This morning, the Falls Church Chief of Police stopped me. I was not driving nor was I in a car. She saw me walking Willow, my white German or American Shepherd, whom I recently adopted from a rescue and stopped her Ford Crown Victoria in the middle of the road. She asked if she could get some photos of the dog. Sure, I replied.
I had no idea that she was the Chief of Police, all I saw was woman in a black police uniform driving a gray, cop-Crown-Vic. It was her badge that I noticed – it read CHIEF.
She brought out her iPhone and shot some pics and we exchanged pleasantries. At the time, I thought it was neither appropriate or necessary to bring up the fact that I had already asked the rescue from which I adopted Willow from to take her back. In many ways, I already feel defeated and humiliated enough.
A little over a week ago, I had started putting together a post to detail the newest member of my family. The post, titled “White Christmas”, was going to include the story of how I came to adopt her and photos. But life happened, causing a delay in this post’s publication and then a further setback that rocked my world and leaving me extremely conflicted.
Back in early November, after visiting some family and friends back in my homeland of California, I came to the realization of how much I missed having a dog in my life. Well, maybe this wasn’t the epiphany I am suddenly making it out to be, but rather a new found motivation to make this change and get serious about finding a dog. To be clear, this is something both my therapist and shrink have been encouraging (but not pushing) me to do for awhile.
After losing Clemmie, I had always been hesitant. It was either too soon or my job would make owning and properly caring for a dog difficult. Regardless of these feelings, I went ahead and filled out two applications to German Shepherd rescues in the area. One of my applications was turned down and the other, to Virginia German Shepherd Rescue, was approved. Of course only after references are checked and a home visit is conducted by a volunteer of the organization.
The question I had been asked quite often was: Why a German Shepherd? I have no definitive answer. I have always been in awe of the breed. I didn’t want a guard dog, but a smart, loyal companion that would challenge me and be loving. I wanted a dog to play fetch with and make me get my ass off the couch for walks. Yes, I knew of the issues with the breed, but I felt I was ready, willing, and able to meet these challenges as they came up. My biggest fear wasn’t so much accidents in the home but potential household mayhem and destruction in my brand new residence.
In any case, I felt ready.
And this is how I came to be with Willow, or Your Majesty as was her name given to her by her foster family. Her fosters were a nice, young couple with two dogs of their own. Willow was rescued off the street and brought into the VGSR. She was very pregnant at the time of her involvement with the group and soon gave birth to a litter of eleven puppies, of which nine lived and were quite quickly adopted – as they were all white just like mom.
The first meeting occurred here at my home. Willow’s foster dad, J, brought her out to me and instructed me how to greet her or rather, how I should be when Willow greets me. The first meeting went great. Willow was (and still is) incredibly attached and protective of her foster mom, K. This is why J conducted the introduction between the two of us. Once Willow was more comfortable with me, all four of us went into the house, where, with the help of a lot of treats, Willow warmed up to me to the point that K & J left the two of us alone for an hour or so. I even managed to take her on a walk. Both of Willow’s fosters remarked on how quickly she seemed to warm up to me.
By the end of that day, I knew I wanted to adopt her.
When Willow was dropped off, I had to witness an agonizing and all to familiar goodbye between the dog and K. It was a gut-wrenching experience that nearly broke my resolve for this adoption. I had felt her loss, I had experienced that painful goodbye, and had a first-hand account of everything she was feeling. After the fosters had departed, leaving Willow and I alone as dog and owner for the first time, I had to stop to gather myself. It is still hard to think about to this day.
In the coming days, Willow and I learned about each other and began the adjustment and settling in period. Every morning, I was taking her on a long walk in hopes to drain some of the high energy shepherds have. The first few days of leaving her here alone while I was at work were nerve racking. I had no idea what type of home I would walk back into. But after a week and hooking up a doggie-cam, my fears were rested. Willow proved to be an exceptionally well-behaved dog while alone and while with me. She is smart and a quick learner. After a nice long morning walk, she is more apt to nap on the couch than anything else.
It was during the first week of being together, when on our walks, I noticed the first issues with her. She was highly aggressive to other dogs; lunging on the leash, barking, and growling. This was not unlike her behavior around squirrels, with whom she treated with an odd fascination that could border on obsessive. Her behavior towards other dogs concerned me, but not to the point of worry. I felt confident that as long as we had our walks and I showed her that I was a good pack leader than any issue could be overcome.
Then my level of confidence was shattered.
Through a combination of events, I felt laid bare and exposed as the inexperience, ill-equipped schoolboy I was. Two experiences with an attempt to introduce Willow and a dog named Jacob whose owner is a good friend of mine. Both dogs can be described and ferociously loyal and protective of their prospective owners. We both knew this would be a challenge. The first meet was designed around a lengthy walk/run in the Rock Creek Park area of D.C. that concluded at an outdoor eating establishment. At every sight of another canine, regardless of size or breed, Willow displayed an unparalleled level of aggression towards the other dog and, at one point, nearly pulling me over in the cheap, outdoor plastic chair I was sitting in. Willow’s behavior toward Jacob was mirrored by Jacob himself. If she went nuts, then so did he. As owners, we were both left scratching our heads. This coupled with being embarrassed about being THAT guy not being able to control my dog began to cast doubt within me and suddenly everything that I had been saying about things be ok and working out were nothing but a thin sheet of invalid confidence.
After this incident, I had reached out to Willow’s fosters. Her foster dad offered to come to my home on the afternoon of Christmas Day to orchestrate a re-introduction with his experienced hand. He had even come prepared with a can of citronella spray in mace-like weaponized form that was supposed to break up any aggressive dog fights at the drop of a hat – or the smell of the spray. Both I and Jacob’s mom agreed to this detente.
Things were progressing well. Both dogs, owners, and overseer were in my backyard watching dogs and their own body language. Throughout this experience, I maintained a level of confidence that this would work and it would do so because we are going about this in not some haphazard way. Willow’s foster dad echoed my own feelings and things were moving along. The dogs themselves were neither attacking each other nor completely ignoring one another. Their brief interactions involved a hint of playfulness with a lot of figuring out who the hell you are. Tails wagged, ears were up, and things were going well.
Then we pushed it too far. Like genetic mad-scientists drunk of their successes we decided to go further and introduce another element into the equation – toys. Both dogs, from their histories, have shown to be dominant with their toys (Willow was the toy stealer in her foster home) and demanding with food. With the thought of “let’s see what happens”, I brought out a few toys. Nothing happened, at first, but then in a flash things turned quite ugly. Two dominant and protective dogs not used to sharing erupted into a vicious dog fight with no signs of stopping. In all, before we were all able to separate them, the entire scene lasted maybe 30 seconds, but it felt like hours. The can of citronella spray was used but with little to no effect whatsoever.
When both dogs were separated and under control, the results were evident. Jacob had multiple cuts to his face and head. While nothing deep or anything requiring immediate vet attention, it was obvious that Willow, with her size and strength was too much for poor Jacob. But projecting what would have happened had the fight went on longer and Jacob’s unwillingness to back down, things might have been much, much worse. And understandably, Jacob’s owner was severely rattled to the point of wishing to keep the dogs separated for the rest of the day.
The aftermath proved to a contrast. In Willow’s case, she was her normal self. Jacob, on the other hand, was trembling and afraid to the point of growling at me.
The entire episode, everything that was said and what happened, kept repeating in my mind for the rest of the day and night. After the high of adrenaline wore off, I too was left rattled and not only were my hopes crushed but so was my confidence. And it was this last part that made me realize that I can not do this. I am ill-equipped, mentally, for this sort of thing. A complete lack of trust in my dog and my own abilities coupled with a low self-confidence will be picked up quite easily by another dog and this will only add fuel to the fire.
Below is an email I wrote to Willow’s foster parents:
Over the past 24 hours, I have given this much thought and little sleep. Before I present you with some conclusions I have reached, I would like to offer some more insight to my thought process.
Back in ’99, in my last year in the Navy, I was visiting my father and sept-mother in California often. They had a pure-bred Queensland Heeler named Maui, who, for the life of me doesn’t know why, was not fixed. Well, she had a propensity to jumping their six foot fence and before you know it, she was preggers. The father was unknown, but her puppies were a mix of Maui and some kind of shepherd or retriever, I do not remember which. Of the puppies Maui produced, my parental units kept one boy, whom they allowed me to name with the thought that when I was discharged the next year, I would take over custody of him. I named him Marlowe after my favorite literally character, Phillip Marlowe. As I was still stationed here in DC and them being in California, I was not around for Marlowe’s upbringing. Still, I heard things. As he got older, he developed Maui’s ability as an escape artist and upon one of his many successes at leaving the yard, he managed to bit a child. It wasn’t bad, but these incidents are filed and recorded. The next time I saw him, he was fully grown but still very much a teenager. When my step-brother and his friend (probably 10-11 around this time) were in the backyard with Marlowe, I didn’t think anything of it until my step-brother came screaming into the house. Marlowe had bit his friend. It was a bad wound and I managed to calm both boys and clean the cut, but the damage had been done. When that boy returned home, his mother panicked and rushed him to the hospital. This created more records and when the county found out, they sent a notice to my dad. Marlowe had been in multiple biting incidents and was ordered to be destroyed (or put down – I don’t remember the exact verbiage.) And so, my dad had to drive Marlowe to his final destination.
The last time I ever took Clemmie to a dog park was memorable for me. Clemmie was NOT a dog dog. In other words, she didn’t care for dogs. While she was not aggressive at all, nor dominant, she was more inclined to ignore them. It was almost like she thought other dogs as a kind of annoyance. If a dog got to clingy or close, Clemmie made sure to make her displeasure known. With people or kids she was an angel and attention hound. She ate it up and would shake, wiggle, and strut when people fawned over her, while at the same time pretend she didn’t care. It was amusing. When we were at this dog park, it was a nice day and there were lots of people and dogs of all varieties there. Clem was her benevolent self; ignoring dogs, following me, and receiving the lavish attention that was heaped upon her from other people.
Having a dog that rarely interacts with other canines allows you observe the other dogs, the owners, and their own interactions. One such interaction clearly stuck in my memory. There was a beagle or similar breed there brought by what looked to be a couple of pre-teen kids. This particular beagle was overtly aggressive and on three separate occasions singled out another dog to pick a dominance fight with. Each occasion was worse than the next. This beagle was violent and extremely aggressive. The kids did nothing to stop or prevent this, nor getting involved. Each time the beagle had to be pulled off the other dog by some other person at the park.
What stuck in my mind from this event was the fact that I was so glad this wasn’t me and how I would have no idea how to handle such a situation of this was a dog of my own. Yesterday, I experienced this event.
Before we all met yesterday, I knew I had to maintain a calm yet assertive front and that I could not allow myself to get overly excited. I believe I did this – in the beginning. At first, I tried to show Willow that I was cool and not allowing myself to get worked up by either being worried, frantic, or worked up in anyway. Yet, after everything calmed down and I saw the multiple wounds to Jacob’s face and head, as well as his desperate fear of just being in my home, I knew this wasn’t for me. All this coupled with the events I have previously described has shaken my confidence to the point where I do not think I can continue to portray that around Maj/Willow. I worry about getting that ‘notice/order’ from the county. I worry about not being able to control her in a dog park. I worry about even walking into a pet store.
Maj/Willow is a beautiful wonderful dog, but she has to be the one charge. What I saw yesterday shows that she will not ever be submissive to any dog and will fight to the point of serious injury to prove that. Having a dog that hurts other dogs and/or people is not something I am equipped to handle. I am not experienced in such things and, quite frankly, not something my conscious can handle.
She would be much better home in a home with someone who is more capable with aggressive dogs than I am. Yes, she is a lover and, for the most part, a great dog. But she still requires patience and a more confident hand than I can ever muster. I very much thought I could do this, but after yesterday, I feel like this is shattered – which is something she will be able to pick up on.
You told me once that if you loved something you should set if free… I feel the same. You also said that if I am unable to care for her, you want to know. Well, this is me telling you that I am not able to do so any longer. Believe me when I tell you that it pains me to admit this. Quite frankly, I never thought I would ever being saying these things. But after yesterday, I know I am over my head and it has taken a great deal of soul-searching to admit so.
Maj/Willow is not a dog I personally think I can handle any longer. You asked that if I didn’t think she was for me then I tell you first. This is me doing so. She obviously loves you very much and I think she would be very happy to be back in your home until she can be placed in a better home than I can provide.
When Willow was dropped off, I had to promise that if ever I changed my mind about having Willow in my home I would call the fosters first. They would take her back if needed. But the reply to my above email was a reversal of this want. They simply can’t handle a three-dog home any more and I don’t blame them.
For now, the future is uncertain. I am torn between wanting to keep Willow in my home and letting her go before we get more attached to each other. There are options for the former. We could go to trainers or behaviorists. I could enroll in classes or try further training. The problem is that I don’t know if I have it in me – the motivation, the confidence, and the wherewithal that Willow needs. Everything I have been reading online suggests that I’m not being the ‘pack leader’ she needs and her aggressive and acting out is a result of that. This further compounds my beliefs that I have failed and my earlier convictions have been shown to be false making me to be a fraud. It is a very bad loop I am caught in. A dog like this needs a strong, self-assured owner to be able to handle any kind of issue and without, the dog will continue to act out. I simply do not feel I am capable of that anymore.
My guilt I feel is probably the worst. As a friend said, “She isn’t just a toy that you can return.” I know this very well. I didn’t want to be that adopter who cuts and runs at the first accident on the carpet or chewed up shoe. But I am turning into that person and I deserve to feel this badly for giving up, just as my friend pointed out. The idea of having a dog in my life was to bring joy, comfort, and having a life less lonely. Right now, it is having the complete opposite result.