He was not sick. He was not old. I rescued him over 8 years ago when he was only 2 months old. And I put him down to rescue him again.
Sutter would have been one of the 4 million dogs euthanized in a US shelter that year. But instead, he and his litter mates were rescued by Pound Puppy Rescue, a local puppy rescue. Just days old when he was brought into his foster home, Sutter and his litter mates were bottle fed until they could eat on their own.
Sutter was the most beautiful dog I had ever seen. Deep red coat and amber eyes. Naturally athletic. We were unsure of his breed but a DNA test told us cattle dog and boxer. His herding and hunting instincts were interminable. And from the very moment I got him, something was ‘off’.
I socialized him at home with friends and other dogs until he was fully vaccinated. Then I took him to the dog park 5 times a week, the beach, work, dog friendly restaurants, puppy school, agility training, nose work class. Despite all these efforts, Sutter was hyper vigilant. Never relaxed. Always on edge. He put a dog at the dog park in the hospital. He bit a child riding by on her tricycle. He bit people in our house, the cleaning lady, the gardener and a fireman. He chased the postman down the driveway baring his teeth. Amazingly none of these instances were reported, but Sutter’s freedoms were restricted. I rescued Sutter and it was my job to keep him safe. Inside our home with our family, Sutter was a dream. He never chewed anything. He wasn’t needy. He was affectionate. And quiet.
After my divorce I moved into an apartment, and hired a dog walker. I gave her very explicit instructions. About two weeks into her job, she called me to tell me that Sutter bit the apartment manager. Two days later, Sutter bit a dog. Sutter had three days to find a new home. I managed to find him a place to stay until I could move. I was not giving up on my dog.
Sutter was a management issue. Walking him became more and more stressful. Crossing the street when people came towards us. Pulling him away from children who wanted to pet him. As I became more vigilant, Sutter fed off the energy and got worse. Walking him was no longer fun, it was a chore with the thought, “What’s going to happen next” constantly going through my head.
I tried everything: trainers with an iron fist, muzzles, and thunder shirts, medication. Nothing helped. He growled at everyone that gave him a sideways glance. He lunged without warning. He air snapped. But all the while at home, he was a great companion, goofy happy and chill.
Last week, our elderly neighbor was walking by, and as her back was turned, Sutter lunged, knocked her to the ground and bit her. No warning. What would a dog who has been loved his whole life, have to fear? What is going through his head that makes him so insecure and defensive that he would do this? Again, luck was on my side and our 84 year old neighbor made it through unhurt.
I talked to experts and trainers, veterinarians and shelter staff. Sutter had no chance to be rehomed; it would just transfer the liability from my home to another. I could limit his freedoms even more. Only walking him in the dead of night. I could put a muzzle on him at all times. But then the question of quality of life comes up. Quality of life for him. Quality of life for me.
All this time, for the last 4 years or so, the thought of euthanasia has loomed in the background. And to be brutally honest, a bit of relief would seep through the heartbreak when I thought of it. Relief at not wondering when the next time would be. Relief at not worrying about getting a call from the police or animal control. Relief at not being at risk of a lawsuit. Relief at avoiding the distinct possibility that Sutter could badly hurt someone. Of all the people I spoke with, only one told me not to consider putting him down. Because I would never forgive myself; because I would feel guilty for the rest of my life. That, to me, is a selfish reason not to do it. How would I feel if Sutter put a child in the hospital or killed a dog? The guilt would be unbearable. The guilt that I didn’t do something sooner.
So yesterday, I spent the day with my boy Sutter. I made him a scrambled egg for breakfast and he had the last bite of banana. We took a long walk along the coast, and I let him sniff every blade of grass, and eat whatever tasty morsel I would usually pull him away from. I let him look for mice in the scrub. We watched hawks hunt for their breakfast and stared at the ocean. He rolled in the wet grass and jumped up smiling at me.
Then, we took him to the vet. We went into the quiet room and spent some time with him. The tech came and gave him a shot that made him sleepy. Even then he was strong, he refused to go to sleep and jumped up several times, walking like a drunk. We finally convinced him to lie down on the blanket. We pet him and kissed him and gave him treats and hugged him and told him we love him so much. The vet came in and injected him with some bright blue medicine, and his breathing and heart slowed down. His eyes remained open and we talked to him gently, telling him to go to sleep. Then he was gone.
My pain was excruciating, and it still is. And maybe my friend is right. I may never forgive myself for playing God and deciding Sutter’s time was up. And the rescue volunteer in me is calling myself a hypocrite of the worst kind. How can I save a dog, only to euthanize him when he was still so vibrant and healthy?
I will likely struggle with these thoughts for many years to come. And I will always miss Sutter, the little puppy that I rescued. But in the end I know I saved him from himself.