Time to Say “Goodbye”

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

“Remember me and smile, for it’s better to forget than to remember me and cry.”
― Dr. Seuss

All dogs can be rehabilitated.  I have never come across a dog that with the right mix of Piloting, Activity and Work, couldn’t be transformed into a dog who could properly bond with their human.

Unfortunately, sometimes the proper amount of Piloting is well-beyond what any human can reasonably be expected to give.  But that sure doesn’t stop them from giving.  At what point is it okay to say, “I can’t do this any more”?

Take, for instance, Sparta.  She is a wonderful dog, and I love her very much.  However, the amount of Piloting she requires is astronomical.  She is very dog aggressive, combined with a very fierce tendency to guard her “flock”.  Of course that doesn’t make her a bad dog….there is no such thing as a bad dog.  Unfortunately, though, that makes it very difficult for her to live in a human world without a monumental amount of Piloting.  I will never be able to be off-guard when taking her for a walk. I will never be able to have a friend of the family let themselves in our house.  Luckily, this is what I do for a living!  Piloting her is (relatively) easy for me because I have been doing this with dogs for over two decades.

But there is a promise between me and my family:  if I ever die, Sparta will be euthanized. Not because I don’t love her, but because I love her so much.  Nobody else in my house can safely walk her.  Nobody else in my house is as obsessed with Piloting her as me, and without a Pilot, Sparta is terrified.  Her terror then turns to aggression.  I answer every one  of her questions, no matter how many times she asks it, because I know that if she were to try to answer her own question (“Is this person a threat?”), the results would be disastrous, and would most likely involve severe injury to another dog or even a human.

Sparta is not a bad dog. She’s actually a great dog. Unfortunately, she is a horrible human.    No, she wasn’t abused, and nothing happened to make her this way.  It’s just who she is, and I love her for who she is.  The dog I have.  Not that dog think I should have.  

Huffington Post recently published an article by Trish McMillan Loehr about such issues, only in the reverse. A dog who had a horrible life, but was able to work into a family situation, quite well actually.     Lines that reverberated with me:

Ask any behaviorist what’s more important — nature or nurture — and they’ll answer “both.” Some dogs can be raised by the book, socialized to everything, and still become dangerously aggressive.

So please, pit bull lovers, stop saying “it’s all how they’re raised.” I know you mean well. But if you truly believe your words, no fight bust dog would ever be able to be adopted. And just look at the success of Michael Vick’s former fighting dogs.


If you truly believe “it’s all how they’re raised,” no stray shelter dog or abused dog would be safe to place in a home. I’ve worked with many animal victims of abuse — some have issues, it’s true — but many of them are just as resilient as Theodore.


Occasionally, an idyllic puppyhood still results in a dangerously aggressive adult dog. I’ve met those, too. And most dogs fall somewhere in between these extremes. Environment counts, but so do genes. Ultimately, all dogs are individuals, and that’s where we need to meet them.

“So just train it out of her”, some may say.  Training is different than Piloting.  Training involves a set of responses that are cued by a set of circumstances.  For example, when I say “sit”, Sparta sits.  The word triggers the action. Piloting involves questions.  You can’t always train questions.  Remember, you can’t train a dog, especially a naturally protective one, to accept every single other dog as part of their pack.  But what you can do is Pilot them, and answer their questions about this dog or that dog.  In other words, it isn’t all encompassing.  In human standards, it would be the same as my training you to trust all humans merely because they are human.  The thought is silly, and quite contrary to the interest of self-preservation.

Sparta was trained to hold random objects.  She was Piloted through her questions on how to do it.

Sparta was trained to hold random objects. She was Piloted through her questions on how to do it.

Usually, the more you Pilot a dog, the less you have to Pilot a dog.  Sparta and I have passed a great many dogs on our walks without incident because I have always answered her questions about them.  Sometimes it is literally just a tap on the leash with my ring finger (“No, we aren’t hunting that squirrel”) to “shutting the door” on her.  The very act of answering a question makes her more in tune with me.  She naturally starts to look at me, rather than that other dog she’s just spotted, to gauge my reaction.  I look bored, so she figures it’s not a big deal.  Again, sometimes that’s not enough of an answer for her, so I have to use more Piloting.

Sparta is a dog, and her reactions to other dogs and other humans (read: non-pack) is well within normal and healthy for a typical canid.  Just as all humans don’t exhibit the same amount of sociability, neither do dogs.  The difference between humans and dogs in this instance is that humans are living in a human world, one that we understand.  We know that the man coming to our door isn’t going to kill us… he’s merely delivering the mail.

Not every dog lives with someone who is willing Pilot them so readily.  Most dogs haven’t been abused or taught to react this way.  There was no trigger for them to start asking so many questions, with such dangerous results if they answer the questions themselves.  So at what point is it okay to say “goodbye”?  That’s the question I started off with.

When is it okay to put a healthy dog down due to the level of questions being asked, and the intensity with which they answer their own questions?  I firmly believe the humans come first.  The concept of euthanizing an otherwise healthy dog is always tragic, but sometimes necessary.  Rehoming is not always an option.  That’s like handing over a lit stick of dynomite to someone without warning them what happens when the fuse runs out.  That isn’t solving the problem, it’s shifting responsibility.  The dog typically still ends up asking a question that isn’t answered, and it ends badly.  Sometimes the end result involves a child.

Yes, it feels good to save these types of dogs, be can’t, and shouldn’t, save them all.  There aren’t enough facilities for the “low-key” dogs.  The ones whose toughest questions are “Can I play with that?” or “Can we go for a walk?”.  These dogs are being put down.  If these dogs can’t find a home, why would someone take such a risk as to try to rehome a dog who is known to be aggressive?  Again, that is merely shifting responsibility.  The problem is that we want to save them all. The result is we can’t.  It’s like trying to shove ten pounds of gold in a five pound bag.  There just isn’t room.

Some people will get judgemental about this post.  Saying that you never give up on a animal.  That they never gave up on their animal. Ah…if only everyone could be in the same situation they are, able to never give up on their animals.  But we all aren’t.  Sometimes there are young children in the house.  Sometimes someone becomes ill or infirm.  Sometimes that beautiful, adorable puppy grows up and has severe guarding issues. Sometimes thing just can’t safely work out.  Again, this isn’t about giving up.  This is about knowing when it’s time to say a necessary “goodbye”.

This post is to a dear friend, “M”, who today will be saying goodbye.  She is a true Pilot, and a wonderful human being.  Please share your support for the difficult, painful decision she has had to make today.  Thank you, M, for your dedication to your dog. Just because the ending isn’t how you expected it to be doesn’t mean you didn’t see it through to to the end.

My girl Sparta.  I will love you forever.  I love you enough to never leave you without a Pilot.

My girl Sparta. I will love you forever. I love you enough to never leave you without a Pilot.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs LLC
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

7 thoughts on “Time to Say “Goodbye”

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  2. Thank you! When my brother died, along with his three adult children, he left a 9-year old, 90 pound lab-shepherd mix who was, what I describe as: Uber alpha. Bailey was a wonderful dog until another dog was on her radar. Her “sibs” were not able to care for her so I said we would take her – I did not realize how “Alpha” she was. Our two, smaller, dogs were not doing well being left alone with Bailey while we worked. After two weeks we realized that Bailey had to go. I was able to place her with the wonderful son of friends who had two larger dogs. We were honest with them about Bailey and I really hoped they would give her to a friend of theirs who lost a dog in his divorce. I feel that would have been ideal for Bailey. Bailey did show the other dogs who was in charge now but they did not report any problems with their three daughters – one fell in love with her immediately and the two bonded. They kept Bailey until she became too ill to keep. However, I now understand why someone would specify that their dog be euthanized after the death of its human.

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  4. Thank you for writing this. I needed to see it. I needed to know that I am also supported. I support your decision for Sparta and “M’s” decision as well. You may remember Sunni. The only question she continually asked was “I’m going to kill it.” Notice it wasn’t a question. And, at some point, the human question is, “What really is the quality of a life of constant fear to the point of severe aggression?” They are beautiful, and they’re our babies. And we are brought together to Pilot them because we are the ones strong enough to bear the toughest decision of all – saying “goodbye”. Thank you for all your help…especially this article. It helped me most of all.

  5. Okay, I’m still crying. Several years ago, living in another time zone, I asked you for advice. I don’t remember your exact words buy I know you took a lot of time to try and help me. I spent many weeks, taking our beloved dog to the vet and having a professional dog trainer come to our home. Every professional gave the same advice, Ronnie need to be put down. But he was my responsibility. I too believed that every dog could be saved and “trained”. I was able to work with him but it got to a point where someone said, “He cannot think for himself. He’ll follow and do anything you want but without your constant vigilance he is a danger to all those around him.” I continued to work with him just knowing he’d “come around”. It wasn’t until I was working on the computer with my back turned to the dog and my young daughter right behind me. What exactly happened I’m not sure but I know it resulted in her being bit in the face. I finally had to concede that as a full time student and mother I could not also be responsible for this condition in a dog. Having rescued many broken and older dogs we had experience putting them to sleep due to cancer and other severe medical conditions. I can assure you nothing hurt quite so much as knowing we could not help Ronnie, nor could we safely rehome him. I want you to know that it still hurts, even as I write this, but I thank you for being so brave to write about such a controversial subject! Rest in Peace, Ronnie

  6. I re-read this post today. It was a good reminder that some dogs do need a lot more Piloting than others. We have had a lot going on this past month, between leaving the dogs home with a dog-sitter for an entire week and then a party with several strangers in and out of the house. We and our dogs (and the dog sitter, too) did well – Bandit didn’t even try to eat any of the kids. (Who knew string cheese could make children suddenly more bearable? ;-)

    But we were constantly answering his questions – and put him in his crate when we could not focus on his questions. (He loves his crate a/k/a his safe place, so this is not a bad thing for him.)

    We let some slack go (more because of exhaustion than anything), and suddenly Bandit is snapping at our other dog. We were reminded that we cannot take breaks with Bandit. If we don’t constantly do our jobs, he’ll try to do it for us .

    • Beth –

      You are a prime example of why I love the career I have chosen. You have nailed the Darwin Dog’s philosophy perfectly: do the best you can with what you have. You have truly brought Bandit to his full potential through your Piloting. Some dogs are easier than others; some require more Piloting. All are worth the effort. Thank you!


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