Today was a heartbreaking day for all of us, including myself, as today we said goodbye to my foster dog Vader. When I founded Wayward Ranch I committed to providing care to dogs that had no other options in the rescue system, especially those that have behavioral special needs. I believe that one of the most important parts of doing that work responsibly is to do so transparently, so I want to explain Vader’s story in hopes it may help to educate others. I know with an audience online comes a difference of opinions and I always welcome that. I also ask for respect and empathy because those of us who knew and loved Vader dearly are very much mourning his loss.
Vader was born to a breeder who claims to breed a “top of the line” Labrador Retriever. He was purchased by a family who expected to be bringing home a happy, easy going Labrador puppy, the perfect family dog that you see in the media, but that was not the case. Instead they had brought home an extremely high energy and high drive dog. Not knowing what to do with him, we were told he was mostly kept crated until he was rehomed for being “too much”. The new family that welcomed him in to their home were experienced with the breed and were ready to provide him what he needed. Miles of walking daily? No problem. Hours of fetch? They did it. Boundaries and structure in the home? They provided it. Their daily routine should have been enough to manage a high energy and high drive dog, but when it wasn’t they tried multiple trainers, medication, and even a Behavioralist seeking some sort of solution to make the adoption work.
I have had many dogs surrendered to my rescue at the slightest inconvenience. That was not the case for Vader. His second family did everything they possibly could, more than any other family I’ve ever seen, to try to meet his needs, but Vader’s intensity in his behavior in the home continued to increase. He began biting his family completely at random. Again, I’ve had many people tell me their dog bit them out of “nowhere” unpredictably, only to discover they simply missed the warning signs, but that was not the case with Vader’s family. Here there truly were no warning signs. After months of trying exercise, training, medication and more, and with a young child in the home terrified of him (for good reason) and both adults covered in bruises, they reached out to us out of options in hopes we could save Vader’s life and help him to become adoptable.
When I met Vader I was extremely confused. I evaluated him before committing to taking him into our rescue. The dog I met in the evaluation was smart, trainable, workable, so why had the family been told that other than going to rescue his only option was euthanasia? I made the decision to take him on, expecting that with more intense training in the home with me, medication reevaluation with our veterinarian, and tons of exercise and enrichment he could be a dog that simply needed the perfect unicorn match family that had no kids and wanted a high drive dog to work with every day, all day. He began his training and evaluation period in my home, which for a dog like Vader typically is 3 months long. At the end of that period I have a sense of whether the dog can become adoptable, if they are best suited to be a permanent resident, or if I still need more time to decide.
Vader did not make it to three months, I was only able to care for him for 2 1/2 months before we had to make the decision to euthanize him due to the extreme unpredictability and the intensity of his aggression. Even now as I write that I struggle with it because Vader was not a bad dog. In his element he was a joy, and I love him very, very much. He loved to swim, he didn’t even care if I threw a toy in for him, he would just go into the water and swim until he was exhausted. He was so excited about car rides and his ears would always flop in the breeze from the window. He loved fetch, but more than anything he loved his big, purple Jolly Egg and would chase it in the fields for hours if I let him. He was smart and learned new commands in one training session, always retaining anything I taught him between sessions. He was also a moron in the most lovable way, one day deciding his new toy would be the speed limit sign he found on a walk. Unfortunately what I came to understand about him as he lived with me is that he also existed in a state of panic most of his day. He was not simply an energetic dog, he was born an unstable dog with high energy, and those are very different things.
A dog with high drive and high energy needs a job, they need to work, so when Vader arrived I put him to work. Training, puzzles, swimming, fetch, tug, nose work, and more. He had more exercise and enrichment in my home than I have ever needed to provide another dog. Had he simply been a high drive dog, his behavior in that structure would have improved, but instead he only continued to grow in his panic and intensity. It became clear he would not be an adoptable dog, as his biting could put a family in danger, so I began to work towards living safely with him as a permanent resident.
We remained in communication with our vet to determine how to best help him with the panic medically. We increased his medication, tried adding new medication, and then increased the new medication over the weeks, but still we found ourselves maxed out without the ability to increase the dosages of his multiple medications further and still no improvement in decreasing his panic.
I was being bitten often, at times daily, until a particularly dangerous incident occurred and it became clear that in working with Vader it was not going to be a matter of if I would be severely injured by him, it was going to be when, even with me putting all of the safety measures in place I could. We had to make the very painful decision to let him go, and when we sedated him today for his euthanasia, for the first time in the months he lived with me, I finally saw him relax. That both shattered my heart and confirmed for me that this was not just the right call to protect the safety of myself and my staff, but it was the right call to let a dog go who was suffering so badly in his own mind.
I know some may read this and say we did not try hard enough for Vader, but I know I gave him everything I had and so did the people who helped me try to save his life. What I hope can be learned from Vader’s unfortunate circumstances is to only support responsible breeders so as not to allow those motivated by greed to bring dogs like Vader into the world to experience suffering or to potentially hurt their families. This is a dog who was not bred “top of the line” as the breeder claimed. This was a dog who was born unbalanced mentally.
If his original family had sought training in his first year of life he may have been more manageable, but I don’t know that anything would have made him a safe dog for the average family to live with. Labrador’s are seen as the ideal family dog, and maybe they at one point were, but sadly human greed can motivate breeders to ruin dogs and we are asked to help aggressive labradors or labradoodles more now than ever. Irresponsible breeders may breed for appearance or may just try to breed as many dogs as they can, disregarding the behavioral genetics of their line. Not everyone wants to rescue, and there are responsible breeders available for whatever breed of dog you are looking to purchase, but it takes work and intention to find those breeders, and many opt to go the convenient route of buying from the breeder that is cheapest or closest to home.
Vader is a dog who should not have been created by responsible breeding. If he had been, a responsible breeder would have welcomed him back and stood by their dog, reevaluating their breeding going forward, but instead this breeder only offered to take him back to euthanize him themselves. In my experience that makes me question if this is not the first time they’ve seen such behavior in their dogs, and yet they continue to breed the same lineage even now.
Vader, buddy, I’m so sorry this is your story. I’m sorry we could not find a way to bring you peace. I’m honored to have been your last family, and you will be a part of mine forever. If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever, of that I have no doubt.
Executive Director and Founding Board Member
Wayward Ranch Animal Sanctuary