Over the past couple of years, I’ve written about a lot of hard things. I’ve written about losing my dad, getting sober, and plenty of other ups & downs that come with adulthood. I can easily say that this post is the hardest thing I’ve ever written.
I have to rewind a bit – a little over two years – for this to make any sense. In July of 2016, Jeremy and I were thrilled to adopt our little cross-eyed chocolate lab, Henry. We’d spent two whole years talking about our future dog: what names we liked, what size we wanted, etc. In the five days we had to wait before Henry got to come home, we picked out a TempurPedic dog bed, had an entire basket of toys waiting for him, and (of course) I had already started him an Instagram – because I’m dog-crazy, like that.
We had an issue the very first day he came home. I had to spend the evening babysitting, so Jeremy spent all evening sending me precious pics of our new boy. I couldn’t wait to go home and see him! When I walked into our apartment, Henry began growling. We were a little bit confused, but it was his first day in a new home, after all. “It’s Mommy, Henry! Don’t be scared!”
That continued to happen sporadically. He would cuddle up with Jeremy and growl when I approached. Jeremy and I had only had easy, low-maintenance dogs in the past, so we had no idea how to handle these little “episodes,” as we called them. It got to the point that every time I entered our apartment, Jeremy had to get up and greet me right at the door, as if to diffuse a potential territorial situation and show Henry, “She is welcome here.”
I wrote a blog post about the biggest incident, which occurred in January of 2017. We had gotten an anxiety medication for Henry, thinking that would help him calm down and feel better. After a night of pacing, I gave him a dose. He immediately relaxed and cuddled up next to me. When I later leaned over to give him a little kiss, he took a bite out of my forehead. I spent the night in the E.R., but couldn’t wait to get home again to Henry. It was my fault – I had given him a sedative and then startled him. Any good dog owner would know that you do NOT lean in like that, and my dog is blind (which makes it an even bigger no-no).
Jeremy and I rescheduled our engagement photos while my face healed, and we booked an appointment with behaviorists at the U.C Davis Vet School – $700 for a full analysis and tips for making sure another incident never happens. They confirmed what we originally thought: it was an isolated incident caused by a sedative. We flushed those pills down the toilet, while picking up a prescription for a daily “doggy Prozac” to help him feel less anxious. We also learned how to counter-condition his territorialism and anxiety around Jeremy.
Sadly, the growling episodes increased in frequency despite our best efforts. We met them with love and treats, trying to make Henry feel safe in our home, but it never worked – at least not for long. The only thing that did seem to work was adopting our second little dog, Jack. After getting Jack, we noticed Henry never had separation anxiety again. It was wonderful! Jack and Henry shared everything – including Henry’s crate (!) – and it felt good to see.
We increased how much exercise Henry would get, because we fully believe “a tired dog is a happy dog.” Jeremy would wake up at the crack of dawn and fetch with Henry until Henry refused to run anymore, panting on the grass. I fetched or walked Henry 2-3 times during my workday. We would always do “family walks” at night, and sometimes we’d fetch more if Henry seemed on edge.
When we first got Henry, he was great with dogs and OK with people. By the end of the first year, he was aggressive with virtually all humans that we encountered, and other big dogs. We got him a vest to wear to show that he’s blind and fearful, and only one designated maintenance guy (the only one Henry liked) at our apartment complex could enter our unit. To be honest, I just didn’t want anyone to come over to our apartment, ever. Henry was a barking, lunging, growling mess, and Jeremy & I were always on edge even when Henry “relaxed.”
Eventually, Henry stopped being OK with small dogs either. One day, while fetching in an enclosed patch of grass, another tenant at our building let their teacup Yorkie enter the dog run. Henry lunged, and I pulled him back just in time. I was incredibly shaken up and Jeremy and I realized, OK… no more dogs around Henry, ever.
Another low point occurred when Henry bit a dog sitter. This was a dog sitter we trusted and Henry adored. Just like I had done a year earlier, the dog-sitter took full responsibility and refused to let us be upset with Henry. She came up with a laundry list of things she had done wrong to provoke the aggression, but my worst fear had already come to life: Henry had hurt someone else. When he hurt me, I justified it. It’s a lot harder to justify it when it’s another person.
His anxiety at the vet ramped up as well. He was nervous at his first vet visit. Recently, he became so aggressive and scared that he had to be muzzled from start to finish. Jeremy and I are both nervous wrecks the entire day or two before an appointment, simply because we know it’s going to be scary, loud, and miserable. Even with the muzzle, the vet was unable to examine him at the last appointment because he was so reactive.
Over the past two months, there have been two new developments that have broken my heart. And that’s truly the only way to describe it. On the night before our big move to New Mexico, Jeremy and Henry were drifting off to sleep on the air mattress. As I approached the bed, Henry began growling – which wasn’t too abnormal. However, Henry soon got up and lunged for me. I screamed before I even realized what was happening. I had my back up against the bedroom wall before Jeremy had grabbed Henry by his scruff and calmed down the situation. We went to bed sad and shaken up.
We were on pins and needles the entire drive to Albuquerque. We had to stay in a hotel in Arizona overnight, and we were nervous about getting Henry into the hotel room without incident. Luckily, besides some pacing, growling, and barking, the overnight stay went off without a hitch. However, we were meeting our landlord at our new home in Albuquerque, and we were terrified by what he would say if he met Henry during one of his “episodes.” Would he not let us live there? We probably had 10 different conversations about how we’d handle it. We decided Jeremy would take Henry to a local park while I met the landlord and got the keys. We wanted to avoid the situation altogether, and it was yet another instance of normal things becoming looming, stressful events.
For a few weeks, we thought the added space in our new house was helping Henry. He seemed happy to have a backyard, but we still fetched with him at least twice a day to ensure he got his anxious energy out. However, a couple weekends ago, he lunged for me again. He had been lying down next to Jeremy and we were having a conversation. I took one step closer to Jeremy, and suddenly Henry was coming toward me, teeth bared. Again, Jeremy managed to intervene, though I was petrified. Despite my fear, I never yell at him. Once Henry has calmed down, I give him treats and cuddles in an effort to say, “Don’t be scared, I forgive you, let’s get through this.”
However, last weekend and at the beginning of last week, he had a new target. Over the course of 24 hours, he lunged at Jack twice and bit him once. It scared me, and it really scared poor Jack. If I’m being genuine and transparent, I was not comfortable in my own home. I was scared of what would happen if I turned my back for a second. I was scared of what would happen if naïve Jack got too close to Henry when he was in a bad headspace. I was scared of being attacked in my sleep, or waking up to Jack being attacked. I was scared of everything.
The hardest realization I had was that things were not getting better, no matter what we did. They were only getting worse. Despite changing our own behavior per expert instruction, despite exercising him for hours, despite meeting his aggression with patience and kindness, identifying and avoiding his triggers, things were only escalating. I heard his snarls and his growls in my dreams. I had moments where I imagined him biting my nephew’s face, or killing someone’s tiny dog. I’ve shed more tears over this dog than I thought humanly possible.
My entire body would tense when the doorbell rang. We could not have friends over to our house. We would dread when anyone needed to come over to do maintenance. We could not bring Henry to dog parks or on trips with us. We could not let him greet other people or dogs on walks. We avoided our brand new neighbors completely. We could not let him into our bed or on furniture. We could not make eye contact with him when he’s in his “bad place.” We could not have a “normal” dog-sitter, but rather a dog-sitter who had memorized a lengthy list of rules, was experienced with aggressive dogs, and willing to dedicate hours upon hours each day to Henry.
For our own safety, the safety of any visitors to our home, and the safety of our other dog, Jeremy and I (along with family, vets, and behaviorists) came to the decision that it was time to let Henry have his final, peaceful rest. We could not make our world any smaller to accommodate this troubled dog, and we could not continue to let him live in constant anxiety. We could not and would not put a neighbor, a child, another dog, family members, or friends in danger. We could not in good conscience re-home him to let someone else learn about his issues the hard way – because his triggers and anxieties are so varied and now come without warning, it would be downright dangerous to re-home him. Truthfully, I could have performed mental gymnastics and somehow justified another bite (or two) to my face, but I would not be able to live with myself if he hurt, or killed, Jack. I’ve cried, lost sleep, and made myself physically sick worrying about this dog, and I could not do it anymore.
I wanted to make this post as an explanation to everyone who has loved Henry from afar. When Henry was sweet, he was truly the sweetest dog on the earth. When he was playful and happy, he was everything we could ever want in a dog. Because of all the dark, scary, nerve-wracking moments we’ve had with Henry, we treasure the happy, positive moments even more – and I’ve shared those sweet moments with everyone I know. I knew that Henry’s death would be met with confusion if I didn’t let everyone in on the “secrets” we’ve kept over the past two years and the scary behavior we’ve justified.
I will never forget Henry’s reaction when he received his sedative at the vet last week. It was the first time that I’ve ever seen him 100% relaxed and at ease. Even when sleeping, the slightest noise could send him into a snarling, barking frenzy in 0.1 seconds. Jeremy said it was eye-opening to realize how tense Henry had always been, and we found the entire process incredibly peaceful, gentle, and loving.
We will always love our H.Boog/Henny, and we wouldn’t have made this horrendous, heartbreaking decision if we didn’t truly believe, from the bottom of our hearts, that it was the humane next step. We are thankful for those hours of fetch, his amazing belly-up napping pose, his out-of-control excitement when Jeremy got home from work, and his incessant kisses, and we will remember those things forever.