When my partner and I first considered giving up our dog Mallee for adoption, we were ashamed.
At first the idea made us both grimace a little, like we’d tasted something sour.
But the words could not be unsaid.
Several weeks later we posted an ad online, ready to wait as long as it took to find the right new home.
Despite ensuing guilt (ours), and judgement (our friends’), we eventually arrived at an improved living arrangement for both us and Mallee.
But there is a subtle feeling of fault that lingers, most noticeable when I find myself, in conversations with friends or colleagues, skipping over the particulars of why there’s no longer a pet at home.
I know what many of them think.
“There’s stigma around [the idea] that people ditch their animals for convenience — it just got a bit too hard so they gave up,” says Mia Cobb, a human-animal interaction expert and lecturer at Deakin and Melbourne universities.
“I think in some cases that’s true, but I don’t think it’s fair to paint everyone with that brush.”
Sometimes, she says, it just doesn’t work out.
Not just ‘throwing their pets away’
Ms Cobb says surrendering pets is “messy” and deserving of “a whole lot of empathy for all parties”.
“I have empathy for the animals. I have empathy for the owner [and] for the rescue groups helping to re-home those animals. It’s really hard,” she says.
“I don’t think anyone likes it when they fail at something, when something doesn’t work out their way.”
Tips for living happily with a pet
- Thoroughly research the animal or breed that you’re considering, and speak to other people who have them
- Assess whether you’re going to be able to suitably home that pet, not just now but for its lifetime, and be realistic
- Remember there’s support, such as animal behaviourists who can help even before you get a pet, so you’re prepared.
(Source: Mia Cobb)
Ms Cobb has worked at one of the RSPCA’s biggest shelters, in eastern Melbourne, and says it’s not uncommon for people to feel guilty surrendering a pet.
However, she says most people she encountered there “weren’t just throwing their pets away”.
“They’d thought long and hard about this,” she says.
My partner and I fit into this category.
We considered the pros, like not having nibbled shoes and furniture, and not having to sneakily avoid neighbours and their complaints about Mallee’s barking.
But we also thought about missing the feeling of her soft, warm mass sleeping against us, and her rhythmical, reassuring breathing; the uncomplicated joy of watching her swim; the way she’d chase birds she’d never catch and turn back to make sure we were still there.
When trying everything doesn’t work
For three years we tried — hard — to make life with Mallee work.
Dog school, trainers, upping our walks, hiding bones and dog treats in contraptions, play-dates with dog friends.
Yet she had cut so many laps around the yard it resembled a sort of illegal race track, decorated with hacked up flora.
She barked incessantly, ate whatever she could, chewed what she couldn’t, and woke us almost every night.
Ms Cobb says many people try everything before deciding to surrender their animal: erecting higher fences, engaging a trainer or an animal behaviourist.
But sometimes the situation is still “untenable” — and unfair to their pet.
“[Many people surrendering pets] thought the animal would have a better chance of having a good life in a different home,” Ms Cobb says.
That’s how we felt about Mallee.
But also, honestly, we just couldn’t do it anymore.
‘I absolutely loved her’
Brooke Dziuma spoke to me about her unease at deciding to rehome her dog, Charlie.
“You feel like a failure. It’s meant to be my dog for life and we’re giving up on her. I felt all that guilt,” she says.
When Ms Dziuma suddenly needed to move from a rural Queensland property to a house in Brisbane, Charlie “had problems adjusting to urban living”.
Charlie barked consistently and couldn’t be left alone in the house — ever.
Every day before work, Ms Dziuma drove out of her way to drop her dog at her mother’s house, and at night she had to make sure someone was at her house if she went out.
She persisted for a long time with various forms of training, but one day she learnt about someone living on a large rural property, who was looking for a dog like hers.
She began with a trial, in which her dog spent a week at the farm.
“It was emotional. I absolutely loved her,” she says.
But Ms Dziuma quickly noticed that her dog loved the new environment.
“She swam, lay in dirt, played with alpacas,” she says.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, how can I bring her back? It’s such a better life’. I [made] this choice not just for me but for her.”
A happier life in the bush
We believe our dog also gained a better life when she moved to a farm, owned by Bill, who responded to our online ad.
Bill was looking for a friend for his aging sheep dog, and some company on long days in the paddock. Did we want to come up for a visit?
Mallee took instantly to the regional Victorian property, where she’s now lived for over two years with Bill and his wife, their old dog, a bunch of cows, a flowing creek and — importantly — acres and acres of land.
Bill used to text updates, which dried up after a year or so, but recently he sent through a simple message of no words, just two photos.
In one, Mallee is blurred and mid-run.
But in the other she is laying, her paws spread out in all directions.
Her floppy ears, always the softest part of her, are shining a little in the sun and her eyes look up into the camera.
Her mouth is open wide in what almost seems like a smile — not intended for us, but reassuring all the same.