This story doesn’t have a happy ending. The only thing good about the end is that it was quiet, and without a dramatic conclusion. And ensuring that end was a terrible choice for me to make.
Ambo’s life began as one of six Rhodesian Ridgeback puppies. The litter was carefully planned and was consummated without the father actually present. Ambo and his siblings arrived just a few days after the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 1991. And that seemed to partially set the tone for his life.
Puppies are easy to love, and Ambo was a dark eyed, gangly cuddler who I felt an immediate bond with. From the start, he loved to be touched, to be held, receive any massage, and just gaze at me adoringly. He was also easily spooked, couldn’t commit to housetraining, and would practically eliminate with his body curled into in a circle so he could engage in the awful habit of coprophagia – poop eating.
He loved to chew plastic, and destroyed many remotes and cell phones. He was afraid in puppy class, timid in obedience, and around 9 months of age started to really freak out in agility. When he was young, it seemed that every week he was developing and then shedding phobias. He reacted to bikes, cars, ropes, dogs, kids, trucks, joggers, shadows. I would desensitize him to one thing using positive reinforcement and then another fear would come up. Walks were unpredictable and ranged from fun adventures to hysterical instances when I would be jumped on, pulled, or pulling him away from terrible fearful encounters with passersby or random animals.
Ambo made good dog friends and played hard, especially with two other Rhodesian Ridgebacks. My first dog, Zomba, played with him deliberately and calmly, and put up with his normal puppy madness. When I walked the two of them, she became distraught when he acted out, and would bark and advance on him as if to say “cut it out!” Walking Zomba and Ambo together became more and more difficult. Every negative encounter would escalate when they were together, I started walking them separately. Which meant Ambo – the puppy – got most of the exercise as he required it to stay somewhat calm.
At night Ambo was truly happy, although he still seemed to sleep with one eye open for possible threats. Many nights I was awoken from a sound sleep with him leaping to his feet, barking full throated at some noise he had heard outside or maybe even in his dreams.
He had a similar reaction to animals on TV. The appearance of a dog or cat would send him into a frenzy of barking and he would rush the TV – and stand a few inches away growling and barking at the screen. A cat’s meow, a dog barking in the background would have him up and alert and loudly responding within moments. I got used to quickly changing the channels when a dog food commercial came on, or hitting mute if there were animal sounds. He even responded to animated cartoon dogs. Some animals he would carefully watch – lions, tigers, he would take his time before he charged the set. Monkeys seemed OK, reptiles got almost no reaction from him. Horses were curious things, elephants and other large animals he seemed to respectfully watch. Once there was a program with Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and he watched silently. It seemed impossible that he knew his own breed by sight, but I taped the show and played it again and again and they were the only dogs he let into the room via TV without trying to drive off.
If the TV was on and Ambo was awake, he watched it carefully. He was always ready to challenge any invasion of the room by these animals that appeared so randomly and unexpectedly for him.
Zomba would watch all this carrying on without concern. Did she not see the animals on TV or did she know they weren’t really there? She would occasionally rouse with all the barking and carrying on to try and find what the danger was, but mostly she ignored him and his TV watching.
I began to get the idea that Ambo was not a normal dog. But Ridgebacks are known to be intense, and I knew Zomba was calmer than normal. She had started her work as a therapy dog on her first birthday. She was a calm, queenly, very stable puppy and had an easy going temperament while also making her needs and preferences clear. As Ambo began to mature, it became clear that these two dogs were truly like night and day.
Ambo’s fears became more serious as he reached puberty. He was neutered, which improved things, but he had begun reacting with aggression when he felt fearful. We went through careful desensitization with kids, so that he could be in the vicinity without trying to charge them. He began what seemed like random attacks on certain people, stopped short only by my vigilance in tight leash control. I found that I had to coach anyone he met on how to interact with him. If a new person stared at him, stood over him, or moved too quickly early on, he would lash out with growling and snapping.
There were one or two times he sort of made contact with strangers – not a true bite, but enough contact to severely frighten the person. My reaction was a combination of disbelieve and confusion. I tried to carefully go over each event, assuming something had gone wrong or happened that I didn’t catch, at first never doubting him or his temperament. The leash got tighter, and a more dangerous cycle began to develop. I became more cautious when we passed anyone on the street. Certainly this caution and tightening up in anticipation was passed down the leash to him, and added to his already basic fear.
At the same time, Ambo was surprising me with his perception and uncanny reading of my actions. I hadn’t given up trying to socialize him by bringing him places, exposing him to new things. I didn’t get that for a basically fearful dog I was making things worse, not better. Ambo came with me in many of my trips away from home. If he didn’t come with me, he was confined in his large crate in the dining room. Time after time, I would get ready to go, knowing he was staying, and he would have placed himself in the crate already. If I planned to take him, he would be at the door, tail wagging fast and steady, ready for the car ride or walk he still loved.
In just a few months, as he turned two, his seemingly happy awareness that would settle him into the crate or by my side began to break down. Now, if I planned to leave, I would be careful not to signal that decision. Ambo had begun slinking off, tail between his legs, preferring to hide in the basement rather than be placed in the crate. Things were changing for him, and his fearful response was increasing.
I knew I had a problem dog, and that I was inexperienced yet passionate in my desire to help him. We used special collars, which helped me to control him and seemed to calm him. He started taking St. John’s Wort tincture, which had a dramatically positive effect. He wasn’t as fearful all the time, he was less likely to cower. It slowed down his response so I could anticipate his reactions and I had more time to do something – move him, stand between him and whatever was troubling him, or pull him back on the leash as he went after something or someone. Certainly, without the St. John’s Wort, I would have had to have given up at that point. I gained just enough control and he calmed down with just a bit more happiness in his life so that we could manage.
Ambo grew into a 90 pound lap dog. His adoring puppy gaze matured into a sleek truly beautiful brown hound watchfulness. He followed me from room to room. He laid at my feet. He slept under the covers at the foot of my bed. In the morning he would wake up, and stretch his long lanky body so that his front feet were on the floor, and the rest of him still easily stretched out behind him resting on the bed. He took car rides in my extended cab pick up truck with his head out the sliding rear window, his but firmly planted on the arm rest between the seats – facing backwards. Yet he could curl himself into a tiny ball and sleep innocently in a tiny space on the couch beside me with Zomba on the other side. Sometimes, if there wasn’t room on the couch, he would climb up a small opening, and drape himself along my shoulders along the back of the couch.
He watched my every move, anticipated what I was going to do, constantly checked to make sure I was there. And he got what he wanted, we were rarely apart. Only a couple of friends would even walk with him, no one would pet sit him. He was too big too strong, too dangerous, and too unpredictable. I stopped traveling or going on vacations. I stopped attending births. My life began shutting down just as his was.
But I loved the end of the day. Sitting on my bed, my two soft warm and beautiful dogs sleeping peacefully, I felt safe, protected, loved and had all the soft muscled skin I wanted to stroke and massage. We slept very well together as a pack.
I had held out great hope that with maturity, training, using the herb, and with time, Ambo would get better. Instead he got worse. We had more close calls with cats. I was getting more banged up controlling him when he lost control. He pulled me into rocks and trees trying to get to an outdoor cat. I would be pulled head over heals hanging on to the leash as he charged an off leash dog. Some of our walks started with jerks to my shoulder as he reacted to the sound of the small dog up the street. I had to be vigilant and one step ahead of him to anticipate any possible disturbance, potential target, fearful object.
I started to walk him with a muzzle, so that people we encountered on our walks would know to leave us alone. I hated having to explain to curious strangers that he didn’t bite, but he was fearful and dangerous. Zomba and her needs faded more into the background as every day was about how to get through the day with Ambo. Ambo started trying to attack nearly every dog he saw. I was limited in who could come to my house, and always had to watch Ambo whenever anyone was here. He accepted people more readily who were in our home, but for years now I had never let him near a child.
Three years passed, and Ambo was a mature dog. He weighed in at 90 pounds, he was all muscle and bone. With his soft dark eyes, beautiful lines, short hair and distinctive ridge he was a handsome dog. But I had to be sure that no one stared at him, as it would almost surely set him off.
I had finally sectioned off the living room were he had always had his accidents, he was rarely eating poop and would only have accidents in the house once or twice a month. His early diarrhea caused by tension and poop eating was gone. Some things were better. He still played with his two ridgeback friends, he met a rottweiler at the park who he fell in love with.
Ambo was intelligent and wise. He responded to my moods. He was affected by my moods – it was hard to have a bad day because he would act so poorly in response it was always made much worse.
I went back to the behaviorist we had seen when he was younger and asked her advice on what else I could do for him, and to have her answer an important question: was Ambo dangerous?
It took nearly a week for her answer to sink in. After three and a half years, the true picture of Ambo and his very disturbed world came in an instant of clarity. I burst into tears at the suddenness of knowing, this life could not go on. Ambo would have to be euthanized. There was just no place in my life, in this world, for a dog who was inches away from hurting someone, possibly including me.
Immediately I tried to back up, have another plan, not know what I knew throughout my body. I wanted to undo the knowing, the understanding, to go back just a few moments to a place where my heart wasn’t broken open so totally and so profoundly painfully. But I couldn’t.
Oh, it was so clearly and completely the right thing to do. And I was immobilized and stunned by the pain of what I knew I had decided, and could not go back from. Every part of me agreed it was right, and at the same time it was as though I was choosing to walk into fire. It was just the most horrible knowledge, to love this creature with a bond I hadn’t known was possible, and to determine that it must end with his life.
When I began to talk to friends about Ambo’s future I found that no mother disagreed. My friends who worked in the ER were relieved. My family wondered what had taken me so long to come to my senses. Many people who had only known Ambo in visits to my home were shocked at how serious things had gotten, but in describing his total behavior came to a quick understanding.
In working with the breeder, asking for her final help and intervention, many of us held out the hope that there was somewhere he could go, somewhere he would be safe, a place for a mentally ill dog who couldn’t live in a busy house in a city neighborhood. But there wasn’t. And some offered last minute cures and ideas. But with the veil of my personal deception now lifted, I knew there was nothing that would fix my boy, and no hope of him ever being a whole and happy dog. Something had gone wrong long ago. He had two siblings who were also this troubled.
I asked myself throughout every day if there wasn’t some other answer, some other possible plan. If maybe I was wrong. But the very certain clear and sober voice inside me only had the most painful of answers.
There is no place for a dangerous dog in our culture. Maybe there should be, maybe there are a few people who can manage it, I found I could not. It was constant fear for me. Every walk outside was a potential disaster. I was shielding him from life, I was the very thin strand between Ambo and his hurting someone. Possibly a child, or someone else’s cherished pet. It was too much responsibility for me to hold, and I had so often come so close to failing both Ambo and myself. And I knew that if he had gotten loose to attack a child or dog, I would have intervened. Those very large canines would sink into my hands, and my work and my life would be badly damaged. I have been known to occasionally foretell the future with some accuracy. I had kept Ambo safe for 3 1/2 years. I no longer believed I would be able to. I was certain that disaster was coming.
Ambo is at peace. He is no longer afraid. Zomba has blossomed into the dog I remember. She is truly happy. I feel a profound relief – no longer worrying and cautious and afraid with Ambo. Zomba and I give to each other and enjoy walking with people stopping to pet her, exclaiming on how well behaved she is. She plays spontaneously with dogs we meet in parks or when passing a yard with a dog and owner. She brings constant joy to my life and a social experience I wouldn’t have without her.
There is so much that Ambo never got to enjoy about being a dog. And although our love and our bond was deep, we never got to experience the extraordinary relationship a dog and owner can have. When things are right, it is a giving to each other. Helping each other to have more enjoyment of the world and truly bringing out the best in each other, working together – whether in play, exercise, protection, or sharing special moments. Dogs are happy creatures, who will share that joy readily and without censorship. Ambo was too watchful and frightened so that happiness was a rare moment for him. His love for me was based on need, it was grounded in his fear, I was his window to the world. Using massage and herbs and positive commands and being with him nearly all day every day he got more from his short life than many other people could have given him. I know I gave him a good life, the best he could have. It wasn’t a joyful dog life.
In the end, his brown puppy eyes and adoring sighs as he was content to just be with me stirred and awakened places in my soul that had never been touched, never been felt before. Because we were connected. Deeply and profoundly paired. It is really that simple.
Ambo is at peace. I’m working on finding my peace. And that is Ambo’s story.