Not Quite Ready, or F*ck You, Rainbow Bridge

All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.

Havelock Ellis


For some reason I keep thinking that Sparta and Orion are going to live forever.  It’s so stupid, but because it feels as if they’ve always been there, that they’ll always be there.  It’s not like this is my first rodeo, either.  Darwin was a Lab, T-rex mix that I got when I was about 19.  I had him for roughly 12 years before I had to say goodbye to him.  He was very old (he was full grown when I got him), his arthritis was no longer manageable with meds, and we all knew it was time past time to say goodbye.  My childhood dog, Pebbles, a Border Collie mix, was with my family from the time we got her when I was 4 until she left us 16 years later. But just because you’ve done something before doesn’t mean you’re good at it.

Last week I trained with a wonderful dog by the name of Tank.  He is an amazing example of what an Akita can be when given proper exercise and a wonderful home.   Tank is a certified therapy dog. (Hint: Google “Akita disposition” and you’ll see why this is quite the feat.)  Yet I was actually called to Tank’s home to work with his new foster-brother, Red, a deaf, half-blind Chow with some neurological issues to boot.  I’m happy to say that Red is well on his way to feeling safe and comfortable in his new home.

I usually get a pic of the dogs I work with, just for myself.  I’d say only 1/4 of all the pics I take are ever posted.  I happened to get a picture of Tank in all his majestic Akita-ness, but it was dark, fuzzy, and not a wonderful picture.  I didn’t think anything of it, because I knew that Boots and Bee Photography (who does all the pics for the Darwin Dog’s blog) was going to be out in a few days to get pictures, and I figured I’d have plenty of professional pictures of handsome Tank.

Yesterday I got an email.  Tank’s owners had noticed that he was acting a little tired over the past few days.  They mentioned that they were taking him to the vet the following day.  Tank was immediately taken into intensive care.  His diagnosis: leukemia. His prognosis? 3-6 months.  His owners are hoping he can make it to his next birthday.  As Tank’s mom wrote:

“Remember when I complained about how he won’t go to the bathroom in the yard and I get cold walking him in the winter?  Well, I’d like to take it all back!

I originally read your post about 676 weekends back in April.  Even then, I really took to heart your message and we’ve always tried to make the most of our time with Tank, knowing that as a large breed dog, we really weren’t going to get probably much more than 10 years with him.  I read it again today (it took a while because I kept starting to cry).  If he makes it to his 3rdbirthday in December, that means we’ll have had roughly 150 weekends with him. It doesn’t seem like enough and I feel like I’m being cheated out of hundreds of weekends we should get with him.  Nonetheless, we still have for today.  We are putting together a doggy bucket list for him so hopefully we can have some adventures before it’s too late.”

There’s so much that I love about those words.  These are owners who didn’t realize the value of their dog once they had an end-time in sight; these are owners who always knew each day was precious, even when he was a pup.  They understand that they still have a dog (for now), and are being given a chance to slowly say good-bye.  They will make the most of their time together, and that’s what counts.

So yeah, maybe some people have all 676 weekends with their dogs, but only use a fraction of those weekends.  Most are too busy.  Some only see their dog as a burden, just another thing I have to take care of. And then there are those owners like Tank’s, who know that nothing is permanent, and that being given a diagnosis changes nothing. You’re born.  You die.   All that matters is what you did between those two points.  How did you use that time.

I’d also like to say one more thing.  Fuck you, Rainbow Bridge.  You may be the end destination, but I will never take my dogs to you in a funeral procession style.  I will bring my dogs to you with their bucket lists in my hand.  We will laugh at the times we had together, the stupid things they did.  The stupid things I did.  They will be exhausted from living life to the fullest, having been loved and cherished the entire time.  They will go out in a fanfare, starting at the time they become mine, we will chip away at our bucket lists, because we never know how soon that Rainbow Bridge will turn up on a horizon.  Sometimes you can see it in the distance, and sometimes it sneaks up on you.  But one thing is for certain: my dogs won’t be crossing that bridge alone, because they will be taking huge part of me with them, just as part of them will be with me forever.

Tank, the Wonder Akita.

Tank, the Wonder Akita.

This post was originally written on Tuesday, Sept. 29th.  Prior to the posting, I contacted Tank’s owners for permission to utilize the message they conveyed to me in their email.  Their response broke my heart:

“That is fine. We just actually left the vet, he is in peace now.  We piloted him to the end. I just hope he knows how much we loved him.”

Tank,  you will always be the standard to which I compare any other Akita.


A few weeks after posting this article back in September, Red crossed the Rainbow Bridge to join his foster brother.  While this wasn’t quite the shock that Tank’s passing was due to Red’s many health issues, it was still a huge blow.  I’m happy to post this pic of Hulk, the new puppy who has come to help fill the void that losing Red and Tank left in their passing. While no dog can ever replace the memory of a beloved pet, Hulk is sure to bring much fun and laughter into a great household.  But don’t take my word for it… take a look at Hulk yourself.

All that sass...

All that sass…

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland Ohio

In The End – Saying Goodbye

Pleasure and action make the hours seem short.
-William Shakespeare

Ben’s owners called me to help with some food reactivity.  They were both desperate, a young couple about to be married.  Sam had adopted Ben as a young dog, and brought him into the relationship.  Susie accepted Ben as her own, and did her best to help care for him.  He’d been in their house about two weeks when things started to change.

He started resource guarding.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with resource guarding, or in this case, food reactivity, it is a very difficult thing.  A very scary thing.  You never know when your dog will react.  In Ben’s case, he was extremely unpredictable.  He had bitten at least 4 people that I know of, not including Susie, who he had actually punctured though her finger with his teeth.  A couple of his victims had actually been seasoned dog professionals. At least on one occasion, he had guarded his own vomit in an effort to make sure nobody else could get at it.  It was an extreme case to say the least.

Susie was distraught, as was Sam.  The difference was, Sam was a little bit more confident around Ben, which made Ben a little less reactive around Sam.  Oh, Sam had still gotten bitten (fairly regularly), but the focal point of Ben’s ferocity was directed at Susie.  Susie happened to have a very nurturing demeanor about her.  Tall, beautiful, and looking just as at home in a Titian painting as she would on a fashion runway, she had a proclivity towards being a caretaker.  Sam wasn’t too far behind her.  They were perhaps the most emotionally healthy couple I’ve ever met.  Now Susie was before me, sitting on the couch, sobbing because she was (rightfully) terrified of her own dog.

So I explained the situation to them.  I helped Susie understand that her lack of confidence around Ben was making his reactivity even worse.  I showed her how to act more confident around him while still maintaining her personal safety.  I had her walk him on a leash, guiding her at first, until she became more comfortable.  I showed them both the merits of The PAW Method (Piloting, Activity and Work) as well as the three steps to working with a dog:

1) Control yourself;

2) Control the situation;

3) Answer your dog’s questions.

Most important in a situation like this was step 2: Controlling the situation.  In other words, in a stressful or high energy situation (food) the worst thing you can do is add more stimulation.  Calm was mandatory, and if the dog wasn’t calm (i.e., lunging at you and snapping), one must go against their nature and remain calm.

It's okay to fake calm.  Just make sure you win the Academy Award for best actor.

It’s okay to fake calm. Just make sure you win the Academy Award for best actor.

I walked them step by step, how to react when Ben was attacking.  I put food on the floor, far from Ben, and immediately Ben lunged and snarled, trying to attack me.  I showed them how to maintain control, as outlined here, and most importantly, remain safe.  Susie seemed to relax more and more.

But Susie was never quite comfortable, and who could blame her.  Sam and Susie asked me how long it would take to cure him of this behavior.  I gave them the brutal truth.

“Never.  You will never cure him of this behavior.  It’s like asthma…you don’t cure it, you manage it.  And just like asthma, sometimes you take all the precautions in the world, and you still have a flair-up.  This is about managing the situation, not curing it.”

They both looked crestfallen.  They admitted to me that they were going through training as not even a last-ditch effort, but more as a way to bring into light the truth they already knew: Ben wasn’t safe. Ben was downright dangerous.

They asked what I thought about rehoming a dog like this.  I gave them my honest opinion, that it’s akin to lighting the fuse on a stick of dynamite and passing it around like a game of Hot Potato.  You never knew when that fuse would run out.  Human safety must come first.  I wasn’t ready to give up yet, though. I offered a compromise.

“Keep him.  Work with him.  Remain safe, but you two are young, and you’re most likely thinking of children.  Just promise me that if you ever get pregnant, you need to take Ben to the Rainbow Bridge.  Don’t rehome him, because you know one day you’ll see a child with a scarred up face and wonder if his family adopted Ben and he did that.  Because you’ve seen the damage Ben can inflict.”

Both Sam and Susie started tearing up.  We finished up the session, and I saw Susie going from being terrified of the dog to slowly…very slowly, building up more confidence.  She would never feel safe without Ben on a leash, even in the house, and she was right not to.  She would never trust him if she accidentally dropped food on the floor, and she was wise to trust her instincts.  In other words, she would be relegating herself to the role of wary victim the rest of her time with him, because, while her self confidence was improving, and her recourse of action in these situations were being spelled out, she could never trust her own dog.

As I was leaving, I asked Sam and Susie to keep me updated on his progress, and to call me immediately with any questions.  Sam got quiet, and Susie turned away.

“We already made the decision”, Sam said. “We’re taking Ben to be put down tonight.”

I was floored.  It was so in-my-face.  I know not every family can have a happily ever after, but this family!  Susie worked so hard.  I have never seen someone struggle to overcome their fear so desperately, and finally succeed.  She was the ultimate Pilot!  She mentally gave her all to Ben, steeling herself even when she was scared!  How could they give up so quickly?!

But those thoughts quickly fled as I realized what that would be relegating her life to:  constantly being vigilant.  Constantly Piloting, lest she be attacked and injured.  I was still amazed by their decision, but immediately (somehow) respected them even more that they came to it. They both loved the dog (it was obvious).  Both wanted the happily ever after, but they both knew it could not be safely attained.

“That is the best example of Piloting I’ve ever seen, ” I told them.  I hated their decision, but realized there really wasn’t a safer option.  After all, what if Ben were human and treating Susie like that?  I asked her that very question.  She chuckled, because she said Sam had essentially asked her the same thing.

“I’d do with any victim of domestic violence would do….I’d try to change to make him happy so I’d be safe.”  And that was what her life would become with Ben. That’s why the decision had to be made.

So I left them, amazed by their ability to do the difficult thing. Both were faking that they were okay, but both were inwardly grieving already.

Sam found Ben in an animal shelter as a young dog.  Sam rescued him, and took care of him.  Fed him, walked him, played with him, and loved him, until it was no longer safe to do so.  He gave Ben the best one and a half years that any dog could wish for.  He didn’t merely extend his life, prolonging the inevitable, while Ben languished in some wretched state of limbo in a shelter or kennel.  He enhanced his life for that time.  But humans come first, no matter what, and Ben’s behavior was amazingly severe.

Ben died that night.  Surrounded by those who (tried their hardest) to love him.  I received a very tearful voicemail the next day from Sam, thanking me for what I had done for them, and helping them to see clearly the nature of what they were up against.

There are those of you who will be angry regarding this outcome. Who believe that under no circumstances should a dog ever be put down due to behavior, even aggressive dogs who have severely injured people before.  But whose circumstances are those?  Not theirs to live in.  Yes, perhaps they can claim that they’ve “been there” and never gave up on their dog  And they have the wounds and scars to prove it.  I applaud them…I truly do!  But no two situations are exactly alike.  I’ve worked with many people who have resource guarding dogs, like Lisbon and her owner, and most of them are able to understand the severity of the issue, and yet are still able to take on the challenge responsibly, and live with their dogs in a safe, Piloted atmosphere.  However, each situation is different, and each human is different.  It was time to say goodbye to Ben.  Was he a bad dog?  Absolutely not!  He wasn’t a safe dog, and that’s what made their decision so difficult.

Dogs work in mysterious ways, though.  One can imagine the scenario as they were saying goodbye to their pet.  Crying, the dog softly licking them, as if to say, “It’s all right, I’ll be okay. We all did the best we could”, and then Ben quietly slipping off to run along the Rainbow Bridge.

Only our pets don’t work like that.  Sometimes they don’t give us what we want, but what we need.

Ben bit the vet.  Badly.  Part of me thinks it’s because that helped to drive the reality of the situation home for poor Susie and Sam.  Perhaps he was trying to help them to help him across the Bridge, because that’s how dogs work.  Giving until the very end.

I needed a drink after writing this post. Or two.  It was an incredibly painful ending, especially with two people as wonderful as Sam and Susie.  Pilots to the end.

 - For Ben


Keep calm and pilot onKerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio