About a year and a half ago, I had to make one of the hardest decisions of my life. I decided to give Charlie to the SPCA so they could find a better home for him. He was a really great dog. He loved going for walks, was quiet inside, didn’t chew things, didn’t bite, didn’t run around the house like a psycho. In fact, unless I got him all riled up, he mostly just laid around and slept. When we were on walks, I could reliably let him off leash and trust that he wouldn’t get into too much trouble. (He did run off a couple of times and came back with the tell-tale signs of having eaten something totally disgusting. I figure this is the dog equivalent to sneaking off to eat a bunch of cake at a party so who can blame him?!)
What does separation anxiety to do this perfect dog? It basically made him go completely nuts the moment the humans left. He scratched the door so much that he made holes in it and started to cut up his paws. He scratched the cabinets to get past the child safety locks we put on them. Once the cabinet was open he ate everything in the trash. So I put up big gates to lock him out of the kitchen. They were tension gates and before long he figured out where he needed to run into them to release the tension allowing him access to the kitchen. So I started hiding all the bad stuff in the closet. And, you guessed it, he figured out how to open the closet door. He also figured out how to slide open the screen door just enough so that he could slip out, terrorize the neighborhood, then come back inside and stand in the living room looking at you when you get back from the store 15 minutes later. And if this weren’t bad enough he also howled like the dickens. The. ENTIRE. Time. This means whether it was 30 mins or 8 hours, the boy was howling and barking for pretty much the duration of the time I was gone. Now, if you’ve read even just one other post on this blog you’ll know that I’m not the type to just try nothing and then give up. I tried everything. We worked on behavior training. We took classes at the SPCA. We tried 3 different types of medication. We worked on behavior training. I tried leaving toys stuffed with food. I tried leaving dog ice cream. I tried taking him with me everywhere I went (this didn’t work either since he basically freaked out in the car the whole time if I ever had to get out). We worked on behavior training. I tried crating him. I took him on hour(s) long walks in the morning to tire him out. We worked on behavior training. Did I mention that we worked on behavior training? The kind where you try to leave the room even for just 1 second then come back in a reward him. But we never got far because he never didn’t freak out. And you aren’t supposed to reward him if he freaks out even a little.
So after much deliberation, ruined furniture, destroyed doors, shredded cabinets, clawed walls, and 1 rubber tree he apparently hated, I gave up. I work a full time job. And even working with Charlie during any free time I had, it still wasn’t enough to help him. This was the most extreme case my vet had seen in a dog that size. The only option left to me at that point was to enroll him in a special (and expensive) class at Tufts combined with some experimental (and expensive) drugs but it still didn’t guarantee results. I was one click away from enrolling him when I realized that I was doing so begrudgingly. For the first time I looked at what Charlie’s anxiety was doing to me. It made me more anxious. I tried hard not to be because dogs pick up on that stuff but I was always worried that he would hurt himself while I was at work or eat something poisonous or destroy something that was irreplaceable. I felt like I was trapped in my own home. I couldn’t come home for lunch because I hoped that maybe, just maybe, he had settled down and I didn’t want to rock the boat. I couldn’t run out to the store because he was especially freaked out if I left quickly. I couldn’t ever forget anything at my house because you can’t just pop in and grab it. I was imprisoned by my dog. And while I loved him, I just couldn’t be held captive anymore. I also realized that his anxiety was actually preventing me from totally bonding with him. I once had a dream that my beloved Emmett, a Saint Bernard, turned into a little boy and we held hands as we walked. True Story. There is no way that I would ever dream that Charlie was my little boy. We just weren’t bonded like that. And part of having a dog is experiencing that totally reciprocal unconditional love. We didn’t have that and I really wanted it.
The next day I called the SPCA to set up a surrender. They scheduled me for 2 weeks from that date and I spent that time very productively. He hung out with my ex for most of that time since they had bonded in the way I explained above. (I know what you’re thinking, ‘Why didn’t he just take Charlie?’ and the answer is… I offered but for a variety of reasons it wouldn’t be the best arrangement for either of them.) On the day of his surrender I showed up to the NHSPCA in Stratham with Charlie and a car load of his stuff. It took me 4 trips to and from the car just to get it all inside. Man, that dog was freaking spoiled! I also dropped off all his medical files in a folder that was about 2″ thick as well as a 3 page report I wrote entitled Everything I Know About Charlie. It listed all his commands, it detailed his medical history, it explained – in detail – what his anxiety was like and how it manifested. It also noted his behavior: who he got along with, who he didn’t: he was great with cats but just OK with kids. Literally everything I could think to say was in that report. I had separated out all his stuff into travel, home, car, and other piles. Meanwhile, the lady behind me in line was surrendering a cat in a busted up shoebox without a lid. I know I overwhelmed the SPCA worker that day but I also know that they remember me (and Charlie) still because of this!
In the end, I felt confident that I had made the right decision. Admitting failure in this case wasn’t a bad thing. I look back and know with 100% certainty that I gave him the best life I could and that my final decision gave him an even better one. He could now be placed into a home where he was free to be a dog. One where he wouldn’t be bogged down with stress and anxiety all the time. Maybe his new owners are hermits or agoraphobic. Or maybe they are dog trainers that have oodles of time to work through his issues. No matter what his circumstances, he’s certainly much better off. He no longer howls until he’s sore or claws at the door until his paws bleed. I consider that to be a better life by leaps and bounds. I was sad to see Charlie go but it taught me some valuable lessons about dogs, animal behavior, and what I really need to look for in my next four-legged best friend. Let the search commence!