Tuesday, September 28, 2010

About Lily: A Difficult Decision

During the past few days I spent my 15 minute writing period discussing Lily, her behavior problems, how they have intensified over the past 6 months, and the difficult decisions that must be made about this situation. Dr. Nichol was, in the end, very frank about the stark choice that we face. He was quite clear that if we decide to keep Lily in the household, we would never be able to let our guard down regarding her for the rest of her life, even if we use medications and behavior modification, spending thousands--primarily on the training--she will remain untrustworthy. The only option to removing her from our household is euthanasia. Or as we used to say in those days when the Engineering Geek and I were growing up, putting the dog down. And the decision remains ours. He did not tell us what to do.

From the outside it looks like an easy decision: the dog is displaying more and more fear-based aggression, and the target is generally Shayna, the low dog on the totem pole, the dog who is generally quiet and shy. The obvious thing to do is to put the difficult dog down and to let the shy and quiet dog blossom. Except. . . except that such black and white pictures of the two different canine temperaments happens only in mediocre novels and B-movies.

Although Lily has indeed been showing more and more incidents of aggression towards Shayna, she is still a sweet and obedient dog with us, and is a pleasure to have around most of the time. Since consulting our very capable trainer, Casey, we have instituted a program of home training and she not only has learned to sit, stay, and down-stay, but she is beginning to come when she is called. She is affectionate, and she enjoys Umbrae's company much of the day in the dog run without incident. All of this makes it very difficult to contemplate putting a healthy dog down.

And Shayna's shyness is not all sweetness and light. It has the dark side of fear to it. Shayna will snap if she is cornered by a person, especially a large male person. She never makes contact, and the snarl and snap are a warning: "Look at these teeth and leave me alone!" If she is not cornered, her MO is to run to her "office" (her crate) and hide. She is very reactive to loud noises--pots and pans banging, a door slamming in the wind--and she is absolutely melded to her routine. Although all dogs are creatures of routine, Shayna gets physically ill when it is changed. Shayna can be said to be on sensory overload a good deal of the time, and she manages her anxiety with routine. She, too, will likely need a course of anti-anxiety medications and has already begun training--the beginning of her behavior modification.

By now, the gentle reader may be wondering why it is Lily's behavior and not Shayna's that has created the need for the decision that we are about to make. The difference lies in the nature of the behavior problem. Although both dogs are reactive, Lily's reaction consists of an all-out attack. Further, she has not only attacked and physically injured dogs, she goes after strangers and has come close to injuring people. And that is a line that cannot be allowed to be crossed. Although during the current escalation of aggression, Lily has only attacked other dogs, this must not be construed to mean that it will always be so. Lily cannot be trusted with other people. Ever.

It is also a grave concern that Lily attacked and injured Shayna in the dog run, when we were not there. Usually dogs do not fight when alone. When they fight--which is more common among females*--they tend to fight over resources. Food. The dog bed. Attention. And a person can generally end the fight by walking away. That she attacked when we were not there is very abnormal behavior and is impossible to predict or prevent except by keeping the two dogs completely separate. Forever.

*Female-upon-female fighting is very common. Male-upon-male is a distant second. And male-upon-female almost never happens. Had I known this, the make-up of the canine side of the household would have been different.

These are the reasons that the decision must be made about Lily and not about Shayna.

As is true with most difficult decisions, this one has moral implications. It is generally the moral import of a decision that makes it difficult. Choices that are about pure preference are seldom difficult. We go with what we like. Chocolate or vanilla? Cake or pie? There is no moral dimension to such a decision, as as human beings become practiced choosing our preferences, we make such choices without much thought.

But a decision that involves life and death, even that of an animal, has a moral dimension. It is not the same moral dimension as such a decision about a human being. That is entirely separate. Animals--even animals as sophisticated in social structure and the ability to make decisions as a dog is--are not moral souls. They do not make a conscious choice between good and evil, right and wrong. Rather they make decisions based more on instinct, and are hard-wired to act in favor of survival. And an animal is not conscious of its own death in the future. Dogs, like most other mammals live in the moment. (Dogs are aware of the difference between a living animal and a dead one, but they do not generalize it). That consciousness of impending death is what makes the human a moral being; the myth of the tree in the garden is a story about becoming conscious of mortality and thereby acquiring the need for morality.

Because she is a dog, Lily will not be aware of her impending death--should that be our decision--even when we go to put her down. We will make sure that her passing is unanticipated and painless. A walk in the meadow. A ride in the car. Going out to the garden at the Vet. That is all she will know until she knows no more.

But we are aware of it. And so the factors of our decision include important questions. When is it proper to destroy the life of an animal? Is it ever proper to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars on uncertain treatments for a dog, when a limited amount of discretionary wealth inevitably means that humans in the family will have to choose to do without certain wants, and even needs?

What about Lily? Is she ever really relaxed? Does her anxiety overwhelm the good life for her? What does it do to her brain to go repeatedly into that out-of-control place?

And, of very great importance, what about the threat of pain and suffering to another human being that Lily poses? As much as we'd like to believe that we can keep Lily from encountering another person and harming him or her, there is always chance. Dogs escape. In the confusion of comings and goings, they see the open door and the beckoning world and out they go. Lily was on a leash and slipped her collar and ran toward the neighbor dogs that she bit; they were minding their own business on their own property. She could do the same to a human being should she go into that "red zone" and get loose.

In my moral calculus, a human being's welfare is more important than the life of a dog--even a dog I love. This is so because I am obligated to respect the rights of another person, and also because I can only imagine the pain and fear caused to another person who is attacked by a dog. A dog for whom I am responsible, and whom I cannot cure.

And of course, every attack by a dog on a person creates problems for neighbors, dogs and dog-owners everywhere. Whole breeds of dogs are collectively held responsible for the irresponsible behavior of a dog owner who willfully or inattentively lets a dog harm a person. Dog owners find their lives more and more restricted, no matter how responsible they are and how good their dogs are. It tears the social fabric, making for strife between neighbors, anger and fear, and inevitably guilt and shame for the responsible dog owner. Can I keep a dog that is clearly becoming more aggressive, one that I have been warned can never be trusted, and take the risk of creating such chaos?

These are the questions that must be answered. The nature of the questions themselves predict for me the inevitible conclusion. A little time must be taken in order that every human being in the household has the opportunity to ask these questions and prepare themselves for the consequences of the decision that must be made.

A little time. But not so much time that a decision is never made. Not so much that the decision is taken out of our hands by events. A mensch--a real human being--does not let events determine her morality. This idea has been a long time coming to me, even though it seems so simple. I was raised in chaos. I did not learn until late that what I do matters. It has an effect upon the world. In fact, the home(s) or origin for both our problem dogs probably mirrored mine in that important way. But I am a human being and I can learn to be a mensch, and I am obligated to make decisions based upon my ability to think about the future and to make conscious choices. And so, too, with the other humans in the house.

This is not an easy decision. But then, life was not meant to be easy. Life was meant to be life. And it is in the wholeness of life and in the nature of a human being to make such decisions.


Brianna said...

The nice thing about math is that there are no emotions attached. The decision you're going to make is equally inexorable, according to principles just as inflexible... but it isn't emotionally neutral.

Retriever said...

Oh Elisheva, how heartbreaking for you and your family! But you are making the right decision. I will be thinking of you. So hard to have to take this step.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Brianna, so true! And that is why I am often grateful for my twice-a-week Stats class, where I am focused on inflexible principles that are more of a puzzle than an emotional maze.

Retriever: Thanks for your sympathy. I appreciate it very much.

Chuck said...

The decision you have made or will make is no easy one for sure. But for now we were put in "charge" for a reason, Whether the right reason we can never know and while it may seem screwy, I have so far managed to grieve more over the loss of my dogs than I have friends and other loved ones. And, I mean great, heaving sobs and crying jags which have lasted for weeks and maybe months. I have two dogs now and they may outlive me. I trust they will grieve for me, but I hope not for long.

I wish I could tell you it will be fine, but I can only tell you it will be dam- difficult. You will or have made the right decision.

Rest assured.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Thanks, Chuck. You know, I was down and sad for months after we lost Zoey to cancer. Great, wracking sobs, and all. Months. And I still have moments of memory and tearing up after 18 months. She died around the time other changes were happening in the family as well, and the whole time is colored by her death in some way or another.

This is not an easy decision to make, and I know the consequences of the decision will be ones that we all live with for a very long time.

Karen said...

I hope that my writing did not lead you to think that I thought there was a clear cut path. On the contrary, I understand all to well the factors that must be weighed. I wish it were different, but commend you for you deep consideration of the problem.