99 Problems A girl with brown skin, black hair, and a hoodie puts her arm around a black and brown dog. There is a filter that makes the photo look like a painting.

Published on January 16th, 2024 | by Carissa Christner


The Rest of Winston’s Forever

I had never considered myself a dog person. When we bought our first house we brought home two calico farm cats from a friend. We didn’t have kids yet, and those cats became our “babies.” Especially during the years that we were trying (and failing) to get pregnant.

After seven years of being cat parents, we adopted a son, Gabe. Four years later, we adopted a daughter, Isa. When she began asking for a dog around age three, we told her our now elderly kitties would be scared by a dog. She began hoping the cats would die soon. Our cat Ginger passed at age 16 after sudden liver failure, and her sister MaryAnn woke up one morning when she was nearly 20 years old, unable to use her back legs. We had had them both put to sleep peacefully in our arms by in-home pet euthanasiaists.  

The same day that we put MaryAnn to sleep, Isa started asking how soon we were going to get a dog. We knew we wanted a low maintenance dog. Already house-trained, able to sleep through the night, short hair, low exercise needs. My husband requested no small, yippy dogs. I didn’t want to get a huge dog because I didn’t want one that I couldn’t lift in an emergency. My mother, who lives nearby, requested that we not get a pit bull. Isa wanted a dog that was cute (spoiler: all dogs are cute to Isa).

Armed with this wish list and a sense of hopeful excitement, we combed through the adoptable dogs on the websites of local rescue groups. One of the websites had added helpful notes to each dog’s profile with phrases like “good with kids” or “good for apartments” and my favorite helpful phrase, “good for beginning dog owners.” To me, this was the magical phrase that would illuminate our path to the perfect, easy dog.

The shelter that had picked up “Little Jr” as a stray in Texas had guessed that he was part Bernese Mountain Dog. Research into this breed showed that they were great with kids (sometimes called a babysitter dog!), gentle and strong (they were bred to pull sleds delivering cheese through the Alps) and yet needed surprisingly little exercise. That sounded PERFECT. My children both have birth families from Texas and I had spent my own high school years there as well, so it felt like we already had a special connection to Little Jr. I began to dream about buying a dog cart so that he could give Isa rides.

I was a bit concerned that the foster had described him as a “house horse,” which sounded huge. She also mentioned how cute it was that when confronted with new, unfamiliar situations (like the scale at the vet’s) he would get down on his belly and crawl low. A dog-loving friend of mine taught me that this was actually an anxiety behavior. But surely once he settled in with us and felt safe, his anxiety would go away, right? And if it didn’t, I’d dealt with my own anxiety and my kids’ anxiety, so we knew how to deal with anxiety, right?

We rushed to put in our application to adopt. When we met Little Jr. (who was, to my relief, considerably shorter than a horse), we held onto his leash for dear life while he galloped all over the yard. This didn’t seem to match the foster’s description of him having “good leash manners,” but I rationalized that he was just over-excited since we were unfamiliar people. Isa fell in love with him immediately and after the required 24-hour waiting period, we came back to pick him up and give him a new name: Winston.

A girl with brown skin and black hair and a hoodie puts her arm around a black and brown dog wearing a purple bandana

We did all of the things — signed him up for pet insurance. Bought him a dog license tag. Found a good vet for anxious pets. We took him to pet shops to pick out his own toys and treats and to socialize him around other people and pets and unfamiliar settings. I signed up for some online positive dog-training classes. I sewed him special neckerchiefs to help to soften his somewhat intimidating looks so that strangers would react positively to him. We scheduled a private, in-home visit with a dog behaviorist to learn more about Winston and his anxiety. 

During those first few weeks, Winston would sometimes surprise us by barking angrily at my son or growling menacingly at my husband. We wondered if perhaps Winston had had some negative experiences with men in his past.

I loved taking Winston on walks. I met neighbors I’d never spoken to before. We exchanged dog names or at least a smile and a wave. I didn’t love that he’d nearly rip me off of my feet every time a rabbit or squirrel crossed our path or that he was too strong in those moments for our kids to safely take him for his walks.

One day, while at work, I got a gut-punching text from my husband, “The dog just bit your dad. On his leg. Scratched the skin, but didn’t break it.” 

“Was it playful? Or was he acting scared? Maybe have dad feed him some treats to let Winston know he’s friendly?”

A few minutes later, I got a text from my son, “Now we have to kill Winston.”

“No we don’t,” I said, trying to reassure myself as much as him, “Chill out.”

We got DNA testing done on Winston and found out that not only was he NOT a Bernese Mountain Dog, he was actually a mix of German Shepherd, Pit Bull, Staffordshire Terrier and, oddly, Golden Retriever. I didn’t tell my mom about the Pit Bull part.

Although Winston’s reactions to my dad escalated frighteningly with each visit, we managed to avoid another bite. “You need to get rid of that horrible dog,” my mom said. 

I couldn’t give up on him. I realized this dog was basically an older adoptee with severe but unknown trauma. As someone who has learned a lot about trauma and is parenting two adopted children, I knew deep down that some wounds aren’t really “fixable.” I reassured myself that dogs and humans are different and surely we’d be able to figure this out. We just needed time.

We took Winston on a lakehouse vacation. We also brought along my kids’ two best friends. During that weekend, there were two separate, unprovoked and startling instances when he reacted ferociously to the friends. Thankfully, no one was actually hurt, but we were all shaken.

The dog behaviorist came over for a special session with my dad and after seeing how Winston reacted to him she took a deep breath and started listing all of the complex steps it would take for us to try to remedy the situation. She ended with the caveat that it might take years of work and that he might not ever LIKE my dad, but if we worked at it consistently, perhaps we could get him to tolerate my dad. 

“Maybe you’re just not dog people,” the behaviorist said. My heart dropped. I had been trying my best to learn to be “a dog person” because Isa so clearly loves dogs and I didn’t want my general preference for cats to become yet another thing that made us different from each other. In the world of transracial adoption, there are already so many ways that family members don’t always “match” each other as biological families do. This had seemed like one difference that I thought I had some control over. But perhaps I didn’t.

I couldn’t imagine keeping this dog for the next five or more years, he was simply too dangerous for inexperienced owners like us and I missed being able to have my parents come visit. I couldn’t imagine having to tell Isa that we had to give up this dog, that we’d adopted into our family, who slept in her bed each night, who actually helped her to feel safe from some of her own anxieties (clearly, no “robbers” were going to be able to hurt her with Winston around!). Was she going to worry that we might give her away if she misstepped? Why, oh WHY do we use the same word for adopting children and pets (and littered stretches of highways…. don’t get me started.)?

Close-up of a lunging German shepherd's open mouth
Image by 12019 from Pixabay

We called a family meeting. We worried that he might seriously hurt someone. We really loved Winston, but it was becoming clear that we were not the right family for him. He was not “good for beginning dog owners.”

With a heavy heart, I called the rescue group to let them know that we needed to surrender him back to them for rehoming. There were no open foster spots that Winston could go to, but they offered to list him on their website as “available for adoption” and to let us know as soon as a foster spot opened up.

A few days later, while out on a walk, Winston bit a passerby. The man had reached out the back of his hand for Winston to sniff and to everyone’s surprise, Winston had snarled viciously and before we could stop him, he’d bitten the man’s arm. He tore the man’s sleeve, but only grazed his skin. My heart dropped even further. Who would take a dog with such unpredictable and dangerous behaviors? Was it irresponsible of us to even try to find him new owners?

I bought Winston a muzzle. I trained him how to use it by smearing a little peanut butter on the inside to keep him busy while I buckled it on. I soon discovered that when you take a large muzzled dog for a walk, people look at you sideways.  They cross the street and hurry by. No one stops to ask what your dog’s name is. Daily dog walks began to feel like a walk of shame. I wanted to shout, “I’m not abusing my dog! We’re not scary people! Don’t judge us by our dog, please?”

Winston began peeing inside the house. Always in the only room with wall-to-wall carpet, of course. We started crating him anytime we had visitors to keep them safe. He barked incessantly.

I checked back with the rescue group. There had been no inquiries about Winston. They suggested I try other rescue groups or the Humane Society. No one in town was accepting local surrenders and the Humane Society had a waiting list three weeks long just to get a phone call to talk to someone about the options for a pet-surrender situation. I added his profile to their rehoming websites and we waited.

Then, Winston bit my husband’s hand. Again, not hard enough to break the skin, but this felt like a line crossed. My husband was not an intruder or a stranger. He was a member of the household, of the family. He’d given Winston walks, fed him food and treats, played with him. My heart dropped again.

Finally, our date to speak with the Humane Society arrived. It was a short call. As soon as they heard that he had bitten three people, they declared him ineligible for adoption and suggested that we schedule euthanasia.  “Be sure to bring a muzzle,” they said. We hung up the phone and I wept.

Paw print in soil
Photo by Nathália Arantes on Unsplash

I called the original rescue group one last time. I told them that we had no other options.  They put out an urgent call for a foster spot. Miraculously, someone responded with an interest in coming to meet Winston! Hope surged within me. 

The prospective fosters came to meet him the next evening. I’d taken Winston for a short walk around the block to try to blow off both of our anxieties, but when we returned home to find them pulling into our driveway, he went into guard dog mode. It was all I could do to hold him back. He grabbed the man’s shirttail in his teeth and pulled so hard that all of the buttons popped off. My heart fell into my shoes as I knew what we had to do. 

It was hard enough when I thought we were just going to have to give him away to someone else who could take better care of him. How could I possibly tell Isa that Winston had to die because of his dangerous behavior? She herself has struggled with explosive and sometimes harmful behaviors. She was adopted from Texas. What if she even entertained for a moment the horrifying thought that we’d “euthanize” her for being too dangerous? 

I made an appointment with our fear-free vet for a behavioral euthanasia. He had already had several visits to this office and knew it as a happy place FULL of treats. I wanted him to be as relaxed as possible, not somewhere unfamiliar and scary that would require him to be muzzled.

On his last day, we fed him eggs and sausages and several fast food burgers. We took a nice long walk together. He got to ride in the car everywhere we went that day (he LOVED riding in the car) and then we drove him to his appointment. In the vet’s office, we fed him chocolate kisses so that he could taste chocolate. We gave him hugs and lots of pets while they administered the shots.  We lit a candle and talked about all of the things we loved about him. His super soft ears. His deep and loyal affection for Isa. How he took treats so gently from our fingers. And then we said goodbye.

Isa and I cried and raged together. It wasn’t fair! I felt like an utter failure. I had let Isa down. I had let Winston down. There weren’t books about this to read together to help us feel better. Winston didn’t have a diagnosable illness. Winston wasn’t old. He wasn’t in an accident. How do you not think about the parallels with capital punishment for people? How do you tie a tidy bow on this kind of goodbye? How do you explain all of this to a child when your own mind is tangled up with big emotions about adoption and behavior concerns and feeling ill-equipped to take care of everyone? 

“Mama, I told Winston we’d be his forever family! Why did he have to die?” Isa asked.

I tried to reassure both of us by responding, “We were so scared that he might seriously hurt someone we love and we couldn’t take that risk. Remember, we were Winston’s family for the whole rest of his forever, so that part that you told him was the truth.”

I don’t regret the decision we made. But I’m haunted by everything that led to it—all of the complex unfairness in human and animal and family life. In the end, all we were able to do was give him the best four and a half months we could.

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About the Author

All of Carissa’s childhood pets were outdoor animals that arrived as strays or hand-me-downs. She now lives somewhere north of Texas with her currently petless family. She loves reading in hammocks and singing in multi-part harmony.

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