***Trigger warning*** Not every shelter dog has a happy ending. This is the story of my experiences with one of the thousands of pitbulls who are euthanized in America every day.
Earl was a powerful dog who showed intense barrier aggression in the kennel. He was a scary sight making horrible sounds, and I had second thoughts about opening the kennel door. His unapproachability was, however, exactly why I wanted to work with him. He was one of the dogs least likely to make it out of the shelter alive. I hoped to change that.
The other volunteer took the plunge and opened the gate. I was very relieved that Earl calmed down and started wiggling the moment the door was opened. He was easy to leash and walk.
The volunteer and I played with Earl in the yard and gave him a bath. He was calm and sweet, licking our faces and wiggling his whole body with his tail. He was trusting in the tub and soaked up the attention.
We took Earl for an outing downtown, where he got lots of love from everyone and was calm with other dogs. He sat nicely while we ate our dinner, just chewing on the toy that I’d brought with us for that purpose. A nice waitress gave him bacon bits and pet his big head while he slurped them up.
I felt bad bringing him back to his kennel that night. I hoped that pictures and videos from our outing may attract a potential adopter so that he could leave for good.
A week later, Earl still hadn’t attracted any attention, so we took him out again, this time for an overnight visit away from the shelter. He clearly recognized me as I approached his kennel this time, and he was happy and playful with me like a puppy.
He seemed to recognize the other volunteer he’d met before too. When I picked her up to go Downtown, he licked her face and wiggled from his spot in the back seat. I’d forgotten to put the child lock on the windows and was very surprised to see Earl leaning happily out the window as we went through a round-about. The other volunteer and I laughed, and Earl seemed to smile too as he leaned back into the car and I closed the window.
We picked up another friend at his apartment. For the first time, I saw some caution from Earl outside of the kennel barrier aggression that I’d seen earlier. However, Earl quickly relaxed and happily lounged on the couch while we talked.
We all drove downtown for the Farmer’s Market. Earl walked leisurely through the market, wagging his tail slowly at people and hoping for pets. He reached his nose hopefully towards the stands of cooking food and looked back at me as if asking for some.
A summer thunderstorm broke out, seemingly instantly, and we found ourselves clustered under a canopy by a little restaurant with dozens of other people. Earl took it all in stride. With nothing better to do, the people around us pet and cooed over Earl. He happily soaked up the attention. Finally, the storm broke and we walked back to the car. It was starting to get dark now, and Earl was leaning on me and staring at me as he walked with a sweet, dopey expression.
He wanted to go into a patch of grass, and, assuming he needed to do his business, we paused and waited for him. We all laughed when instead of going to the bathroom, Earl threw himself down in the long, wet grass and eagerly rolled around. He rolled back over onto his belly and smiled at us.
A young man walking by asked if he could pet Earl. We called Earl and introduced him as we’d been doing all night, but this time Earl shrank back from the man, who seemed surprised, understandably a bit hurt, and a little alarmed.
Through my good mood, I felt a glimmer of concern, not so much because Earl had shrunk back, but because of the way that he had stared at the man as he did it. With his cropped ears, it can be harder to read expressions, but I felt pretty sure that the ears had remained pricked and alert, not laid back in fear or appeasement. Earl’s gaze was steady and intense, and the man seemed to respond with alarm.
I shook off the worries and we went on our way. Back at my house, I showed Earl his crate on our screened porch and settled him down with a blanket and a bowl of water. My fiance, Justin, stepped out to welcome me home, and Earl walked up to him and greeted him with a very clear, but low growl.
Earl stared at Justin with those intense green eyes, and Justin, who has had his share of experiences with both friendly and unfriendly dogs, backed away slowly. I called Earl, who trotted back to me wagging his tail, and Justin stepped out and closed the door behind him. Then he told me through the open window in the porch door, “I don’t think he was being friendly.”
The next morning, I spent a while with Earl on the couch before I took him back to the shelter. As Earl cuddled with me, staring deeply into my soul with those green eyes, I savored the moments we had, fearful of what was to come.
I’d never before had a dog guard me, unless you count a feisty four-pound chihuahua that we fostered in college. I had, however, known my share of dogs who guarded their people, both at the dog daycare I managed and at the animal hospital. I knew how fiercely these dogs can feel the need to protect, and how hard the behavior can be to break. In a powerful dog like Earl, the behavior could be very dangerous.
I took Earl for a walk, worked deliberately to put myself in a confident, happy mood so that Earl wouldn’t pick up on any negative signals from me, and took him to the shelter. As soon as we walked into the lobby, I knew that Earl was different than when I picked him up. So did the tech we ran into in the lobby. “Whoa, Earl, what’s up with you buddy?” she said. He stared at her. She retreated. He did allow the receptionist to greet him, as she came around the desk smiling and friendly, but the friendly wiggle seemed to be gone from him, and he kept glancing back at me.
Staff from Animal Services and the Humane Society were conducting playgroups in the yards outside. I briefly told them what had happened with Earl through the gate. They nodded acknowledgment and called me in. Nobody touched Earl or looked at him, and once he’d moved around everyone’s legs for a bit, he visibly relaxed and went to sniff noses with the dogs playing in the next pen.
I reluctantly picked up my camera and transitioned to playgroup photographer. Earl seemed willing enough to forget about me for a bit while he met a new dog. The staff was comfortable letting him meet another dog face to face, and Earl happily ran up to meet the tall hound, named Gypsy.
Gypsy was the sort of dog who got along with everybody and was a master of dog communication, so she was a good way to assess a variety of dogs. Earl clearly liked her. He tried to mount her. She responded by spinning away and inviting him to play. He took up the invitation and played with her. I was glad to see them play, but the staff was less pleased.
The vet pointed out the stiffness in him, an unwillingness to back down, and a constant pursuit of his goal (mounting) despite Gypsy’s clear efforts to dissuade him. With another dog, a fight may occur quickly, and even with a dog like a Gypsy, a fight may eventually break out. Earl was extremely confident, and considering his breed, the vet worried that he would fight with vigor and possibly do a lot of damage.
I went home with a heavy heart that day. With both possible human and dog aggression, paired with the intense barrier aggression and his breed, which had kept him from being adopted so far, his chances of making it out of the shelter weren’t good.
I am not equipped to work with dogs who may have serious aggression, especially potentially towards people. I wouldn’t ask Justin to tolerate a dog who may attack him in our home. Furthermore, if Earl’s bond with me really was instigating further aggression, continuing to bond with him wouldn’t help anyone. So my time of working with Earl was over.
I posted about him everywhere that I could. I made videos and made it clear that Earl’s circumstances were dire. Lots of people shared or commented on how sad it was, but no one came forward. One person became verbally abusive of me and the shelter supervisor for allowing Earl to be considered for euthanasia, but our invitations for her to rescue Earl were met with bluster, not salvation.
And so, Earl was euthanized. I didn’t go to the shelter. I didn’t want to spend a last day with him. I knew it would hurt too much. I struggled with Earl’s death, as well as the criticisms that had been brought against me for not doing more to stop it.
Usually taking dogs for a day or night out only brings good things for them, but sometimes the extra information that we gain isn’t positive. In these circumstances, our goal is not necessarily to save the dog at all costs but to consider the good of the community and the adopting family.
Could someone have worked with Earl and saved him safely? Maybe. But that person wasn’t me, and that person didn’t come forward.
I’m sorry Earl. I tried. You deserved better.