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. 


Phyllis DeGioia
August 9, 2022

Hi Anna, I am grateful beyond words that my experience and those of others has helped you. And for what it's worth,  I think most of us don't listen to those early warning signs because we don't want to believe them.  For me, an English setter was an unusual choice in the first place, so no, I didn't even think about getting another one (it took me several years before I could see one without crying). I don't usually have specific breed preferences, and the only consistent breed I've had is a mutt. My brother-in-law had an English setter named Roxanne who was as sweet and funny as the day is long. I loved the relationship they had: they would stretch out together on the couch, they were best friends, and I wanted that with my own dog. Dodger was not that kind of dog, although he was affectionate (English setters are known to be affectionate).  Unfortunately, since I am not a fan of a specific breed, I don't have any worthwhile input because it's just not the same for me as it is for you. I've had four purebreds, but never the same breed more than once. No one but you can identify whether or not it would be helpful or hurtful to have the same breed, and that's certainly a choice that's easier discussed than made. Perhaps the answer is that the first one after Maximus should be another breed, and then when the pain is more distant, you could then get another Great Pyr.  I fell in love with a photo of Sierra, the collie who now shares my heart and home. It had little to do with her being a collie, although I happened to be cruising a collie rescue site; something in her eyes spoke to me, and that was it.  Anna, I wish I could help more, but I can't. Please know my heart is with you, and I hope you find the dog who is meant to be with you.

August 7, 2022

For the last two years, I have read and reread your articles over and over again. Everything you wrote has helped me tremendously after putting our boy Maximus down. I could tell you so much about our boy. Our vet noticed the signs very early when he was very much a small puppy but unfortunately, I was so naïve and ignored his warnings. So many problems...he leaped at moving cars, couldn't walk with others around because he would be so aggressive, bit my husband three times (one resulting in an emergency room visit), tried to bite our animal behaviorist in the face, was aggressive with all people, children and animals alike. The only one he was not aggressive with was me. Or at least we thought that was the case...I knew his habits, his triggers and I was extremely careful to always watch for all of them. We lived under strict restrictions together. My husband and I couldn't even take a trip because no one could safely watch him. Our vet was kind enough to meet us after hours for his yearly vet visit. In his kind way, he advised us that we consider options but we chose, unfortunately, to not take his advice because we hoped to give Maximus the longevity of his life as happily as we could (but it was a very restricted life, one that I felt guilty over because I could not give him a better one). That’s the way we lived for many years with very isolated and small incidences between him and I. He seemed to be able to control his triggers so long as he was not stimulated too much and the situations involved me. Unfortunately, a perfect storm day did occur and I bitterly regret that day. It was during the Covid pandemic, I was outside picking up Maximus’ poop, when a baby bird fell from our large tree. Maximus went for it immediately and without thinking, I stopped him from reaching it. I gently put my arms around his sides and started to guide him inside (I had done this multiple times before with him involving different situations and it always went well, either he would willingly follow me in or he would break loose of my arms). I felt him break loose, saw him turn and he lunged and bit hard into my arm. He bit my side and then bit my thigh. All of it happened so quickly. I’m not sure what stopped the attack but he stopped biting and I ran inside. I could no longer take care of our boy. His world grew smaller and smaller and at that point, I knew he no longer had anymore room. When we put our boy down, the vet tech cried with me and told me it was fortunate that it had happened to me and not to someone else, otherwise Maximus may have not stopped... So, after two years, I am still tearing up as I read your posts. I love to read that you were able to get another dog. I had to ask you this question, did you ever consider getting an English Setter again or was it too painful? I have been in love with Maximus' breed, the Great Pyrenees, I even had a boy before Maximus who was simply wonderful but though I adore them, I have such a hard time thinking of getting another. Is this weird? I do love them so should I find a reputable breeder and conquer that fear or should I get a totally different breed that doesn't effect me so much? So sorry this post is so long and I apologize for all of the questions. There are not many places that one can talk about these things and I so appreciate you for writing about your experience. 

Phyllis DeGioia
July 6, 2022

Hi Patti, My heart is breaking right along with yours. I feel as though you are in-between a rock and a hard place. Because I have no idea what to expect, I consulted a veterinary behaviorist about the puppys' potential future temperaments. The behaviorist thinks in general the puppies may be more likely to bite then others for a few reasons, only one of which is genetics. Another is that they are so young and are being bottle fed without a mother around, and that's difficult for them. The last reason is that despite the best you can provide, this start is a difficult early life experience that does not bode particularly well towards an emotionally well developed adult dog. Nothing is set in stone, but these are the likely directions. She also believes you were bitten after they were born not only due to maternal aggression, but also to her emotional/aggressive issues. I don't know if that helps or not. I know it feels as though you will cry forever, but trust me, you will not. I'm sure it feels like a bottomless pit. Hugs.

Patti Behrmann
July 4, 2022

I can’t believe I found your stories today. I had to euthanize my dog six days ago. I feel like the worst person in the world. Because you see my story goes a step further. My dog had given birth to seven beautiful puppies two weeks before. She had bitten me several times before she got pregnant but it got so much worse. But what was the deciding factor was she bit me in the face. Missed taking out my left eye by less than an eight of an inch. No warning no nothing. We were both sitting on my bed I went to get up and she attacked me. First my stomach, my breast my back. I sat back down in the bed thinking that was what she wanted and at the same time grabbing the quilt in the bed to cover myself with it but she was quicker and went for my face. Blood everywhere, me sobbing and shaking. I locked her out of my room that night, I was terrified of her now. She had bit me many many times before but as you pointed out I had excuses ect. She was due to have her pups in five days. I absolutely could not have her euthanized while she was almost ready to deliver. She had her pups, but me several more times and I couldn’t take anymore. I have cried for six days. I feel like I will cry forever. I have her puppies and they cry for her too. I am bottle feeding seven pups now terrified that they are not safe to find homes for. I can’t keep them all. I cannot take them to a shelter. I feel like I owe it to their mama to take care of them. My whole world is upside down. And as I’m crying I am finding myself falling in love with these babies. They are so pure and innocent! How could they turn out like their mama? I just don’t know. That’s the problem. My dog was four years old and was born in the house I rented. She went through everything with me. She was my best friend! She loved me! And I adored and loved her. But she wasn’t right. In her head. I know this, but knowing it doesn’t help me. It don’t fill the gaping hole she left. And it doesn’t help me know what to do with her babies. I told my friend yesterday, I hate my life right now. I hate everything. Why did I need to go through this? I feel picked on and alone. My girl was my world and the whole thing blew up in my face. As if that aren’t enough, I now have seven more possibilities of going through the same thing? I don’t know. No one knows. So the answer is? There isn’t one! Your story was a tiny glimmer of hope. I thank you so much for writing them. At least I know that I am not alone in going through what feels like the worst betrayal ever. Ever. Your dog is supposed to be your best friend no questions asked. So when mine turned into my worst nightmare… I am so sorry that you had to go through this. The pain is indescribable, it is unrelenting, and it is ever ever present. But thank you for sharing your story.

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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