Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast
My niece walking my 110 pound Rottweiler, Mickey, many years ago. Mickey would normally drag anyone walking her, but she just knew to be gentle with my niece.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Making the Tough Call

“Mr. Kechely, in all your years evaluating and working with dogs, have you ever recommended that one be euthanized?”  The county attorney had a smug look as she finished her question, certain that I was one of those ‘all dogs are wonderful and should never be put down’ people.

“Yes, many times.” I answered.  Her surprised expression was priceless and she went on to ask what criteria I used to make such a decision?  I then spent the next ten minutes addressing the court regarding the standards for evaluations and what would be considered deviations from normal behaviors of a dog based on various stimuli.  This opened up the topic of my evaluation of the defendant’s dog and what my recommendation was.  I was bluntly honest in saying that with proper ownership and efforts to mitigate the issue of the dog’s negative behavior, there was no reason for the dog to be euthanized.  I added with emphasis, however, that the responsibility lay on the owner and if she wasn’t willing or able to meet those requirements then the dog should be euthanized to avoid further issues.  With both attorneys done questioning me, I was allowed to leave the witness stand. During a break I told the owner that the dog’s life was now her responsibility, though in reality, it always had been.

This was one of several instances where I was requested by either animal control or attorneys to evaluate and then testify about a dog’s behavior.  The question from the county attorney about if I had ever recommended a dog be euthanized was not surprising to me, and I understood why she thought she had caught me in a trap.  All too often, especially in rescue, people put the life of the animal above all else, when in reality it may be best to euthanize an animal.  Sometimes this is related to health issues or, on occasion, it is the result of extreme behaviors that simply can’t be remedied in a reasonable amount of time.  Yes, you can lock up a dog that is severely aggressive, never letting it have any contact with the outside world because of its behavior, but what kind of life is that? 

Since becoming involved with Rottweiler rescue work I’ve had to recommend almost two dozen dogs be euthanized due to severe aggression. Not a bad number when you consider Big Sky Rottweiler Rescue has saved almost one thousand dogs since its creation in 1997.   Deciding to euthanize a dog is one of the most difficult decisions to make and I don’t make those decisions lightly. I will spend days going over evidence and evaluation results, consulting with other trainers, and finally, when all realistic options are exhausted, I will make the recommendation.  Only then can I sleep at night, knowing I did everything reasonable I could to save the dog.  It was while being involved with these types of situations that I started looking at bite injuries and how they can be a great indicator of the type of aggression and the intensity of it.  That information helped me make informed, not emotional, decisions and, more importantly, helped everyone involved come to a common understanding and acceptance. 

Let’s face it, putting an animal down is hard, especially if it is one you love.  Sadly, the final act of love often times is making that very decision.  I don’t enjoy being one to encourage the act. In fact, one of the most painful things I’ve ever done was to sit next to a friend and convince her that she needed to put her dog down due to a sudden and very violent act of aggression.  In those times I have to shut down my emotions and focus on the facts.  This is often a hard task given the emotional extremes that people will have in such times. 

The pain of that moment, and all those before and after it, is what motivates me to try and educate people the best I can.  I always remind people that dogs are dogs and they will never have the cognitive ability to interact with us in human terms.  We, on the other hand, can understand and interact with the dog in canine terms.  Without question, the majority of cases of canine aggression are the result of humans treating their dogs like small, fury humans.  Dogs are not wired for such behavior, especially the more dominant breeds.  This is the very reason I started using the term ‘Think Dog’ when teaching people, encouraging them to understand canines and to communicate with their dogs in a manner they will understand.  I can’t imagine how many bite incidents could be avoided if more people did just that.  I guess that is why I keep doing what I do, though I have stepped back from active teaching and expert witness work, preferring to direct people to others who are doing the same work.  Still, I know that if I receive the call I will do what I always do - look at the evidence and make the best decision I can, and yes even one in which the dog has to be put down.  You see, I learned a long time ago that having a dog is more than just a responsibility to the dog to provide love, training, and care - it is a responsibility to society. Sometimes that means making the hardest decision imaginable, out of love and out of responsibility. If you aren’t willing to make such a decision then, perhaps, owning a dog is not for you.

Monday, February 8, 2016

What's In A Bark?

The following event occurred in 2001. I found it impacting enough to write it down shortly after it occurred and now I want to share it with you.

Something happened the other day that has struck me profoundly in ways I could not have imagined.  It started off rather simply.  I was down at the local shelter during my lunch hour, walking the Rottweilers that were there.  This is something I do regularly because it’s a brief vacation from the chaos of the engineering/consulting business.  It was no surprise for me to see a large pickup truck pull into the parking lot with noticeable veterinary storage bins in the back.  Many of the local vets visit farms so they have portable vet facilities in the form of a heavy duty truck.  I knew what the vet was at the shelter for.  Being the only incinerator in the area, the vets bring animals they have put to sleep or that have died of natural causes so they can be cremated. In this particular instance, it was a dog.  I thought nothing of it until one of the workers at the shelter mentioned that she knew both the dog and the owner.  As she was about the owner with another worker, my attention was grabbed when she stated that it was a Rottweiler that had been brought it.  I paused with Adonis, the Rottweiler cross I was bringing back from a walk.  I knelt down and listened to the story as I gave Adonis a belly rub.

The owner was a friend of hers, an older man who lived alone, large and gruff in appearance. He’d had the dog since she was a pup.  Along with her, he had one of her offspring and everything he did was with his dogs.  She described how he would drive all over with his dogs in the back of his truck, the topper gate open so they could look out, but with a safety bar ensuring they couldn’t jump out.  I realized that I had seen this man before.  I asked if he drove a silver full-size Chevy.  The worker acknowledged that he did, and I asked if he lived off of Lincoln Street.  Again, she confirmed my suspicions.  I knew the man, or at least I knew his dogs.  During my daily walks with my dogs, I would often see him drive by, his two Rottweilers looking out the back of his truck.  Upon seeing each other, his dogs and mine would exchange barks. These barks were not necessarily challenges but more like boasts, each stating that the other was trespassing.  These boasts reaffirmed that they were Rottweilers and that this was their turf.  After ten seconds of vitriolic canine dialog, the dogs would go silent, the truck would round a corner, and we would continue on our way.  This happened regularly for the five years that I had been walking my dogs along that route. 

Though I did not know the man’s name nor his dogs’ names, I felt a sense of loss at seeing the Rottweiler’s body being brought into the crematorium.  The worker who knew the owner spoke of how devastating it must be for the man, stating how the dogs had slept with him on his bed and went everywhere with him.  She also wondered how the younger dog was getting along now that the older one had died.  The other worker shook her head in empathy as she filled out the paper work for the cremation.  I took Adonis back to his kennel and thought little more about the story other than the fact that another Rottweiler had died.  At least it was a dog that had known what love was, not a stray or one beaten to death at the hand of an abusive owner, things I’d seen many times over my years of doing rescue work.

It was several days later, while walking my dogs, that I heard a truck coming from behind me.  I turned slightly to see that it was in fact the silver Chevy.  I braced myself for what I expected to happen, the usual lunging and confident exchange of insults between Rottweilers.  As the truck drove past, Mickey, my large dominant female, tensed up and looked at the truck, waiting to see if a dog was in the back.  There was; a single female Rottweiler was looking at us.  The loneliness of her not having a companion was evident.  Instead of the volley of barks I was expecting, she let out a lone, solitary bark followed by a slight whine.  I looked at Mickey, bracing for her to lunge and bark wildly at the dog.  Instead, she and Griz looked on, stopped in the moment as the sound of the other dog’s bark faded into the morning air.  They both watched as the truck turned the corner, their eyes in full contact with the eyes of the Rottweiler in the back of the truck. 

As the truck and its passenger disappeared, my dogs started walking again.  I was dumbfounded by what I had just observed.  Was it possible that they knew of the other dog’s loss?  Could so much be conveyed by a single bark?  Did God give these wonderful creatures the ability to comprehend the grief associated with death?  Could they understand, by such a simple conveyance of sound waves, the agony and loneliness caused by the passing of a loved one? Apparently so. I can’t explain it and I dare not try.  Rather, I sit back once more in amazement of these animals, knowing full well they are not human and that they can’t rationalize as we do.  Yet, just maybe, by some miracle, in that one instant my dogs knew exactly what had happened.  And perhaps, out of respect, they agreed to a cease fire, a truce to honor the fallen.  Then again, what do I know? I am just a human.

For a touching fictional story about the human/canine relationship, be sure to check out my novel, Stranger’s Dance.  Also, I will be holding an author event and book signing at Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana on February 10, 2016 at 7pm.