Human/Animal Bond

The Dog After the Grief

7 years later, Part 4 of Euthanizing Aggressive Dogs: Sometimes It's the Best Choice 

September 4, 2020 (published)
Sierra rests her head, and that long nose, while taking a nap in her favorite chair. Photo by Phyllis DeGioia/VIN.

Eight weeks ago I brought home a second dog.

This news doesn't sound like a big deal, but to me it is enormous. Seven years ago this summer I euthanized my dog Dodger, an English setter, for aggression. Everyone expected me to get another dog quickly, as I usually do. But I just couldn't. The sorrow that had branched out in every direction like lightning across a night sky planted its root in my heart, and I wasn’t about to risk enduring that particular pain again when it could be prevented by not getting another dog. My faith in my ability to select a non-aggressive dog was non-existent.

My other dog, Zita, was seriously happy to be away from the crazy dog. She relaxed so much. At the time, I also had a cat who was sick frequently, and my finances were a lot easier with just two pets. I lost Dickens, the cat, about two years ago, but Z still seemed happy to have all the attention. There were no big surprises, no puncture wounds, vet bills for only one pet.

Life was easy. Not just easier, but easy.

Years after he is gone, I still think of Dodger, my beloved English setter, doing what he loved best: running flat out at seemingly unattainable speed, as graceful as birds in flight and covering ground nearly as quickly. I have no fear that I will forget how good Dodger could be and how much I loved him.

Dodger was happy most of the time, and did everything with 100% effort. Photo by Phyllis DeGioia/VIN

I still ogle English setters.

During work breaks, I have always perused pet adoption sites looking at photos of dogs and bunnies, just for fun. It made me happy to look at all those animals and looking was enough. I would sometimes send photos of bunnies with particularly long ears to my friends. A few months ago I started to talk more with a co-worker who breeds collies. All of her dogs have Italian names - Nicolo, Amore, Raffadali, Franco – and I started thinking about how pretty her dogs are, and how “Lassie, Timmy’s in the well!” was never in the TV show, a movie, or the books, but is a well-known trope despite reality.

So, I started looking at collies available for adoption, with no more interest than usual, and saw Sierra. Her eyes spoke to me in a way none of the others had. The rescue group was located a few hours away across the state border, and their website said they usually did not adopt out of state. No big deal because of course I was not looking for a dog, but God she was pretty. Her eyes had a language unto themselves, and I kept going back to speak with them. Commenters thought she was pretty, but she was 12 years old. Most folks want to be able to spend more than a few years with their new dog. In my opinion, seniors are the sweetest because they are the most vulnerable, and I love them.

A few weeks went by, and I kept going back to look at her. Finally, I poured my heart into an application, knowing they didn’t usually adopt out of state. After a week of not hearing from them, I told myself it was for the best – eh, not to be – and tried not to think about it. About three weeks after I applied, though, they called asking about a mistake I’d made on the application.

My hopes climbed.

That second conversation was the come-to-Jesus call that for me would make or break the adoption. I told the adoption counselor about Dodger and my choice, and that I did not want a project. I just wanted an easy, happy dog with absolutely no traces of aggression, period, and if their rescue wouldn’t adopt to me because I euthanized an aggressive dog, that was fine.

I kept my tone professional but in my heart my attitude was a defiant “Screw you if you think I’m a terrible person because I know I did the right thing.”

She seemed a little surprised.

“We don’t take dogs with a known bite history,” she said. “We can’t place aggressive dogs, so the only thing we can do is euthanize them.”

I was so surprised I almost dropped the phone. Many rescue groups place aggressive dogs, sometimes not disclosing the truth about them. They have good intentions, but as my father used to say, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Human safety is always the priority and hiding something as dangerous as a bite history does irreparable harm to the willingness of people to adopt from shelters and rescues. People have to understand what behavioral issues their potential dog has in order for the adoption to work.

Thanks to COVID, the home inspection was done over my cell phone in a Facebook live call. I walked around the house pointing the phone at the parts of the house they were interested in: the dog’s access front and back, the fence, where she would sleep, etc.

The next step was talking to Sierra’s foster mom and seeing if we both thought Sierra was a good fit. I repeated my mantra about not wanting an aggressive dog and that all I cared about was a good temperament. I wanted her to be a therapy dog if we could ever go into a hospital to volunteer again. Foster mom assured me that Sierra was a total sweetheart who liked other dogs, could handle steps on her own, and had no housetraining problems. The emphasis was on sweetheart.

Sierra belonged to an elderly couple, but she was really the husband’s dog. After he died, the wife experienced some major life issue, something like a house fire. She may have changed the 12-year-old dog’s food. Between the grief, stress, and life changes, Sierra became severely itchy and scratched out huge bald patches all over her body. The widow gave Sierra up because she felt she couldn’t care for the dog. The rescue’s vet cleared up the skin infections. The foster mom switched her to a more appropriate food. By the time they photographed Sierra for her adoption page, her coat looked normal.

The last step was meeting in person.

Sierra would be my dog, not my boyfriend’s, but if they didn’t like each other it was all over. Erik, Zita and I drove for 3 hours to see if the dogs would get along and if we all liked each other. Zita was a pill at first, as she always is with unknown dogs on leashes, but chilled out. I fell in love with Sierra and Sierra fell in love with Erik; while I asked questions, he gave her belly rubs. I left her wearing a bandana infused with our three scents.

The next week they formally approved my application and she was “suddenly” mine.

First things first. I wanted to be able to buy her whatever I wanted without worrying about cost. I cancelled my order for a fancy refrigerator, held up by COVID, and ordered one for less than half the price. She has a new crate, orthopedic bed, grooming tools suggested by my collie breeder colleague, ID tag, new vet, and a veterinary dermatologist. She’s on a food allergy trial now with allergy meds despite being night and day improved from her semi-bald appearance when she went into rescue. She still smells a bit, her coat gets a bit icky after a while, and she licks her hoo hoo (technical term) more than is strictly necessary. My vet believes that spay incontinence causes the excess licking because Sierra keeps cleaning herself, so she is on another med for that issue.

She and Zita, who is almost 10, are not best buds yet but they get along and invite each other to play. Sierra doesn’t care about toys or Zita’s food so there’s no resource guarding on the part of my alpha girl. Sierra sleeps in her crate sometimes and likes to nap in there, but she thankfully avoids those steep stairs I fell down and sleeps downstairs. Because Z is just like me – all emotion and speed – and Sierra moves leisurely and is as slow to eat as Erik is, the dogs are fed in separate rooms. Sierra has to stare at her food for a while before eating as though she’s waiting to see if her kibble will magically turn into prime rib (Erik claims he’s letting his cool). Zita and I shovel it in as quickly as we can. My dad used to help himself off my plate, so someone literally took food away from me every day. Z has no excuse other than being a dog.

Erik refers to the girls as “his doggle woggles.” Uh huh.

Sierra gets a belly rub - life itself, in her opinion - from Erik. Photo by Phyllis DeGioia/VIN

Sierra and I have both come a long way: she from a broken heart, infected skin and repeated grief, and me from years of uncertainty and self-doubt about getting another dog. Normally I get another dog within a couple of months of losing one; I even found Zita the day after her predecessor died. Z had been wandering near the local shelter, apparently dumped. Seven long years after Dodger, I managed to pick out a perfect dog for me, despite all manner of doubt.

I have moved past my sorrow, finally, and Sierra is working on moving past hers. She misses her foster mom, too, I think, as she spent several months with her. Our grief should remain in the past if we want to enjoy our life, but rushing past it doesn’t make it go away. We have to experience the grief to eradicate it. Putting grief out of sight on a shelf keeps it on the shelf, always looming nearby. That’s just storing the grief until you deal with it or the grief forces you to deal with it.

These days Sierra can be found sticking her 4.5-inch long nose – Why the long face, Sierra? - into my elbow for attention. Attention is life itself to dogs. My 1.25-inches long nose is too short to poke anywhere, but Sierra, Zita and I understand that life moves on if you embrace the difficulties and then let them go. 


June 19, 2021

I'm impressed by your resilience and dedication to living your life to the fullest, which in part for you is having a faithful four-legged companion or two (or 2+ lol!) as part of your family. Even after a difficult previous experience. I've not been able to open my heart to another fur-baby after the loss of my most-precious-babykins-ever, my mini-poodle, Yuki. She was adopted from an emotionally-neglectful former home (although thankfully not deprived of food or shelter, as I understood it), and was initially a little baffled at the love and attention I gave her. It warmed my heart to watch her grow to love me back and relax enough to start to play with her toys, and then to calm down and trust me not to abandon her forever whenever I left the house without her (ex. running out to the mailbox). I'm not sure if I will ever love another pet like I loved her. And I firmly believe that pets, like children, should only be brought into your life if you are fully committed to them and have your eyes fully open to the realities of being a caregiver. (To the extent of whatever control the two-be pet- or people-parent has in the situation, and with the understanding that no one's perfect or knows everything; the important part is that they commit to their decisions, once made, and try their best with the knowledge they have when making any given choice.) Opening one's heart is always a risk. It takes bravery at the moment of the leap of faith, but moreso, it takes determination to heal and recover from being burned in order to become *ready* to leap once again. Congrats to you for how far you've come and how far you will surely continue to go. : )

January 21, 2021

Phyllis I am thrilled that you were able to open up your heart and that Sierra came to your life. It takes a lot of time to heal. We put our beloved boy down back in April and initially decided not to tell the breeder. Out of the blue the breeder reached out to me for something. Asking about our boy and we finally decided to tell her what it happened. I had put a long letter together after the incident to be prepared to tell her one day. It was just too early when it happened to let her know. I detailed his bite history with us and all the incidents and how bad the last one was with my husband which is what made us decide it would be best for him to be put down. How can you rehome a dog that has a bite history and has been biting the owners the ones who love them the most I can’t see that happening he’s like a ticking time bomb he even started nipping at my mother-in-law who he knew as well. I would feel horrible if the breeder placed him in another home intentionally knowing he bites and he bit somebody or even a child in the face. From her text response to me I couldn’t tell if she was understanding or disappointed she did point out per the contract we would’ve taken him back. She already had eight dogs of her own that she uses for breeding and we knew he didn’t get along with other dogs besides his two sister siblings. I felt it would’ve been a lot more stress on him to suddenly go to a new place and a new house that he didn’t know he would’ve had more of a tendency to probably bite somebody in that type of situation he would’ve been under stress. At least we were the ones who took him in the ones who loved him and cared for him and he went peacefully. The unfortunate thing is sending the letter brought up a lot of memories of him and I’ve been having a tough time trying to get over it having to remember and relive what we went through. I’m not sure the breeder totally understands as many times of I asked her if she was ever bitten by her own dog she said no so she has no idea what we went through with him for the last three years we really feel in our heart something was just not right with our boy and I know breeders show pride in their breeding and their pups but they have to understand once in a while they’re not always going to have a perfect dog it’s possible something can be miss wired with one.  As you have commented I currently have two wonderful girls that I trust and love but I’m so cautious to getting another dog and choosing wrong again and having to go through the heartbreaking decision that we had to go through with him I don’t wish that on anybody. As you say Time will heal and it may take a while for us I feel.

October 5, 2020

What a wonderful story. I’m sorry about your experience euthanizing an aggressive pet. I had the same experience with a cat my elderly mother adopted. He started with minor aggressions that turned to stalking her and biting. After one serious bite she developed a life threatening infection. While she was being treated I returned hm to the shelter he was adopted from and he was euthanized. I believe he had a bite history with children and that’s why he was surrendered. It was heartbreaking for my mother, who eventually adopted a sweet older cat. I’m so happy when older pets get adopted and enjoy a wonderful retirement. Thank you for sharing your story.

Susan Shalaby
September 6, 2020

Oh Phyllis, this is wonderfully written. I can feel the depths of your grief and love. I’m so happy for you that you and Sierra have found each other, you’ve been put into each other’s lives for so many reasons.

Lisa McKay
September 4, 2020

I am in tears.  Tears of sorrow for your loss of Dodger and for his inability to function in the world we share.  Tears of gratitude that you had the strength to release Doger from the pain he suffered and still be willing to open your heart to another dog, especially a dog who so needed an understanding home.  Tears of happiness that you and Sierra found each other.  Thank you for this.

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