The Dog Whisperer

Our dog Toby has been consistently paranoid ever since he outgrew being a puppy. He is terrified of strangers and if you don’t allow him a significant amount of time to warm up to you, he may just growl, bark, lunge, or snap at you to amortize his fear to others.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen plenty of red flags. He’s charged at toddlers, snapped at a baby, came within millimeters of biting friends who’ve come to visit, just the other day, he lunged at one of Dalia’s friends because she pretended to growl at him. We knew we needed to get serious with the dog as the situation was no longer sustainable and we were exposing others to tremendous danger and much liability to ourselves.

We consulted several dog trainers, all of them had their own tactics that ranged from electric shocks to positive reinforcement, but ultimately, a big part of it would be to minimize his encounters with the things that trigger his attacks. After a two hour session with a professional dog trainer, things were looking up and it felt like we could contain the situation.

A week went by (which included a wonderful visit from my sister, brother-in-law, and niece) and all was happy in the Deem household. I returned to work on Presidents Day and was digging out from mountains of work that have accrued over a couple long business trips when an urgent call from Jaclyn came at 4PM. Toby had bitten Dalia in the face, leaving her with a decent cut above and below her left eye. I undocked my computer, threw on my coat and met the family at the urgent care center where Dalia was handling the examination well. The doctor handed me a form from the Animal Control people and I had to fill in a lot of information about the dog, the location of the attack, who was present, what triggered it, etc.

Fortunately for Dalia, the doctors felt like she was going to make a speedy and full recovery, no need for stitches and no damage to her actual eye. The next day she woke up with a big shiner, black and blue all around her eye. After leaving the doctors office, we debriefed over some Chinese food. Of course, the first question I asked was what in the world happened, why did Toby bite you? Dalia said that Toby was chewing on his bone and she went over to give him a hug and he just snapped at her. As Dalia began to scream and bleed and Jaclyn came in to comfort and scold, Toby made a quit exit and hid in the other room. Conversation shifted to lighter topics and eventually, we got a couple boxes for leftovers and came home to the scene of the crime.

As I pulled in the driveway, I could actually feel a sense of rage filling my body, I literally wanted to kill the animal myself. I took a deep breath and went inside and saw that Jaclyn had barricaded the dog into the downstairs music room (where our guests sleep) by closing the door and sliding a heavy piece of furniture against it to make sure he couldn’t exit.

Toby knew he was in trouble, but I doubt to what extent.

We tried to move on and put the kids to bed before adult conversation about the dog’s fate could be initiated. As the kids were brushing their teeth and preparing for bed, Jac and I broached the subject of what’s next for the dog. We were aligned that he needs to go. Toby, oblivious to the solemn discussion around his fate, playfully nudged Jac seeking attention, she looked into his eyes and just started to cry.

Dalia came downstairs, put the pieces together and said that “You’re going to give Toby away aren’t you?!” This whole situation escalated quickly and this is not how we wanted it all to play out, I hoped to position it somehow in a more positive light. Here we were, put on the spot, we couldn’t lie, I said that Toby was very dangerous and we needed to find him a home where he was not going to hurt someone. This is not the response Dalia wanted to hear. She screamed at us, “YOU CANNOT GIVE TOBY AWAY! HE IS OUR FAMILY! HE IS ONLY 2 YEARS OLD, HE DOES NOT KNOW! HE DOES NOT KNOW! YOU CANNOT GIVE HIM AWAY!” At this point everyone in the room is crying and the dumb dog looked on.

We eventually bring this conversation back to a rational discussion and all agree that Toby has a dozen examples of close calls and this is just too dangerous for us and our friends. He needs a better place to be. I threw in the promise of a hamster or turtle when Toby makes his departure and that was enough to bring back a smile and well earned rest for the night.

The definition of a “better place to be” depends on who is defining it. My definition comes down to “anywhere, but here”, but Toby might disagree. His temperament has dwindled his residential options considerably and we are trying to pick the least worst of the bunch. Toby is making a trip back to the Philadelphia area at the end of February to be evaluated by the rescue organization we picked him up from, ideally, he’ll be deemed adoptable and someone without kids and a lot of time to train him better can make his life salvageable. The fallback options after this become far worse, he goes into a cage at an animal shelter or euthanized, we’re not entirely sure which option is more humane.

Many tears have been shed over this progress.  We lay down at night with the black dog between us and I’ll pat him on his head and whisper, “I love you, you dumb dog” and he wags his tail.