firmly believe that no dog should ever be euthanized for any reason and who are not willing to hear any other side of it. But those people are not nearly as common as you may fear.
More than anything, people just don't understand. And it's not that they don't want to understand or aren't willing to understand; they've simply never had experience with euthanasia, never had a conversation about it, maybe never really even knew what it meant. If you're picking up on the theme here, you know what I'm about to say... we have to talk about it. We have to give those people the opportunity to understand if we ever want the culture around euthanasia for behavior to change.
When someone understands your heartbreak, your guilt, your relief, they empathize with you. Sometimes they don't even need to fully understand; they just need to know that you're hurting. And it may surprise you just how sincere those people can be in their kindness and support for you. Don't let the fear of judgement stop you from talking about it.
So, let's talk about it.
Now it's your turn. Share your thoughts, questions, and stories in the comments (or, if you'd prefer to do so privately, send me an email anytime). Do you think everything I've said is wrong? I want to hear that, too! Let's start the discussion here, then consider continuing it within your own circles.
The next post will explore the reasons behind making the decision to euthanize for behavior. How do you know it's the right choice? What factors should you consider, and who should you consult? Find that post here.
Margo Butler, CPDT-KA