Saying goodbye to a loyal friend

September 28, 1998|By Melissa Dribben

PSYCHOTIC DOGS and convicted killers have a lot in common. Bad chemistry, bad influences, bad luck and stress. It's a demonic combination of factors that turns them from someone's sweet baby into a dangerous misfit.

Having loved a lunatic dog, I understand how you make excuses you can't justify and take chances with other people's safety. You reach a point where love isn't blind, it's just selfish.

Which is why our 9-year-old Springer Spaniel is on death row.

Running out of options

Sometimes, no matter how well-loved a problem dog might be, no matter how hard you try to teach and punish, medicate and remediate -- he snaps. When he does, the puncture wound he leaves in his victim's calf leaves you needing stitches in the heart.

Each year, 4.5 million people in this country are bitten by dogs; 334,000 land in emergency rooms. Willoughby is responsible for relatively few.

He was born on a farm near Harrisburg, Pa., I plead ignorance. I didn't know when we found the ad in the newspaper nine years ago that there are breeders who think "purebred" means keeping all the DNA within one family.

The puppy's father was a champion. His mother, I met. She seemed like a good citizen. I was given his papers, he was given his shots.

There were early signs of dysfunction. Previous dogs I've raised were housebroken within weeks. Willoughby took months. He wailed at night, mauled rugs by day. In obedience school, the instructor made him stay after class.

"This guy's a challenge," was how he put it. But what a kisser. Eyes deep as fjords. Freckled nose. Sloppy grin. When you scratch him behind the ears, he thanks you with this grateful, guttural purr.

bTC We practiced, we heeled, we sat, we stayed. And when he graduated, he received the "most improved student" award.

At 2, he jumped the fence. We raised the pickets a foot. He vaulted them. We put nails on the ends. He cleared them, not caring when they scraped his belly.

Still, the danger was mostly to himself. Until one day, fetching sticks, he took off into the woods and nipped a 6-foot-something fullback of a man.

As a first offender, he was put under house arrest. But we live on a busy street, kids coming and going. He would do it again. The city had his number. We took him to a shrink. Behavior specialists told us he was anxious. Confused. But not beyond redemption.

Drug treatment

They put him on anti-depressants and us on a rigorous behavior-modification program. It worked for a while. We believed he was rehabilitated.

Then he nailed a pianist, an innocent passerby, in the knuckle. I saw our kids' college tuition go up in smoke as I poured peroxide on the scrape.

We tried to return the dog to the breeder. She had disappeared. We tried to find someone to adopt him. No one was that crazy. We tried stronger medication, bought an invisible fence.

Last weekend, we went out for breakfast. The last one to leave didn't slam the door, Willoughby escaped and, seized by one of his paranoid delusions, decided two people walking down the street were a threat.

When the police officer came to our door, Willoughby rolled over and begged for a belly rub. He's like the felons you read about, whose friends and relatives swear the guy they know would never hurt a flea. We're assuming he wants steak for his last meal.

In dog years, he's 63. Not bad, for a recidivist.

"You've done more than what 99 percent of pet owners would have," our vet reassured us. It wasn't enough.

In a few days, he'll be given a lethal injection, as I hold him and wish I could have done more.

Melissa Dribben is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Pub Date: 9/28/98

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