A few years ago my husband and I tried to rescue a dog, a short-legged long-bodied lil’ tough guy with the face of a lab and the broad chest of a bully breed. He’d made his way to Chicago by way of kill shelter in Alabama and somewhere en route the name on his papers changed from Studley to Study. Stupidly, we brought our then three-year-old to the rescue to meet him and she fell in love.
We brought Study home knowing he had separation anxiety and having a sense that it could be pretty bad but committed to doing whatever it took to welcome him into our family. The first time we left him home, for maybe an hour tops, he tore the doorframe to shreds he was so scared. We hired the best trainer in Chicagoland who gave us a system she all but guaranteed would cure him. The only problem was that we couldn’t leave Study home alone for even one minute a day until he was ready, a point that could be weeks or even months away.
We worked the separation anxiety protocols for months, eventually building up to being able to leave him for 45 minutes, at least during the training sessions. During the months leading up to that point we stayed home. My husband and I took turns leaving the house to run errands or get some exercise. I took our daughter to church alone on Sunday mornings and ducked out of services early to be home in time for my husband to get to the last gym class of the day. While I was at work, my husband had to drive our daughter to her preschool, only half a mile away, because Study had to come with them. Because the preschool required parents to drop their kids off in the classroom, they couldn’t walk. The only option was to leave Study barking his head off in the car for five minutes and hope he didn’t hurt himself. For five months, except for walks with the dog, we only left the house as a family a handful of times, to celebrate my husband’s birthday or take our annual trip downtown for the Christmas market, each time dropping Study off at doggie daycare at $35 a pop. We didn’t mind spending the money. What we couldn’t handle was spending the day sick with worry that Study was scared or anxious or otherwise not okay when he was out of our sight. We stopped taking him when he threw up hard black plastic and we discovered that the daycare had been crating him during “nap time” against our instructions. Study had resorted to trying to eat his way out through the tray at the bottom of the kennel.
The same week that Study graduated to 45 minutes at home alone without panicking, Study bit someone, a friend visiting from out of town. The next day, Study bit him again. Study had been uneasy with people in our house since the beginning, sometimes barking from beginning to end of a visit from a friend, a babysitter, or even the trainer. Because of the separation anxiety, we couldn’t put him upstairs or downstairs or in a other room. So, we stopped inviting people over. Study had also begun lunging at dogs and people, snarling and barking, when we took him outside, so except for solitary walks, we’d stopped taking him out to parks and other public places.
After the bite, we called the trainer and shifted gears from separation anxiety to fear-based aggression. The trainer gave us more protocols, but no promises that they would work. We would need to acclimate Study to our friends and family over six to twelve carefully-controlled sessions each. We practiced with a few friends, but couldn’t figure out how it would work with our families and many friends who live out of state and visit not infrequently, or how we could safely allow other kids, our neighbors and our daughter’s friends into our house.
As hard as the last five months had been, we loved Study. He was part of our family. We spent our days training and playing and walking with him. At night we cuddled him on the couch. Our daughter adored him and he adored her. We knew he would never harm a hair on the head of any of the three of us. We loved him so much that we seriously considered how we could make it work: a life in which we could not leave the house and in which nobody else could come in. Eventually, we realized, that was hardly a life at all, and not fair or what we wanted for our daughter. With broken hearts, we gave Study back to the shelter, and prayed that he would be okay. In what was surely the best possible turn of events, the family that had fostered Study before he came to us–a young couple with no kids and with another dog to keep Study company–offered to take him back. Not too long after that, they adopted him. We failed to rescue Study, but he found his forever family anyway.
Three years later, everybody who didn’t already have a dog is fostering or adopting a fluffy puppy or an adorable mutt and we are–to our dog-obsessed daughter’s chagrin–still without any pets at all. It is not lost on us that Study would have been the perfect quarantine pet. Indeed, here we are, living a life in which we do not leave the house and in which nobody else comes in. It is not fair or what we wanted for our daughter. Still, I can see that our initial assessment–that such a life would hardly be worth living–was wrong. Our new life may be being lived out in close quarters with little family, but it is not small, and it is not time wasted. Those five months at home with Study built us, made us solid. We worked together to solve a problem, to weather a hard time, to make an impossible decision, and to move through grief. These next five or ten or twenty or however many months at home with each other will see us growing still, already a forever family.