Sunday, November 25, 2012

Her name was Astrid: The Day The Feds Killed My Dog

Six years ago, as I was nearing the end of my two-year prison sentence, I was (and had been for most of my stay) in the "dog program". This was a program designed to help save the lives of difficult-to-place dogs from one of the local animal shelters in Lexington, Kentucky. There were 20 inmates chosen out of approximately 300 to be a part of the dog program, and I was happy to be one of them.

It was our job to take the foster dog assigned to us and, with the help of an animal psychologist and trainer from the shelter, make the dog into a better candidate for becoming someone's beloved pet, thereby saving it from being put to death. It was a great program, because not only did it save a dog's life and provide a potential pet to the community, it also gave those of us who were a part of the program a sense that our time wasn't completely wasted while we were in prison.

The dogs were already named by the shelter when they came to us. One day, they brought me a dog named Astrid, which means "divine strength".

I trained and fostered several dogs during my stay at the prison, but Astrid was special. She was a Rottweiler/mix, black and brown, not particularly attractive OR unattractive - just a typical Rottweiler in need of some love and instruction... quite ordinary, except that she managed to steal my heart like none of the other dogs quite had.

She was very playful. Her favorite game was tug of war, and she would give a playful growl as she tried to get the rope toy from whomever was playing with her. In fact, she loved to play tug of war so much, that if she started to get the upper hand and was about to overpower me, she would ease up, indicating that she enjoyed playing the game more than she enjoyed "winning".

What really struck me about Astrid was how she was so sweet and loving and playful, despite the fact that she had never, even though she was more than a year old, had a home. She had been a stray from the beginning, and had spent her entire young life in captivity.

Animal shelters are even worse than prisons. The dogs rarely get to leave their cages, they don't get bathed much, if at all, and they don't get much attention. It's very noisy, extremely stressful, and just plain miserable.

Until Astrid came to federal prison, misery was all she had ever known. It was no surprise to me that she thrived with the attention she got from my three roommates and I as we walked her, fed her, loved her, and trained her. Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to save her.

Astrid was, like many dogs are, very protective of those whom she viewed as part of her pack. When the guards came around twice a day for head count, she would bark nonstop, and there was one female guard (who was known for being more of a troublemaker than any inmate ever was) who made an issue of it.

As the primary trainer for Astrid, she was considered "my" dog to train, and my roommates were there to provide backup support and to help take care of her while I was carrying out my other responsibilities and unable to be with her.

I asked the animal psychologist if he had any advice during a training session one day, and he made it clear that the best thing to do was ignore the barking. "Shushing" her or doing anything at all to try to get her to be quiet only reinforced the behavior, because that confirmed for her that she was bringing our attention to something that warranted attention from us, which made her think that her behavior was helpful.

The female guard making an issue of this became enraged when she came around to do head count and saw that we were no longer trying to quiet the dog. When she brought it up after head count one day, I explained (and my roommates backed me up) that the animal psychologist had told us we should ignore the barking and that it would eventually stop if she was given enough time to get acclimated to the routine of the guards coming around at the same time each day.

The response from this guard was to toss her head and say "whatEVER" as though she were an adolescent girl annoyed at someone. She continued to create drama over the barking, claiming that it interfered with her ability to conduct head count. (Funny, no other guards had trouble counting simply because the dog was barking.)

This guard was not well-liked by any of her colleagues, and because of her reputation for being a trouble-maker and pot-stirrer, we were all concerned that this guard was out to cause trouble for us because of her narcissistic annoyance that a dog would DARE bark in her presence, and we tried to make sure we never left Astrid in the room alone for that reason.

One evening, one of my roommates was staying in the room with Astrid while I visited with someone on another floor, and this guard opened the door to our room in as sudden a manner as was possible, almost as though she was TRYING to provoke a response from Astrid. Astrid was startled and jumped up quickly, then tried to get the guard to play with her by jumping on her the same way that Booger does (and many other dogs do) as well.

The guard had a few scratches on her where Astrid's sharp claws had scraped her skin (I have those all the time from playing with Booger) and then made a claim that Astrid had "attacked" her, even though there was more than one witness clearly stating that Astrid had merely playfully "jumped" at her the same way most dogs will.

Unfortunately, with a Rottweiler already dogged (no pun intended) by a bad reputation for her breed and an exaggerated claim made by a government employee, Astrid never stood a chance. Animal control was sent to pick her up a few days later, and was evaluated for aggressive behavioral tendencies.

I'll never forget how sad it was when they came to get her. My roommates and I went outside and petted her as they put her in the truck so she wouldn't be so scared. We knew this was going to make her even more fearful than she already was of new situations, and it was no surprise that she appeared fearful/aggressive to the animal control people when they got her to the evaluation area where they keep dogs accused of being aggressive. Who wouldn't be fearful and self-protective after being yanked out of the one and only place where she had been able to experience love and safety?

Of course, Astrid wasn't a danger at all, and if she had been she would have been taken away by animal control immediately instead of a few days later. Even then it was only done because of the persistent bitching (no pun intended) by the guard who had it in for Astrid (and later me, since Astrid had been my dog).

Sadly, I learned from the shelter employee at her next visit that the guard had made such an issue of the "incident" that animal control had no choice but to put Astrid to sleep.

Let's not mince words. They killed her. They killed Astrid because she jumped on a guard in a playful manner, NOT an aggressive manner, and because the guard insisted the dog was aggressive because she didn't like the fact that the dog barked during head count.

The sadness and feeling of helplessness I experienced when they took Astrid away reminds me of how I felt for Dorothy when the wicked witch took Toto away. It was so wrong, so unnecessary, and such an unfortunate loss of a perfectly wonderful animal who could have made a great watch dog and pet for some lucky dog lover if she had just been given a chance.

But Astrid never had a chance.

Every year around this time, I remember Astrid and think about all of the other dogs like her (including Booger) who are wrongfully misjudged as being "dangerous" or "aggressive" simply because of their breed. And, since I've had Booger, each year around this time I hold him a little bit closer, a little bit tighter, and a little bit longer when I give him a hug during our love-in sessions, and I hope that somehow, the Astrid in my memory knows that she was, is, and will always be loved every bit as much.


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