In January we adopted Bernie. To say the last 8 months have been challenging and not what we expected would be an understatement.
We got Bernie from a very well known and reputable rescue shelter in the area. We were told he was around 2 years old, had no aggression issues, and that he was great with cats. When we went to meet him he seemed indifferent towards David and I, but he and Sophie, our 2 year old Peekapoo, instantly clicked. We even tested him with the shelter’s cats since we had 3 at home. He had no real reaction to them. Once we brought him home, and he started to get comfortable, it became clear we were going to have a few issues.
It became evident that he had trust issues and severe anxiety resulting in frequent anxiety attacks, which for a shelter dog, was pretty understandable. Then our vet informed us that Bernie was closer to 10 years old than 2. We learned he had a pretty serious heart condition that would require daily medication for the rest of his life. He had to have about 15 teeth pulled over 3 separate appointments and we had treat a pretty bad ear infection that the shelter vet somehow missed.
After being with us for a few weeks he started to get aggressive toward David and I. We figured it was because he was in pain from his teeth and ear infection, but the biting continued after both issues were fully treated and healed. He would nip at us for trying to put on his harness to go on walks (now we only use a collar), if we tried to brush him, or if we gently nudged him off the couch to go outside at night. We had a full body x-ray and other tests done to make sure there weren’t any other injuries that could be causing pain and his aggression. There weren’t.
Then he started going after the cats. And I’m not talking about playfully chasing them. He wants to hurt them. So we have had to separate the house into two halves – the downstairs dog domain and the upstairs cat domain. I have to split my time between both floors to make sure each group is getting enough care and attention. The cats that used to be my shadows now sit at the top of the stairs wanting to come down, but they are unwilling to take the risk.
Now 8 months in, David and I have learned Bernie’s triggers that cause him to lash out. We can usually tell when he is experiencing anxiety by his body language and we make sure to give him his space. 95% of the time he is a loving, happy, loyal dog who just wants to sit next to us and get belly rubs. It’s clear when he does react aggressively, it’s coming from a place of anxiety and fear. If I raise my hand to throw a toy for Sophie, he cowers and runs to hide afraid that I am raising my hand to hit him. He was clearly abused in the past and has a very sad history, but that knowledge doesn’t excuse his behavior or make it any easier to deal with.
This past weekend, Sophie and Bernie managed to get past the baby gate and get upstairs. Before David and I could react Bernie bit Penelope, one of the cats, pulled her off our bed by his teeth, and then tried to go for her after she landed on the floor. It was pure chaos while David tried to grab Bernie, I tried to grab Penelope, and Lily, the fearless cat, tried to attack Bernie. Penelope was fine, no broken skin or wounds, and relatively calm afterward, but I was a wreck.
I live with guilt every day that I brought Bernie into our house and created a dangerous environment for the cats. I feel guilty that they are stuck upstairs. I also feel heartbreaking sadness for Bernie. He got dealt a shit hand in life and he didn’t deserve any of it. Neither David or I could ever give him up. He is part of our family. We love him. We couldn’t abandon him. Plus, as a senior dog with aggression issues and a heart condition that is expensive to treat, he would likely never find another home. And if by some miracle he did, there’s a chance he’d be put down at the first sign of aggression. We took on the responsibility of being his people and we take that responsibility seriously. However, I am also responsible for the safety of the cats. I feel like I am in an impossible position. The silver lining is that Bernie and Sophie are absolutely inseparable.
We’ve been working with a trainer and will continue to do so to try to curb his aggression towards us and the cats. She is able to keep Bernie calm and seemingly indifferent around the cats and she believes it’s possible to make him safe around them, but David and I need to work on our ability to keep him calm when she isn’t there.
Adopting a dog with a difficult past isn’t easy. It’s been a chaotic and stressful 8 months, but being able to see Bernie begin to trust and open up, and to give him the love he deserves has been an amazingly rewarding experience. We still have a lot of work to do, but we’re committed to Bernie and making our house a safe and happy home for everyone.