Friday, November 8, 2019

The Hardest Choice We've Ever Had to Make

Sometimes I share the happy news and sweep the hard stuff under the carpet, imagining you don't need or want to hear about it; sometimes I think I have to be real with you. My readers are a combination of friends, family, and strangers, and it's just weird. So today you get to read about my dog. And my heart is torn to pieces, so that's just the way it's going to be. A broken post. Today was the end of the hardest choice we've ever had to make.

We got Thuja because Markus' heart needed a dog. So we chose this one, the one who we found sleeping on her sister, who was curious about us; interesting and interested. He named her Thuja (two-ya), which is the Latin name for the family of trees that includes cedar. She was a Labrador Shepherd cross, and in the 16 months she lived with us, she grew enormous.

She reminded me of my first dog. I felt deeply loved and respected by our Thuja.
Thuja's first friend was our cat, Blackberry, who very purposefully taught her to play chase-the-cat and bravely instigated all sorts of  other fun games with her.
She loved Blackberry so much that she tried to share her favourite toy with her on a few occasions. The chewed, wet, slobbery Gordon was brought over to Blackberry and shoveled into her, as Blackberry sat patiently waiting for the disgusting thing to be removed again.

Gordon Lightfoot was Tali's toy horse from childhood, which he gifted to Thuja when we first brought her home. And Gordon was very dear to her. She loved to play what we called "soccer" with Gordon. Almost always with a blue ball, too. She kicked the ball with her own foot, and then held Gordon by the head and whacked it around with his legs.

Gordon didn't mind being whacked around. He was just a stuffed horse. And she cleaned his head and bum many times every day. So he was well looked after, even if he became very shabby and had a few surgeries.

Thuja was the smartest dog I've ever known. Yes, that really is Rhiannon teaching our puppy to draw. Our puppy wasn't just chewing the pen. Within one morning, Rhiannon taught Thuja to hold the pen properly in her mouth and drag it around the paper to make marks. Soon she could pick up a pen herself with the felt tip pointing down. She chose to hold her paws on the paper, herself, and once in a while she would look up and wait, and Rhiannon would exchange the pen in her mouth for one of a different colour. Then Thuja would draw again.

We have no idea what Thuja thought she was doing, but we have some drawings by our dog, now.
She could learn new skills like heeling, rolling over, fetch, drop the ball, and even drawing in just about three repetitions, but it took her many weeks to learn to let us hug her, or pick her up. She always growled when we picked her up, even from the moment we got her, and we didn't realize at the time that it was actually a sign of her deep and pervasive fear. As time went by, her fear-based aggression became more and more of a problem. We came to see that she was always on guard, always alert, and always ready to lunge or snap at whatever seemed out of place to her. This included everything from toddlers to seniors to other dogs, to us, even, when we didn't do what she wanted or expected.

She was terrified of many things. She never swam once in her life, even though she had webbed feet and was a member of a swimming family, including her dog-auntie, Kalea, who came to visit her every day and often tried to entice her for a swim in the pond.

Thuja loved Kalea, but she bit her so often and with such ferocity that Kalea, of her own choice, stopped coming to visit.

Thuja also had physical problems. She had allergies to all proteins other than fish, and at 10 months old broke and partially tore three ligaments in her knees, all at once while playing leisurely in the yard. She endured two surgeries in her short life, and each one made her more afraid. We took her to various trainers, including one of Vancouver's most highly regarded reactive dog specialists. He gave us many skills for working with our dominant aggressive dog, and we became much more confident about taking her out in public.

But the aggression continued to worsen - specifically the unpredictable aggression. After the very complex knee surgery and long recovery period, she needed to wear a muzzle to vet appointments, and became so dangerous that we were advised repeatedly to put our baby down, and/or buy liability insurance.

But we loved her. It's hard to reconcile the beautiful, thoughtful, loving friend who made our days feel so whole with the fearsome, shocking attacks that would happen periodically. During these incidents she didn't feel like the same dog, and as soon as they happened she was remorseful. After she snapped at people she loved, she would sulk for hours and sometimes days. I know that feeling. It's like the gut-wrenching guilt that hits me when I've yelled at my children and see them cringe. How could I fault her for something she regretted so deeply?

Sometimes we thought it was her intelligence that made her both so wonderful and so dangerous. Sometimes we wondered if her first few weeks had been traumatic for her, or if she had some kind of brain injury. We will never know. We did everything we could to keep her. We maxed our credit on veterinary and behavioural interventions. We lost friends and connection to our community in our efforts to help and keep this beloved member of our family, but when too many of our immediate family members were endangered by her, we had to concede that it was time to let her go. Finally, and with a really untellable amount of pain, we chose to put her down, and today we lost her.

Thuja is buried at the edge of the woods, deep in the ground with cedar boughs, her blue dinosaur, and Gordon. The children stayed home today, to say goodbye and help us dig, to lay the boughs on her and for Tali to tuck his old shabby Gordon up under Thuja's chin and between her limp paws, just where she liked him to be.

I'm writing this because I'm too sad to go to sleep. Today is still a day that I nuzzled my puppy's soft cheeks and felt her love for me. Today is still the day I heard her whimpering as we held her down and the last powerful sedative flooded her circulatory system. Today is still the day I told her I loved her and she gazed into my eyes with her own. Today is the last day I had this friend in my life. Tomorrow I have to begin the process of cleaning her hairs from the carpets, washing her many toys, and packing away what remains of her very short, traumatic, but loving life.