I don’t know about you, TU readers, but I have had a long, hard winter. We recently moved from Michigan to Massachusetts just in time for a record-breaking snowfall in the Boston area – and by “record-breaking,” I mean breaking the record: this was Boston’s snowiest winter since recording began in 1872!
Needless to say, we have been absolutely buried in snow. The dogs made some channels in the backyard and have stuck to them, refusing to wade much deeper into the 3′+ of accumulated snow covering our backyard. We all have a pretty severe case of cabin fever, so it feels amazing to have had a few days of above-freezing temperatures. Water has been pouring from our roof as all the snow and ice melts, we can finally see the driveway again, and there’s even a few patches of grass to be seen!
I am excited for spring, so I thought I would share my excitement with our other TU authors and all of our readers and start a list of what we’re excited to do once the snow is gone for good! (Well, until next year — no, don’t even think about it!)
Cerberus and Fly are excited to play in their backyard again – without having to barrel through shoulder-high snow. They’re also excited for new toys, because Cerb wrecked his favorite frisbee back in January and all of their indoor toys have been thoroughly annihilated. I (Rebecca) am excited to sit out on the deck and watch the dogs play. I’m excited to find a place to take them swimming, too!
Pongu and Crookytail are mainly looking forward to getting half-decent walks again, I suspect. I (Jennifer) am an absolute ninja at walking dogs on ice — no, seriously; the last time I slipped and nearly fell, I leaped into an action-movie-perfect one-legged crouch landing; it was probably the one cool comic-book move I’ll ever pull in my life — but even so, winter turns my neighborhood into a death trap that is lethal to ninjas and normal people alike.
Plus my dogs don’t care for the salt on the sidewalks, which hurts their paws and makes them go all sad and limpy-footed. So once that’s all gone and the weather allows for long, rambly walks around the historical neighborhoods once again, we’ll all be much happier.
Ein, Molly and Perri are definitely looking forwards to swimming again! A dirty, wet dog is a happy dog in my opinion, and my three are definitely in that category. I am a proud hater of winter from the first nip in the air to the last and I enjoy the luxury of taking my three dogs on hiking adventures or out to the local river or reservoir or lake…you name it! For a good swim. Winter totally robs us of that joy for months on end, so we are beyond excited for our first swim of the season. Hurry up, Spring!
Lucy, Nellie, and Widget have no idea how much better their lives are going to get now that the days are getting longer. For much of the winter, I headed off to work when it was still dark (which meant AM walks were short, blustery potty walks in the dark and cold: no fun for everyone) and got home after the sun had gone down (which meant PM walks were the same, with the added bonus of me being exhausted from my day.) Apart from my (glorious) weekends, for several months, the only time I saw my dogs in the daylight was for a few minutes over my lunch break, when I had to hustle everyone out so I could get back to work. I am lucky that my job lets me bring my dogs to work and that it provides some good fenced and protected outdoor space where staff dogs can hang out; however, this perk kind of disappears in the winter, since it’s no fun at all for my dogs to shiver in the snowdrifts outside while I do my job. So: winter in the high desert equals some bored dogs. At night, we played indoor fetch, we did nosework, we shaped little tricks and we did food puzzles, but pretty quickly, my dudes were over it, and they were underexercised, and none of us were fans of that. All that changed with Daylight Savings, though! Now when I get home, I’ve got a solid hour and a half of sunlight and am back to taking my doggers on post-work adventures once again. And as it warms up, I’m starting to bring them to work for half days, and pretty soon, they’ll get to spend all day running around, snoozing in the sun and lounging in their kiddie pool while I’m at work.
Also, let us not forget TU’s newest and youngest member, Nimbus: Nimmy was a winter baby (born at the end of September), so he has never experienced a world that isn’t chilly, rivers that aren’t half-frozen, life without a sweater or the joy of blissing out in a sunbeam on a nice warm day. I am really excited to watch him discover all that!
Being Florida residents until mid-January, we can’t claim to have survived a real harsh winter, even if we did have a few good snow days once we arrived in Germany. But even so, Raiden is excited to get out and sniff up a storm here in Germany. Hopefully we can even find a local schutzhund/IPO club to join. Dierdre & Tiki are most definitely looking forward to summer swimming, hiking in the Palatinate Forest, riding the train all over Europe, and seeing the sights. On their list of planned countries to see over the summer (where dogs are welcome!) include France, Sweden, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic. Dierdre is especially looking forward to finding a good beach- maybe in Spain, Monaco, or somewhere along the Mediterranean, to relive her Florida beach-dog days and catch some sand and surf!
Let us know what your and your dogs are looking most forward to in the comments!
For those of you working dog rescue, you’ll know one of the number one reasons for surrendering your dog (probably right before or behind ‘we had a baby’) is: “We’re moving.” There could be any number of reasons the person actually wants to surrender the dog, from ‘can’t find a place that takes pets’ to ‘it’s too much work/money/time’ but a lot of the time it boils down to “I don’t want to make sacrifices to bring my pet along.” For us ‘dog people,’ we’ll do whatever it takes to ensure our pets stay with us during a move, be it across town or across the country. So when I was offered a job not just a few states away or in another part of the country, but in an entirely new country altogether on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean- right in heart of the European Union, my first priority was not only my 3 dogs, but also my 2 guinea pigs (both rescue-piggies). They were mentioned during my initial interview, and I made sure it was abundantly clear to the company offering me the position that I wouldn’t be coming if it meant leaving my pets. Moving to Germany with 3 dogs and 2 guinea pigs would be a challenge, but we were a package deal- either we all went, or we stayed in the United States.The only exception to the rule was my current guide dog puppy, Francie. Because Germany was definitely not within the puppy raising territory for Southeastern Guide Dogs, and Francie was not my own personal dog, she would have to be transferred to another puppy raiser to finish being raised. As soon as I knew for sure that I was accepting the job (a mere 4 weeks before I was expected to be there), I had to jump into action to start preparing the dogs. My first call was to the German Consulate in Miami, Florida, to find out the shipping and import requirements. We began to research flights and import fees, trying to find an airline that would ship the dogs as checked baggage, who would also allow the guinea pigs, with a climate controlled cargo hold, and no layovers in places like Russia, Turkey, or Africa, or the UK, where their incredibly strict import requirements extended even to animals that never leave their carriers on a layover. A non-stop flight couldn’t be booked for the time frame I needed, so I settled on a flight from Miami to Frankfurt, with a short stop in Berlin, both legs operated by AirBerlin. AirBerlin had a climate controlled cargo hold for animals, separate from the main baggage compartment, and they were one of the few airlines willing to fly my guinea pigs (a.k.a. Meerschweinchen. I had to make sure to always use the German word for guinea pig when talking to the consulate or the airlines, as the ‘pig’ part of guinea pig seemed to stand out to every non-native English speaker and they instantly thought I was trying to import large, pink, farm pigs used for pork chops and bacon. This led to quite a few amusing conversations at first). Our first step for the three dogs was a trip to our vet armed with a credit card. Because we were cutting it so close before leaving, I scheduled my vet visit for the day after I accepted the job; If I’d received the offer or taken even one extra day to decide, there would not have been enough time to prepare the dogs for export. The European Union requires a 15-digit EU complaint microchip on every dog that is imported into the country. More recently, the microchip companies have been making complaint microchips here in the US more standard, but the chips in my two German Shepherds, Raiden and Tiki, were 8 and 9 years old and not the right kind. Raiden had accidentally been double-chipped 2 years before when he was neutered, but it was, unluckily, with a non EU compliant chip. So Tiki received a second microchip, and Raiden got himself a third. Deirdre, our career-changed yellow lab from Southeastern Guide Dogs, was the only lucky dog whose chip was in compliance. Once the new chips were inserted our vet gave them all brand new rabies shots, which had to be given after they were inserted and/or scanned for their microchips. This rabies had to be given a minimum of 30 days prior to leaving US soil, so we were cutting it very close. The vet had to write and sign a letter for each of the dogs, on veterinary letterhead with his USDA certification number and the dog’s EU chip number, that he had inserted and/or scanned the microchips of each dog prior to injecting the rabies. For good measure we got a fresh round of vaccines, heartworm tests, and bloodwork done.
The next 4 weeks were a whirlwind of packing, moving our things into a large storage locker, buying airline approved crates, deciding what to take and what had to stay (we ended up packing along 6 suitcases, 2 backpacks, one snowboard bag, and one pelican case in addition to the animals). The guinea pig’s C&C cage was dismantled, the coroplast carefully cut and the entire cage, along with their fleece cage liners, some dog toys, extra leashes, Deirdre’s life vest, and a few ruffwear doggy jackets for the Florida born-and-raised short haired lab, was all crammed into one suitcase. The rest of my training, search and rescue, and various dog sport accoutrements went into storage. Because the pigs are considered rodents to the airlines, AirBerlin would not allow them to be flown in a plastic airline-style carrier. It had to be waterproof and metal. The only solution we came up with was to buy a metal toolbox and drill ventilation holes all over it with the largest drill bit we could find at Home Depot. With a bunch of live animal stickers on it, and a few towels in the bottom, the pigs were ready to fly. After triple-checking with the German government, I finally believed them that the guinea pigs required no documentation to come into the country (they needed even less than me!). They would be the easiest to get into the country, all we had to do was walk in with them!
9 days before we flew out, we took my trusty credit card to a vet that specialized in international travel and export. All 3 dogs got health exams and airline health certificates. The vet double checked their microchips, and one of the techs spent several hours filling out Annex II APHIS bilingual import forms for each dog. The forms were about as confusing as you’d expect from a government agency, and they had been updated with a new version, literally, 7 days before our second vet appointment. Go figure. After putting down all our info, current US address, future German address, US and German phone numbers, description of dogs, microchip numbers, ages, rabies vax info, my credit score, my blood type, and promising them my first born child, the forms were completed. All three forms were then sent by overnight courier up to the USDA office in Gainesville, Florida. There, the USDA vet reviewed the paperwork, and, stamped with the USDA seal, they were overnighted back. I picked them up from the vet’s office just a few days before we left, made extra copies, and placed each set into plastic document holders. These I zip-tied onto the doors of the crates of the respective dogs, marking them in English and German as “customs forms.” We covered the crates in “Live Animals” stickers, as well as arrows and contact info stickers, duct taped a large ziplock bag of kibble on top of each crate, and zip tied all the corners. I wrote “My name is ______” on each crate in both English and German in case any of the baggage handlers wanted to talk to the dogs and call them by name. They day we flew out we rented a van to get everything down to the Miami airport. The bags, dogs, guinea pigs, backpacks and the lone pelican box holding my computer were all dropped at the curb while my husband ran to return the van. Once he returned we had to find two porters to bring a small army of carts to ferry everything inside, while one of us stood with the animals on the outside curb and the other stood at the check-in counter. We made quite the scene. I was amazed at the number of people that let their small children run right up to the door of Raiden’s massive crate, and was equally amused each time he waited until they were less than a foot from his crate door before letting out a massive bark, inevitably scaring the pants off of whatever child ventured up to stick their face next to his crate door. After checking in our baggage we left the crates at the baggage counter and took each dog for a walk outside, one last chance to relieve after their 90 minute drive to Miami. 90 minutes before the flight’s departure, the FAA came to inspect the crates, making us remove everything while they looked over it with a careful eye. Once they were done we were able to put each dog back in, I zip tied off the doors, zip tied leashes to the doors and added Raiden’s basket muzzle to his crate, just in case someone had to get him out for an emergency. We said our last goodbyes, assuring the dogs and pigs we’d see them on the other side in Frankfurt. Another army of carts, FAA, and AirBerlin officials carted off the dogs. The flight to Berlin was uneventful. We arrived, made it through their passport check points and proceeded to our connecting gate. When a baggage handler appeared in the boarding area, we were quick to catch her attention and ask about the dogs. She assured us she had personally seen that all the animals were loaded onto the plane, letting me know “the big one wasn’t happy.” I wasn’t surprised to hear that Raiden was barking at people, probably demanding that someone offer him the food taped to his crate. The baggage handler was curious what was in the toolbox and said there had been a lot of guessing going on among those loading the plane. We boarded the second plane and shortly we were in Frankfurt. We were able to retrieve our numerous bags in short order, and thankfully, they all rolled. The pelican box and snowboards came off the oversize conveyor and after a wait that felt like eternity, the dogs finally came up the baggage elevator. I used a dog leash and ran it through all the handles of all the suitcases and tied them to Raiden’s crate, dragging all the suitcases behind us as we, very slowly, made our way to customs. We were definitely quite the sight, and the customs officers were happy to have something interesting to do. They barely skimmed all the paperwork, briefly checking for the USDA seal and the rabies certificate, and with far less fanfare than I was expecting, told us we were good to go. They chatted with us for a few minutes about the two shepherds- Deutsche Schäferhunds- the pride of Germany! It took all of 3 minutes. They didn’t even scan the dog’s microchips. Very anti-climatic after all the preparations we had done. They asked us to open the tool box holding the piggies, but only because they were curious to look at them. Apparently it’s not common to bring your guinea pigs along by plane when vacationing or moving!
We very slowly made our way to the rental car counter, mostly by standing some 100 meters apart at a time and forcibly rolling suitcases across the space one at a time, then dragging along the dog crate with the snowboards laying atop them. I highly recommend the suitcases with 4 wheels on the bottom, or this process would have taken us hours otherwise! We garnered a lot more attention with dog crates, guinea pigs and an ungodly amount of luggage. It took over an hour and a half to get the rental van then to cram what we could on two smart karts. What couldn’t fit on the smart karts was either pushed or dragged behind us and, after requiring two elevators to get everything down to the parking garage level, we resumed our slow crawl toward the van. Arriving at the van we found out that there were seats in it, and only the last row folded down, and they didn’t fold flat (and like everything in Europe, it was smaller than its american counterpart). As we played tetris, dismantling crates and trying to cram everything into the van, we ended up having several Germans stop and watch the festivities, offering their suggestions that we would need to rent a second van, or just enjoying the madness. But we persevered and after dismantling Raiden’s crate, placing Tiki’s crate inside of it, putting Raiden inside Tiki’s crate, Tiki laying on the floorboard of the van at my feet and Diedre in my lap, we finally got everything into the van. We made it out of Frankfurt and found a place to pull over with some green space to let the dogs have their first pee since we left Miami. It had been over 12 hours, but the crates were clean and dry, so the dogs were grateful to be able to go. Since the humans were running on 4 hours of sleep that we had received over 24 hours prior, the dogs got nothing more than a quick walk once we reached the hotel, some kibble and water to fill their empty bellies, and then we all took a blissful few hours to sleep. Finding an apartment with 3 dogs proved to be less of a challenge than it would be in the US, but still a challenge. Germans love dogs- Germany is a dog country through and through. Dogs can come into shops, restaurants, on the train and subway, and are seen in public more often than children (no joke- bring your dog everywhere and he’ll be welcomed, but bring a small child into a restaurant before the age of 5 and you’ll get a lot of dirty looks). They’re also all impeccably trained. The German laws are strict about dogs living outside or being kept in the yard, on a chain, or in small kennels and dog runs. There are lot of rules, and dogs must have 2 hours of contact a day with their owners. I have yet to see an outdoor dog here.
And since over half of the German population choose to rent rather than own property, they have no problems renting to people with dogs. However, as soon as you tell them you are American, they no longer are willing to rent to your dogs. In their experience, too many Americans come to Germany, acquire a dog, leave their dogs outside to bark all day while gone at work, do not train them to the German’s standard, and then dump them in a shelter when it’s time to move home. Germans require microchips in all dogs, not to help a lost dog find their way home (although that’s a perk) but to being able to identify the animal’s owner and prosecute them if the dog is ever abandoned. The Germans are serious about caring and training for the dogs in your family. Tie your dog up outside and you can expect a visit by the Polizei. It’s a different culture altogether. I was not military, but being in a military-heavy area, we were quickly lumped into the general ‘american military’ category. Landlords were happy to rent to dogs, until they found out we weren’t German. The ones that were willing to rent to us, wanted us- a family of 3 dogs and two adults, to rent out 6 bedrooms homes (one property manager told us a two bedroom apartment would be ‘far too small’ for 3 dogs. I asked why she felt each dog needed their own bedroom, considering I couldn’t convince them not to hog my own bed, let alone sleep in their own). After weeks of searching we finally found a townhouse, albeit a 4 bedroom one, with a landlord who had once had three large dogs herself and figured if we’d spent a small fortune to bring the dogs all the way from the US, the chances of us abandoning them were small. She was concerned that we did not have a yard, but I promised her I actually walked my dogs, and, knowing the forest and the farm fields were only a block away (and that German leash laws only extend to community areas- dogs are free to be walked off leash in farm fields, forests and open areas), agreed to rent to us.
After getting settled, we weren’t done with the import paperwork yet, so back to the vet we went. The EU requires dogs to have a ‘pet passport,’ an adorable royal blue passport adorned with the European Union stars across the cover. Each dogs gets a passport, and inside contains the dog’s shot records, microchip numbers, contact info, description and a picture of the dog. When at manned border crossings, the dogs passports are handed over along with the human’s passports. Despite just having had a rabies shot a month before we left the US, in order for their pet passports to be valid for travel within the EU, each dog needed a brand new rabies shot. Because of government regulations, they were not allowed to ‘transfer’ the US rabies shot, so for the second time in 3 months, each dog got another rabies shot.
The passport contains the owner’s contact info, microchip number, description of the dog, the issuing vet’s information plus all the vet records- shots, deworming, any titer tests (required for entry into the United Kingdom), physical exams and any other pertinent vet information. We are now free to travel about the European Union!
Whenever I post pictures of Dahlia someplace, the first thing someone says is “What a pretty dog!” (And I admit, I eat that one right up.) But often followed close on the heels of admiring my dog’s beauty, is something that goes like this: “How on earth do you get photos of a black dog to come out like that? All of my mine look like black blobs!”
There’s no doubt about it. Photographing black dogs is one of the more challenging aspects of canine photography. They tend to blend into darker backgrounds. Their eyes tend to blend in with their fur. Inside the house they appear as black blobs or alternately, if you choose to use a flash they end up looking harshly lit with strange shadows and highlights.
So exactly how are you going to take photos of that precious black puppy you just got? Allow me to offer up a few tips that have worked for myself.
When it comes to dogs, and especially black dogs, outdoor photography trumps indoor all the time. If you scroll through all of my Flickr sets of Dahlia (and there are over 350 photo sets…so far), you’ll see that the vast majority of my photos have been taken in the great outdoors. Natural light is really best for most dog photos, but it is even more important for black dog photography. So leash up your dog (or take him to a safe off leash place) and get the camera out.
Sunny vs. cloudy: Which is best? You might think that taking your black dog out on a beautiful sunny day will net you the best photos, but that’s rarely true. I’m going to say something that might surprise you: cloudy days are best. They offer a naturally filtered light that is soft and incredibly kind to black dogs. Compare the following two photos. The first one was taken during bright sunlight. The second one was taken on a cloudy day.
Notice the bright highlights and deep shadows on the first photo. Compare that to the second photo, which is softly lit. Which one do you like better? Which one do you think shows the dog best? I know which one I like better!
A special note on cloudy days: You should still be aware of where the sun is even on cloudy days. If you shoot into the sun even if it’s hidden behind clouds you can still end up with a photo with blown-out highlights and deep shadows. It will not be as pronounced as on sunny days, but it’s something to still be aware of!
Time of day: It matters! If you absolutely must take your black dog out on a brightly lit day to take photos, be careful of the time of day. Many people think that photos taken during the bright light of the midday sun will come out best. But that is absolutely not true. Bright sunlight that is directly overhead creates terrible shadows and highlights that can make a black dog harder to see. This photo was taken around 3:00pm on a bright sunny day. Notice that the side of her body that is away from the sun (especially her face) is so dark you can’t really make out the details. (And if you’re wondering why it looks like she’s missing fur, it’s because she was – she had recently had surgery).
So if midday is not a good time, when is the best time to take photos? Try for taking photographs earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon. The best time is when the sun is lower in the sky, which stops harsh shadows and can even have a sort of magical effect if it’s a late afternoon/early evening shot. This photo was taken just about an hour before sunset, my favorite time of day to take photos. Photographers often call this the golden hour (or the magical hour) for a reason!
But I need to go outside and take photos in the middle of the day! It is possible to take photos during the hours of harshest light, but you have to be careful of how you go about it. Here are some tips for midday photos.
1. Look for shade! This photo was taken on a bright sunlit afternoon, but Dahlia was laying in the shade taking a nap.
2. Be aware of the sun. You never want to shoot directly into the sun (unless you’re looking for a silhouette effect). The best thing to do is keep the sun at your back or off to your side. I tend to prefer keeping the sun off to the side and slightly behind me, but everyone’s preferences may differ.
3. Try using a fill flash. You can dial the flash down a bit so it’s not terribly bright (check your camera manual on how to do this as it’s different on every camera) and shoot using that. It will help to bring out those shadowed parts, which stops the highlights from looking quite so harsh.
4. Be creative! Shoot into the sun to create an interesting silhouette. Shoot with bright sunlight on your dog so it highlights her hair. Shoot in such a way that one half of your dog’s face is totally dark while the other is light. You can set up all sorts of interesting shots using the sun. Here’s one I took of my dog on a bright April day. I like the way the sun lightens up the edges of her fur so she looks like she’s almost glowing.
I take only a handful of pictures of Dahlia inside. There are two major issues with indoor photography in relation to black dogs: (1) Having enough light for the camera to focus on the dog and (2) What to do about that nasty flash?
Here are some of my favorite tips on indoor photography of black dogs.
1. Make the best use of natural light you can. Throw open all of the curtains and position your dog somewhere near the window, so the natural light coming in falls on her. Now, our apartment has almost no natural light so this tip rarely works for us. But here’s one where it worked nicely on a trip to Vermont.
2. Make the best use of artificial light that you can. If you live in an apartment like mine, where natural light is rather difficult to come by, you can make use of artificial light by positioning lamps to shine on your dog. Carefully assess your arrangement of lamps to make sure you’re not producing any weird shadows! Consider getting full spectrum light bulbs or checking that your white balance works with your existing light bulbs, otherwise you may end up with a yellowish tinge to your photos. Here’s a photo I took of Dahlia on the recliner in our living room. Notice it’s black and white. I didn’t have full spectrum light bulbs and opted to get around the white balance issue by shooting some black and white portraits.
3. Use the widest aperture you can. This means taking the camera down to the lowest f-stop possible for the lens you wish to use. The wider the aperture, the more light that is being let in to the sensor. When you don’t have much light to start with, letting in as much as possible is very important! To that end, I’ve bought lenses that allow me to get down to f/2.8 and even f/1.7. The above two photos were both taken on my 50mm f/1.7 lens.
4. Bump up the ISO on your camera. This may only be a good idea on those cameras that allow higher ISOs with little graininess, but even on cameras that don’t, bumping it up to ISO 400 or 800 as a minimum can make the sensor much more sensitive to incoming light. This photo was taken at ISO 1600. This allowed me to make use of the indoor lighting (properly white balanced this time) and the lens I had on my camera at the time (the kit lens). I could only get down to f/3.5 on this lens and so bumping up the ISO allowed for a quick enough shutter speed to capture this photo.
No, the lighting is not perfect here. One side of her face is dark (any guesses as to which direction all the light was coming from?). Had I taken the time to do a proper set up, the moment would have been gone. Sometimes you have to sacrifice perfect lighting for the right moment! And besides, I like the photo.
(Also, the black and white photo above? That was taken at an insanely high ISO 12,800, an experimental photo from when I first got my new camera.)
What about flash photography? I will admit that I’m not a big fan of flash photography, especially of dogs. And especially not of black dogs. It often comes out looking like this. And this photo has been edited multiple times to reduce pet eye and to try to bring down the highlights. Yikes!
So how do you fix the flash photography issue? Outside of completely avoiding flash all together, here are a couple things you can do:
1. Back off! Use a bit of a zoom to get further away from the dog so that the flash that falls on them isn’t quite so strong. In the above picture I was standing right over her with the camera just a couple feet away from her face. The flash was far too strong at this close of a distance.
2. Dial down the flash. If you need to be close to your dog to take the photo, you can dial down the flash so it’s weaker. Again, check your camera’s manual to see how you might be able to do this!
3. Use a flash diffuser. You can make your own (which is especially useful if you have a point and shoot!) or you can buy one. For those using DSLR cameras, I highly recommend Gary Fong’s Puffer (be aware that if you have a Sony or Minolta camera, you will have to buy this one, which has a different mount on it).
4. Use a bounce flash. A bounce flash is an external flash that attaches to the hot shoe mount on the top of your DSLR camera. You point the flash at the ceiling and it bounces off the ceiling to create a nice light that lands on your dog from up above rather than from the camera’s built-in flash. Be aware that if your ceilings are some color other than white you’ll end up with strange colors being bounced back at your dog. You’ll need to compensate for that. Here’s a photo I took with a cheap ($40) bounce flash that I picked up. See how natural the light looks? So that’s it for now folks! If you have any questions or other things that have worked with you, share them in the comment section!
No loving pet owner ever wants to think that they might be forced to relinquish their dogs. But it does happen, and it can happen to anyone, so let’s talk a little about what to do if you’re confronted with the difficult decision of whether or not to surrender your dog.
1. Making the Decision
The first question is always: Is it really necessary to rehome the dog?
Whenever possible, the first and best option is to see if there’s any way to keep the dog in its current home. Generally, surrender comes down to whether an owner is both able and willing to rectify whatever problem is threatening the dog’s home.
There are usually options available if the reason for rehoming is due to temporary external hardship. If it’s an emergency homelessness situation (such as a family displaced by fire or flooding), organizations like the Red Paw Emergency Relief Team may be able to help. If it’s financial hardship, many shelters and rescues (and some homeless assistance groups) maintain food banks of donated kibble and canned food for needy owners. Soliciting donations over Facebook or Kickstarter to fund vet care might feel uncomfortable, but it’s better than giving up a dog because you can’t afford necessary medical treatment.
If the owner’s contemplating surrender over a behavioral or training issue, then the question gets more complicated.
Training and management should always be the first option — the sooner, the better. Good professional trainers don’t come cheap, but having a happy and harmonious life with your dog is well worth the investment up front. Many dogs are surrendered for nothing worse than adolescent rambunctiousness that the owner doesn’t know how to control or channel. Teaching the dog some self-control and providing a structured outlet like dog sports can solve the problem and, beyond that, take the dog-human relationship to a whole new level.
Additionally, it’s important to rule out potential underlying medical causes. A difficult-to-housebreak dog may turn out to be suffering a medical problem such as a UTI or spay incontinence. Treat the medical cause, and the “behavioral problem” disappears.
Not all scenarios, however, can be addressed via training or treatment. Some are more complicated, and the owner may not be in a position to safely handle them (as with a fear-aggressive big dog with zero bite inhibition living in a home with small children). Sometimes an owner undergoes a life crisis, or a precipitous drop in health, and simply cannot care for the dog. And some solutions are arguably less humane than rehoming — if there are two adult females who fight constantly, then super strict crate-and-rotate may be the only way to keep them from getting at each other’s throats, and even with that regimen, the level of stress and anxiety in the home might be so high that rehoming one of the dogs is actually the better and kinder option for everybody. (Patricia McConnell has a good and thoughtful blog post about these scenarios, and it’s worth reading if you or someone you know happens to be in this circumstance.)
Every dog deserves a home in which he can live safely and with as little stress and as much joy as possible. If you’re either unable or unwilling to provide that home, then perhaps it’s kinder to help your dog find another home that can. Dogs are resilient. A healthy and adaptable dog won’t die of heartbreak upon being rehomed. In fact, most of them bond very strongly to their new owners within weeks.
At the same time, it’s necessary to be completely, brutally honest about whether rehoming is truly the most responsible choice. By rehoming a dog, you are asking someone else to take that dog into their family. Please consider — truthfully and candidly — whether that’s fair, responsible, or right. If you, the owner who loves and has a bond with this dog, are not willing or able to adjust your life to accommodate the animal’s needs, how likely is it that someone else, without such a bond, will do so?
If the reason you’re contemplating surrender is because the dog is genuinely dangerous to himself or others, or because the dog has such severe and intractable medical problems that there’s no realistic prospect for that dog to live a happy life elsewhere, please consider whether it’s ethical to ask someone else to take on that burden. Is this really a dog that has the capacity to flourish in a new home? Or is this a situation where euthanasia would be the kinder choice? If the latter is true — and you’ve had professional evaluations to make sure of that — then have the courage to be there for your dog. Don’t surrender your companion out of cowardice.
2. Practical Considerations: Who Will Take the Dog?
There are basically three ways to go about rehoming a pet.
One, you can surrender the dog to an open-admission shelter. These are usually affiliated with a city or county and have an animal control contract for the local municipality. Legally, they’re required to accept any animal that is surrendered at the door or brought in by animal control officers; they can’t turn anyone away.
Because they’re open intake, these shelters are prone to overcrowding and often have to euthanize current animals to make space for new arrivals. Sometimes a dog’s maximum stay is dictated by local ordinance. Other times, the dog might have as long as the shelter can give her. Either way, however, euthanasia is a very real possibility at any open-admission facility.
However, for some dogs in some locations, going into a shelter may actually result in pretty good odds of landing in a decent home. A healthy, behaviorally sound dog that is anything other than a pit bull or pittie mix has a very good chance of being adopted quickly in a major East Coast city. In other regions, however, every dog may be at risk — no matter how cute, sweet, or adoptable. (Pitties, unfortunately, have terrible odds across the country. It doesn’t matter where you are, their chances are not good.)
The second option is to try to get the dog into a no-kill shelter (limited admission) or foster-based rescue. Here, a dog does not face euthanasia for space (although an animal may still be euthanized if its physical or behavioral health problems are so severe that the animal’s quality of life is significantly damaged).
The tradeoff here is that no-kill shelters and private rescues can only take a small number of animals, and the better ones will generally restrict intake to animals that they can expect to move in a reasonable timeframe, since every animal that sits unadopted in a kennel or foster home turns into a money drain, contributes to volunteer burnout, and prevents that organization from saving more animals. On top of that, a foster-based rescue is limited to accepting animals that it can find foster homes for. A dog with severe behavioral or physical problems isn’t easy to foster, and the rescue may not be able to find a safe, qualified placement for such an animal.
What this means for the owner trying to surrender a dog is that you might hear a lot of “no”s from these groups, particularly if the animal in question is likely to prove difficult to foster or difficult to place. A highly adoptable animal is likely to get a better reception from such groups.
A third option is private rehoming — keeping the dog in your home while trying to network the dog through friends, family, and any other means at your disposal (such as posting the dog on Craigslist).
In general, my feeling is that if you do not have much experience screening strangers on the Internet, it may be advisable to partner up with a good rescue and ask them to post a courtesy listing on Petfinder and possibly help screen prospective homes, with you as the “foster” owner getting the final word on where the dog goes. This allows you to piggyback off the rescue’s network for greater exposure and help with responsible placement.
Many rescues will be happy to help if you ask politely. Some may require a nominal fee (for example, the rescue that I currently volunteer for charges a $25 application processing fee from prospective adopters) or ask you to help out with occasional volunteer duties in exchange. However, if you can’t find a good local rescue to help out, it’s certainly possible to do just fine on your own. Online resources for foster homes can be helpful here.
No matter which option you choose, honesty is paramount in these interactions. The shelter or rescue needs to know exactly what they’re dealing with, good and bad, as do prospective adopters.
3. Emotional Considerations: Guilt, Honesty, and Relief
Making the decision to surrender a dog is difficult and emotionally fraught. It’s normal to feel guilty and unsure about whether you made the right choice. If you didn’t feel that way, you probably wouldn’t be a very good owner.
However, if you made the right choice out of concern for the best interests of the dog, then it’s okay to let that guilt go. Life happens. People fall into unexpected circumstances. Some rescues and shelters understand this; some don’t. If you’re unlucky enough to run across one of the latter type, that can be emotionally bruising too. The important thing to remember here is that you did what was right for the dog.
A word about honesty: In order to make appropriate choices and lasting placements for the dog, honesty is paramount. The shelter, rescue, or prospective adopter needs to know exactly why the animal was surrendered. If the dog was just too unruly and excitable to live in a home with young children, that’s okay. You can — and must — tell that to the rescue. Otherwise there’s a real risk that the dog might be placed in the wrong home and wind up right back in the rescue, but now with added confusion and stress and possibly even the black mark of a bite on his record. No matter how difficult it is to be candid about the reasons for surrender, honesty is crucial for ensuring the animal’s well-being. Lying or hiding those reasons can only hurt the animal.
And, lastly, a word about relief: Just as it’s normal to feel guilty about making this decision, it is also normal to feel relieved. Quite often, people don’t realize how stressful it was to live with an ill-matched dog until the dog is out of their homes — especially in scenarios where the dog wasn’t getting along with a person or another animal in the family.
Feeling relief at having that stressor removed does not make you a bad person. It only means that you were correct in your judgment that the situation really wasn’t working out. Very probably, the dog was stressed too, and is also feeling a kind of relief at having the opportunity to move on to a life without that worry.
In this installment of my shelter medicine posts, I talk about a subject near and dear to my heart: low cost clinics.
A little forewarning: this gets a little rant-esque. Apparently I have a lot of thoughts on the subject. I suspect the frustrated nature of this post comes from the fact that I cannot explain these things to our clientele, no matter how badly I want to. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what the average pet owner thinks of our clinic practices. It matters that we help as many animals as we can while keeping in mind the limited resources that come with the many stray and surrendered cats, dogs, and even rabbits that fill shelters and rescues all over the country.
Of course, the driving factor behind shelter medicine is money. There are limited resources for helping homeless animals. Oftentimes, decisions made regarding shelter care boil down to whichever solution helps the most animals for the least money. For example, the money used for one expensive surgery on an older dog with cancer could be used to save countless young, healthy dogs who are equally in need.
The fact is that there are more homeless animals than there are resources to help them. Irresponsible breeding and ownership means that the animals just keep piling up, and we quickly run out of places to put them. As you can imagine, it’s pretty much impossible to place an old dog with medical and/or behavioral issues when there are plenty of young, healthy, adorable puppies also in need of homes. Even with all the good Samaritans, animal rights advocates, and volunteers, there aren’t enough places for all the dogs out there. They come from breeders, once-loving homes, cruelty cases, and the streets, where stray or feral dogs continue to breed.
Which brings me to one of many controversial topics surrounding shelter medicine: spay/neuter practices. As you can guess, one of the primary goals of those of us working in the trenches is to cut down on overpopulation. Honestly, it’s like trying to drain the ocean, one solo cup at a time.
The cost of spaying and neutering pets is increasing every year. In order to prevent unwanted puppies, shelters typically spay and neuter everything that comes through their doors. Doing so at private practices would be cost prohibitive. That’s where clinics like the one I work for come into play. Low cost alternatives allow shelters to provide basic medical care for animals awaiting adoption.
But what does choosing a low cost clinic mean in terms of care? What does cutting down on price mean in terms of sacrifice? What does the extra money spent at a private practice cover that low cost clinics don’t include?
Here are some thoughts, questions, and complaints I address regularly from pet owners who choose the low cost alternative. Remember, shelters don’t usually have the option of going to a full service private practice. Even rescue groups that go the extra mile are often limited in terms of how much additional care they can offer any given animal. The following factors all come into play with shelter medicine, and may lead to complaints or misunderstanding from pet owners who are only responsible for a number of animals that they can reasonably afford to care for.
One of the things that drives the prices up at a full service veterinary practice is the hiring of full time staff. More people means more salaries, which leads to price increases on all procedures, no matter how routine they are.
For a low cost clinic, cutting back on this expense is two fold. Low cost clinics tend to hire less staff and the staff at said clinics tend to make less money than their equally qualified counterparts at other practices.
These actions have a slew of consequences.
For starters, less staff means more multi-tasking. For example, I am currently the only staff member at the clinic I work at. Even at our busiest, it was just the doctor, myself, one other vet assistant, and a secretary. Since I am now the only person there, I have absorbed the other roles. This means that I open the clinic in the morning, check messages, respond to emails, sign in patients, answer questions, fill out all the paperwork, hold animals for exams, prep the patients, monitor animals on anesthesia, single-handedly cover the recovery room, autoclave instruments, clean the clinic, run invoices, do book keeping, meet with drug reps, schedule appointments, discharge patients, run the website… o yeah, and answer that pesky phone that never stops ringing.
It’s a crazy job and it keeps me on my toes, which is something that I thrive on. I am able to do it because it’s part time and my horse training business pays the remainder of my bills. Without getting too personal, I make less money per hour at this clinic than I would anywhere else, given my experience.
The way that low cost clinics can afford the staff that they employ is by hiring veterinary assistants, rather than technicians. The difference between the two is the level of accreditation (education) and the duties each is legally able to perform.
The laws governing technicians vary from state to state, but certified techs have graduated from 2-3 year courses, accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), and are able to assist veterinarians in various medical procedures. Certified techs can also go on to get additional specialty certifications including, but not limited to, anesthesiology, dentistry, and critical/urgent care.
Assistants, on the other hand, may be very well trained, but do not have formal education or certification. In many states, they are not legally able to give vaccines, assist with certain medical procedure, give x-rays, etc. A veterinary assistant may still be able to restrain animals, greet customers, prep a surgery room, or even give certain injections under the direct supervision of a veterinarian, but they are limited both by education and legal ramifications, and are, therefore, a more affordable option for low cost clinics.
From the standpoint of the staff, a person with the proper credentials is more likely to take a job with better hours, higher pay, and less stress than to work at a low cost clinic with homeless animals of questionable background and temperament.
As you can imagine, working in a low cost, high pressure environment can lead to extreme burn out. I plan to write an entire post on that aspect of shelter medicine soon, but it is important to mention it here because the burn out rate in shelter clinic staff means a high turn over. This means that many low cost clinics are working with new hires, trainees, and assistants who may have no prior clinic experience.
Burn out, limited staff, and budget limitations tie right into this next topic.
One of the most frequent complaints I get from pet owners trying to schedule appointments at our clinic is that we are not open when it’s convenient for them. Of course, I bite my tongue and answer politely, but sometimes I want to say, “You are more than welcome to pay your regular vet the full price so they can schedule around your needs/job/kids/sleep schedule.”
On the rare occasion that someone asks why our hours are set the way they are, rather than complaining about it, I am happy to explain.
I am going to use our clinic as an example to shed light on topics that are true across the board in shelter medicine.
We are open three days a week. No, we are not open on weekends. No, we are not open on Wednesdays. No, we don’t feel the need to do surgery seven days a week. The reasons many low cost clinics are only open a few days a week include the following:
- The veterinarian probably does more surgeries and procedures in one day than most do in a week, or even a month. The doctor has to stay sharp for the safety of the animals, so down time in between surgery days is important.
- Veterinarians who own or work at low cost clinics often have to do other work to make up for the difference in income. Some shelter vets own their own practices full time, but many are employed at other offices at full price.
- The same goes for the staff mentioned above. Down time to prevent burn out, and allow for other jobs to pay the bills is equally important for assistants and techs.
- Often times, low cost clinics are open at times that coincide with the shelters and rescues they most frequently serve. For example, we are not open on the weekends because the local shelters aren’t open on the weekends, and the local rescues tend to be busy holding big adoption events, not bringing animals in for surgery.
At the clinic I work at, we have a half hour drop off window in the morning, and a one hour pick up window in the afternoon. This time of year, the clients drop their animals off between 8 and 8:30 am, and pick up between 2 and 3 pm. We do non-surgery appointments at 9am. Not 9:15. Not 9:30. Not 10 o’clock. No exceptions. The shelters and rescues seem to have no problem abiding by these times, but pet owners tend to take issue with every aspect of our schedule. Again, I resist the urge to tell them, “Then go pay more money somewhere else.”
I frequently get complaints about the fact that drop off isn’t earlier. “I have to be at work by nine, it’s not convenient to me,” or, “My kids have to get on the bus at that time, can’t I come an hour later?” No. No you cannot. The reason drop off is at that time is because I have to get to the clinic (half hour commute after taking care of my own dogs and horses at home) and then set up, check messages, return calls, prep the surgery room, etc. I do a lot of work before patients can even sign in.
I also get complaints about pick up time. “I don’t get off of work until 5!” or “My kids get off the bus then!” or “Can’t I pay you extra to come get him at 6 (or over my lunch break two hours earlier)?” No. No you cannot. Pets cannot be picked up until they are fully awake from anesthesia. And after all the animals go home, I still have to do the book keeping, clean the clinic, scrub the surgical instruments, etc. etc.
People seem to have a very hard time grasping that their pet is away for six hours, but I work a 10-12 hour day to make that happen.
And the 9 o’clock vaccine/wellness/illness appointments? You can imagine how much the private clients complain about that one! The reason these appointments are done at that time and that time only is to get patients in and out so we can start surgery. On any given day, the vet does 20 surgeries between 10am and 2pm. That’s a tight schedule!
With limited hours, a tight schedule, and small staff, one of the first things that suffers in a low cost clinic is customer service. That’s not to say that low cost clinics don’t value their clients, or that the staff and veterinarians don’t want to help or make customers feel welcome. It’s just the nature of the beast.
One of the things that drives up the price of regular veterinary services is the time spent on customer relations. At a full service practice, a lot of time is spent on answering questions, explaining procedures, and making the pet owner feel comfortable.
In shelter medicine, the animals don’t have owners, and shelter/rescue staff and volunteers tend to be well versed in the ins and outs of routine veterinary care. When a rescue or shelter calls the clinic I work at, the call takes only a few seconds.
“Hi, this is Awesome Pet Rescue. We’ll be bringing four boys and three girls on Thursday.”
“Excellent, I’ll see you then.”
The organizations come in with paperwork pre-filled out, carriers clearly labeled, and special instructions emailed in advance. They are at the clinic long enough to unload all the animals from the car and stack them in the intake area. I can sign about 40 animals in in half an hour when I’m dealing strictly with homeless animals.
A few hours later, the rescues and shelters come back to pick up their pets. I hand them their surgery and vaccine certificates and explain anything out of the ordinary that happened during the day. They load their animals in the car or van and leave. I usually don’t hear from them again unless follow up is required. I can discharge about ten homeless animals per minute if they’re brought in by the same organization. No, I’m not exaggerating.
So what about pet owners?
When pet owners call, they want to ask questions, get information, and make sure I ‘get to know’ their individual pets. I have a spiel that I give all pet owners when they call to make an appointment. I also direct them to our very detailed website, which features a FAQ page, pre and post surgical instructions, price lists, and links to useful articles, as well as driving directions. Still, despite my best efforts to keep conversations short, the average appointment call with a pet owner lasts 5-10 minutes.
Sometimes, I get a complaint about how cold or rehearsed I sound on the phone (I must say all this a dozen times a day). The reason for this is simple: in order to be able to provide a service at a reduced price and still stay afloat financially, the clinic must be able to provide as much of that service in as little time as possible. Obviously, we don’t want to cut corners on the actual medical care, so the time has to be made up somewhere else. Human interaction is where it’s safest to speed things up.
This same principle applies to intake and discharge of owned pets. Usually I have to walk pet owners through our paperwork, even though it’s available for download on the website I direct them to at the time of their initial phone call. I answer questions and address concerns, many of which I have already discussed on the phone, and which are printed on… guess where.. the website. At the end of the day, pet owners want me to reiterate the discharge instructions. It takes about ten minutes to sign in an owned pet. It takes at least another ten minutes to discharge the same pet a few hours later.
Other customer service complaints I get are as follows:
- Phone calls during the day are brief and hurried (because I’m probably prepping an animal with one hand while holding the phone with the other).
- Messages aren’t returned promptly (because we aren’t open Friday-Sunday or Wednesday).
- The clinic is hard to find (because they didn’t read the website directions).
- There’s no sign out front (because we don’t want people coming to the property without appointments, or to dump unwanted animals).
Of course I try to address these concerns as politely and succinctly as possible. Still, many pet owners cannot understand why I’m not friendlier, bubblier, or more concerned. The easily overlooked fact is that I do care, deeply, and so does the doctor. We understand that this is unfamiliar territory for pet owners and that dropping a family member off with strangers, no matter how routine the procedure, can be terrifying. I just wish customers would understand that we’re trying to help a lot of animals in a short period of time with very little money behind the whole operation.
One very specific aspect of customer service that seems to ruffle a lot of feathers is the record keeping at our practice. I cannot speak for all low cost clinics on this point, but I can explain how it works at the one I work at. I suspect that other low cost clinics (and shelters, and rescues) face similar issues.
Frequently, I’ll get a call or email or fax requesting records on a specific animal that has been to our clinic, usually for a spay or neuter. These inquiries come from the new owners of animals that have been adopted from organizations that frequent our facility, other veterinary offices that usually care for pets who come to our clinic for discounted surgery, and pet owners who have misplaced their own paperwork.
We send every patient home with what we call a ‘services rendered certificate’, which shows proof of vaccines, and lists all the services an animal received in our care. Our clinic does keep copies of these certificates, as well as surgical forms for animals that have gone under anesthesia. In the event that someone requests a copy, it is, of course, possible for me to get it to them, but there is a $1 medical records copying charge per animal.
This is where people get indignant. Many of these copies are sent electronically and, people reason, since we already have the copy on hand, it doesn’t technically cost us anything to send it.
Well, the harsh reality is that it’s quite a hassle to dig up old paperwork. And I’m not saying that because I’m lazy. Not only is finding and sending the records time consuming; it also costs us money by disrupting the carefully planned flow of the day.
Our records are sorted by date, not alphabetically. I have had countless people argue with me about how our records should be kept. (I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I worked for you!)
99% of the animals we see come to our clinic once. They are spayed/neutered, vaccinated, maybe microchipped and tested, and then sent back to the organizations they come from. Kittens sometimes come back for booster shots before they get adopted. Adopters rarely come back to us (or even know we exist). Most pet owners come to us to get a discounted surgery rate, then go back to their full service veterinary providers.
Keeping client files by last name (or even by organization) just doesn’t make sense. We get about 200 surgeries a month, and they are probably ‘owned’ by 50 different clients.
At the end of sixty days, the binder full of 200 records gets stored upstairs, out of the way. After the legally required seven years, medical records are disposed of.
This means that someone inquiring about records more than 60 days old needs to know what date the animal was at our clinic. People rarely know the exact date (and expect me to psychically figure it out), but I am happy if they can narrow it down to the month the patient had surgery.
I had one client call me, frantically asking for the rabies record on a feral cat that had come in “sometime in the last year”. I explained that I needed an estimate of the date the cat came in.
“It was last winter,” the client argued. “Maybe January. No February? Or December. I don’t know. It was cold.”
“I’ll do my best to find it, sir,” I told him before taking down his contact information.
May. The cat was brought in in May. Granted, it had been an unseasonably cold day in May, but it took me nearly an hour to track down the records.
Of course, that’s an extreme example. In an ideal situation, when a person knows the exact date their pet came to see us, it takes me roughly ten minutes to find the record, scan it into the computer, and fax/email it to the appropriate party. The client then pays one dollar. Even if all I did was efficiently find record after record, that would come to $6 per hour. I may not make as much as I could, but that doesn’t even cover my salary for the hour. You can see how digging up old records is worth more than $1, and the clinic ends up eating the cost.
This is why, when I hear people complaining about paying for medical records, I want to retort with, “Well, maybe you should have kept your original copy, then.”
Enough of me ranting about why low cost clinics probably don’t come off as the most inviting places to take your pet. It is tempting to require 501c3 non-profit status in clinic clients. It would certainly change the demographic of our clientele, and make my life a lot easier.
The fact of the matter is that we don’t want to chase off the type of clients who need us, even if they’re not affiliated with a shelter or rescue group. These are hard times for a lot of people, and the clinic is located just outside one of NJ’s hardest hit areas. There are many people who have little means to support themselves and their children, but still love their pets. They seek both routine and emergency care, but can’t afford full service clinics. Our low costs attract them, and our participation in state funded programs helps make responsible pet ownership possible for people who may not have the option otherwise.
Seeing the grateful look on a struggling pet owner’s face when we help or save their well-loved animal makes it worth putting up with the people who have the money for full service care, but choose to pinch pennies by coming to our place then complaining about the level of customer service they receive.
None of this is meant to be a complaint about pet owners. Of course I want a pet owner to be informed, involved, and concerned with their beloved animal’s care. I certainly ask a lot of questions and require a lot of attention when it comes to the care of my own dogs and horses. That’s why my animals have regular veterinarians whom I maintain healthy working relationships with. My animals are seen routinely, and I am happy to pay full price for services. I understand budgetary constraints which often send pet owners to low cost clinics. I just want to shed some light on why these clinics function the way they do! Like the old saying goes, you get what you pay for.
Next up… the medical end of low cost clinics. Stay tuned!
I’ve been watching my young dog grow old for a while now, and I hate it. Luce was the first young dog I ever owned as an adult. I picked her out of the shelter based on her ridiculous ears and her serious expression. We took her into the “Getting to Know You” room and she dove snorting into my lap and then covered my face with kisses. I did not need to look further– I had found my dog.
She was never an easy dog. She was reactive, dog-aggressive, and incredibly energetic and athletic. If you turned her loose in a fenced yard, the first thing she’d do was check the fence for any sign of weakness, any loose boards. She was extremely smart and she used that power for naughtiness.
She was the first dog I ever trained, and she taught me so much. She taught me to think outside the box. She taught me that rewarding is more powerful than punishing. She taught me that even a crazy dog like her could learn to behave in public, even around other dogs.
She was the first dog I ever competed with, starting in Rally Obedience where she was on leash the entire time (and I very clearly remember telling my obedience instructor at the time that they could have my leash when they could pry it from my cold, dead hand). We quickly progressed to off-leash levels, and she kicked butt. She finished her career with a laundry list of titles after her name and a very proud mama.
That was years ago.
Now she’s twelve, arthritic, and senile.
Both of her knees are crunchy with arthritis and it’s hard for her to go up and down the stairs. She needs a boost to get into the car or onto my bed. But arthritis is something we can deal with, you know? There are plenty of medication options. There are joint supplements. And if those aren’t enough, there are things like cold laser therapy and acupuncture that might help. We have so many options for treating pain in dogs, so when our first medication choice didn’t do enough, we were able to switch to a second one that might work better.
But the senile part, that’s what I feel so helpless about. She barks and barks at me and I can’t figure out what she wants. She gets up and pees on the floor with no warning instead of asking to go out (and she doesn’t have an infection). She barks about everything. She never used to bark at all, even when the doorbell rang.
She goes off by herself when she used to be my shadow. She lays on the couch and doesn’t move all day.
And I question myself about whether she’s happy, about whether this is a good quality of life for her.
I think she is happy, or at least content. She’s old, and snoring the day away on a comfortable couch isn’t a bad deal. She loves her food and is happy to spend her time licking canned dog food out of a Kong. She can’t hear, but she can still snag a french fry out of the air without hesitation. She can’t handle hiking anymore, but she loves to go for car rides. She sits up all proud of herself in the front seat and knows that she’s important.
But I see the decline and it worries me whether or not I’ll be able to let go when it’s time, whatever that means. She’s my best friend and more than anything, I don’t want her to suffer. But nor can I imagine life without her. She has slept next to me in bed for 11 years. She has been my constant.
There are lots of suggestions on the internet on how to determine whether it is time to put your dog to sleep. Pick three things that your dog loves, and when she can’t do those things anymore, it’s time. But the things that Luce used to love to do have simply been replaced by things that she loves to do now. So how does that work? Some suggest that when your dog has more bad days than good days, it’s time. But what’s good and what’s bad and where do they equal out?
It’s so hard. I don’t want to be selfish. I don’t want her to suffer. But I don’t want to let her go before she’s ready.
The veterinarian I work for always says “decision of least regret”. And I believe that too early is better than too late. But why does it have to be so complicated?
Why does love have to be this hard?
The word “euthanasia” literally means “good death” and I am so grateful that we are able to give our pets this one last kindness. I am grateful that we can end suffering.
Every path is unique. Everybody’s answer is going to be different.
But we’re all doing it because we love them.
I know I’m not the only one out there who struggles with this– what has been helpful to you in making this hard decision? What are your tips?