Monday, November 10, 2014
Holding On and Letting Go: In Memory of Shanoa
What happens when you’ve done everything possible for your reactive dog and it isn’t enough? How do you decide when it’s time to let go? And how do you cope with the feelings of guilt?
These are terrible questions, and as glad as I am that I have not had to deal with them personally, I am devastated that one of my best friends does. On Friday, my friend Nicky made an incredibly courageous and compassionate choice for her reactive, anxious dog Shanoa, and it breaks my heart. I want to find a miracle cure for her dog, and I can’t. I want to wrap her up in love and take away all her pain, and I can’t. Instead, I sit with the knowledge that Nicky has lost her friend. And it sucks.
I met Nicky and Shanoa in 2010, when they joined the reactive dog class that Maisy and I were in. Shanoa was a beautiful Doberman from a not-so-great breeder who failed to socialize her and then sold her as an older puppy. The deck was stacked against Shanoa right from the start. The double whammy of poor genetics and no socialization is an awful combination; it’s like a house of cards built on a table with one too-short leg.
Nicky worked hard to keep the table balanced, the cards stable. And at first, it looked as though she might succeed. Shanoa was never the explosive dog in class; that was always left for Maisy. It was Maisy who would bark and lunge at everyone else. Both dogs started medication, and while Maisy showed improvements, they were subtle and gradual. Shanoa, though? She showed drastic and almost immediate improvement. I remember looking at her enviously as she slept through class in her crate, bored with the unstimulating environment, while Maisy continued to react at things. Shanoa did so well, in fact, that she became a certified therapy dog. She visited hospice patients, bringing joy and comfort.
But slowly, the positive effects of the medication wore off. Maybe her body got used to them; I don’t know. They saw the veterinary behaviorist, switched things up, and all was well again. Nicky decided to pursue nosework instead of therapy work because Shanoa enjoyed it more, and again she excelled… until the effects of the new meds wore off. And so began a years-long cycle of trying new meds, having them work initially, and then failing. There is literally not a behavior drug out there that they have not tried: multiple different SSRIs, short-acting drugs, even benzos. All showed early promise and then petered out.
When the last-ditch-effort drugs lowered Shanoa’s inhibitions, my friend recognized that they were in an untenable position. Shanoa continued to be anxious, unable to function even in her own home, let alone out of it. Even her safe places – like her crate – no longer soothed her. Meanwhile, her lowered inhibitions resulted in behaviors that required heroic management to keep everyone safe.
It must be noted that at no point was Shanoa a “bad dog.” She was a suffering dog. She had a debilitating medical condition that made life miserable for her. And at no point did Nicky fail her. She tried everything. She did the same types and quantities of training that I did with Maisy. She did drugs. She did management. She found safe outlets for Shanoa. And so she did the only thing she could.
She let her go.
I am in awe of my friend. You see, I believe that love is not about being together 24/7. Love is about sacrifice. Love is about selflessness. Love is a balance of holding on and letting go. Nicky could have held on longer. Life was difficult with Shanoa, but she could have made it work. I know that if Shanoa was difficult-but-happy, Nicky would have done whatever it took without complaint. But Shanoa was not happy, and holding on would not have been living. It takes a great deal of courage to do this - to voluntarily subject yourself to pain to save a loved one from it, to open yourself up to judgment and criticism from others. To let go.
I don’t know how to end this post, except to say, Nicky: I love you. Thank you for embodying compassion, courage, and love. I know it hurts, and I’m so sorry.