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Essay

Beauregard

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 At the 2009 Washington Correspondents’ Dinner, comedienne Wanda Sykes joked with President Obama, “They even gave you grief about your dog, about Bo. ‘Why didn’t you get a rescue dog?’ Look, the man has to rescue a country that’s been abused by its previous owner. Let him have a fresh start with the dog!”

Rescue dogs are “in”—a noble alternative to abusive puppy mills and shopping mall pet shops. An unbelievable variety of dogs, many purebreds, are available on the internet, desperately in need homes and love. What an indictment of our cuteness-craving, commitment-averse world.

For the last 40 years I have had at least one, often two, Boston Terriers in my life: Jill, Beans, Buster, Beulah, and Birdie. Visit our home and you’ll find Boston Terrier mugs, refrigerator magnets, wall art, door stops, t-shirts and more. When it comes to dogs, tasteful décor goes out the window. Last January sweet Birdie succumbed to mast cell cancer. We were dogless.

That is how Beauregard (“Beautiful-face” roughly paraphrased from French) came into our lives. A princely little guy. He’d been in shelter for three months. We never quite got the whole story on Beau. Apparently he was picked up as a stray, but we also heard he was abandoned. There was no history, no age, no name on him. On his shelter papers you can see an employee dubbed him Peanut. That was crossed out, replaced by Chopper. That too scratched out and supplanted by Bob.

For the first days among us Beau was in shellshock. He seemed to have absolutely no vocabulary. So unresponsive was he, we briefly wondered if he might be deaf. Quickly it became apparent that he was a nipper—insecurity and anxiety coming through as bites. None of our other dogs had ever displayed such behavior, so originally we might not have taken it seriously enough. But soon we began to consult trainers, use pheromone spays, a tight, “thunder jacket” to lessen anxiety, a music CD that claims to soothe canines, and behavior class, where we were kept in the “penalty box” away from the other students.

“Beau is ninety-five percent wonderful, four percent weird, and one percent dangerous,” observed my son-in-law. It was the one percent that concerned us. But ninety-five percent of the time he was fun, curious, and energetic. His trust of us increased. We were hopeful. I could regale you with all sorts of stories of Beau—skipping like a calf, his eagerness to please—as well as other times when his rough edges protruded. Nonetheless, we loved him. 

Troubling behaviors remained. All sorts of people had advice. If it began, “he’s only a dog” we knew it would end with the suggestion we euthanize Beau. Dog-lovers told us “miraculous” stories of rescue-dog turnarounds.

Eventually you anthropomorphize your dog. Beau made me deeply respect all those parents who adopt children, especially children adopted later in life. Those parents must wonder about their children, like I did about Beau, “Where have you been? What happened to you to make you like this? Were you born this way? Neglected? Abused? Is there any way to change you?”

I don’t want diminish the challenges faced by those persons with mental illness or survivors of trauma. I realize Beau is just a dog. But I think I can now somewhat empathize with the frustration, the feelings of judgment, failure, and shame. You can almost hear people second-guessing. “Can’t you fix that? Why doesn’t it get better?”

In July, after an “incident,” we made an appointment to have Beau “put down.” But we couldn’t go through with it. He was such a life-loving guy. The vet warned us however, that we were living on borrowed time. No amount of training or management would ever undo Beau’s terrible traits. Almost certainly Beau’s anxiety/aggressiveness would someday get the better of him. Then earlier this month, another, even uglier incident ensued. We knew what we had to do.

I’ve cradled four dogs in the last seconds of their life. But Beau was the first who was still a vital, healthy pooch. His life, filled with so much difficulty, ended easily—gladly filling his mouth with his favorite little chunks of hot dogs and cheese as the lethal injection went in. I held him tightly and wept. It seemed I could feel all the intensity, the strain, the anxiety and hyper-vigilance that was Beau, draining away. At last, Beau knew peace. 

You don’t just anthropomorphize your dogs. Usually I theologize as well. So badly did we want to be Beau’s redeemer, to make him one piece in God’s great undertaking to put the universe back together again. God’s love is steadfast. God’s covenant is unbreakable. God’s patience is overflowing. God’s mercy never ends. We’re all Beauregards—beautiful, loving, anxious, snippy, dangerous, and incorrigible. So many times I thought, just as the Lord doesn’t give up on me, so I won’t give up on Beau.

I found out that I am not a redeemer. Thankfully, that role is already taken. It still feels like we failed Beau, but it’s not a bad thing to realize that I am not a redeemer. In one of our final tear-filled conversations, words came out of my mouth that might be good to remember, in relationships both human and canine. “Beau, I love you.  But I can’t fix you.”

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

5 Comments

  • Thomas C. Goodhart says:

    Thank you, Steve, for sharing.

  • Jeff Munroe says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, Steve. My dog and I were attacked by another dog a few months ago, a dog that obviously shared some of Beauregard's peculiar anxieties. As horrible as it was when we were attacked, I still have been filled with remorse knowing that I was part of a chain of events that led to that dog being put down. Many have suggested to me that I should feel comfort knowing something worse had been prevented – but all I've felt is lousy. I didn't want that dog living around the corner from me, but that doesn't mean I wanted it dead. Wish there were some other options. Sorry this happened to you.

  • Al Janssen says:

    A profound insight that applies in any number of places (including the church. "I love you, but I can't fix you."

  • Patty Ahearn says:

    I'm curious to know if the shelter had any similar " incidents" with this dog. Usually they will not release a dog if it is not ready to be adopted. Further evaluation of the dog should have been taken at the shelter before they felt it was acceptable to release him. I have no idea where you got the dog, but I might question their rationale for allowing someone to adopt the dog in question. I am so sorry you had to go through such an unhappy experience that ended in such a tragic and sad ending for you.

  • Steve MVW says:

    Patty, thanks for your note. First, while it was a painful experience, I'm glad, not sorry, to have had Beau in our life. I like to hang on to the notion that whatever else, he had 4 months of stability, care, joy, and love. Regarding what we were told about Beau and his temperament, it was nothing. We should have been more diligent and cautious. We've never experienced anything like this before and so presumed, wrongly, that all Boston terriers are safe and good natured. My sense is that this shelter was just overwhelmed and inattentive, rather than intentionally dishonest or uncaring. I do know there are many very reputable Boston terrier rescue organizations, other breeds too, that are much more thorough about the dog's background and character. If we were to do this again, we would go through one of these organizations.

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