An Easily Prevented Tragedy: The Story of Tabby

Names of both human and canine students have been changed to protect the privacy of my clients!

A young father enters my classroom, we'll call him Sam.  Sam has a wonderful family; a beautiful wife and two handsome boys, one three and one nine.  Sam also has a Border Collie puppy; only 8 weeks old, who has been with him for a week and a half at this point.  He got her at a local pet shop, assured by the store owner that Tabby came from a "reputable breeder."

Any dog trainer will assure you that no reputable breeder would dream of letting her puppies be sold through a pet shop, nor would she allow her puppies to be taken at the age of six weeks, missing out on crucial learning lessons from the mother and littermates during critical stages of canine development.  Tabby displayed all the typical signs of a puppy mill dog - excessive fear of new situations and stimuli, a very hard mouth, no qualms about sitting, laying, or napping in her own feces.  

I welcomed Sam and his family, both four and two-legged, into the Clicking with Canines classroom.  While Tabby had a rough start, her little puppy brain was still in development, an information sponge.  I had high hopes for her progress, and like all fearful dogs, she became a personal favorite.  Having worked through rehabilitating my reactive Saint Bernard, I have a soft spot for "problem children."  I hoped to make a great change for Tabby and the humans with whom she shared a habitat. 

Tabby made great progress.  Despite her fear, she displayed an eagerness to learn.  Shaping exercises were great confidence builders for her, and it was a rewarding experience to watch her blossom.

One night, shortly before class, I received a phone call from Sam. 

"We won't be bringing Tabby to class tonight."

"Sorry to hear that, Sam.  Is everything ok?"

Sam was silent for a minute; I waited for his response.

"Actually, no.  Tabby got hit by a car today and died."

It was my turn to be silent.  What do you say to comfort a family who has just lost a four month old puppy? 

I am of the belief that it is better to say nothing than say the wrong thing, and always better to listen than blabber if you don't know what to say.  All I could say, in fact, was "I'm so sorry, Sam."

Sam tells me about Tabby's death.  Tabby had been in the back yard on a tie out.  Sam's wife, who worked from home, had been trying to concentrate on work and was distracted by the puppy who whined frequently in her crate.  To get just five minutes of peace and quiet, she put Tabby in the back yard on a tether.

Tabby, being both a puppy and a Border Collie, would find a way to amuse herself when bored.  This day, she amused herself by chewing through her tie out and running into traffic.  Her life was ended, and all we were left with was a mixed bag of emotions - sadness at her loss tinged with the relief that for at least part of her life, the people surrounding her tried to do well by her.

This event happened shortly after I opened my business, and I was devastated at the loss.  I went home and the sadness washed over me, seeing such a bright dog with such fabulous potential struck down in her infancy.  What went so terribly wrong, and how could Tabby's death have been prevented?  What lessons could I take from this that might save another client's dog in the future?  After much consideration, I've come to a few conclusions that might prevent another puppy from befalling a similar fate.

Responsible dog ownership starts before you even bring a dog home.  It means realistically evaluating your lifestyle and thinking not "what can my dog give me?" but "what am I willing to give my dog?"  If the answer to the latter question is satisfactory, the answer to the former question will certainly bear better fruit.  If you give a dog what she needs, she will give you all the companionship, loyalty, and devotion that pet owners seek from their canine companions.

Are you a couch potato?  If so, you may not want to consider a Border Collie, who was meant to work long days working herds in close collaboration with their handler.  Are you very active?  If so, a senior dog might not be the best fit for you.  Are you willing to get up multiple times in the middle of the night to take your puppy outside for potty breaks?  If not, don't get a puppy. 

One of the services I offer my clients is pre-adoption counseling.  I evaluate their lifestyle critically and make the best possible suggestions for breeds (or mixed breed rescue dogs) which may fit in best with their family.  I recently received an email from a friend saying she wanted a Malamute.  I responded to her as follows:

The best advice I can give dog prospective dog owners is to never pick a dog based on what it looks like - this is as bad an idea as choosing a husband solely based on what he looks like. The first question you must ask yourself is "why do I want a Malamute"? (or any other particular breed)

If you want to get a malamute, get one because you want a dog that is bred to pull thousands of pounds of freight and because you are interested in doing lots and lots of loose leash walking training, as you are working against hundreds, if not thousands, of years of selective breeding specifically for pulling when attached to a leash.  Get a Malamute because you want a working dog, and because you are willing to give him a job (Back packing, skijoring, weight pulling, sledding/mushing, tracking, agility, rally obedience, obedience, etc.)

I always have to emphasize to people what are conventionally seen as the detriments of their breed of choice. Way too often I see people get dogs that are pretty, but don't fit into their lifestyle well. Every time, it is the dog that loses, either his life or his home. It breaks my heart, so I make sure that not only are people able to "tolerate" the working purpose of the breed they're interested in, but that they LOVE the breed's "quirks".

It's hard not to fall for a pretty (or handsome) face.  But the fact of the matter is, the lifespan of a dog lasts longer than many, many human relationships.  If you were going to be living with someone for fifteen years, what kind of questions would you ask yourself?  You would ask questions of compatibility; "how can our lives compliment each other?" While amongst any purebreed there will be a wide variety of individual temperaments, it is foolhardy to disregard the working purpose of a breed when considering what type of dog to bring into your home.  Similarly, if you expect a puppy to have the energy level of a senior dog (or vice versa), both you and your dog are destined for a relationship fraught with frustration and misunderstanding (which takes the fun out of dog ownership!).  If you get a Chow and expect a social butterfly, you may not be setting you or your dog up for success. 

Another component of responsible dog ownership which will come before you even bring your dog or puppy home is deciding where you will get your new dog.  Pet shop puppies are the product of puppy millers and back yard breeders - very frequently when you bring home your furry bundle of joy you will also be bringing home myriad health and behavioral problems which are inherited from substandard breeding and whelping practices. You may choose to adopt a homeless pet through a rescue or shelter organization.  The final option is finding a responsible breeder, one who does all applicable health screening, provides health guarantees, is scrupulous about sanitation and socialization, and will accept the dog back into her home at any time in the dog's life for any reason, rather than seeing one of her dogs end up homeless or in a shelter.  If you're not sure which option is right for you, consult with a qualified pet professional in your area.  If you do not have access to preadoption counseling services, many pet professionals will offer these services via phone or email.

Finally, responsible dog ownership means adequately supervising your dog.  Puppies are like human infants and toddlers, and cannot be trusted to "do the right thing" when they are unsupervised.  If only someone had observed Tabby chewing the tether, she could have been safely contained and redirected and would still be alive today.

Aside from choosing the right dog for you and the right place to acquire said dog, it's important that you provide adequately for the dog's needs.

A dog must be physically healthy.  Behavioral health and physical health are intricately connected.  A high quality, species appropriate diet is advised; excessive amounts of grain (corn, soy, wheat, etc.) should generally be avoided.  Physical exercise is important, regardless of whether you have a very active dog (like my Chow mix Mokie) or a mellow sleepy-pants dog (like my Saint Bernard, Monte).  Ideally, a dog should have three separate exercise sessions a day, and for optimal results, consider providing three different activities (providing a walk, a tug session, and a swim in one day is much more stimulating than providing three short walks) throughout the day.

A dog must be socially healthy.  Socialization is not a process that ends when a puppy turns four months old, it is a lifetime process, "use it or lose it."  Your dog, regardless of age, should have new social experiences every day, at a level which is comfortable for her.  Socialization sessions can and should include various types of people, various environments, various other dogs, and various stimuli (sound, movement, tactile, etc.).  All socialization experiences should be positive for your dog - if she seems afaid at any stage, consult with a qualified professional to assist you in making her socialization experiences more positive/enjoyable.

A dog must be mentally healthy.  I find that too frequently, people advocate the need for physical exercise while neglecting to emphasize the importance of mental exercise.  While physical exercise and socialization certainly contribute to better canine mental health, mental exercise is not advocated nearly enough in my opinion.  Mental exercise means positive training sessions, food dispensing toys, scent games, problem solving, and canine sports (the possibilities are endless).   Fear, anxiety, and boredom are not conducive to optimal mental health or behavior.

Also, on the topic of mental health for canines, it is important to consider cognitive disorders or hormonal/neurochemical imbalances.  Medications may be indicated for dogs with behavioral problems, at the recommendation of a veterinary behaviorist.  It is important to note that medications for such problems are not meant to be a panacea and must be accompanied by behavior.  If there is a chemical imbalance of some sort, neither behavior modification or medication individually will solve the problem; rather medication and behavior modification will compliment each other to bring about behavioral change.

In Tabby's case, I don't think a medical problem was the issue.  What was the issue was a family which selected a puppy of a breed they were not knowledgable about, from a source that was unreputable.  Tabby was physically healthy, but lacked enough mental stimulation and most importantly, adequate supervision. 

To prevent a similar tragedy in your family, think of Tabby.  Learn from the mistakes of others.  Choose your puppy carefully, making sure that you are obtaining your puppy from a reputable source, you are aware of the breed's tendency and needs, you are vigilant in supervising to ensure her safety, and that you provide her with proper nutrition, and appropriate physical, social, and mental stimulation.  If one puppy can be spared Tabby's fate, perhaps her loss will not be in vain.


R.I.P Tabby.  In the short time I knew you, you were a great teacher and your memory will always shine bright.  Gone but never forgotten, I pray that your legacy will be saving others from a similar fate.  Run free at the Bridge, beautiful girl.

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