As many of you know, last week I was involved in making Skyler’s last day on Earth a good one. I have waited a week to share his story, and how the system failed him.
Before I begin, I will say that I have almost a decade of experience working with dogs, more than half that with aggressive and reactive ones. I am certified as both a trainer and a behavior consultant. I have served on multiple boards including for the organization that had custody of Skyler, worked with Humane Societies and Departments of Animal Services (animal control) and served as an expert witness in trials involving dogs. I have recommended humane euthanasia before; it is a call that always weighs heavily on my heart, but it is not one with which I am unfamiliar.
There are two other people who were as close to Skyler as I. There will be multiple accounts of what happened to him.
This is mine.
Skyler came to Meridian Canine Rescue as a transfer from a shelter. He was 10 months old, and was relinquished because his family didn’t have time for him. Skyler entered the shelter system for the crime of being a puppy. Based on the paperwork, he had no bite history at that time. Shortly into his stay with MCR, it was discovered that Skyler was a resource guarder; he reacted strongly to anyone who tried to take his food bowl. Despite multiple signs posted at his kennel front, including bold red ones screaming “Do not take his food bowl”, several times volunteers did not heed the warnings. There was a plethora of reasons: someone got into a groove and didn’t realize it was Skyler’s kennel; someone tried to take ice cream from him; someone took his food bowl before he’d been taken out of his kennel for his walk. Always, there was something.
As not only a volunteer but one of their consulting trainers at the time, I made a number of recommendations to the Board of Directors and the Executive Director to help keep Skyler’s stress level down and to avoid any further incidents of aggression due to resource guarding. One of these recommendations was a simple padlock or combination lock on his door to deter people from “accidentally” walking in – which is what precipitated one of the incidents that ultimately led to his demise. I was told by the Executive Director that this would not happen as it would never remain locked anyways and taking time to unlock his kennel at each walking shift would add unnecessary time to the shift.
It was “too time consuming” to unlock a padlock.
I took Skyler on extra long walks for enrichment, and we did a lot of training both inside and outside the facility. Skyler was incredibly responsive to training and eager to please. He was intelligent and food motivated; any trainer will tell you this makes for a pretty good student. We worked on impulse control to help with his resource guarding; I have several videos of him leaving high-value food (chicken breast) alone when I asked him to. I used counter-conditioning and desensitization to address his stranger danger. On one of our last walks, we sat across the street from a man mowing a lawn. Skyler checked out the man and could redirect his attention to me without reacting aggressively. This was leaps and bounds beyond what he was able to do when we first began working together.
Throughout my time working with him I mentioned several times that we needed a behavioral team, a group of volunteers who would be confident handling Skyler (and the other behavioral cases currently at the rescue) and implementing a behavior modification plan to help him. I was brushed off each time. The fact that I didn’t continue to push harder will haunt me until I can apologize to him at the Bridge. I continued working with him myself, but with a full time job running my business I could not be there daily to provide the consistent enrichment and training he needed to be rehabilitated.
As a member of the Board during Skyler’s time with MCR, I bear some of the burden and so much of the guilt of his death. While I sat on the board, we fundraised for medical conditions. We fundraised to offset adoption fees. We campaigned for a million different things; all of our requests were met by the incredibly generous community. Never once during Skyler’s year-long stay was there a fundraiser or any concerted effort to help him. Despite pushing heavily to help with a dog there that has mega esophagus, one that had extreme separation anxiety to the point that he could literally not be left alone ever, and yet another that shied away from people whenever they approached there was never once a campaign to help Skyler. He sat in his kennel like a dirty little secret as his world became smaller and smaller and his interaction with humans was minimized.
In November of last year, all of the at-risk dogs were addressed. An enrichment program was set in place and all of the staff were made aware of the protocols that needed to be followed. This program lasted roughly two weeks before the priority level slipped and the dogs were no longer getting what they needed. I was told the staff “didn’t have time” to do the things needed to help these dogs. Every day tasks needed to be tended to.
December 2017 was my final month on the board of directors at Meridian Canine Rescue. At that time, I developed a step-by-step customized behavior modification plan to be implemented to help Skyler (in addition to several other at-risk dogs). I offered this for free, in exchange for a contract signed by the board agreeing to keep my information and protocols proprietary.
Let me be clear here: behavior modification is what I do for a living. I’ve designed and implemented these plans successfully with clients for years. I offered the rescue my plan at no charge. All I needed was a promise from the board to keep the information proprietary. The board reviewed the letter my lawyer drafted, and the Executive Director said they should have their lawyer look at it. I agreed. No further action was ever taken and as a result, none of the behavioral cases were helped.
As I realized more and more that follow-through by the staff directly involved with the organization’s day-to-day functions was waning, I became frustrated. When I finally came to the conclusion that the Executive Director was not implementing any measures to help Skyler or any of the other behaviorally at-risk dogs, I resigned from the board. In January 2018, the entire board with the exception of 2 members resigned for similar reasons.
I should have stayed and spoken louder. I should have pushed harder. I should have continued to fight. Instead, I let my frustration with human politics interfere with helping the dogs and for my own mental health I walked away. It is a move that I know, with a heavy heart, contributed to Skyler’s death.
In March, I reached out to the interim President of the board. I reiterated my offer for Skyler’s behavior modification plan in exchange for proprietary status. Once again, I was told the board would review it. I heard nothing. The president states that she was under the impression that I would not share any of my materials after I’d resigned from the board. In her defense, I *did* ask that my materials not be used when I initially left; however, I spoke with her extensively in March and though she says she doesn’t remember this conversation, I have screen shots of the exchange.
I called the Executive Director directly and made the offer again. Yet again, she told me it would be reviewed. I am still confounded as to why a simple statement of privacy of intellectual property was so hard to provide.
As I continued to push the issue with the board and the executive director, Skyler continued to deteriorate. In the beginning of July, I was invited to a board meeting as one of 2 people with a vested interest in Skyler’s fate. Emotions ran high. Every single board member was notably quiet as I offered -for a third time – a lifeline for Skyler. This time I even offered to train several volunteers in the implementation of his behavior modification plan in order to maintain consistency. Between me and Paul, at least 2 other volunteers that had spoken to me directly, and at least 1 staff member I was confident we could do this. I stated in front of the whole board as well as all the staff members that I had made this offer before; I could see from some of their faces this was the first time they’d heard about it. The help I’d offered after leaving the board was never taken to the new board.
Instead of helping Skyler, it was evident at that meeting everyone was done with him. One board member asked for the opportunity to find a sanctuary or a rescue that had the resources to help Skyler. She was given until the end of the month.
A week and a half later, as we worked feverishly to find that haven for him the board convened again and moved Skyler’s euthanasia date up by a week and a half. Time was running out. I got the call that Skyler was scheduled to be put to sleep on Wednesday, July 18th at 11:30 AM. I made plans to take him for the day on Tuesday prior.
Monday evening, Paul Kline received a call from a trusted board member of another rescue who had both the space and time for Skyler. She had success rehabilitating aggressive dogs previously. We contacted staff at Meridian Canine Rescue, who was to take the offer to the executive director. The executive director refused to acknowledge or contact either me or the other person involved with this effort. We received no response from her.
I met with Paul on Tuesday afternoon. We took him to Eagle Island and I have never been so thankful that dogs live in the present. Skyler had no idea what was to come. Instead he ran happily up and down the river, investigated all the trees, played fetch with branches we threw up stream, drank my coffee and got a lot of love. He was a different dog when he was out of the kennel, not so high strung, not so anxious about everything. I like to think he was the happiest he’s been with both me and Paul there, exploring and frolicking and just being a dog – an opportunity he didn’t have very often over the year he stayed at the rescue.
While we were at Eagle Island, we documented Skyler being Skyler. We shared it on social media using the hashtag #SkylersLastDay. It was only once we’d that was done that we received any acknowledgement from Meridian Canine Rescue of Skyler’s Hail Mary offer. Apparently the rescue was receiving phone calls and emails from businesses and people who supported them asking what was going on. Of course no one knew about Skyler, because the rescue had never promoted him, never asked for outside help, never fundraised for him. Now everything came to a head.
As the board and executive director hashed everything out, I booked a hotel room for me and Skyler. He had no reprieve from his concrete floor and Kuranda bed for a whole year – no foster, not even a failed adoption. He deserved to sleep his last night on earth in a soft bed with someone he loved and trusted.
Another of Skyler’s trusted friends came to the hotel to offer Skyler a goodbye cheeseburger. He ate it, and then aggressed at her. There was no precursor to the incident. I grabbed his leash and his friend left. She went directly to the rescue and shortly thereafter I received a call that Skyler’s euthanization had been moved up to just an hour or so from then. I understood and supported this decision. At that point, seeing Skyler go after someone he’d always trusted and loved, I knew he’d decompensated so badly he’d reached a point of no return. The very best thing we could do for Skyler now was release him.
Paul was en route to the hotel and arrived at the same time as the executive director and a staff member. They gave him some treats with sedatives to calm Skyler enough to get him to the vet for the euthanization. Skyler had NEVER gone after Paul, yet he repeated the same scene described above. I have beautiful memories of Paul bringing him a pumpkin at Halloween, of watching Skyler relax and trust as he spent time with this person. Skyler trusted very few people, but when he did he made it worth the wait.
I will spare everyone the gory details of his death. We could not possibly have planned it any worse than it happened. He died in the back of my car. Although I was violently ill multiple times before it happened, I felt I owed it to Skyler to bear witness to his final moments. He was dying as a result of my inaction, as well as the inaction of Meridian Canine Rescue as a whole. As difficult as it was, Paul and I remained with him until he was gone. I held his head, and his other friend held his paws. We talked to him and recounted his final day and how much fun we all had together. We wished him well and kissed him goodbye.
There are other dogs at the rescue RIGHT NOW that are suffering terrible qualities of life. I will not call them out by name. The organization is aware of which dogs I am referring to.
I’m sharing this story because there were so many steps that could have been taken to help Skyler. Meridian Canine Rescue does amazing work; they save a lot of dogs. But the organization dropped the ball on this. Everyone needs to be held accountable, including me. The system failed him in so many ways. Not doing anything to address behavioral problems while the dog decompensates for a year is not acceptable.
I want Skyler’s death to mean something. If he had to die, I don’t want it to be in vain. I’ve shared his story in fervent hope of avoiding this same situation in the future. I’ve played three roles in this organization: regular volunteer, board member and trainer/behavior consultant. The knowledge I’ve gained within those three positions puts me in a unique spot to recognize where MCR could use some attention. A few recommendations so Skyler’s story is not repeated:
- Currently, one person (the executive director) decides who to bring in to the rescue. This includes behavior cases. No executive director of ANY other organization operates in a vacuum. If Meridian Canine Rescue knowingly takes on behavior cases, then more than one person needs to be involved in that decision.
- A behavioral team needs to be assembled for the rescue. This does not have to consist solely of trainers, but should include people who are comfortable handling dogs with behavior issues. If, as has been the case previously, there are not enough skilled volunteers to do this the rescue should stop bringing in those dogs.
- The rescue needs to have a trainer on staff. THIS NEEDS TO BE A PRIORITY when considering the budget. Skyler’s life may have taken a different direction if we’d been more diligent about monitoring and addressing his issues.
- Any dog that is at the rescue longer than 2 months should have a behavioral evaluation by a qualified trainer or behavior consultant.
- These assessments should be performed every 8 weeks until the dog is adopted.
- If during any of these assessments the dog shows behavioral signs of deterioration, intervention should be implemented immediately.
- The rescue needs to follow it’s own protocols. Having helped write and implement the euthanasia policy, I know it was not followed. Protocols are in place to be used as a road map, not subject to interpretation and only followed at the whims of those in power.
- If a dog is in the rescue longer than 6 months, a quality of life assessment should be done.
Although there were so many things that could have gone differently for Skyler, the most grievous injustice we did him was to keep him alive in a kennel 24/7 for over a year. No dog should live in a kennel with minimal interaction for that long.
Again, I want to reiterate that I am not without fault here. I contributed to Skyler’s death and I am dealing with that in my own way. But to allow an entire organization to fail a dog this catastrophically without acknowledging or sharing it with the public is to render Skyler’s death meaningless. And it shouldn’t be.
Shawna Dowd, KPA-CTP, ACDBC
Rest in peace, Skyler. May you run over that bridge and not be scared of anything any more.
July 17, 2018