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June 11, 2010

My piece for WebMD called Your Partner vs. Your Pet went live earlier this week. Since there doesn’t seem to be a place to discuss over there, I’m posting a link here so that we can chat a bit about it. So, I guess now is as good a time as any to tell you the story of Gilbert, the dog we gave up.

It’s a dark, sad tale from my dog-loving life. Gilbert was a Doberman Pincher we adopted back in early 2000. After 10 days, we returned him to the municipal shelter, as stipulated in our adoption contract. They euthanized him. We had been his last chance.

I’ve said before that I believe very much in the motto: Dog Girl, Know Thyself.

Gilbert & Roxanne, long before I knew crap about crap when it came to dog training and behavior.

I learned two lessons from Gilbert, rest his soul, and the heartbreak we had over our failed adoption:

  1. I cannot live with a dog I do not trust.
  2. He who came first, comes first.

Gilbert had aggression issues, along with a truly compulsive marking problem. Like he whizzed on anything and EVERYTHING non-stop. Not just a few times a day. All day. Every day.

We were prepared to deal with that, and we had plans to meet with a behaviorist about it, but Gilbert didn’t take to me or our Dalmatian, who was older and somewhat frail at the time. (I see now how he is leaning away from me in this old photo. Poor boy.)

Penelope Grace (our Dal) and I did not feel safe around Gilbert, and since we were home alone with him a lot, that was pretty scary.

When I say he was aggressive, I don’t mean reactive. I don’t mean noisy, pushy, strong. He was completely SILENT, with that predatory thing about him, that I-have-intent look in his eyes. Something truly was not right.

A growly, barking dog isn’t ideal, but the quiet ones, with intense body language, scare me much, much more.

I probably would have done better around Gilbert if I knew then what I know now, but at the time, I was simply afraid.

The breaking point for me came when he took a mouthful of my sweatshirt and would NOT let go. He wasn’t playing. He. Was. Serious.

Rather than get into an altercation with him and risk a bite, I sat down at the picnic table in the back yard and waited, and waited, and waited. I honestly don’t remember how I got him to let go, but I did.

When I couldn’t get help from the behaviorist for weeks and weeks, I called one of my very experienced friends in the animal rescue and animal shelter community, and she essentially said, “You do exactly as I say, right now, and you get that dog out of your house before he hurts you.”

Penelope and I stayed away from Gilbert until Tom got home, and I sobbed the entire drive to the shelter. I still cry today when I think about it.

Tom has always wanted a Dobe, and Gilbert was his pick, after our lab-mix Cody died from hemangiosarcoma. Tom’s earlier dog Spike (aka Cone Dog) was dobe + great dane.

So, I guess you could say that Tom chose me over Gilbert in the who-came-first model. I preceded Penelope. Penelope preceded Gilbert. Our needs in the family came first.

It wasn’t a decision either of us made lightly. It still makes me terribly sad. I wish there had been better temperament testing back then. I wish I’d known more about dog behavior and dog training. I wish it had worked out because he was indeed an amazing specimen of a dog.

This experience is one of many that drive our more careful, more informed dog adoption decisions going forward.

The next day, when Tom’s father died somewhat unexpectedly. What came next consumed us, and we probably would not have had the time or energy (or skill) to figure the Gilbert dynamics out.

What’s your story?

Have you ever had to make a choice between your dog (or cat) and a romantic partner? Do tell. Which one did you pick and why?

About the Author Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related.

I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

  1. I had to make that choice in 1994, and it was a tough one to make. I’d adopted Tiki, a German shepherd/husky cross from a shelter two+ years before. Tiki was generally a good dog, but he chewed a lot, ruining several pieces of furniture, comforters, even my car seats when I ran into the store for ten minutes for a few groceries. I let that go (unfortunately, I was too young then to know how to train him out of it).

    Then I began dating my now-husband, and Tiki didn’t like that. He growled at him, he peed on the carpet, he became even more destructive, and he was just plain miserable. When my husband proposed, we knew Tiki was an issue. We worked on it together, but it wasn’t getting better. I found a really nice family to adopt Tiki. It was so hard giving him up, but I knew it was best for me and for him. I visited him once in his new home. The kids loved him, and he loved the kids. He was where he belonged….

  2. That certainly brings up some painful memories for me. I had two beautiful Bouviers who were both about 10 years old. They had lived peacefully together and without incident during that time. It was great. Then one day, inexplicably, the smaller one turned one the other and put 40 puncture wounds in him. He survived but was never really the same. At the time, my daughter was a toddler and a very curious one at that. After lliving with the issue for several days, and with quite a lot of emotional turmoil, I made the decision to put him down. We had looked for medical reasons for the incident and found none. And the worry and tension of supervising everyone, all the time, was too much. But, the trust was shattered. And trying to live as a family without that trust just doesn’t work.

  3. That’s quite a story, and you told it well. I feel lucky that I’ve never had to make such a choice.

    I do have a story about a single friend who doesn’t have a serious partner. She was going out on a first date, and they had drinks while they waited for their table at a restaurant. The guy started ranting about how he hated dogs. My friend got up and told him that she thought that they might as well skip dinner because the relationship could go nowhere if he hated all dogs.

    I loved that story!

  4. Roxanne, thank you for sharing this story. I imagine it wasn’t easy – it can be painful digging up those old memories and uncomfortable revealing something about ourselves that we don’t feel good about. In this case, I absolutely think you did the right thing. It says a lot about the kind of person you are that you struggled so much over a dog as menacing as Gilbert. Many, many people out there return dogs for ridiculous reasons.

  5. As I read your blog post this morning, it really struck home for me. Early last year, I too had to make the most difficult decision in my life. My previous dog to Murphy was a Ridgeback/Coonhound mix (according to the pound) that I got at 10 weeks. She was a beautiful dog, and a wonderful dog with people, but from day one when I got her she was a fearful dog. Something happened to her when she was really young, I am sure of that.

    She was well socialized once I got her, but as she got older she became more and more dog agressive. Hannah, like Gilbert, gave no warning. She would be wagging her tail and relaxed one moment, and the next she would be on the dog trying to kill it.

    She seemed ok with puppies though, playing gentley and nicely with my neighbors pup, so I decided I would try to foster. I brought a tiny papillion pup home from the humane society and things went smoothly. The entire 2 weeks I had her, Hannah was wonderful. Then, on the day I was suppose to return the dog, Hannah snapped and killed her. I was sitting right next to both of them and there were no warning signs that I could see. She just went after the dog and in a heartbeat it was over, there was nothing I could do.

    She had made me nervous in the past…I couldnt ever trim her nails because she was try to bite, so I just took her to someone and we used a muzzle. She was a fear biter, and would never give any warning. But now, I couldn’t even look at her. And she was terrified of me, I could see it in her eyes and her body language. She knew she did something awful.

    I called everyone I knew. Behavorists, vets, friends with experience with dogs…everyone said the same thing. No rescue would take her because of her history, and I couldn’t keep her in my house. I had a 17 year old cat….how could I know she wouldn’t do the same to her?

    So I took her to the humane society, hugged her, fed her a huge bowl of doggie junk food, told her how much I loved her and put her to sleep.

    It was the hardest decision in my life, and one I hope to never make again. But both of your rules applied here. 1) I couldnt’ trust her and was afraid of her, and 2) Sophie (my cat) came first.

    Even now as I write this, I am crying over my loss and Hannah’s death. I will always feel like there was something I could have done differently when she was growing up, to help her NOT become the dog she became. I’ll never know what that is though, so all I can do is work with my next dogs that much more…to make sure they never become that kind of dog as well.

    As much as it hurts, I did the right thing. You did as well.

    Murphy’s Mom

  6. I agree with what Kerri said. I have known people who love their animals who date people who have a thinly veiled hatred for their beloved’s pet/s. I don’t understand how people can date someone who hates their family member! I used to always ask guys on first dates if they liked dogs, and they always said yes, but I could tell if they were lying.

    Anyway, re: your situation with Gilbert, I agree with what Kerri said on that too and I’m so sorry you had to make that hard choice. We could have been in a very similar situation with Gobo, whose aggression issues became apparent not long after we got him home. You know how much I love dogs, but I told Joe I wasn’t willing to live with a dog I was afraid of. Gobo seemed to want to go after me, and he even bit me a few times, but we ended up working it out. It could just as easily have gone the other way, and we would have been forced to take him back to the shelter. I’m so sorry you went through that.


  7. I don’t see this situation as Tom picking you over Gilbert. I see this as making the best choice for your entire family. When I think of people choosing their spouse/SO over their pet, I think of relatively silly reasons: “He doesn’t like cats.” “She doesn’t want dog hair on her sofa.” When I hear reasons such as those, or read of someone wanting to rehome their pet for one of those reasons on Facebook, it just makes me terribly sad. These are animals that will give their entire being to be 100% loyal, and these people are throwing it away for a relationship that only has a 50% chance of survival. I know you feel bad and sad even to this day about Gilbert, but truly, this was not an option for you. There are animals out there so damaged they cannot be fixed. Unfortunately, Gilbert was probably one of those dogs. I give you an ovation for even trying.

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