Four months ago I was about to make the most painful decision of my life.
I was going to put Doug down.
For those who haven’t been following the story of Doug’s separation anxiety journey, let me rewind a little.
February of last year I decided to re-home Doug — my scruffy, blonde, sweet mutt. I posted on Facebook and sent out an email blast to my network requesting help in finding someone suitable to adopt my 1-year-old, tail-wagging best friend. I met and spoke with a couple of people and found a family that lived about 45 minutes away who were very excited to meet him. After interviewing them and finding little fault, though… I couldn’t do it.
While they sat talking excitedly in my apartment, I watched Doug greet them calmly and then walk to his favorite spot on the couch and assume his position, taking a deep breath as he gazed out the window, watching squirrels climb up trees. His tail began to slightly uncurl and my heart broke as I realized how content and trusting he was. He just greeted these strangers, without any apprehension, trusting that the people I decided to let into the apartment weren’t going to harm him. No, they were just going to take him away from the life he began to grow comfortable in.
I couldn’t do it. But I couldn’t live the way I was living either. Despite how much I loved him, I felt like a prisoner to Doug. He couldn’t be left alone without having a full-blown panic attack. Maybe another dog would help?
A month later I dragged my closest friend, Lauren, off to an animal shelter, promising myself and my family that I was only looking at a companion for Doug. I wasn’t actually going to adopt one.
But then I met Clover. Sweet, innocent, calm, and had recently given birth to a litter of puppies. She was balding all over her body, with her fur coarse and practically un-pettable, she was chewing on rocks and rubbing her skin dry from pure anxiety. Clover. I fell in love. I don’t know what came over me, but I needed to adopt this dog.
Lauren agreed to drive all the way back to my home to pick up Doug so that we could introduce the two of them together. When we let them both out in the meet area, Doug and Clover looked at each other and then went to sniff different corners. It was like they were destined to meet. There was no barking or growling or tense moments. Doug welcomed her into our little family with open paws and Clover took on her role as emotional support animal to her little brother with great appreciation.
Did it help? No. Doug was still unable to be left home alone, but at that point Wagmore, his daycare, had agreed to watch him on the weekends at no cost, to provide a social life for me. That, coupled with my boyfriend, Jeff, staying at my apartment during the day, created a Band-Aid on the situation. I was able to enjoy my time away from the apartment and things felt somewhat back to normal.
Then we moved. The Band-Aid that was put into place over Doug’s issues fell off, and, on top of it, one day he randomly attacked a dog at daycare.
The feeling of pure panic that I felt when they told me Doug was no longer allowed to join in group play overcame my entire body and didn’t disappear. Jeff’s look of pure pain as he realized I was crumbling from the weight of this situation only intensified the horror. He willingly agreed to give up any plans during the day so he could stay home with Doug. But that was just another Band-Aid. The daycare tried to convince me to call up a trainer they knew who had very fast and successful results, but it was an aversive training boot camp, which I had promised Doug I would stay away from. The initial panic and hopelessness I felt when I first learned of Doug’s separation anxiety in 2015 came back, and I wanted to hide in the corner and just give up.
But I didn’t. I called four dog trainers and scheduled meetings with all of them. And then my Doug became unrecognizable.
As the first dog trainer entered my apartment, Doug tried to attack. His nonstop barking and panting at a friendly old woman was unlike anything I had ever seen before. He tried to lunge at her, and it seemed that if I didn’t react in time, he would have bitten her. Who was this dog? I shook my head sadly and started crying as the trainer went into a speech about how it may be time to send Doug “over the rainbow bridge.” I felt guilty, ashamed, and devastated as she got on the phone and explained the same thing to my dad.
“I’m not giving up,” I said, and made an appointment to take Doug to the vet, hoping it was a medical issue, like a thyroid imbalance, that is easily fixed with medication. Long story short: it wasn’t.
Thinking it was just the dog trainer, I called another one. She came into the apartment and the same awful scenario as the first unfolded in front of me. After she left, Jeff took my hand and I told him I needed to euthanize Doug. I could barely get the words out of my mouth. I was there for him for almost two years. Every night before we went to sleep I promised him I would never leave him. I cried into his fur about how much I love him and how he could trust me. And I was going to break his trust.
“It’s better for him. It will end his suffering. This kind of dog isn’t worth the hassle,” the dog trainers, my family, my friends, all tried to comfort me. All I could do was cry while holding Doug telling him I am so, so, sorry.
Jeff was absolutely devastated at my misery but felt just as sad about Doug. This past year the two of them have established an even closer bond than Doug and I ever had. But Jeff couldn’t show it because he is too sweet to add more pain onto my own.
One night amidst the painful weeks, I had a dream. (I’m not kidding, and I’m not saying this for dramatic effect.) Doug was on the couch sleeping soundly while Jeff and I were going into the city. A voice told me that the situation seems so awful now, but that’s because something positive is going to happen. When I woke up I looked at Doug sleeping soundly at the foot of the bed and I knew I wasn’t going to accept this as a defeat. “Things are going to work out,” I told a sleepy Jeff. His eyes widened in hope.
That day, I scheduled an appointment with a vet behaviorist I had heard about, Ellen Lindell. Jeff agreed to take Doug to the two-hour consultation and speak on my behalf. After typing a ten-page document of Doug’s history, Jeff and Doug began the hour trip to Dr. Lindell’s office. After meeting with her, she gave me information I thought too good to be true: Doug was on the incorrect dosage of medication, and the two meds he was on have the possibility of counteracting each other. “When did you try to change this?” She asked me in our second meeting. I thought long and hard and said, “Around the same time Doug’s behavior began to change.”
She then nodded and filled out a prescription for three times the amount of Clomipramine and told me to take him completely off the other medication. “Here’s some behavior exercises you can do as well,” she said, handing me a printout.
I walked away from her office with Jeff by my side and Doug trotting along at our feet, feeling uncertain. Was I prepared to take on this commitment to try yet again to help Doug with his separation anxiety? I knew I wasn’t. But Jeff was.
Jeff read every single word of that printout, mastering the exercises and taking away the burden of sacrificing even more of my days to behavior modification. I had no idea if it was working or not until one day, on an impulse, I grabbed my phone, got myself dressed, and went outside to my car. I pressed the webcam app I had stayed away from for almost a year and looked at the camera, expecting to see Doug in full-on panic as Clover slept soundly. But I didn’t. I saw him sleeping on his bed and my eyes widened. I was barely breathing for the full 46 minutes that I sat in my car watching, while Doug slept on his bed.
As the days progressed, Doug’s new medication kicked in, and Jeff continued the exercises with Doug by day, I began to implement the trainings my friend and certified separation anxiety trainer, Tiffany, taught us in the afternoons and evenings. As Doug passed each day successfully, I let my hopes rise a little higher. I switched up the length of time he was left alone — never pushing him too hard, always watching on my webcam close by.
At the hour and a half mark, I laughed in delight, watching the video while sitting alone in my car, two blocks away. Doug lifted his head up, seemingly concerned, but then he heard Clover sigh in her crate, reminding him of her presence, and he calmly put his head back down.
I could not begin to count the number of times I looked into Doug’s sweet brown eyes, held his soft tan face and told him slowly that I will always come back for him. He always blinked back, trying to lick my fingers, oblivious to the message I was trying to get across. But we did it. Two months to the day that I almost decided to euthanize my best friend, he understands.
Last week, I went with Jeff to ride Harley, and Doug slept. Yesterday, Jeff and I went to work, and Doug slept. He met two new strangers and jumped up to lick their faces, his tail wagging again, all fear and concern gone.
I can hardly believe that I have my freedom back. For the longest time, all I wanted to do since getting Doug was leave my apartment and go to the supermarket. I longed for something so insignificant because I had taken it for granted for so long. When my sister was debating about whether or not to go to the movies, I wanted to scream, “Go! I would give anything just to be able to see a movie outside of my apartment again!”
This fight for Doug was the most difficult fight I could have ever experienced. It cost me to lose jobs, and even a friend, who said he lost respect for what I was willing to sacrifice. But we did it. In the process I learned to appreciate my family and friends, those who may have judged me a little for the decisions I was making but who appreciated the bigger picture and what they helped me accomplish.
Thank you to my dad and mom for being there to watch Doug and offer moral support. Thank you to my friends for still loving me and maintaining a friendship, despite my difficulties with staying in touch. Thank you, Tiffany, for your love and for being the most knowledgeable member of “Team Doug.” Thank you, Jenna, for always loving him, and for seeing the good in him no matter the situation. And thank you, Jeffrey. Without your support, passion, and love, Doug would not still be here, providing his curly tail wags and big tongue licks. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go to the supermarket.