This is by far the hardest blog post I’ve ever had to write. That’s right… “Had to” because we can’t just blog about the wondrous world of dogs without having to also deal with the reality that sometimes, dogs don’t work out in the home they were placed in. This is the story of “Indie”, the best and worst dog we ever fostered.
I’ve started this story five different times and each time, I’ve said to myself, “Scratch that… Nope, scratch that too! What’s wrong with you, Becky? Just tell it like it is!” So here it goes… Like a river that’s just been freed up by the removal of a beaver dam…
I just have to be honest here. Some dogs just don’t work out. They are not safe in any home and, as much as we “love to love” them, love is not enough for a dog like “Indie”. If it were, he would have never been placed in a shelter, three homes, and he would have lived to see his golden years.
How “Indie” came to us is like some of the dogs that come here, after months of training he continued to be not a suitable companion in his hom, he was a liability. His guardian owner just did not know what to do, he was in over his head with this dog that he loved. Because we had all worked so hard with him we made the offer to o take him on and foster him, with no promises that we can rehabilitate him. We had all invested our time and love into “Indie” and he deserved a chance so I and my wonderful crew of puppy wranglers here at Crystal Creek Farm agreed to take him on. “Indie” had a great home and a caring owner who loved him a lot. He also cared enough to know when to let him go (even after investing $3k into his training) and gave us the dog he loved in the hope that he could become the dog he needed to be, a safe canine companion in someone else’s home. It was by far the most difficult decision anyone has to ever make but often, the right decisions are the most difficult. “Indie” had aggression, random acts of biting. Sometimes it was fear, sometimes it was not, sometimes he just felt the urge. But because of the aggression no rescue group would offer to even post him on their site due to the liability laws in the state of Washington. What many do not realize is if your dog aggressively bites people, even if you re-home them, the liability is still yours. I think the way the state looks at it as they would selling a gun you know to be defective. The gun fires, someone gets hurt, you knew it was defective and you gave it away or sell it anyway. You still own the liability and it’s a risk. You knowingly passed along a “danger” to others. “Indie” was a risk for us, we were like a lot of people, living in “lala land” thinking if we work with him enough he WILL get better. The thing I love most about “Indie” is he taught us a lot. And we learned a lot about loving a dog that we knew we might very well have to let go of. It was an act of love that brought him here and it was an act of love that let him go.
Last summer we took “Indie” into our foster dog program here at the ranch and he was nothing short of brilliant. Typical Border Collie, top of the chain when it comes to smarts. After five weeks of training, he was rock solid in his skills—sit, down, down-stay, down stay with distractions, go to your rug, come here, spin, fetch, drop, give, perfect leash manners (when he wasn’t lunging, growling and trying to snap or bite someone). One day, I took “Indie” to Home Depot for a field trip to help socialize him and work his skills with distractions. It’s also a perfect place to offer him treats from the great people who work there. He loved it! Took each and every cookie, even rolled his soft body into a few men for pets. His eyes soft as the strokes grew in frequency, as if to say, “Wow, this is actually really nice!” But then, there was the next day. I took him to the same Home Depot and he was a mess, growling if anyone dared pass us, actually flashed his teeth as the same gentleman that just the day before, he seemed to like, the same guy who gave him a cookie and who he allowed to pet! It was as if he heard voices, one day the voice of an angel, telling him, “It’s okay ‘Indie’, these people are friends, they love you, take the treat, doesn’t that taste good? Doesn’t that feel good, good boy!” And then, the next day he heard a dark voice reciting to him, “Don’t trust anyone, sure they look nice and they offer you things that taste good but you never know! Best defense is a good offense!” I just never knew which “Indie” would show up to the party.
“Indie” loved a lot of things–days in our park, the game of fetch–and while it took some training for us to teach him the benefit of giving back the ball, he became obsessed with the game. The ball never looked evil or stared at him. The little green ball must have also had a voice that only “Indie” could hear and it clearly said, “It’s just you and me, pal! Heck with the wicked world around us, let’s just play!” I taught him that he had to look at me, take his eyes off the ball and look at me, before I would pick it up and throw it for him. I did this because I wanted him to know or at least think he needed me. I was not just an “auto thrower”, some machine that just repeatedly tossed his little green sphere into the universe for him. He had to do something for me and that was give me eye contact. And he would for the most part, even if it was just a nano-second flash of his soft brown eyes, but then it was back to the classic hard stare and saying, “Ball. Throw ball. Throw ball. Throw ball now. Ball. Ball. Move ball. Must chase ball. For God’s sake, Becky, just throw the ball!” I will say in the time we had “Indie”, he had a lot more great days than bad days.
Of all the people that worked with “Indie”, I have to say it was our wrangler Heath who became closest to him. Heath was his buddy. He walked “Indie” in safe areas, like the trail or down to our arena where he would play fetch with him until his body nearly gave out. To be honest, I would fantasize that “Indie” would play ball then suddenly just drop dead with a smile on his face, the ball laying right next to him. I know, I know! It sounds horrible but that thought was a diversion to my other thought… The reality of the plaguing question, How much longer can we keep him? He’s not sound, he’s a risk… He needs to be euthanized but I’m not ready to give in… And the months kept ticking by. Heath never put him in a “down stay” or let strangers pass by him in places like Home Depot or forced him to “say hi!” or take a cookie from a perfect stranger. We don’t even do that to children, yet for us, Nate and I, his trainers, his life coaches, it was a skill we needed him to not only master, but to appreciate so he would be safe in public. Heather got the easy job, just love on “Indie” until his time is up. Looking back, Heath had the harder job for sure. Everyday, I would see “Indie” and tell myself, “He’s not really your dog. He’s a ‘project dog’.
One day Dave and I actually took “Indie” sheep herding and I had another fantasy that Mike, the sheep herding coach, would say in his strong Scottish accent, “Why, that dog is amazing! How much would you take for him? Never have I seen such a dog! I’ll make him a champion!” And of course, I would make this guy’s day because I would have said, “Mike, this is your lucky day! He’s absolutely free and he can be yours today!” But that didn’t turn out… While “Indie” was “keen” on sheep, according to Mike, he was not “able”. At the time, Dave and I didn’t know what Mike meant. This dog was all over these sheep, like a duck to water, herding them, running them down, getting them into the round pen, as if he had been watching tapes for weeks on what to do when he got there. In my eyes, he was brilliant! While he was chasing one of the sheep, he was about a football field away from us and Mike said, “Darlin’, give your doggie a call, see if he’ll come runnin’ back to ya.” So I called out, “Indie! Good boy, come here!” And he turned off the sheep and came running back to me, his “non mother”, the one who does not and cannot love him. He had an amazing recall and I have to admit, I was all puffed up like a proud mother bear whose cub just ventured out and came back safe and sound. But there was a problem. Remember, we were told that “Indie” was “keen but not able”. Well, here is where the “able” comes into play. As I was beaming with pride, Mike said, “Well, that’s not good. A good workin’ border collie would not have come off sheep with just your callin’ him. He’s just having fun, he’s not really working…” Are you kidding me, Mike?! What kind of coach are you! Calling a border collie off a sheep, in my mind, was like calling a hungry wolf off a rabbit! My training was amazing, this dog has a recall most people would kill to have in their own dog! And you told me to call him! But at the end of the day, I knew that Mike was right. “Indie” was just having fun. Sheep, to “Indie”, were like white tennis balls with legs. It was a great game of chase but he was out of his league, not serious about it like Mike’s border collie, who seemed hypnotized by the sheep. They were her whole universe and Mike would have to physically drag her off the sheep. She was the opposite of “Indie”. She was “able” on sheep, not just “keen”. Mike did toss me a compliment, though, saying, “Well at least you did a grand job training him! He’s a well trained boy ya got there!” And so “Indie’s” herding career ended the same day it began. But Dave and I still love that he came off the sheep and back to us, the ones who don’t want to love him. To this day, we still talk about that amazing recall, even though it led to a disappointing reaction on Mike’s part.
We reached six months and “Indie” had not improved. His unpredictable aggression was now causing conflict with other dogs, fighting through our fences. We did every medical test we could on “Indie”, making sure there was nothing medically driving his behavior, but sadly no, his blood work came back perfect, healthy hips, great working thyroid, even good poo! “Indie” was right in every way, except in his mind, where we had no control. One day, I actually thought “Indie” was going to turn on Heath when when he was trying to redirect “Indie” off the fence line. “Indie’s” frustration was no longer manageable and I decided that along with the liability of re-homing a dog that has a history of biting, I would have to control his destiny. As hard as it was to make this decision, writing his previous owner was equally hard. I had to tell him I failed. We as a community of dog lovers failed. We could not rehabilitate “Indie” enough to keep him and others safe. here are the words I sent to “Indie’s” dad:
I hope all is well with you. I feel obligated to let you know that we have made the heart wrenching decision that ‘Indie’ is not a suitable dog to rehome. We’ve been working with him for months and while he’s very well trained, his aggression remains unpredictable. We’ve brought in other behaviorists and trainers to evaluate and sadly, they also thought it was best to not place him in a home where a slip in management, he would cause harm.
Because of his bite history, there was no rescue that was willing to foster him and honestly, the best place for him is here at the ranch anyway. We all adore him here but he’s proven to be a risk to our staff as well and we, as ‘Indie’s’ guardians have decided that we need to euthanize ‘Indie’ and we’ve made an appointment for Monday. We want him to go out surrounded by love and all his friends that have grown to care for him and all his quirkiness.
I hated the thought of him falling into the wrong hands and ending up in a shelter again where he would be euthanized by strangers and alone. I think it’s more fair for those who truly care for him to guard his destiny and control how he leaves this world.
So, he will eat steak this weekend and will receive lots of ball play and be at peace after Monday.
I feel like you said your “good-bye” to him already but as someone who helped give him the best life, I thought you deserved to know.
Hope you are doing well and sorry that this did not turn out the way any of us wanted it to but I’m at peace with this because I know we all tried our best. I do believe that all dogs go to heaven and I’m certain ‘Indie’ will fit right in.
Thanks for all the help you gave ‘Indie’ as well. Call me if you want.”
So, I did the deed, I loaded “Indie” into my car and drove to the vet. I sat on the floor and held him as he passed peacefully in my arms. It was as if he forgave me by giving me a peaceful passing. Of course not without growing and threatening the guest at the vet’s on our way in. I did not correct him or discourage him or tell him not to growl. I decided that on this day, short of biting someone, “Indie” was entitled to his opinion and I would not try to change it. In the end, it was a good day.
Of course, I’m anxious to hear from “Indie’s” previous owner—what would he say? How disappointed would he be? Will he hate me? He gave me his dog in the hopes we would help him after all and now his dog was dead, gone, no home or family for “Indie”.
You can imagine my relief when I opened this email from the one who loved “Indie” first:
“Wow. I really appreciate everything you have done. I am sorry to hear that but understand and think you all have been a blessing to the both of us as difficult as it has been. I don’t think I’ll come back and see him, as that would just reopen that wound. Thanks for everything you have done. You and your staff have been saints. I agree that it would be best if the people who love him are with him when that occurs. It’s just so damn sad to think about. Thank you for helping me through this. “
The sad truth is, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Sometimes your dog or a foster dog simply isn’t a safe dog for any family. Sometimes controlling their destiny, protecting them from future owners who may hit them in anger, or dump them at a shelter with a “kill order” is where dogs like “Indie” end up. But I really did love this dog. Wait? Did I just say, “I loved this dog?” Ok, I did! I do! He was the best worst dog I’ve ever taken in and despite our best effort, all of us loved this dog. And as much as I think he tried not to love me either, his trainer, “say hi or die!” life coach, he clearly did love me. He came to me while in full pursuit of sheep! That’s not just training, that’s a bond! And I don’t feel that I let him down, as odd as that may seem. Not all dogs journeys have to be long and are they really ever long enough anyway? Dogs have a short life and while “Indie’s” was shorter than most, he didn’t just have a good life, he had a great life! “Indie” was lucky! He spent days, weeks, and months playing in the fields, getting bathed, brushed, and loved every day of his life here at the ranch.
In the end, while it was not the outcome any of us wanted, “Indie” was a very happy dog, even on his last day. And that can’t be said for every dog.