I Just Shot Your Dog

14 mins read

I had seen his shadow a few weeks before running the fence line, heard rumbles from the neighbors: “that Dog”, “the Rottweiler”. He’d shown up nobody was sure when and from nobody was sure where, but the neighbors’ chickens were disappearing and the trash had been scattered all over before the early-morning pickup. He was big and strong, a solitary and hungry hunter, and a threat to livestock, not to mention small children. A sick, starving rottweiler is a danger all farmers take seriously. But he didn’t look that way now.
As I looked out from the living room this morning, there he lay, but it didn’t look like the same dog. Oh, it was the rottweiler all right, with a big, square head made for grabbing and holding and tearing. But this dog was sick, so far gone that he lay in a puddle of his own piss, too worn and weak to even leave my deck to relieve himself. Even my dogs ignored him.
He was somebody’s baby once, I could tell by the expensive blue collar about his thick, muscled neck. Rather, about the neck that was once thick and healthy, but was now emaciated, shriveled and shrunken like the rest of his body, weakened from weeks of hunger in an environment for which he was ill-suited.
Maybe he grew too big for the small yard, maybe baby came along and he couldn’t be trusted near a child he could kill with a single bite. Maybe a farmer will give him a good home, they probably thought. He was a house dog set loose in the wild, a wild which had utterly defeated him in a few short weeks. I went to get my rifle.
I yelled at him to scare him off, gun in hand, and he looked up as if I was just another in a long line of bothers. He was beyond concern and beyond fear. Neither could be seen in his eyes as he slowly limped down to the front of the barn and turned to face me. Only sadness was left.
I peered through the scope, lined the crosshairs up between the eyes of an abandoned loved one. Then I killed him. The bullet entered between those sad eyes, but didn’t exit. Rather it rattled around inside his skull, tearing the brain and snuffing out the short, sad life of a pouncing puppy grown too big. Brown eyes closed and his head rested between his huge paws. He looked blissfully asleep, except for the bubble of blood from his left nostril and the final bowel movement that announced his passing.
I had never killed a dog before, never knew how it felt. I tasted the bile and vomit rising in my throat as I lifted the surprisingly light but stinking body into my wheelbarrow to take him on one final ride. Somebody’s baby, a soft panting bundle of slobber and unconditional love, up until the day they pushed him out and drove away, leaving him confused and barking on the side of the road. Then somebody else had to take care of him: me.
* * *
I penned those words, or words like them, 5 years ago, the first time I had to shoot someone’s dog. In those years there have been 4 others, including three at once, packed up and led by a limping, car-maimed German shepherd. It was easier the second time, even easier the third, and it worried me that it became easier to kill.
I’m not squeamish, and have killed for food many times, pulled out fistfuls of entrails and skinned mammals, gutted fish, plucked birds. But those were food; this was a pet. It shouldn’t be the same, shouldn’t feel the same, should it?
And I always held a grudge against the owners. How can you do that to a dog? How can you just abandon him, expecting others to take care of the mess that you aren’t man enough to deal with? A real man shoots his own dog, not because he wants to, but because he must. A real man takes responsibility when his pet gets too old or too sick or too dangerous. Just like Old Yeller. Take him to the vet or take him hunting.
But did I have what it took? I didn’t know, but I hoped so, while desperately and secretly hoping I would never have to find out.
I got a call from the neighbor, when the snow fell as his calves were being born. A dead calf and my four dogs, tearing it to pieces, bright crimson splashed atop the new fallen snow.
Maybe it was already dead because of the storm, no way of knowing, but I had too many dogs (don’t ask why we have four, suffice it to say that while mine are fixed other neighbors’ are not, and sometimes puppies are gifts hard to refuse).
One of those puppies – full grown but still a puppy in demeanor – was shot by the neighbor at the scene of the crime, went to the vet and didn’t come home. I told my neighbor I would take care of my own pack, a pack just as dangerous as the one I put down last Christmas. Though cattle is the man’s livelihood, he refused my offer to buy the dead calf.
But I still had a problem: I now owned a threat to my neighbors and friends, to their animals and their children. Two of the remaining three had to go.

Even the best times end.

We held a quiet conference. Brownie was getting old, and her arthritis was making her limp about much of the time. She had also been the victim of the bigger two more than once. Too slow and small to defend herself and with a bad hip, she would be one. The other would be the remaining puppy, because she was a roamer.
I don’t like to cage country dogs – they are needed to keep the coyotes and skunks at bay – but roamers get into trouble. Puppy or not, Jonesy would have to be the other.
They might have gone to the vet, but weeks passed and there was still no time, still too much to do at home and office, and they had been caged on and off for too long. I had Poggin put a movie in for Chili so she wouldn’t hear what was about to happen, and just before dinner I got my Ruger, locked up Checkers and Jonesy, and called Brownie. We went behind the dam where the carcasses of others’ dogs found their resting place. I pulled the pistol out. What if it jammed? What if I just wounded her? My fear was that she would run off, bleeding and yelping and confused, to die on someone else’s porch. Or was that just an excuse?
I put the gun away and went in to make dinner, ashamed. Brownie danced at my heels.
A man shoots his own dog. All through dinner, as darkness started to fall, those words haunted me. Could I get Rogue to take them to the vet? She works tomorrow. And the next day. No, Rogue and two kids were gone for now; it had to be tonight.
I asked Poggin to load the dishwasher and took the pistol out once again. This time we went to the back 70, far enough away from the house that Chili would not accidentally stumble across the carcass.
I found a nice thick brush pile, and Brownie nudged my leg the way she always did, then nose down, she followed some scent or other. The pistol followed her, seemingly of its own accord. A man shoots his own dog.
As she came through toward me, her head was down and she stopped. I squeezed. Goodbye, Brown Dog. I will miss you so much.
Now for Jonesy. Jonesy is disobedient and willful, and she wouldn’t follow me out to the field because she had received a swift kick or three while cornering and harassing cows there.
I walked back to Brownie’s thicket and called Jonesy, trying to sound kind. A man shoots his own dog, but must he deceive it as well? Must he pretend to be its friend as he goes about taking its life? Because that’s what I did.
Jonesy wasn’t interested in that spot, but in a nearby brush pile and my glove, thrown on the ground just for her. It was almost dark now, but I could still make out the white spots on her black fur as she ran back and forth, pouncing and breathing and playing.
Stand still. Please? But puppies don’t stop. They always move, even full-sized puppies like Jonesy. At last she found the glove and paused to sniff it. It smelled like one she knew and trusted. I squeezed.
The gun went off and then jammed, but the yelp I feared, the thrashing of a wounded dog that I was helpless to finish never came. Instead she dropped where she had stood, tail beating the ground, thump, thump, thump.
It was so dark now. Was she dead? Or was she lying on her side, as usual, waiting to be scratched underneath? I couldn’t tell as I worked to get the old shell out of the chamber and a new one in, shaking…shaking.
Thump. Finally. Thump. So dark. Thump, thump. I put the pistol closer this time and squeezed again. Then I pushed her body into the brush.
There’s been a lot written about how what America is missing is a rite of passage, some symbolic act that signifies the coming of age of a boy to manhood. The military, the Peace Corps, and other more or less voluntary programs have been offered up as what our young men need. I’m convinced, however, that all that is needed is the acceptance of responsibility, even if it’s killing a dog. Not in joy or rage or for perverse pleasure, but because it needs to be done.
Because a man shoots his own dog when it needs to be done, even if he cries like a little girl afterward. A boy becomes a man when he can do what needs to be done.

El Borak is an historian by training, an IT Director by vocation, and a writer when the mood strikes him. He lives in rural Kansas with his wife of thirty years, where he works to fix the little things.

9 Comments

  1. “I had never killed a dog before, never knew how it felt.”
    That one sure hits home. I’ve killed for food plenty but there’s truly something different when it comes to a dog, especially one that has been a pet.

  2. The constant stream of city animals abandoned in the countryside was one of the sad parts of growing up on a farm. Like you said, some folks just refuse to take care of their pets/decisions.

  3. I’ve never killed a dog, thankfully. My dad once put down our black lab for similar reasons. Even at thirteen, I understood why it had to be done, but I did cry.
    A while after I turned eighteen, a family friend asked me if I would help her put down their two cats. This isn’t just some lady we’ve known for a while; she was my best friend’s mom, and my brother is dating her daughter. They were practically family at this point, or at least part of our “tribe.” And the cats were old and sick, and causing the family other problems, so I did it. I felt a little bad about it, but I did it quickly and humanely, so there’s that at least. I used the same pistol my dad used on our dog. That seemed significant to me for some reason.

  4. So far we have gone to the local vet to put down our sick/suffering dogs and cats. Good folks, which really helps in those situations.
    The first time I had to put down an animal that we raised it was a laying chicken. It had to be done, and when it was over it was a big relief. True to the tales they do run around and spray blood quite a bit.

  5. I’ve never had to do it. But my older brother did. We had our own dogs, but a stray had wandered in and joined our pack. Eventually it started leading the others into cow pastures and stalking cattle. So my brother had to kill it. He cried like a baby and I was too young to understand.
    Now I live in the city and all my pets have died at the vets office. But I cried when I took my last dog in for her final visit. She’s the one i miss the most.

  6. I have a buddy, big guy — veteran, former cop — who used to work in a veterinary office. He still has nightmares about Tuesdays because that was the day they put the dogs down.

  7. I have killed dozens of dogs over the last decade. For some reason, folks seem to think that dropping their unwanted pets will find a home in my valley. Most dogs have been shot standing over or near a freshly killed hen’s carcass. I don’t abide that. In one summer (during the kenyan boy-gods recession), I had to shoot 10 dogs.
    I have gotten to the point that I shoot any dog on my property. It is easier than having to deal with the aftermath of having to deal with the negative effects on the flock. It was hard the first time, but it is just dealing with another predator now. The last dog I shot came out of the woods at a dead run toward my hens. It took a couple of rounds as the dog was at a dead run. My exchanged students (I was hosting at the time) were shocked, as much by my nonchalance as the act itself. I told them: Don’t fuck with my chickens.
    I have had to kill some of my barn cats. I hated doing it, but had no realistic choice other than leaving them to suffer at a time when I could not get them to a vet to have the deed done. You must do what is necessary.

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