Loving Dobby

Dobby’s eyes widen when he sees the new tennis ball, and he runs joyfully towards me. When I hand it to him, he arches his neck and puffs his chest out, tail held jauntily over his back as he prances around like the world’s smallest Hackney pony. His pride and joy bubble over. They infect me as he flaunts his new prize. He squeaks the ball loudly and repeatedly as his perfect little white feet rise and fall to its beat, a tiny soldier on parade with the lightning bolts on his legs flashing. I croon to him, repeating his name like a mantra. When I hold my hand down, he prances past it, rubbing his sides along my fingers with each ecstatic circle he marks out on the floor. He is electrically alive. I am holding onto this moment with everything I have, trying to live in the now like him.

I hold onto these moments, these bright sunbeams of hope, because I need something to hold onto when life with Dobby is hard. And life with Dobby is frequently hard.

Photo by SC Studios

Photo by SC Studios

Dobby was picked up as a stray by the Rochester City Animal Control. He was somewhere between six to twelve months old, unfixed and dirty. No one claimed him, and when his stray hold was up he was moved to the general holding area of the shelter. He clung to the back of his kennel, trembling visibly and averting his gaze when people passed by. When I slipped a leash over his neck to walk him, he pancaked to the floor and urinated.

It was obvious that he was way too frightened to assess, so those of us at the shelter that day sat with him and talked to him, coaxing him to eat treats which he mostly ignored. He froze in fear when he was touched, and kept his body low to the floor, tail touching his belly button. When we took him outside, he lit up a bit and explored, but kept a wary distance. Becca, a skilled foster volunteer, decided to bring him home.

P1030828Under the expert care of Becca and her husband, Dobby began to blossom. He played with her dogs, and after several weeks moved in with me. Dobby began to figure out doorways, which were initially a source of great terror to him. He gained 9 pounds and 2 inches, growing into a sleek, muscular little dog. He started to seek out affection, pressing his neck and chin into the hands of those people he trusted. He learned to offer behaviors to earn rewards. He loved toys, and pranced around when given a new ball or chew toy.

There were problems to be worked through. People in hats were terrifying, and he would lunge and snap at hands that moved too quickly around him. He became aroused very quickly but was unable to settle back down, a quivering, mouthy beast with buggy eyes ready to grab anything that moved. Quick movements and loud voices would cause him to hit the ground and pee. Housetraining took a few months, and he could not be lured with treats or toys because of his fear of hands. Reaching towards his collar terrified him.

Photo by Ryan Windfeldt

Photo by Ryan Windfeldt

In spite of all of this, Dobby persevered. He tried his hardest and celebrated even tiny successes with his characteristic Dobby prance. Never has a dog been so full of try. He passed nine out of ten of the Canine Good Citizen test items and earned his first Rally Obedience title with comments from the judge on his joyful, prancy heel. He lit up when he was praised.

The seizures started when Dobby was somewhere between 18 to 24 months. Dobby’s eyes would glaze over and he’d stare at the ceiling with his back arched, for all the world like a dog intent on stalking a fly. A few times, he attacked whatever he saw moving as he came out of this state – me, another dog, even his own tail. After a seizure he would be tired and scared, wanting to curl up in the back of his crate and nap. They tended to come in clusters, piling on several days in a row before leaving him seizure-free for a few weeks or months.

All of Dobby’s progress vanished with the seizures, as if each seizure erased another of his newly forged neural pathways. He became fearful again, and worse yet, stress was one of his biggest seizure triggers.

photoSo, that’s where we’re at today. Dobby is on two seizure meds and an anxiety medication to try to control these seizures. We’re experimenting with a situational anxiety drug on top of his other medication. He’s receiving the top veterinary care at the University of Minnesota. Diet changes and changes to his routine have made no difference in his seizure activity. Even happy stress triggers seizures, so we no longer practice heelwork or play with the spring pole. He no longer attends any classes. We stopped playing tug. Dobby’s world has shrunk to a couple houses, a few walking routes, and some very careful play and training. His personality changes with each cluster of seizures, and he has become touch sensitive and cranky, likely to snap if another dog bumps him. He is introduced to new people carefully and is no longer introduced to new dogs so as not to trigger more seizures.

Dobby’s three to four years old at this point, and I hold on to the good days because I don’t know how many more he’ll have. I look at this gorgeous, funny, willing, sweet dog, and I think about euthanasia. I calculate percentages constantly: how many good moments is he having every day? How many bad? At what point is it no longer fair to make him keep trying in a world that is too scary and overwhelming? At what point does it become kinder to let him go, to take away the weight of living in a body which turns on itself over even minor stress? At what point is it no longer fair to my other dogs to live with an unpredictable housemate who is as likely to snap at them as to play? At what point do we stop?

I agonize and cry over this decision. I worry that compassion fatigue, a common problem with people in care-giving positions like this, is clouding my judgment. If I’m honest, living with Dobby is hard. It’s rewarding too, but it’s a constant drain to manage his environment, to set him up for success, to work with him between clusters of seizures in an effort to regain lost behavioral progress. For every step forward, there are steps back, and new challenges appear all the time. The side effects from his medication make him sleepy, hungry, and thirsty. People pile on with well-intentioned advice, clamoring for me to switch him to a raw diet, teach a new relaxation method, use Reiki, talk to an animal communicator, and try a plethora of herbal and homeopathic supplements.

Photo by SC Studios

Photo by SC Studios

All of this information flashes through my mind as I hand Dobby another squeaky tennis ball, one of the few things I can do to make him happy. I worry about the cost of his medication, blood work, and ever-present vet bills. I run probabilities as he burrows under the blanket when I crawl into bed at night, curling up in my arms and nestling his head under my chin to sigh deeply before drifting off to sleep. He’s warm and alive, he’s a great little dog, and I think about the finality of death.

I don’t know what I will do going forward. There are more drugs to try, more ideas to help him cope, and I want to explore them. During good moments, I delight in my little Dobby. In bad moments, when he’s scared and confused and hiding in his crate after a seizure, I feel guilty and sad. I wonder whether I’m doing more harm than good by putting him through a continuous cycle of new medication and the stress of day-to-day life. I wonder whether he wants the pain to stop. He seems so overwhelmed and scared sometimes. And through it all, he keeps trying as hard as he can to survive in a world where the deck sometimes seems stacked against him.

There’s no real conclusion to this blog post. I can’t tell you what will happen next for Dobby. I can only tell you that I want very much to do the right thing and that there’s no clear “right” thing to do.

dobby rocksI’m not the only one who wrestles with this awful choice. Many of my behavioral clients have been here before with their fearful, anxious, or aggressive dogs. Some euthanize their dog, realizing that they cannot continue to ask their beloved pet to live in a world where they will never find peace. Some euthanize their dog because they cannot honestly be sure that they can keep others or themselves safe if their dog continues to live. Some resolve to manage and work with their dog for the next five or ten or fifteen years. Some dogs do not have the brain chemistry or physiology to cope with our world, and some just need training and behavior modification to successfully rewire their brain.

Regardless of the choice each of us makes, it’s a deeply personal one that’s not made lightly. It’s a heart-wrenching, gut-turning decision, whether the decision is to euthanize or to keep trying with the dog. Neither path is easy.

batdobbyWe live in a society where there’s still a prevalent myth that every dog can be saved and that behavior issues are solely a result of environment rather than the complex stew of brain chemistry, development, and past history that really creates the perfect storm of an anxious, fearful, or aggressive dog. Dobby has seizures, but he also has behavioral concerns. Whether these issues are a result of his seizures or not (and I truly believe that they are, at least in part), my decision to keep working with him or euthanize is focused on his quality of life, the quality of my other dogs’ lives with him, and on the risk of keeping an unpredictable and fearful dog. The ultimate decision will be made with careful, empathetic consideration of Dobby’s happiness and the happiness of those of us (human and animal) who live with him every day.

So I walk the tightrope of Dobby’s life with him, helping him succeed and drinking his joy in. He watches me earnestly, my sincere, awkward, special little dog with the lightning-striped legs. I don’t have any answers, so for today a new squeaky tennis ball will have to do.


32 responses to “Loving Dobby

  1. Dear Sara and Dobby,
    Oh, this is so honest and so dear. My heart goes out to you both, with wishes for both of you to find and choose a way through this together.
    Bon courage.

    • Dear Sara and Dobby,
      My heart goes out to you both. With your love, caring, guidance, and medical care, my hope is that Dobby will be able to overcome these obstacles. He’s a little fighter and has been through so much already and came out on top. Sara, somehow my Maggie overcame cancers, seizures, and a littany of ills and together we made it for 12 years until she was 13. I felt ever so blessed and lucky to have had this amazing dog in my life. It was truly a gift. And now, we have another gift in Rukus. With your guidance, we have learned to help him begin to overcome his fear, anxiety, and he has really begun to enjoy his new life. We are so grateful and again, so blessed for this amazing dog. To watch him experience joyousness with a new ball or a new frisbee, to see his tail held high, not tucked on his walks, is reason enough for us to cherish every day we are given with him. And we thank you for that. We will continue our prayers for both you and your Dobby.

      Carla Succio

  2. We walked this road a few years ago with a precious, nearly perfect dog named Bella. We had about three years of tranquility after working with her an stabilizing her behavior, she was wonderful. But then, for whatever reason, she started getting unstable again. She attacked a resident dog, so we worked with crate and rotate for months. She bit a jogger, so she started being muzzled when we went on our three walks a day, but she could play in the back yard free. She became aggressive (in almost an irresistable way) when playing tug of war, so that had to stop – she couldn’t help herself but it was isolated to that activity. She attacked another resident dog, so we only let them in the yard one at a time (the attacks only happened outside). Then she tried to attack a dog and my husband was between them – the mauling sent him to the hospital with badly damaged hands, but she never got to the other dog which was what he was trying to avoid. After that, we agonized for 6 months, until she got out of her muzzle on a walk and tried to go after another dog. In the house, Bella was the sweetest dog in the world. But we have other dogs. There are dogs in the neighborhood. We live in town where people run, bike, and play. We live across the street from a school. After consulting every trainer and behaviorist we knew or could afford to consult (she’d been to several trainers and we worked with her daily since she came to live with us 4 years before), we couldn’t find another solution that didn’t involve her being isolated and confined. The confinement during this time was taking a toll. the hardest thing I hope I ever have to do was make a decision to euthanize. It still haunts me. Every time I read a post like this I am still afraid I’ll find one more thing I could have tried and the pain will return. thank you for giving him so many good years, and whatever happens, I wish for you peace with your decision, and good memories to cherish. The only sucky part about love is that it hurts so much when one of you goes away.

  3. You are doing the best job you can. You’re both very lucky to have each other :)

  4. faithtrustfosterpups

    Thank you for being so beautiful and honest in your writings and sharing your complete (the good parts and the hard parts) love for Dobby. It’s comforting for those of us at home living daily with such a complete love for our own dogs to see that whether we are trainers of mere mortals, we are not alone. Much love to you both, and thank you for all you do to make the world a better place for Dobby and other people trying to just do right by the dogs they adore.

  5. Georgia Conrad

    I’ve been involved in rescue for many years and have adopted several, less than adoptable dogs. I know those agonyizing battles in your head and heart oh so well. Each case is different but you hit the nail on the head when you said you are weighing not only the quality of life of the animal with issues but the quality of life of the other pets and people in the home. It’s a very rewarding thing to save an animal and help them get a better, happier life. But the ones that never quite make it are draining emotionally, physically and finacially. As a rescuer we want to save them all and every time we convince ourselves if we just do this or that or wait a few more days, weeks, or months, there will be a turn around. One of my dogs that came in as a foster over 8yrs ago, had suffered horribly from malnutrition, abuse and neglect. But through it all, remained the sweetest dog anyone could ever meet. But he had and still has issues. Thankfully none are aggression. But at 10 yrs old, I am resolved that even though he has made great strides, a part of him was broken early in his life and/or his wiring is off somehow. And he is what he is. It’s a tough pill to swollow to admit a dog like Dobby is unsavable, but it is a fact of life. Not all can be saved no matter what we do or how much we spend in time, money and emotions. Thank you for writing this honest, heart wrenching article. I hope whatever the future holds, your heart will be full knowing you gave it 110%…

  6. Oh Sara, we are living in a parallel universe. By now you probably got my email letting you know about Chase. As my heart is breaking for you, it is also broken from losing Chase on Friday under somewhat similar circumstances. I am so very sorry and this is so very hard. I absolutely loved your post today and is so spot on with everything we were going thru too. Thank you for saying it all so eloquently. i am here for you as you were there for me during these difficult times. Hugs and prayers. Thinking of you – Amy Jensen

  7. As you well know, there are no easy answers in a case like this. The lure of other treatments against the weight of current quality of life…. It’s a terrible place to be in.

    And it’s a terrible risk to share your struggle, too. Sometimes people offer well-meaning advice (“you should be trying this”) which can feel uncomfortably like “if you cared about your dog, you’d be doing this.” Sometimes it can get more invasive: When I announced on a training list that I would be euthanizing a dog, someone contacted a rescue organization to try to have the dog taken from me. (Fortunately the rescue head felt I was doing the right thing.) But sharing is often necessary for us to work through the awful internal lists of positives and negatives, and we may need to be able to voice our thoughts in order to hear them. And sometimes our thoughts can help others when they find themselves at a similarly terrible crossroads.

    I can’t give you answers, and if I tried, they might not be the right ones for you and Dobby. What I can tell you is that I am so very sorry, that I know I’ll be facing that hideous do-you-have-enough-good-moments-to-justify-the-bad decision in as little as two weeks and so I’m hugely empathatic, and that we live in a fallen world and sometimes life just isn’t freaking fair at all, and it stinks.

    Enjoy Dobby each day, and watch how he enjoys each day. That’s the best I can give you, other than support. It stinks, I know. But grab those tennis ball moments, yours and his, and enjoy them as you work forward. Hang in there.

  8. I went through the same dilemma when my dogs become seniors and developed health problems. I have decided that there is no perfect or right time to say goodby. It is indeed very personal. Quality of life for the suffering dog, the household, as well as the cost of care all play a part. I spent a lot of money keeping one of my beloved dogs alive for just a bit longer. Would I do that again? I have no idea. I finally realized in a way I did not know before that when my dog’s health is failing no matter what I do my dog will pass on. Will that make it easier the next time? I doubt it. Be at peace with your journey no matter what you do. There is no right answer, time, or path. People always feel guilt, it is part of mourning. I felt guilt because I decided to euthanize my dog, my friend felt guilt because she decided not to euthanize hers but to wait for the end. Neither one of us was wrong in our approach. We love and do the best we can day to day. Hugs to you.

  9. So hard to go through such a situation. I do believe you will know in your heart of hearts when it is time to do the hardest thing because it is the kindest thing. Bless you for loving Dobby so much.

  10. My heart goes out to you and Dobby. He is a very lucky little dog to have you as a caregiver—enjoy him as long as this special boy is in your life!!!

  11. I’m so sorry that you are dealing with this. Your love and devotion to Dobby is clear. He’s lucky to have you. Best wishes to you as you make these difficult decisions.

  12. This just breaks my heart as we went through something similar just last year…. Our boy was returned to his rescue after being adopted as a puppy because of aggression issues. Turns out he had learned no manners, had been poorly socialized and learned pretty quickly he could get whatever he wanted by flashing his teeth around.

    A trainer from the rescue worked with him initially and we continued the work and he made AMAZING progress, to the point where he actually passed his CGC. He was always a little “off” but I knew him well and knew his triggers and he was managed well… he lived a full and happy life. He had hip dysplasia, a partially torn ACL and SEVERE allergies but we managed his health issues as well.

    It all went downhill with the first seizure. Then the random aggression started showing up. And it was just that, random. He would give absolutely no warning, and it didn’t matter what he was going after. Once he full out attacked a cardboard box that had been in the living room for three days. He just passed by it one evening, for the 50th time, and went after it as though it was an attacking dog.

    He also started showing vision problems, coordination problems, serious fatigue (not being able to walk around the block without being tired), muscle loss/weight loss despite us increasing his food, hair loss, random barking at nothing, getting “stuck” in corners, and generally not acting like himself. He was having roughly one seizure every week, and it dropped to one every two weeks or so when he was on phenobarbital.

    After multiple tests and being in the vets office multiple times a week, we finally determined it was a brain tumor and not treatable for many reasons. We probably would have had a bit more time with him, maybe a few months… but we finally decided to let him go before he slipped away from us completely. He was still “himself” sometimes but those times were getting less and less frequent. We knew he had the potential to seriously injure someone and I didn’t want that to force my hand… I wanted him to go while he was still a “good boy” and had not bitten with severity. It is a hard decision that only you can make, but you will know what is best for him, and he will know. I truly believe there are many things worse than death and when our boy was extremely limited and isolated in this life, it was time to send him onto the next.

    What was right for us was not right for everyone, and I am sure you will make the right decision for you and Dobby. In the meantime, you both are in my thoughts, sending lots of hugs.

  13. Thank you for sharing your story. You and Dobby are so very fortunate to have found one another. Your compassion is only exceeded by your commitment to caring for Dobby. You are a hero and Dobby is a beautiful soul. Be well, be safe and be happy.

  14. Hi Sara – I lived with two dogs (before adopting Boogie) who had frequent seizures. Jazzy – my 13 year old rescue dog who was deaf, had brain tumors and stomach cancer & ate everything she could find including leaves, plastic, wood etc.. Life was very hard, but Jazzy still had playful happy moments. I remember the vet suggesting that all I had to do was keep her comfortable and happy and that I keep a diary and give each day a “life quality” score… 5 for a happy day, 3 would be an OK day, 2 would be a bad day etc. He said this was the easiest way to be objective. “When you have more than two or three “2” days, it’s time to have that talk”. And when it was time to make that decision we were really clear on what had to be done. Lots of love to you and Dobby.

  15. He is a dog made of try.
    You are a person made of try.
    Sometimes the try is not enough and sometimes it is.
    I can only send you love and hugs and know that because you love Dobby so much you will do the right thing each and everytime you make a decision, no matter what that is.

  16. My heart aches and goes out to you. This isn’t an easy path you have chosen and our world is so cruel sometimes. Imagine if he hadn’t found you! That would have been much crueler fate! I wish you and Dobby peace and calm in the future. Much love and strength to you.

  17. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings.. Sometimes life decisions are sp complicated…thank you.

  18. Midwestern Plant Girl

    You’re a saint. =)

  19. So sad, Every day is a new day!

  20. Bless you, Sara. Dobby is lucky you brought him home.

  21. I have a different struggle with my fear reactive puggat but I too wrestle with the thought of euthanasia. Thank-you for putting your struggles so eloquently into writing.

  22. Hi Sara, it took me a few days to get to reading this post and after reading it I’m happy to be quietly in my home and able to stay in connection to my heart while doing so…

    I wish you all the love and all the heart-wisdom you already have and then some <3. you will make the best choices because that is what you set out to do, whichever path you go down in this process. whether he stays or moves on he has learned so much from your connection with him (you both have!) and whenever a soul has grown bigger, you never go back to earlier limits, the expansion and understanding is with you forever….

    whatever I write cannot make your worries less lonely….

    love, Jess

  23. Dobby is incredibly lucky to have you. I cannot imagine that daily struggle. Bless you.

  24. Sara,

    It’s clear you’ve put your thoughts, heart, and soul into taking care of Dobby daily and planning on Dobby’s future. As with many things in life, there are no right answers, lots of wrong answers, and lots of gut-wrenching, heart-breaking answers. But, moments of pure joy, beauty, pure heart, those things weather any decisions we make or actions we take that we may regret. You do what you can, knowing that whatever happens the best times in Dobby’s life will be remembered and shared always.


  25. thanks for sharing your personal story about dobby and your feelings. may dobby have a speedy recovery. continue to be a blessing to for and your family. take care and keep smiling. leslie and lizzy [service dog]

  26. Just read your blog post through a link on Facebook. So sad for you and Dobby. I don’t know if Dobby is still with you, but have you considered trying Reiki? There are practitioners who do animal Reiki and it is something anyone can be attuned to and learn. A Reiki course can be as short as one day. You can find Reiki teachers in the States at http://www.reikimembership.com/MembershipListing.aspx

  27. Sara,

    If I may, I would like to make one edit. It is not “heart-wrenching, gut-turning.” No, it is “heart-breaking, soul-crushing.” We made this decision 13 weeks ago for our fear-defensive, but sweet little girl. It was far and away the most difficult decision we’ve ever made, and we feel guilt and second-guess ourselves every single day. It’s like ripping out your own heart. And yet, if faced with the same decision, we would probably do it again for our sakes and partially for hers. Our thoughts and support are with you.

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  31. You wrote this article so long ago, but I’ve just come across it. It’s as if I’ve written it myself. I’m in the exact same position with my epileptic dog. What I really want to know now that its 5 years later, is how your situation played out. Is Dobby still with you and if not, how were you finally able to make your decision. I really hope to hear from you since you can relate.

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