A question I’ve been getting a lot lately: “What happened to your dog???” I get this question via email, through blog comments, on Instagram, Facebook and in person. It’s taken me awhile to put together my response because it’s a painful one. But today, I’m ready to share.
The Tail of Genevieve (aka Gigi) the Hound
Gigi showed up emaciated and covered in scratches in our friends’ yard in late September. They (and we) tried to locate her owner, but she came with no tags and no one responded to our advertisements with her photo. We took her to the vet to scan her for a microchip and she didn’t have one. Our theory is that she was a bear hunting dog who got lost from her pack and couldn’t find her way back to them. Our friends kept her at their home for a few days and then planned to take her to a shelter as they already have a dog and can’t keep a second. We had a chance to meet Gigi and spend time with her and we knew we couldn’t let her go to a shelter. So, we brought her home! She joined our family on October 3, 2022.
Our friends named her Gigi (for good girl) and we all loved her–the kids especially. She was a perfect dog who loved hiking, didn’t bark and (mostly) followed directions. However: she could not be left home alone. At all.
The Cannot-Be-Left-Alone Saga
We crate trained Gigi (as we’d done with our previous dog) and she loved her crate. She’d elect to go in there while we were home, would happily nap in the crate, slept in there every night and utilized it to avoid our children’s constant attention. We assumed this crate training would also work when we left the house, as it had with our previous dog. It did not.
Poor Gigi had a panic attack every time we left the house, no matter how long we were gone.
1) We figured there must be a behavioral remedy so we sought out a dog trainer who gave us a regimen to follow.
Among other things, this entailed leaving the house for brief periods (~30 seconds to start) and returning to praise her if she was quiet. However, we were never able to work up to an absence of longer than five minutes before Gigi began to panic.
We worked with the trainer in person and she was flummoxed by Gigi’s panic response to our absence since she was such a calm, well-adjusted dog around people.
2) Then, we figured there must be a technological solution.
We installed a camera so that we could observe her behavior in the crate and report back to the dog trainer. This did not help. So, the trainer suggested a camera-treat-dispenser combo thingy, which does exactly what it sounds like: you observe the dog through the camera and remotely dispense a treat into the crate if the dog is being calm. This did not help.
3) Finally, we assumed there’d be a medical solution.
And so began the many, many vet visits. We’d already done all of the behavioral modifications/training the vet recommended and so, they prescribed a mild anti-anxiety medication. That did not work. The vet next prescribed a mild sedative. Also ineffective. Next up was a mild tranquilizer. And on and on… all to no effect.
Here’s the full list of techniques we attempted (that I can remember):
- Long hikes (4+ miles) prior to leaving Gigi alone:
- One theory was that she hadn’t had enough exercise prior to being left alone, so we hiked her for longer and longer distances.
- This did nothing to help.
Different crates and different locations in the house:
- Tried everywhere; did not help.
- Exciting treats and toys in the crate:
- The treats would work for the first 15-20 minutes, after which the panicked behavior would set in.
- A camera trained on the crate to monitor behavior
- A remote-controlled treat dispenser so that we could remotely dispense a treat into the crate if Gigi was calm
- Six different prescription medications at varying dosages and combinations. Plus some natural vitamins!
- A white noise machine
- The radio
- Having her sleep in the crate every night (which she did with no problem since we were home)
Ultimately, none of this worked and we could not leave her home alone for any period of time. Ever. If we did, Gigi would have a panic attack and poop and pee in the crate and pace endlessly in circles. This happened every single time we left the house for longer than 5 minutes.
I washed both dog and crate more times than I can count.
We realized that, as an active family with little kids, it’s not tenable for one adult to always stay home with the dog. It’s also not possible for us to take a dog with us everywhere we go. Recognizing that we could not live this way–with one adult always staying home OR the knowledge that we’d return home to a panicked, poop-covered dog–we had to give Gigi up.
Giving Gigi Up
After four months of trying to help Gigi learn to stay home alone, we acknowledged that we simply could not keep her. We were heartbroken, but did not see another option. I located a foster-based rescue organization that had a space for Gigi and, after an initial visit, they accepted her. What they discovered is that she does fine alone in a house IF there are other dogs present. They confirmed that she cannot ever be left alone, but that as long as she has a pack–either human or canine–she’s fine.
The rescue organization–and we–share the assumption that Gigi was originally a bear hunting dog, which means she likely always lived with a lot of other dogs. They report that Gigi is now adopted and doing just fine in her new family with many other dogs. It’s painful to write about this because we loved Gigi and wanted to keep her.
However, I also had to accept the reality that creating a family dynamic where either: 1) one parent always stays home and doesn’t attend events with the family; OR 2) the family returns home to an hour+ of work to bathe the dog, calm the dog and wash the crate, is not reasonable or tenable.
During our time with Gigi, we didn’t go to church as a family, we didn’t go to school events as a family, we rarely skied as a family…. and the list goes on. We had to accept that this isn’t the way we want to raise our kids and, it was putting a lot of stress and pressure on us parents, which the kids noticed and were internalizing.
What I Learned
I learned a lot during this brief and tumultuous Gigi experience. Chiefly, I realized that we rushed into dog ownership. We didn’t fully consider the ramifications and we let our hearts get ahead of our heads. I still wish we had a dog, but I’m also at peace with our lack of dog because right now, our kids are my priority. It did not feel like the right trade-off to always leave a parent at home to babysit the dog.
It has taken me quite awhile to write about this because I feel like a failure of a dog parent.
I am comforted by the knowledge that when Gigi came to us, she was malnourished and had been living rough in the woods for who knows how long. We gave her lots of food, love and a warm bed. And we got her spayed, all of her shots, and adopted into another loving family (with other dogs!). When I remind myself of that perspective, I don’t feel so bad. But when the kids mention how much they miss Gigi, I feel a little stab in my heart.
I wish we could’ve made it work with Gigi and, I will tell you, we spent over $2,000 trying to make it so. $2,373.25 to be exact. I tallied up our Gigi costs, just out of curiosity and here’s what I came up with:
|Spaying + foster and adoption costs||$600.00||We decided to pay the foster organization who took Gigi for their costs related to fostering, adopting and spaying.|
|First vet visit, vaccinations, tests, de-worming, microchipping||$497.78||Since she’d been in the woods alone for an indeterminate amount of time, she needed extensive vaccinations, testing and medications to de-worm, etc.|
|Vet visit and medications||$227.60|
|Vet visit and medications||$186.60|
|Food, beds, treats, toys||$183.98|
|Dog trainer||$150.00||Sessions with the dog trainer|
|Food, treats and toys for Christmas||$101.27|
|Camera & remote treat dispenser||$99.99||The combination camera and remote treat dispenser, which we used in an attempt to reward her when she was calm in the crate (affiliate link).|
|Dog snow booties||$37.40|
|2 XL dog Kongs||$35.93||Two of these extra-large kongs in an attempt to keep her calm while home alone in her crate (affiliate link).|
|Christmas stocking for Gigi||$35.00|
|High-visibility orange vest for hiking||$33.25|
|Camera to observe crate||$28.78||We got this camera to observe her crate before we bought the camera/treat dispenser combo thing (affiliate link).|
|Town Dog License||$13.00|
I’m thankful we had the financial ability to sink this much money into trying to keep Gigi and I don’t regret spending it because it was in service of our desperate attempt to have a sweet family dog. But, it is an eye-opener to the potential unexpected costs of pet ownership.
Our previous dog–Gracie the greyhound–was cheap by comparison. She cost us ~$930 annually versus the $2,373 we spent on Gigi during her four months with us. Pets are a lot like kids in that respect: you know they’re going to cost you, but you never know exactly how much it’ll be.
This isn’t a cautionary tale to never adopt a pet, but rather, an illumination of the potential costs of welcoming an animal into your life. I think pets deliver an outsized return on investment through love, companionship and general cute antics, but its salient to remember that they are an expense. A significant one in some cases.
Will You Get Another Dog?
Not right now. Honestly, we’re still pretty heartbroken over Gigi and not ready to go down the dog road again. All four of us love dogs (well, Littlewoods remains somewhat on the fence), but it just doesn’t feel practical for our active lifestyle. Now that our kids are older (ages 5 and 7) and the pandemic is in remission, we can actually go places as a family! Pre-pandemic, our kids were babies, then Covid took over, so now it finally feels like we can do family excursions. We go on day-trips to museums, parks, beaches and more. We’ve gone skiing for a full day as a family and taken the kids out to restaurants as a treat. We can spend as much time outside in our woods as we want without timing our entrances and exits to the house to ensure the dog is ok.
Right now, I’m savoring this stage of life where our kids still WANT to hang out with us and find everything we do FASCINATING. I want to feed their curiosity and expose them to arts, culture, food! I want the freedom–financial and otherwise–to do that to the fullest. In light of this articulation of our priorities and values, we’ve decided to hold off on pets for the foreseeable future.
Dog-sitting = The Perfect Part-Time Pet Solution
To soothe the dog-sized hole in our hearts, we dog-sit for our friends’ dogs when they go out of town! Most of our friends have dogs, so this is perfect. The kids ADORE when a dog comes to stay and it’s a wonderful few days of having a dog. Then the dog goes home. This is great by me! I joke that I’m a dog aunt: I get the dog for a bit, spoil it real bad, then send it home. Also, I don’t have to pay for the dog. This is really working out for me…. ;).
I don’t have a neat little bow to put on this story. I just offer a reflection on the fact that sometimes things do not go to plan. Sometimes you spend a ton of money and time on a dog who can’t stay with your family. Sometimes you break your kids’ hearts. This whole experience is a reminder to me that I’m not in control. I’m embarrassed and ashamed that we couldn’t figure out a way to keep Gigi, but I’m also at peace with our decision because I know it was the best for our family.
Quick Side note on the Recent Vermont Floods
We are ok! Thank you to everyone who reached out to check on us and offer assistance! You all are very kind. I’ll put a full update in my next Monthly Expense Report, but the short version is that, while our town was hit hard, our house stayed mercifully dry. Our quarter-mile long driveway, however, was largely eaten by the torrential rain… again, we’re fine, but talk about another unexpected expense! More soon.