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Will's Story
By Ali Johnson

Will had amber-colored, almond-shaped eyes and a spot of pink on the end of his muzzle next to his brown nose. His color was not exactly white and not tan-it was toasted coconut. A warm brown around the edges of his ears and along his tail, except for the tip, which was white and which he carried high when he was particularly pleased with himself. He might have been a lab-pointer mix, or maybe there was a dash of husky as well-I'll never know. Whatever his mix, he was tall and lean, well muscled with a beautiful, even gait and a spectacular jumping ability. He was also my foster dog, and he was one of the four million companion animals who are euthanized in the United States every year (hsus.org).

Will came into the Durham APS with an embedded collar. The stain in his fur around his neck only came out as his coat shed and grew with the seasons-no amount of bathing from shelter caregivers could remove this mark of cruel neglect. Because Will did so well on his temperament test-sharing his food and toys nicely, submitting to handling of his mouth, ears, and body, and making friends easily with the women evaluating him, as well as the test dog, Will was transferred to the APS of Orange County's low kill Adoption Center when his time ran out at the Durham county shelter.

During Will's time at the Adoption Center, his neck fur regained its creamy color, and he made many human and canine friends. He learned about housetraining, crate-training, leash manners, how to sit, and even how to give a high five. Because he stayed so long at the Adoption Center, animal caregivers, APS administrative staff, Nicks Road Vet Clinic employees, and APS volunteers all became attached to Will's endless energy, enthusiasm, and affection. Because we saw his fear of some men and loud noises, special effort was put forward by all of us to help Will find the right forever home. We were overjoyed when a family adopted him, and hearing that the two boys were arguing over whose bed Will would sleep on made our week.

A month later, we got a call from Will's adopters. They were having trouble with Will: he had bitten a man visiting their house. Unfortunately, his adopters had not been able to take advantage of the Life Skills Program, which included free training classes for newly adopted animals, and we had not heard earlier about how his new life was progressing. After speaking with Will's adopter, I believe that Will's family had given him the benefit of the doubt, had tried to see things from Will's perspective, and had enough experience with dogs to accurately assess Will's behavior. Will's family decided to return him to the Adoption Center because they didn't feel that they could trust him around visitors, despite his obvious devotion to each of them.

I decided to foster Will because I wanted him to have a chance to learn how to respond to stress without aggression. I felt that with his abusive beginning and shelter adolescence, Will had perhaps never been given the training to know that there are alternatives to aggression when faced with a scary situation. I brought Will home with the patient consent of my husband, the grudging tolerance of my two adult dogs, and the joyful enthusiasm of my puppy.

Over time, Will made big strides. He was able to respond calmly to basic commands in the grocery store parking lot, in our neighborhood, and at the training facility. Will and I enrolled in Jane Marshall's Life Skills class, and Will was a star student. His fearful response toward loud noises and some men diminished but did not disappear. During a fear response, Will's hackles would raise, his tail would lower, and he would quickly move to lunging, jumping, barking, and growling, all in an attempt to make what scared him move away. With the help of Easy Cheese, Will learned to sit and pay attention to me while a riding lawnmower and its male driver drove within 15 feet of us. I was so proud of how brave he was, and so impressed that he could trust my instructions rather than try to drive the terrifying mower away! Will seemed to especially enjoy my requests to "sit" and "wait" while I dished up his food and set it in front of him. He seemed so happy that he knew exactly what to do. He sat up straight and looked at me confidently, even waiting to start eating when I once forgot to release him.

Will's favorite activities were running in the fenced wide-open field behind the training center, and playing with his canine buddies. His doggie social skills were so refined that he was able to help rehabilitate even fear-aggressive dogs to help prepare them for group training classes. He was the dog that helped new or grumpy dogs at the adoption center learn how to play. It was amazing to watch all of the little things that he did to help the fearful dog feel more comfortable-moving his ears gently back, wagging a floppy tail, shaking off, yawning, offering his side to be sniffed, and play bowing.

Despite his successes, Will was still unpredictable. There were three incidents that contributed to my decision to stop fostering Will. Will lunged and growled at another dog while playing in the field, and lunged and growled at a dog training volunteer and my husband, whom he had been living with happily for two months. In all cases, the rapid, seemingly unprovoked and unpredictable nature of Will's response was upsetting. In preparing a flyer to promote Will for adoption, I realized that I could not envision a home where I could be reasonably sure that Will and the people he came into contact with would be safe and happy.

I knew that ending Will's foster time with me would mean he would be euthanized. I made this choice for my two adult dogs (whose training and socialization or lack thereof I take full responsibility for), my husband, and for myself. The really difficult part about this decision was that it forced me to face the current reality of homeless companion animals. Avoiding euthanasia of dogs is not one of our community's choices. We could choose to euthanize Will or not, but either way dogs would be killed. The resources in animal rescue are limited, and there is an endless stream of dogs that need access to those resources. There are never enough foster homes, volunteers, funds, space, or time for all of them. How many more dogs could the Durham APS and the APS of Orange County have found homes for if Will had been euthanized sooner? In the months that Will lived here at the Adoption Center, how many dogs could have been adopted out of his kennel space? I don't know.

It feels wrong that the decision as to which dogs die and which dogs live is ours. It feels wrong that a young, affectionate, healthy dog should be killed on purpose. But in the domestication of dogs, I believe that we humans have undertaken a responsibility to care for them. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that they have adequate food, shelter, and a place in human society. By domesticating dogs, and bringing them into urban and suburban settings, we give them no choice but to rely on us to meet their basic needs. And because there are so many animals whose basic needs are not met, and such a scarcity of foster homes with the time and resources to rehabilitate and place dogs that need extra help, we are left with the choice to let them suffer or humanely euthanize. None of us likes this choice. It is a cruel reality that it is the very love of animals that leads us into this work, work that is by necessity linked to euthanasia of the animals we love.

What I learned from all of this, and the reason why I want to share Will's story, is that there are choices we can make earlier in each animal's life that can prevent the need for choosing between euthanasia and suffering. The person who owned Will's mother could have chosen to spay her dog. The tragedy of euthanasia of puppies that never get to live in a home and be part of a family is unacceptable and preventable. Please spay or neuter your dogs, and please encourage your friends, neighbors, and family to do the same.

The person who had Will's mother could have chosen more carefully what home Will went to. The person who had Will as a puppy could have chosen to care for him, rather than neglect him for so long that his neck grew around his collar. Will's original owner could have chosen to socialize Will to loud noises and all types of people to guard against the fear that can turn so quickly to aggression. Will's owner could have chosen to train Will to meet stress with a safer response.

Throughout Will's life, people made choices that affected the dog he became. In choosing to euthanize my friend, I chose to maximize the number of animals that we can help with the limited resources here at the APS of Orange County. Perhaps it was naïve of me to think that I might have been able to help Will, but I don't regret choosing to try. I wish that the resources and skills that I had to give had been enough, but they weren't.

By choosing to accept, care for, train, place, and support as many homeless animals as we can, and to promote responsible pet ownership through spay/neuter, education, socialization, and training programs, we choose to honor Will the best way we know how-to let his life be a testament to the love we bear not only for him, whom I miss everyday, but also for the dogs that still suffer the way he once did.