Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Story Of Jesse, My First German Shepherd. Part The Last

The day after that shameful exam, I signed us up for basic obedience again. And at the end of that course, we passed the test.

But Jesse was becoming harder and harder to handle at the vet's, where he went for his weekly shots. The techs were plainly afraid of him. When I walked him in town he didn't like men anywhere near me, and let them know it. When the mailman put the mail through the slot in our front door, Jesse attacked it. There was something about him that didn't feel quite right to me, so I kept signing up for more advanced obedience classes, figuring that this was the only way to keep him under control.

I also took him running—I was running 25 miles a week at that time—assuming that a tired dog is less likely to get into trouble. We used to get a lot of comments, Jesse and I, on those runs. They came invariably from men, and every last one of them went something like, “Ain't nobody gonna bother you, lady, with that dog alongside....”

At home he periodically would do amazing things. One time, the girls and I were sorting through their outgrown toys to give to charity at Christmas. In the middle of the attic we made a huge pile of magnetic alphabet boards, a Fisher-Price farm, a little cart you could ride on, a stack of Dr. Seuss books...all the detritus of a 1970s childhood.

Jesse came clicking up the stairs, took one look, and clicked back down. Two minutes later he was back with his nylabone, which he dropped on the pile of toys. He left, and while the girls and I stared at each other open-mouthed we heard him coming up again, this time with his ball, which he also put on the pile.

That was when we started saying that inside Jesse's head was a slightly retarded human, who sadly had never learned to speak.

But the good times did not last.

One afternoon I came home from the College to find my daughters looking shaken. (By then we had left our house in the country and moved to the center of the small town where I worked.) A friend of the girls had been visiting after school and left the front door open as he went home.

Jesse had rushed out, crossed the street, and jumped on an older woman who was walking by with her husband. He latched onto her arm and tore her coat—though thankfully not her arm—before passers-by pulled him off her.

The woman and her husband, who lived in the neighborhood, were terrified. The first thing I did was to get their version of the story, and write a check for the coat. Then I sat down, put my head in my hands, and tried to think.

An older couple out for an afternoon stroll were surely the least threatening of strangers. Most importantly, they had not been anywhere near our house or yard, but across the street and in front of the Court House, where dozens of people walked every day.

Our front door opened directly onto the sidewalk. If insecurely latched, it could be pulled open by a child. What if the woman Jesse had attacked had been a toddler—would we have a major mangling, even a death, on our hands?

The unprovoked nature of the attack, and the thought of a child as possible victim forced me to conclude that the only responsible action was to have Jesse euthanized.

“Euthanasia”: good death. True indeed for those in pain or so weakened by age that life holds no joy or pleasure. But for our Jesse, five years old, full of vigor, affection and smarts? How could I live with the decision to put him down?

But then, how could I live with myself if he, out of the blue--despite the two years of obedience classes, the exercise, the vet care—seriously damaged a child?

That night Alison, the one Jesse had so unmercifully herded when she was little, took him for a last long walk around the neighborhood. I let her go. I knew she would be safe with him.

The next morning I made an appointment with the vet, and asked my husband to go with me. The only way I could deal with what was happening was to shut down emotionally. We walked Jesse into the clinic and told the vet what had happened, and our decision. He did not argue, and asked if we wanted to be there while he gave the injection. I said...no.

Over the years, I have had several dogs and cats euthanized for health reasons. I have always held them and comforted them until the last sigh, and the final closing of the eyes. But with Jesse—my smart, beautiful, prime-of-life Jesse—I couldn't do it.

We left him there and went to our offices, and the girls went to school, and life went on.

But oh, Jesse, what a mark you left on us, and how sadly we remember you.

8 comments :

  1. Sounds like it pains you just telling the story.

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  2. My family was the cause of a dog being euthanized for similar reasons--a cocker spaniel who bit my sister on the face after having bit another child a few months before. Perfectly sweet wonderful little dog, unless a toddler was there.

    It seems like such a terrible waste, a terrible thing to do. But I think my sister and her 77 stitches would agree with your decision.

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  3. Dona, yes, it's the kind of thing you don't get over.

    Bridgett, your poor sister! Thanks for telling me this story. I've always thought I did the right thing with Jesse. But I do wonder what I might have done BEFORE the attack. Two things I know now I didn't know then: I should have picked the breeder more carefully, and I shouldn't have taken the biggest, boldest puppy in the litter.

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  4. How heartbreaking. I can't imagine what a difficult decision it must have been. I admire your courage and strength in doing what was right despite how much pain it must have caused you and your family.

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  5. Thanks, Joya. It WAS hard. Took me 25 years to write about it.

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  6. oh man. that brings tears to my eyes. it's so sad, and ai gree that you had no choice, but i don't know if i would have been strong enough to make that decision. my former boss had to do the same thing, after his beloved dog attacked someone. he cried when he told me.

    i presume you've read Jon Katz's "a good dog"? (he's probably your neighbor.)

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  7. The only way I could bring myself to do it was to imagine a child without a face....

    Yes, JK is a neighbor, and I've read his book. His dog was a lot smaller than mine, and I know people who disagree with his decision, because of various factors.

    I would never pass judgment in a case like this. There are some things for which there are no right answers. We just have to do what we think is best, and suffer either way.

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