In the Catskills region of upstate New York, there is a mountain called Peekamoose. When we adopted Peeka, I was on a kick to name my dogs after Catskills peaks. “She has to be Peeka MOUSE because she’s so small,” commented Cindy Garcia, a malinois rescue coordinator I’ve been friends with for years. Peeka Mouse. It stuck.
We thought she had ringworm when we brought her home from the shelter. Ringworm is extremely contagious. Both dogs and humans can contract it from an infected dog. We were told to keep her isolated until the ringworm treatment was completed. We set up a bedroom where she could stay, locked away from the whole pack which at that point was Hawk, Iske, Lily, and Cinder. That first night I thought no one would sleep well with a fussy puppy behind a flimsy hollowcore door. So I slept with her, ostensibly to help her settle and keep her quiet. I had to corner her and catch her like a wild animal, but when I scooped up all 27 pounds of her and laid her on the bed, she nestled into the curve of my belly and slept all night.
My intention was to foster her as briefly as possible and send her on her merry way. I didn’t want a puppy and was still mourning Mica’s passing. But Peeka’s first vet visit dashed all hopes of that. She was too sick to be spayed. She was too sick to be moved. And she had fallen head over paws in love with Hawkitt. Given her health status and her ridiculous “fit” with Hawk … I adopted her only a few weeks later.
That was February 2015.
Yesterday I chose to euthanize Peeka. She was not ill, not any more so than any other day. I ended her life because our life together had become unsafe.
I understand the impulse to ask “what happened?” I understand the need to hear a story, to wrap our brains around a narrative that explains how my dog, my beloved Peeka, could need to be killed. But for all of you that want to armchair quarterback this decision, the question I have for you is: Why do you need to know? Do you need to evaluate whether or not it’s the right decision? Do you want to critically evaluate my choice? Let’s call a spade a spade — Do you really want to backseat drive? Do you really want to decide whether or not I’m worthy of your compassion?
If so, I can make this easy for you: assume I made the wrong choice. Assume I acted out of selfishness, ignorance, or laziness or any other unacceptable motive. I’m not worthy. You have my permission and invitation to make that judgement – to call it that way. I am not worthy. But now, knowing that I’m not worthy – does that help you feel better? If you can be angry or hate me for what I did, does that help you feel better about it? Will it help you take better care of your dog or your loved ones, to know that you have judged me and found me wanting?
For 6 years I battled to keep the world safe from Peeka, and to keep Peeka safe from the world. On social media, I portrayed her as a winsome, klutzy, problem child of a dog with an obsession for porcupines. That made her seem adorably hapless and sweetly off kilter. I posted a photo series of “Peeka hiking” and in every shot she was lying down. It was one of my coping mechanisms, one of the ways I blew off steam after a particularly difficult day or episode, to reframe it all as so innocently quirky. But that was not the whole picture.
The whole picture was so hard to hold. Yes, she had medical issues, some of which likely caused pain. She was wracked with arthritis, head to tail. She had an autoimmune disorder with intermittent flare ups. She had swollen lymph nodes for years, and eosinophilia. She struggled mightily to learn the most basic commands, and reacted in the most aggressive ways to the oddest stimuli. She could be fine one moment and attacking a packmate literally at the drop of a hat – or the electronic beep of a cell phone’s notification. She lost her mind over and over again at the sight of a traffic cone holder Tom built. She exploded over threshold and attacked as a redirection of almost anything: noises, Hawkitt’s barking, and increasingly – my behavior. Each time something went wrong, I would say to myself “I’m lucky it wasn’t worse.”
The grind of hopelessness is ultimately poisonous. It has seeped into our very bones and made us as reactive as the dogs. The concept of “trigger stacking” is relevant for humans as well as dogs, and at this point Tom and I both are in an awful reactive mode where the slightest provocation sends us over threshold ourselves. We never meant to become a locked ward for mentally ill dogs. We never meant to be a sanctuary for aggressive dogs. As Peeka’s behavior unfolded and we came to understand how damaged she was, we stumbled into becoming exactly that – the mythical farm upstate where dogs that can’t make it in society go to live out their lives in safety and freedom.
We tried so hard to be that, but the “farm upstate” is truly mythical and elusive at best. We don’t – can’t – exist outside society. The pandemic meant that new neighbors moved in and the sounds of a baby crying, or children’s laughter meant we had a new worry – the proximity of children deepened my stress over Peeka. The normal neighborhood sounds of back-up beeps from the construction vehicles at the neighbor’s place, the kids laughing, screaming, crying, the adults just having conversations… all sent the pack over threshold. Peeka redirected onto the nearest dog. I spent all day every day praying for quiet, and telling the dogs to calm down… over and over again.
While we all tried to adjust to the new sounds and experiences, Tom worked 80 hour weeks for the local telephone company. While many people lost jobs because of the lockdowns, Tom’s work as a telecom technician exploded. People could not function without connectivity, but life in the country means service interruptions. Tom worked 7 days a week over and over again, and one by one his colleagues had to be quarantined. Tom never took risks, never tested positive, and never got a mandatory 2 week staycation.
I was alone with the dogs way more than usual. And I got sick. Not an acute, discrete illness that could be treated, but an insidious chronic condition that has so far proven to be untreatable and undiagnosable. I can’t swallow normally, and this has meant that I choke on my own saliva… pretty often. Peeka began charging me when I started coughing. In addition, she stopped being able to tolerate handling she used to enjoy – brushing and nail clips were an intimate and cozy way we bonded, but over the winter, she began to lunge and snap at me for attempting to groom her. Then she lunged at me for muzzling her, after weeks of muzzle conditioning – all of which went well, supervised by an experienced trainer. The last time she lunged at me was a couple of weeks ago when I was taking a photo of her.
Denial is a powerful force. Each time she showed aggression towards me, I blamed myself or discounted it as “nothing.” She didn’t feel well. I must have hurt her. She didn’t mean it. She was triggered by the other dog in the room. And so on. I denied, excused and apologized for everything she did. And continued to try to find ways to help her enjoy life, get her needs met, and be as fulfilled as possible. My vet expressed shock at my request to euthanize her, which made me realize how much I had hidden.
I feel like the unspoken question on everyone’s lips is “you’ve worked so long and hard with Peeka, why would you give up? Why give up on her? Why give up on yourself?” The answer is I have indeed worked so long and hard with so little success and such miniscule incremental and inconsistent success … so I turn the question around and ask of all of you: wouldn’t I know better than anyone else when I cannot do more?
To all of you who are angry at me, pained at this choice, and reject the notion that behavioral euthanasia is an ethical option, I say this: thank you. Thank you for holding my feet to the fire and ensuring that before I took this step I was truly certain I would be able to live with your criticism, knowing I could do no more for her. The unspoken words I imagine you saying have helped me take the time to think it through again, to question one more professional trainer, to wait one more day-week-month.
I often described Peeka as nasty and aggressive because I felt that if I used those words people would instantly form a mental image of her that would help keep everyone safe. The truth I didn’t and still don’t think Peeka was nasty or aggressive. I think she was incredibly sweet. I don’t think she was always fearful although I do think she was fearful sometimes. I think most often what ailed her was an idiosyncratic way of experiencing the world. She was so tangled up inside that her emotions and cognitions and sensory experiences were overwhelming to her and incomprehensible to me. The way she experienced sound, touch and even being looked at… she was so thoroughly not normal, I believe her daily existence was profoundly difficult for her. These emotions and the way she processed them led to behaviors that were downright dangerous.
I don’t understand it, even after 6 years, well enough to explain it with any confidence. What I did know was that she loved me and that she felt safe with me. She wanted connection with me. She also felt safe with Hawkitt, and adored him. The most successful relationship she had in her entire life was with him. If only I could have abandoned them on a deserted island… he would take care of her. And she would act normal for him. They brought out the best in each other.
I could play it off like it’s some great thing I did, a beautiful sacrifice – that I’m placing the good of the dogs above my own selfish desire to keep her around simply because I love her. I could spin that so that it sounds viable. There is some truth to that… I am choosing the good of the whole over the good over any individual. But with Peeka from day one, there was no good option. This is a dog who should have been drowned at birth. That would have been the kindest thing of all… and that’s a horrible way to feel and a horrible truth to face. From day one, we had no good options.
The last fight left a mark. My hand is pretty badly injured. Willa’s leg has a nasty gash. I miss Peeka terribly. I struggle to move on, rehashing the decision and wallowing in self doubt and self pity. Willa is currently showing a decent amount of reactivity to Brody (who continues to randomly explode with or without identifiable triggers) and management continues to be critical. Tom lost his temper yesterday morning. I saw in his loss of control (which he promptly owned and apologized for) the depth of stress and exhaustion we both have been experiencing. We are truly running on fumes.
I am sad, angry, jealous, and overwhelmed by what used to give me such joy on social media: happy people with normal dogs. I see nice normal owners doing nice normal things with nice normal dogs and I just have to walk away.
Then yesterday, when Tom finally got home from work all day Sunday, we sat outside and had a beer. Bindi and Willa were loose outside with us. Bindi relaxed. Willa hunted for tiny frogs and chewed a frisbee, and poked Bindi, and asked for pets, and wandered off to step on plants in my garden… all normal malinois puppy stuff. I had a good 30 minutes of “brewery dog” experience at home. No diving to separate dogs that had become destabilized by radio frequencies we couldn’t hear. No hard stares because I cleared my throat. No hackles because the other dog sniffed a rock too close to your head-butt-paw-tail-aura. I had that glimpse of what’s possible, what we could find our way back to: a joyful life with dogs.
I choose to heal, and to honor Peeka by doing my best, every day, with every dog in front of me. I will remember Peeka, as painful as these memories are. I want to delete every photo and video, and not see her, not be reminded. But I will tough it out, look at her and remember. She was my dog, through and through. I could never love her enough but god knows I tried. And I will never stop wishing I could have exorcised her demons and healed her soul.