This morning I had to say goodbye to my beloved dog, Farley. I held his muzzle gently as the vet put him to sleep, the final chapter in what has been a thoroughly distressing experience for us all.
Farley came to us from a rescue shelter in September 2006, aged 8 months. All we knew about him then was that he was a shihtzu-collie cross and what his previous name had been. He didn't respond to that name, which we took as odd, but we gave him a new one and off we went into the merry world of pet ownership.
It was quite quickly clear that Farley had separation issues. If left alone for any period of time he would scratch, chew and bite - all the while whining a falsetto wail that would strike fear into Michelle as she came home each afternoon to discover the mess he had left behind. And there was mess - lots of it - even soiling, vomiting and blood in the early days.
Still, you don't give up on a rescue dog. We sought advice and tried all sorts of ideas. We tried to desensitise him by leaving for short regular periods. We bought a pheromone adaptor. We caged him. We gave him access to various rooms. Nothing so much as touched the anxiety. In a fit of desperation we even gave him access to the living room and, miraculously, found that sitting in the big bay window watching the world go by calmed him.
When we moved house in 2009 we followed the same pattern, giving him access to the room at the front of the house while we were at work so he could see outside. I'd even take him to my office with me in the winter as being in the car seemed to settle him and I could give him a big walk at lunchtime. This all seemed to work ok for a while, but every now and then there'd be a day we came home to damage. Then the drooling started - he would sit in the window panting all day until the paint peeled off the windowsill and the radiator below became rusty. Then he started chewing the walls and any items we left unattended - shoes, coat zips, pot plants... the list is extensive.
We knew we had to do something to help him. This year, as the damage became too much to ignore, we looked for professional help. I spoke to the vet, who put us in touch with a behaviourist, who spent three hours asking us lots of questions about Farley but left as confused as we were. He displayed few of the behaviours normally associated with separation anxiety - when we were home with him, for example, he would often go and spend time alone, rather than seek out our company. We thought he liked his own space but was an otherwise contented dog. Then we saw the truth.
The behaviourist suggested setting up a video camera to capture evidence of his behaviour, in an attempt to solve his problem. The resulting film is heartbreaking and shows a dog in heightened distress, pacing around the house for as long as the video was running. His little cries were so upsetting that we suddenly realised we were dealing with something more serious. Rather than being settled in the evening, happy to be home with his family, Farley was simply exhausted from his day of stress.
We found him a dog walker, which didn't help the situation, and perhaps a stranger coming into his territory every day wasn't every likely to help calm him down. We found a dog-sitter and, frankly, paid out a fortune in driving him to the other side of the borough every morning, to spend his time with the company of humans and dogs. This arrangement broke down a couple of months ago and, on reflection, we realised we were actually doing nothing to fix the problem, just shutting him away somewhere else for our convenience during the day. I tried to take him to kennels some days, others I left him in the car. This worked ok until he lost the plot one day a few weeks ago and ate the back of my driver's seat.
We had tried a number of natural remedies - grass extracts in his food, essential oils to sniff at (he quite liked one of them, but it didn't calm him as it should have). We had always wished to avoid tranquilising him as that seemed a cowardly way out, but our vet was willing to try it if it could be mixed with a programme of behaviour modification. So we found, quite by chance, another behaviourist, who met Farley and came up with a plan which we all felt would help him to come to terms with his anxiety. This involved intensive training and reinforcement of the pack structure. We took to it enthusiastically and so did Farley, revelling in the chance to practice his obedience skills on walks and entirely happy to lie in his bed of an evening rather than on the couch. Last week we left him on his own during the day again and the results were promising - no damage on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. Only a tiny bit of drool on Friday. However it seemed to us that the medication was slowly wearing off. He was on a high tranquiliser dose, yet by Saturday he was displaying all the signs of anxiety we had become used to seeing and, when we tried to pop out for an hour in the afternoon, he was inconsolable, despite being medicated to the eyeballs.
Yesterday was my daughter's birthday party and we did everything by the book. We gave him the medication at the right time, walked him and did lots of obedience work while he was out and about. We left him kong toys stuffed with dog food and yoghurt, as well as a rawhide strip spread with soft cheese. He was calm as we left and we went to the party thinking we had control of the situation and our lovely boy would be sleepily licking his toys while we were out. We returned to carnage - a wild-eyed, drooling monster who had ripped up our entire hall carpet and eaten the underlay. As I tried to calm him down in the back garden I realised we had come to the end of the time we could look after Farley.
We had a long talk with the behaviourist last night, who told us what the options were and that there was nothing he could do for Farley. His opinion was that rehoming would just cause more damage to an already damaged dog and the sort of retraining that he would normally suggest for naughty dogs was entirely inappropriate as, other than the anxiety, Farley was the most obedient and attentive dog there could be.
When I spoke to the vet this morning I knew what he was going to say before he said it. He had a long think and expressed his sincere opinion that there was nothing else we could do for Farley other than to put him out of his misery. And it was misery in the end - his nerves were so shot that any movement in the house would propel him down the wary path of expecting his humans to leave him. It seemed he had some issue so deep rooted that not even heavy tranquilisers could be of help.
We gave him a cuddle, played with him and took him for a last walk. He cried on the way to the vets and we did too. The vet was lovely and was even at the last minute trying to come up with suggestions for alternative courses of action, but we all realised there were none. Rehoming wasn't an option and we couldn't live with the uncertainty that someone else might take him in and then mistreat him when the inevitable destruction began, or the knowledge that his link to us was so strong that never seeing his pack again would break his little heart. We had to do what was best for our dog, and what was best for our dog was not to suffer any more.
I can't express right now the absolute emptiness that losing my best friend has left inside me. The suddenness of the decision, whilst best for my family, has meant it was impossible to say goodbye properly, but then how does one say goodbye to a dog? Perhaps a cuddle, a play, a big handful of cheese, a walk in the park and being told what a good boy he is is the best way after all, rather than waiting for Christmas to be over, waiting for the New Year, waiting for whatever time we can find to come to terms with the fact that our beloved dog is beyond the help of anyone. I think he knew what we had to do in the end, and he didn't struggle at all.
I have written this to explain to everyone who knows Farley what has happened to lead us to the position of having him put to sleep. We have done a good job as a family of keeping much of the problems we have experienced to ourselves as we didn't want our family and friends to think we had a bad dog, or even a dangerous dog. He was never either. He was simply a poor little rescue dog that couldn't be left on his own, taken home in good faith by two people who had full time jobs and thought he'd be ok.
I want everyone to know what a good dog Farley really was, because he deserves to be remembered as the fun-loving little brown ball of mischief that we knew and who captured our hearts. He was well behaved, well trained (mostly) and very affectionate. He was scared stiff of little Meredith, but was always attentive of her and never once hurt her. He was my absolute best friend, who loved nothing more than going on insanely long walks with his master, then cuddling up on the sofa afterwards, dreaming of the wild places we loved to visit. Perhaps he is there now. I really hope so.
In the spring we will take his ashes to his favourite woods, and say goodbye to him properly. For now there is nothing that can take away the hurt of having to say goodbye to Farley, but then there is nothing that can take away the lovely memories of a friendly little soul who it has been my privilege to share these years with.
Good boy Farley. I will miss you.
Farley Amberry, 26/1/06 - 17/12/12