What is it that drives us to anthropomorphize our pets? I suppose to some degree it’s human nature. We’ve been doing it for thousands of years, really. Many of Aesop’s fables revolved around talking animals. Most recently, think of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, or even Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit.
I wonder about that because of a decision my wife and I made today. One of our dogs, a German Shepherd mix who has been more than normally protective and aggressive since we got him, is getting more so these last few years. He’s bitten his dogmate at least three times, and 7 of our 8 children at least once. He’s bitten several neighbor children as well. He’s gone after my wife when she comes to hug or kiss me. It’s random; many times he waits until the person is moving away from him.
But after a bite yesterday of another neighbor child, we realized we can’t trust him any longer, and he can’t stay with us. When you come to a realization like that, you have two options: surrender, or euthanasia. Surrendering a nine-year-old dog with a bite history is not a realistic option. I knew the first time I suggested it that his chances of adoption were nil at best. So tomorrow afternoon, I will drive him to our vet, and I will come home alone.
I feel no small amount of guilt over this. I’m supposed to be the alpha of our pack. I’m supposed to be the one to train him, and let him know when he’s getting out of line, and I can’t help but feel that I’ve failed in that task. My logic is that if I had done a better job of training him and controlling him when he was younger, we wouldn’t have this issue now. If it were a sudden-onset issue, I could chalk it up as a cranky old dog. He’s a shepherd, and he’s nine. He’s entering the “Hey you kids, get off my lawn” stage of his life, or he should be. But it’s gone on since we found him as a stray pup. There were better and worse times, but it’s gone on for a long time.
Maybe he just thinks he’s being protective. The baby, who’s four, has never been bitten. She can flop on him, lay on him, squeeze the stuffing out of him, and he won’t blink. He’s never come near me, either, or challenged me in any way. But everyone else in the family has been snapped at, nipped, or bitten. So I suppose in some way he might think he’s just protecting me. But if that’s the case, I don’t understand why that protection doesn’t extend to other members of the family. I haven’t made any special effort to bond him to me.
As I anthropomorphize him a bit more, and let my guilt shape that picture, I have to wonder what he’s going to think tomorrow afternoon. He’s not afraid of the vet, but not a big fan, either, so the trip won’t be a big deal. He’s had injections before too, so that shouldn’t throw him. If everything is done right, he’ll just go to sleep. I’ve read “The Rainbow Bridge” many times; this is not the first pet I’ve lost, nor is it the first time I’ve asked the vet to help. But it is the first time I’ve had to do this for a behavior issue. The only other time the vet has helped, it was a sixteen-year-old blind poodle with bad knees. She was not living a good life, but was just too stubborn to give up. I can’t even pretend to be noble about tomorrow though. It’s purely a protection issue. I have to protect my kids, and guests, so the dog is expendable.
Does he know that? If I meet him again by the Rainbow Bridge, will he greet me with wagging tail and excitement, focusing on the good times he had with our family? Or will he snarl at me as he remembers what I did? Will I face an accusative face, asking me, “What did I do? I was just trying to take care of you.”
Intellectually, I know, or at least strongly believe that he’s not going to realize anything is different about tomorrow. I’m sure he’ll pick up that the kids are distressed. He might notice that they’re spending more time with him than they usually do. But he won’t understand why. He might notice their faces taste more salty, but he won’t comprehend what it means.
More importantly, I hope my children who understand what’s happening tomorrow eventually understand why it had to be done. Tonight as we told them of our decision, many tears were shed, especially by my oldest daughter. She adores animals, and wants to work with horses when she’s older. She’s been teaching the dogs to jump the last few months, and Chester was taking to it pretty well for a nine-year-old dog. But now I’m taking that away from her. And she knows what’s going to happen, as do some of the older children. We didn’t go into detail with the younger ones; we just told them that I was taking him to the vet, and he wasn’t coming home with me. But the older ones know. It was only five years ago that we lost our cat Niban, so they know. I just hope and pray that they understand why we’re doing this, and that one day they’ll forgive me for the pain I’ve caused.