It Takes a While for the Heart to Catch Up with the Head: Lessons Learned from Dog Ownership

8 years ago we made the decision to bring a new family member to our household. Newly married, renting a house with this future decision in mind, we adopted a then-6-year-old corgi.

He became our first child. We outfitted his every perceived need and want. This included a coat, even though he had plenty of corgi fur. We laughed over his antics and introduced him to all our friends. We took tons of pictures and basically our lives revolved around him for the next few years.

We moved houses a few times and landed at our present address a little over 6 years ago. One of the things we liked about our house was its large fenced back yard.  It was perfect for our dog, so we felt it was also perfect for us.

On Friday, unbelievably, our time with our beloved dog came to an end. It was by our choice, and he has not passed away.  We were able to return him to the rescue group that we adopted him from, which, given all the possible outcomes of this scenario, and because we loved him too much to continue on as we were, was the best possible solution.

So what all transpired between the time we got him and our painful decision to rehome him? I’m recording these thoughts to process it all and perhaps help others going through a similar situation to ours. Even though having a baby six months ago was the tipping point for us, there were lots of other factors that were present early on that we should have addressed. Also, I have to grieve over this loss, as if he did pass away, because I know I’ll be beating myself up for letting him down for a long time.

Lesson One: Even if your dog is 6 years old, if your dog needs training, pay time and money to get that training. And also pay huge attention to temperament matching the energy level needed in your particular home.

We had experience with corgis, and when we got our dog and got to know him, we thought, “Wow, he has a lot of energy. But he’ll calm down eventually like the other corgi we knew.”

Wrong. Plain wrong.

The loud barking whenever he felt like it? Never stopped.  He had something to say about everything!

Jumping up and moving whenever you did, even if it was just to run into the kitchen to then return to the living room? Also never stopped.  He could never relax, and he was determined to witness our every movement, because he didn’t know any other way to be.

Jumping up on us whenever he wanted? Nope, never stopped.  He was insistent on showing his interest.

Marking in the house, despite taking him out more? Did not improve with lots of trips outside.

We also noted early on that our dog was aggressive toward other dogs, which made walking him or having him in the yard next to other people’s dogs in their yards a stressful time for all involved.

His disposition was NOTHING like the other corgi we knew.  This dog was always athletic, always on high alert.  My heart breaks to think what a great joy obedience training would have brought him.  He would have been great at running through obstacle courses, too. He wanted to please, was smart, and could learn new tricks easily.

We fooled ourselves into thinking there was plenty of time to fix these things – he will chill out, we reasoned, as we turned our attentions to other things on a daily basis.  Instead, we should have nipped all this unfavorable behavior in the bud and gotten training for all of us.

Lesson 2: Make exercising the dog a priority, especially if that’s what it needs to become more balanced (most of the time this IS what your dog needs more than anything).

This partially ties back to Lesson 1, in training, only it’s for the owner.  We should have made it a habit to get the training needed AND work on that training in the setting of going on walks.  This would have kept his mind more active, created a bonding time for us, and it would have tired him out a bit.

But because he wasn’t trained, walks were, frankly, a pain.  Even anticipating the walk became a pain.  What if there are other dogs we’ll pass? He’ll go bonkers.  What if there are dogs off leash that try to meet him?  What if he wants to sniff everything? We’ll never get anywhere.

For the early years we had him, we’d walk maybe three to four times a week.  But recently, as his back legs started the telltale lowrider doggy slipping (due to back problems), along with lack of time and the aforementioned stress generated just by thinking of walking him, I can’t tell you the last time we went on a walk.  I know it was a pretty short walk though, as he really did have a noticeable limp now.

Plus, we used the excuse that we had that back yard.  “He can just go run around.” Sadly, that is just not the same thing, and not what was needed.

Inside, without exercise, our dog would pace around.  He’d lick the floor for hours. He’d lick his paws.  Maybe unrelated, he’d bark maniacally at any “intruder” outside the window – squirrel, dog, cat, etc. He damaged our blinds and window sashes with his rage as he nosed his barking muzzle as close as he could to the source of his distress. His nails scratched the floors. If we were home but not downstairs with him, he’d wait at the bottom of the stairs, dejected and whining. It broke my heart if I had the brain width to offer – I was upstairs to take care of the baby, which of course takes a lot of time and energy unto itself.

Lesson 3: Provide the best type of space to suit your dog’s needs.

Looking back, our dog’s hind legs would have been better served by not having to go up and down the back deck stairs. There are about 8 steps, so about half a flight, from our deck down to the yard.  True, we didn’t let him up our stairs inside the house for this reason, but he still need to use the stairs out back to get to the yard to go to the bathroom.  I tried as much as I could to carry him, but there were many a time when I was zonked with lack of sleep and holding a crying baby and just couldn’t do it. I knew this meant he had an awkward and possibly painful descent down the stairs to the yard. This was a sign of things to come: I couldn’t meet this dog’s basic need to go to the bathroom in the yard.

Looking back, our particular type of dog needed a flat entrance in and out of the yard.  It would have made the last few years or so a lot easier on him.

Lesson 4: Don’t Judge Others on the choices they’ve made with regard to pet ownership: You don’t know the whole story and it’s a personal matter anyway. 

Eight years ago when we adopted our dog, I remember being completely critical of those who gave their dogs up for adoption. I had all kind of comments to offer on the topic.  How could they do that? The dog didn’t deserve it! How selfish! What a sweet dog, and how awful those people must have been to give it up.  I held some strong opinions of our dog’s prior owners, even though by giving him up, we were able to get him. Pretty hypocritical, eh?

Speaking of hypocrisy, the thought of rehoming our dog starting creeping into our minds.  The cognitive dissonance created by that thought dragged on me over the last while.  How could we do this?  What will others say, knowing how much we love him? How can I be supportive of animal rescue if I am contributing to the problem?

An underlying lesson here is that by not making a decision, we had made a decision.  The tug of war between sucking it up and honoring our original commitment versus doing what was probably best for all involved was a heavy matter that played out its battles for us on daily basis.  When I  first returned to work post-baby, the conversation came up. Then we got busy, tolerated the situation a little longer and decided not to decide, at least at that time.

Lesson 5: Recognize the situation early on and actively make the realization it won’t get better on its own. See above lessons and address the situation. 

Guilty as charged.  The long and short of it is that we were no longer providing the best home for our dog. We could have done things in the past to prevent us from being where we found ourselves. Despite very strong feelings of attachment, a commitment to keep this animal the rest of his life, we were experiencing a vicious cycle of not being able to address the situation due to lack of time and then having unpleasant interactions with him due to our lack of time with him.  None of this was his fault, but he was getting the blame all the same.

With heavy hearts, we knew what we needed to do to alleviate the situation because we knew we would not be able to give him time.  Time is not what we have right now.

Lesson 6: Recognize and Appreciate Grace on a Daily Basis

We finally broke down and emailed the rescue group where we originally adopted our dog from.  I cried for days over the thought of us actually doing this.  We were totally sad.  It was hard to look at our dog, knowing he wouldn’t be with us anymore.

The lady from the rescue group wrote a gentle and understanding response and offered to come get our dog. No questions asked. She couldn’t have been less judgmental.  She understood the grief of our situation, said we’d done a good job with our dog and said he’d obviously been loved and had had a fabulous 8 years with us.

It was hard to hear her say these things.  Shouldn’t she be telling us we were awful? Shouldn’t she be saying that we had made a commitment to this creature and we ought to keep it? Instead, she hugged us tightly.

Her actions told me she saw our dog as having value.  So many surrendered animals don’t hold value to anyone, and sadly, we know their fate.

Lesson 7: Come back and read this if we ever decide it’s time to get a family pet.  Ask if we have the resources – time, money, patience, to undertake this huge responsibility again. 

Trite but true: he’s in a better place for him now. Even though our dog is still alive, it is as though he passed away.  Our house feels empty of his presence and we’re in mourning. We console ourselves knowing that in the corgi rescue place he is likely breathing easier knowing someone’s attending to his needs more quickly and frequently than we could.  He’s getting to be around other dogs.  Oddly enough, he actually got along with other dogs when he wasn’t around us!

Before he left, through my tears, I told him that I loved him and that he hadn’t done anything wrong. I told him what a good boy he was – for all the areas that needed addressing from training, he really was a delight.  He had been just fine with the baby – no worries there. I told him where he was going was the next best place to be if not with us, but if I am honest, I know where he’s going is actually better than being with us.

My mother-in-law told me in response to this situation that “it takes a while for the heart to catch up with the head.” This is definitely what I’m experiencing, so I am trusting that my heart will understand our decision eventually and stop aching so much.

Thanks for reading.  I don’t expect you to extend grace to me, but I appreciate you taking the time to read and possibly understand what we’ve been going through the last while. Maybe it will even serve as a resource to you to save yourself some heartache.