Here’s the continuing series I never wanted to write, for two reasons:
- The topic is heartbreaking. I dreaded being in this position.
- I have already been on the receiving end of a lot of well-meaning, yet ignorant and judgemental, comments. My fear of such comments leads me to want to keep hush about this. My hope that if I speak up and explain what I’m going through, such comments will become more rare.
Thus, I am laying all my cards on the table and being brutally honest, because I hope it will lead to greater understanding of what owner-trainers go through in taking the gamble to train our own service dogs (SDs), as well as because I have increasing come to value transparency in my dealings with others, and vice-versa.
In a recent post, I revealed that I am facing the decision as to whether to wash Barnum out. I also explained what “washout” means and the reasons behind SD washouts. Please read that post for background if you are not familiar with these terms and issues.
This post focuses on the question that everyone asks first when I say I might need to wash Barnum out. . . .
But what about Barnum??
First, the answer to the question, then the explanation as to why this question feels less supportive to me than other first questions or comments.
So yes, unless I arrive at a worst-case-scenario, I plan to keep Barnum.
Mainly, this is because he is family now, and I love him. When I look into his eyes, I see the same eyes he had as a two-month-old puppy — a trusting, sweet, playful baby who relied on me for everything. He is handsome and loving and funny. He is a very sweet dog, and both because and despite my raising him, he has overall turned out quite well. With a few exceptions (his recall away from home needs a lot of work), he is a well-behaved, well-trained, obedient, happy pet.
Secondarily, I feel a responsibility to him. I took him as my own, for his whole life, and I believe in that responsibility. Shame and guilt factor into the equation, as well: I despise people who toss away a dog just because it does not meet their expectations, or because life circumstances become too challenging. These actions contribute to pet homelessness and death rates. How can I add to that problem? Could I live with myself if I rehomed him, even knowing that he could be very happy with almost anyone who was decent to him? This is where my own judgements of others comes back to bite me in the ass.
Of course, shame, guilt, or fear of what others might say is never a terrific reason to stay in any relationship, but it’s hard not to be influenced by them. This leads me to my next point.
Thirdly, and relatedly, there is fear of consequences, not just the judgements I have been facing, but more practical issues, as well. A big one is where will I get my next candidate if I take on a second dog? Rehoming Barnum would likely bring my chances of finding another suitable SD candidate to almost nil, as responsible breeders and rescue organizations are not keen to place a dog with someone who has given one up (for obvious and justifiable reasons). While there are a lot of dogs out there in the world who needs home, 99 percent or more of them are not the right dog for me. This is because, not only do I need a dog who is a suitable SD candidate (a hard enough thing to come by, in itself), I need one who is suitable for me, which means not just suited to my lifestyle and particular service needs, but also a hypoallergenic, large-breed dog. Slim pickin’s.
There are other, happier reasons for keeping Barnum. One is that he has already learned some service skills– and quite a lot else. In terms of service skills, he has mastered shutting cupboards and drawers and the refrigerator door. He is well on his way to shutting full-size doors, alerting me effectively to my infusion pump alarm and my digital timer, and walking back and forth with me from bed to bathroom. Thus, even if I need to train another dog, it’s possible Barnum could still be of help to me some of the time at home while I train my next candidate to be the more complete package. Barnum could be my back-up SD. Or, they could share the job. Barnum has always been extremely sound-aware, and he might be the best sound alert dog I’ll ever have.
Another reason is that if I got a second dog, this might help Barnum and me in our training. Maybe with the pressure off both of us, we’d both be happier, we’d work better together, he’d mature, and we’d end up making it after all.
It’s also possible that having a full-time competitor and role model would work well to both dogs’ advantage, so that thereby making training of each easier, more effective and efficient. (So far, Barnum has shown amazingly little interest in my working other dogs while he’s around, but he might feel differently if the other dog was family.)
Further, although this is hard to predict, sometimes one plus one does not equal two, but instead equals one-and-a-half or four. In other words, sometimes you get a second dog, and the two dogs help exercise and entertain each other, learn good manners from each other, and otherwise make life easier for all involved. Conversely, sometimes you get a second dog, and all the work for both doubles — they learn undesirable behavior from each other, they don’t get along, you have to do long training sessions individually with each, etc. It’s an X factor, for sure.
This is where the “last resort” issue comes into play. In a worst-case scenario, I do decide I can no longer afford to spend all my time, energy, money, and hope on Barnum, and I need to find a new candidate. Then, for whatever reasons, the new dog is working out well, but it becomes completely untenable for me to keep Barnum because he is interfering with the new dog’s ability to train, or they hate each other, or I can’t afford the physical, emotional, financial, and other outlays for two dogs.
Actually, that’s the second-to-worst-case scenario. The absolute worst-case scenario is that I get a second dog, and — whether or not I keep Barnum — after spending a year on the new dog, I need to wash her out, too. Then what? I end up with three dogs? Or I go through the process all over again, and I keep rehoming them and end up with a reputation in the dog world comparable to Attila the Hun? Or — if I wasn’t so afraid of guns — I could just shoot myself.
For these and other reasons, I’m considering that if it doesn’t work out with Barnum, I will just give up on dogs, altogether. I just don’t know if I can stand the heartbreak anymore.
(Note: If I sound depressed, it’s because I am. What’s happening with Barnum is devastating, and there are other things going on in my life that are equally or more heartbreaking, so that’s not helping the situation any.)
Why do I feel pained when I tell someone I might have to wash out Barnum, and their first question is, “But you’re going to keep Barnum, aren’t you? What are you doing with him?”
One reason this is hard to hear is that some people definitely have a judgement already in place about my “giving up on” Barnum, or an assumption that because I say I am “heartbroken” over grappling with the decision as to whether to wash him out or not, that this automatically means I’m giving him up. As one very important person in my life said, “So, you’re just going to trade him in when you find something better?”
The second reason is that I might get the impression that the person I’m talking to cares less about my needs and well-being than they do about Barnum remaining in their lives, or that Barnum’s life not be disrupted in any way. And that is really not my primary concern; it’s not the most immediate issue I’m facing.
The most immediate issue I’m facing is, “How do I decide whether to keep going with training or not? What factors should I consider? Am I weighing them all in a way that takes into account what is best for Barnum as well as what is best for me? How much longer can I go on struggling and facing this uncertainty?” And so much more.
Before I can even get to the question of whether I’d rehome Barnum, I have to face the question as to whether I’m washing him out or not, and that is a humongous decision. I’ll explain more about that in my next post.
Huh. It occurs to me, now that I’ve written this post, that this also is appropriate for the Assistance Dog Blog Carnival coming up, on the theme of “reactions,” because this is about how people react to the news that I’m considering washing out Barnum. The AD world is full of reactions!
– Sharon, the muse of Gadget, and Barnum (SDiT?)
P.S. Thank you so much to those who donated to Carol, whom I interviewed in my previous post. If just a few of you donate $10 or $20 in the next two weeks, Carol will be able to have a puppy temperament tested and begin training. Thank you for your generosity!