Trainer Copes with Loss of Beloved Great Dane with Neurological Disorder
by Sarah Fader Contributor
Pepper Joy Greggs is the founder of Sit Happens LLC. She professionally trains dogs in the Denver area of Colorado and has worked with animals her whole life. She previously worked on a ranch in Oklahoma training horses and transitioned to working with canines easily. Greggs loves dogs because “dogs always tell the truth. They can’t help it.” She never has to guess what they’re thinking.
Greggs has worked with stubborn breeds before, but her life changed forever when she adopted Kyle, a Great Dane with an unknown neurological disorder. In 2013, while Greggs volunteered for a couple of giant breed rescues, she kept her eye on local Craigslist ads for dogs that needed rehoming. After seeing Kyle on Craigslist four or five times, she was curious about this dog. Finally, her curiosity got the best of her and she took her husband and son to the breeder to learn more about the dog. When she met Kyle, it was love at first sight, however, she sensed there was something off about him. Greggs recalls, “There’s this 98-pound dog that is just jumping up on all fours excited to see people. He didn’t jump on us, but he was jumping all around us. I thought, this guy is a hot mess.”
The breeder seemed to want to wash their hands of this dog, but Greggs couldn’t figure out why. He was a big, gorgeous, black-and-white Great Dane who reminded her of the horses she used to work with on the ranch. They took Kyle home, and they were excited to have a new member of the family.
At first Kyle was a normal, playful puppy, but he had difficulty listening to Greggs’ commands. Her curiosity about Kyle’s origins was reignited. Through some detective work, she found out that Kyle had come from a breeder who was participating in unethical behavior.
“I found out through many vet calls and calling different alleged rescues that Kyle was originally found on the site of the road. Just a few miles down from the highway where he was found was a breeder who bred Great Danes. That same breeder had six Danes that had gotten out and mauled a bunch of children,” Greggs says.
She was stunned when she learned this information, but she didn’t give up on Kyle despite his traumatic beginnings. The challenges began when Pepper started to train Kyle. She started with positive reinforcement training as her baseline. Then she switched Kyle to a balanced approach when she found that positive reinforcement wasn’t working.
“His brain had been what we call over-aroused. I didn’t exist anymore. Even though I was right in his face on the other end of that leash, and I had the food. It was all for naught. It just wasn’t connecting for him that I was even there,” says Greggs.
Pepper knew she had to switch methods to get Kyle the proper training he desperately needed.
“As with most dogs, Kyle responded well to food until high level distractions came along. I started using a method that employed more body language and physical effort on my part with balanced training. I got better results because I was speaking with my whole body and not just the food in his face.”
Pepper stayed with the balanced approach, but Kyle still wasn’t getting it. He also struggled to understand warning signs from other dogs to leave them alone.
“A dog challenged Kyle by showing his teeth. Kyle didn’t understand the body language of ‘leave me alone.’ He proceeded to lick the dog’s teeth. The dog attacked Kyle and Kyle and didn’t understand why he got beat up.”
Greggs knew that Kyle’s neurological issues were going downhill when Kyle had difficulty recognizing people that he had known for the majority of his life. After traditional training methods failed, she tried medication and even a new, gentler method of positive-reinforcement e-collar training, which yielded some progress. But one day, Greggs and Kyle were standing outside their apartment complex parking lot when Kyle launched his 140lb body across a three-foot distance between Pepper and an elderly neighbor. Kyle aimed for the neighbor’s face and throat, and Greggs was in shock. Kyle had never bitten. This was the beginning of the end.
“His eyes looked different,” says Greggs. “It was clear that the lights were on and no one was home. I could just tell my boy was not my boy anymore.”
Pepper took Kyle to the vet the day. The minute the vet tech walked into the room, he started aggressively barking at her and ignored Greggs’ command to be quiet. The vet tech came back with a muzzle. Kyle had never needed a muzzle in his life. The vet came into the room and asked her an extremely difficult question. “Do you think this is the end?”
She replied, “I hope not. But I need you to tell me. What do you think?”
The vet advised the vet tech to leave the room and come back. She returned with treats and talked softly to Kyle. Kyle did not recognize the tech and acted as though she were a threat to his safety. After a few minutes of neurological testing on Kyle, the vet confirmed that he had a neurological disorder and it would only get worse. He said they could delve into further neurological testing, but in reality, no matter what the diagnosis, Kyle’s condition would worsen. Greggs made the enormously difficult decision to put Kyle down.
Other trainers questioned her decision. Kyle didn’t have a bite history. He only lunged, so why couldn’t she just put him in a muzzle? She was surprised at the response from her fellow trainers. She was confident that under the circumstances she made the right decision for Kyle and for the safety of her family and the world around her. She wanted to remember him as the gentle giant he was when she first met him.
“A neurological dog is not a dog you rehome, it’s a dog you stick it out with as much as you can,” says Greggs.
After Kyle was put down, Greggs cried so hard that her face hurt for two days. She got a chest cold, and she was so stressed that eventually she developed kidney stones.
Grieving the loss of an animal under any circumstances is difficult. Greggs offers some advice to owners grieving the loss of their dog:
1. Feel all the feelings. “There is no right or wrong emotion when death and trauma happen in our lives. If you suppress your emotions, you’re not moving forward. Your pet would want you to live in the moment with your emotions as they do.”
2. Celebrate your pup’s life. “They had a wonderful life because they were with you. They celebrated [that every day]. Some people make donations to their shelter in their pet’s name. Some releases balloons; others spread ashes on their pet’s favorite hiking spot. Whatever it is . . . . find a thing to do to celebrate and honor your pet. It will help give closure.”
3. Don’t be afraid to adopt soon. “There is no wrong time to bring a new love into your home. Often owners find a new dog who helps them heal. They can bond deeper with their new pup.”
Greggs knew that she wanted to adopt another dog after Kyle, but she questioned whether or not she was ready to open her heart to one. Her son, Tzion, helped Greggs decide that it wasn’t too soon. She caught her five-year-old boy lying in Kyle’s old crate with his toys. He said that he was making sure their next dog knew that he or she was welcome.
That moment helped Pepper snap out of her grief. She decided she and her son both needed some puppy breath in their lives. Greggs and her family soon brought a new Staghound named Bob home. Bob has helped the family heal from the loss of Kyle, and though Greggs still misses Kyle, she kept his giant crate in memorial of him.
For information about adopting an older rescue dog or a new puppy, check out what our in-house dog expert, Amy Robinson, advises.