Bodhi’s Final Lessons

Bodhi the dog out camping in City of Rocks, Idaho.

If you’ve been reading this blog for long enough, you might have noticed a post or two about a dog named Bodhi, who my wife and I adopted from an animal shelter back in 2010. Bodhi was a blue heeler, a particularly intelligent, energetic breed of canine designed to tirelessly herd livestock. Heelers are popular among rock climbers, probably for their toughness, obedience, and ability to go almost anywhere. (Dean Potter had one named Whisper, who even joined him on some of his wing suit flights.)

My wife and I picked Bodhi from a row of caged dogs in varying states of distress. He was meek, his tail wrapped tightly under his body, mouth shut and ears back. In the little open air zone where we were allowed to interact with him, he shrank from our touch and cowered at the excited sniffings of a puppy a fraction of his size. Looking back, I think maybe we could have seen that Bodhi had issues, but it was our first time adopting and we assumed shelter life was to blame for his timidity. He would relax, we figured, once he got used to his new home with us.

In those early days, I was excited to take Bodhi to the crag and on hikes in the mountains, a red bandana tied around his neck a la Mad Max. And while he did enjoy hiking, our trips to the crag didn’t go as planned. The first time I brought him out, he got into fights with any dog who came near for a sniff. He growled at people who tried to pet him. At home, he didn’t fare much better, showing his teeth at any prolonged physical contact and choosing to segregate himself from us when possible.

We tried several trainings, consulted books and websites, talked to our friends who worked with dogs for a living, and spent endless hours trying to exercise Bodhi into a better mindset, but his issues only worsened over time. We spent considerably on a training operation that specialized in problem dogs. We boarded him there when we traveled, and brought him there many weekend mornings for “dog socialization,” where we walked around in circles in a large room with other dogs and owners, in an effort to help them grow accustomed to each other and to other humans. All to little effect.

Bodhi was at his worst around his water. He drew blood on more than one occasion when my wife or I put down or picked up his bowl. We spent hours sitting passively by the water bowl, encouraging him simply to come and drink with us in proximity. It never worked. Increasingly he behaved as if everything around him was a threat, and no amount of evidence to the contrary could change that.

“This isn’t normal,” my wife told me. She had a dog growing up who was loving and snuggly and brought joy to the family. I never had a dog, so wasn’t sure how much work and training it was supposed to require. I was willing to put in the effort with Bodhi, and felt responsible for his behavior. When he growled or snapped at friends and strangers, I felt I had failed. Once my friend put his foot close to Bodhi’s food bowl and Bodhi bit it hard. I thought I was mad at my friend for antagonizing our problem dog, or at Bodhi for being so troubled… but really I was mad at myself for not being able to fix what was wrong.

His behavior only worsened. We tried a stricter program at the urging of a trainer. We put Bodhi in his crate and only took him out for structured periods of training, exercise, or feeding. It was hours a day of work, and it seemed only to agitate Bodhi rather than help him. He grew possessive of his crate and would bite at us when we opened or closed the door.

One night during a training session involving food, he bit my wife on the arm and held on, leaving a large, dark bruise. It was the first time I was willing to admit we might be out of options.

We asked the trainer we’d been working with for her opinion in light of everything that had happened. “Every once in a while, you just get a dog with a screw loose,” she admitted.

I spent several evenings after work calling around to other trainers, asking if they might know of specialized shelters or organizations who could take a dog like Bodhi. Maybe a farmer could use him as a work dog, I offered. Everyone said no. Most said it would be irresponsible to re-home a potentially dangerous animal. One women reminded me that many friendly, healthy dogs are put down in shelters every day, simply because there aren’t enough people to adopt them. Bodhi would only live on if we were willing to continue with him, it seemed.

It’s a strange thing, humanity’s companionship with dogs. Through millennia of breeding, we’ve created animals that can exist within our homes and our society, serve as helpers or even members of the family. We’ve created a narrow niche for them to live in our culture, but if a particular dog’s behavior doesn’t fit in that niche, there’s really not much of a place for them.

After almost three years, we chose to euthanize Bodhi. Despite all of the frustration, it was still one of the hardest choices I’ve made in my life. We’d worked for years to avoid the decision and discussed it—argued about it—for months. When the day came, we walked up and down the street out front of the veterinary clinic while they performed the procedure, crying uncontrollably as we paced through the morning light. And it was a funny feeling that came after: a mix of guilt and grief, but also of relief.

I figured we’d never get another dog. I felt like I’d blown it, and that life would be easier without the complication, anyway. But after six months, my wife started bringing up the idea of trying with another pup. I resisted for months more, feeling cold to the idea. Over time though, the friendly dogs we saw on our regular walks started to warm me.

Eventually, our friend tipped us to a brindle-patterned pug with bad allergies that was up for adoption. We went to meet the strange little beast, adopted her, and named her Pebble. She is an amazing being that brings us joy every day and melts hearts wherever she goes. She is happy to be a part of our pack and we’re happy to have her.

It’s been a year since we adopted Pebble, and I see now that my wife was right: our relationship with Bodhi wasn’t normal. There was little love; mostly anxiety and pain. There were moments when we could pretend things were normal—when he was playing fetch or running along side us in the foothills—but reality would snap back with the speed of an unprovoked bite in the car afterwards.

I’ll always harbor a sliver of doubt that we did everything we could have with Bodhi, but that is the nature of decisions in this life. In the theoretical world, there are infinitely many ways things can go. In the real world, we can walk just one path at a time. This tells me two things: 1) that we should always try in earnest to make the best, most informed, decisions we can every step of the way, and 2) that there’s no value in dwelling on what might have been; take the results of past decisions into consideration and refer to number 1.

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Justin Roth

A busy mind that aspires to be still.

3 thoughts on “Bodhi’s Final Lessons”

  1. Great story! I had a blue heeler mix that I got as a puppy. He had terrible social issues, however, he was always sweet with our kids. I also worked on a ranch one summer where the resident blue heeler tried to bite me every morning. They can be challenging dogs. We had ours for 13 yrs. He never learned to socialize with other dogs and he was eternally scared of non family people. I’m happy you found a good dog !

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