My English Setter Winston is going to his new foster home today. He has been through at least three homes in his two short years of life. I feel terrible about that; I wish I could change my situation, make things work for him here. I’ve tried for almost a year. But I can’t. This is one of those awful situations where a dog adoption just didn’t work out.
I am sad about it, but I want to talk about it. I think everyone who has done rescue or adopted from Animal Control should talk about it. We who have rescued dogs from shelters, streets, and free to good home ads often stand in judgment of other people and the reasons they give up dogs. And certainly, some people give up dogs because they didn’t bother to make even a small effort: to find an apartment that accepts pets, to do basic training, to spend quality time with their dog. But for others, their reasons are more understandable. And I hope we all can learn to help without judging, because someday it could be us. My story is proof.
I have always taken animal adoption very seriously. I’ve had at least one animal of my own (not a family pet) since I was 11 years old, when I got my first service dog. I started rescuing dogs when I got my first home in 2000. I felt like a responsible pet owner who always went the extra mile, even with dogs that were not easy to train or handle. I believed I would never be someone who would give up a dog I had committed to for life. Then the unthinkable happened.
In 2014, I was attacked at gunpoint in a home invasion robbery, and received death threats afterwards. I had no choice but to move halfway across the country immediately for safety reasons. But what do you do when you suddenly have to move and have six dogs? The relative I would be staying with didn’t want that many dogs at his house.
I reached out for help online from rescue groups, and called and emailed many trying to find a temporary foster home while I relocated, or even a new permanent home. Only one group even returned my call, and they said they wouldn’t take in my dog without a substantial donation. They didn’t seem to care what I had been through, that I was in that situation through no fault of my own. I felt frustrated and disillusioned with the rescue community in San Diego. In the end I had to rehome two dogs, and placed another in a home boarding kennel for a few months, at great cost to me. He was returned to me underweight and sick. Several months later, he passed away.
Although the dark cloud of that experience still hangs over me, it had a silver lining. I was eventually able to buy a house in my new city with a much larger yard than I had before. I have so much space now for dogs to run and play. After my elderly spaniel mix passed away, I decided my service dog needed a younger buddy to play with. I sought out an English setter, a breed I had wanted for years. One of my best friends loves them and was always extolling their virtues. So I found a setter rescue group and applied. I spotted an adorable spotted guy on their website, a mostly deaf young adult boy named Winston who had just come out of the shelter. He was in a foster home for a few weeks by the time my paperwork went through. His wonderful foster mom had a chance to get to know him. We talked and thought he would be a good match. So without meeting him first, I said yes. They arranged transportation and a network of dedicated volunteers drove him for hours to a meeting point, where I picked him up and brought him home.
Things were OK for the first few weeks. Winston was a sweet and loving boy who enjoyed training and cuddles. He didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He got along great with Aria and Elphaba, my two big dogs. When he was calm, he turned into a “spaghetti noodle” and leaned against people to the point where he would fall over, then flop on his back for you to scratch his belly. He was very high energy, but he was in a new home and excited. He would settle down… Right? I made sure he had constant access to the dog door and the yard, so he could play with my other dogs and chase bugs to his heart’s content. In addition to my dogs, my friend’s dogs came over a few days per week for extra playtime. I provided enough exercise for any dog… Well, any dog I had met before Winston.
I soon found that even after all the other dogs were exhausted, he was still running around, bored and looking for something to do. He would run obsessively back and forth in the yard so much that he killed all the grass in that area, and it became a mudhole when it rains. He would then run through that mud and bring it into the house, jumping on me and my caregivers, covering us with mud on a daily basis. We worked on teaching him not to jump, but he would completely forget everything he learned when he was excited. While I’ve never been an immaculate housekeeper, my home became a constant mess, with a thick coating of dirt and dust covering everything, and reappearing within hours of being cleaned.
Despite me providing even more exercise for him, his problem behavior increased. He began launching himself at people’s faces when they arrived, not in an aggressive way, but it could knock someone’s tooth out. Again, all training would go out the window whenever he was excited. He became extremely destructive, even when there were numerous toys available in the house and the yard, plus other dogs to play with. He destroyed an original 1950s dining set, an ottoman, a leather bar chair, part of a dog agility set, and more. He figured out how to open the cabinet containing the Tupperware and frequently pulled out numerous pieces and chewed them up. He constantly found new ways into the garbage and completely trashed the house. He shredded cardboard and any paper he could reach. I installed an accordion-style door to keep him out of my home office during the night, but he busted through it. I started putting him in a crate, enduring an hour of barking nightly until he finally got used to it, but that didn’t solve the problem when I was traveling or needed to be gone for several hours.
A few months ago, I got a Newfoundland puppy, Daisy. I continue to work with Aria as my primary service dog, but I also wanted to get a large imposing dog to help with my PTSD since the robbery. When I saw Daisy’s adorable face online, I couldn’t resist. I figured bringing Daisy into the household was either a recipe for improvement or disaster. But interestingly, it was neither.
At first, I was very concerned, because Winston played too rough with Daisy and she would squeak in pain. I kept them apart when I couldn’t supervise the playtime. But then I went out of town, and boarded her at someone’s house who had several large dogs. She came back with much more self-confidence, and was able to hold her own with Winston. I no longer have fears in that regard. But getting her provided a stark contrast for what normal dog behavior should be, compared to how Winston acts. My brand-new 4-month-old puppy was far better behaved than he ever has been. She is now 7 months old, and gets in some mischief here and there, but it’s normal puppy stuff. She is easily redirected to playing with toys, and I feel confident that by the time she reaches adulthood, she won’t be destructive.
Daisy helped me realize that what I’ve been dealing with is an extreme situation, that my feelings of wanting to find Winston a new home were reasonable. If I had all the time in the world, I could probably work with him. But I have to be honest and say this is not something I can cope with at this point in my life. I am trying to rebuild after what happened to me. I am trying to have a successful career as a website editor and travel blogger. I spend a lot of time training Aria and Daisy, my service dog and service dog in training. I needed a dog that could come into my family and blend in well, a dog that didn’t have serious behavioral challenges. And while I’m happy to have a house that’s not always clean, where hairballs occasionally drift through like tumbleweeds, I want to be able to have people over without being completely embarrassed because my house stinks and is disgusting. My furniture may be from Walmart and the thrift store, but I’d like to come home and not find giant holes in it. I don’t think that’s too much for anyone to ask or expect in their life with animals.
I don’t believe anyone is to blame for what happened. If I could go back, there are things I would do differently. Although I’ve adopted adult animals without meeting them first and had it work out, I don’t think I ever will again. I do think the rescue could have been more informative about his energy level. I have raised retriever puppies before and had herding breeds like border collies and Australian shepherds stay at my home. Looking back, they seem calm compared to Winston.
A few weeks after getting Winston, I found out that he comes from champion hunting dog lines, and was just over a year old at the time, not 3 to 4 years old as I’d been told. He was born to hunt, but he never got the chance because of his hearing loss. Deaf dogs can be taught to hunt, but most hunters don’t want to bother, so they end up in pet homes and often abandoned. After this experience, I can understand why — it’s because of their energy, not their deafness. Of course, setters are not bad dogs, and not all hunting-bred setters have behavior problems. But a certain subset of them truly need acres of property and constant stimulation to be happy — more than a retriever, more than a shepherd. I had never experienced a dog with that kind of energy. If I had known Winston was in that category, I would have adopted a calmer dog, or perhaps chosen a different breed.
This past Tuesday night, I forgot to put Winston in his crate before going to bed. I’ve been struggling with sleep disturbances and depression since the death of one of my best friends, and I was so tired. I realized it just as I was falling asleep, but wasn’t too concerned because Winston usually caused trouble during the later part of the morning, excited and impatient because his internal doggie clock told him my caregiver was about to arrive. On this day she was arriving early to get me ready for an event, so I figured he would still be asleep when she showed up. Plus, I didn’t want to call someone to come in to work at nearly 4 AM. I fell asleep peacefully, unconcerned about what might happen during the night.
Just before 8 AM, I was awoken by a click click click sound coming from the kitchen. I jolted to consciousness with the realization that Winston had turned on my stove. It was a race to see whether my father or my assistant would get to me first, or whether my house was going to catch on fire or start filling with gas. Thankfully they made it in time, and the back burner was the one that got switched on, so no fire and no carbon monoxide poisoning. I felt shaken, and grateful to be here with myself and my house in one piece. I know things could have ended differently. He could have started a fire, or burned himself or one of the other dogs. I’ve taken the knobs off the stove, and will be ordering childproof covers for them. But it made me feel even more sure of my decision. Winston is a loving dog with a heart of gold, but in my house, he is a danger to others and especially to himself.
Although there have been many frustrating moments with Winston, the choice I am making in no way diminishes my love for him. Finding him a new home will undoubtedly make my life safer and easier. But it is also what’s best for him. Winston isn’t a bad dog, and I’m not a bad owner. He’s just in the wrong home. I can’t give him what he needs, and he can’t be successful here because it’s not the right environment for him. I hope someone out there can give him what he needs. I believe the rescue will work with him and find him the right place this time.
I hope whoever adopts him in the end will contact me. I will want to support them, and be there for him, even though he can’t live with me. I have a wonderful connection with the young woman who adopted Adele, the shih tzu I had to rehome after the robbery. I miss her sometimes, but I see pictures of her regularly. That situation was harder, because I was forced to give her up due to the cruel actions of a pair of criminals, but because I can see how loved she is every day, I am at peace with it. Nothing would make me happier than to know Winston is happy in a home that is right for him.
When wrestling with the decision to rehome a difficult dog, we have to ask ourselves some hard questions. Have I done everything I can, within the limitations of my own ability and life situation, to help this animal and make things work? Have I made sacrifices, but taking care of them has become more than I can handle? Have I made the effort to find a kind and devoted adopter, a responsible rescue, or a no-kill shelter to ensure this animal’s safety for the rest of his or her life? Will I continue to support animal rescues and adopt another, pet if/when I can? Then to me, it’s the right decision. It’s one about which I may battle guilt, but in the end, I’ll forgive myself. I did my best. And if you are reading this and feel a connection with my experience and an animal you just couldn’t handle no matter how much you loved them — please forgive yourself, too.