20 year content strategy veteran, Sharon Burton. Sharon Burton consults about content strategy, content business issues, social media and managing post-sales customer experience issues.

Insert your project management metaphor here

Insert your project management metaphor here

If I were of a mind, I could make the connections between this story and projects that fail. But I won’t. This post is a little too personal for me to want to go there.


Several years ago, after our old dogs died, we went to the local rescue shelter and found Olivia, a large Spaniel/Golden/God knows mix. We wanted someone to be friends with our young Aussie, Gus, and keep him company. Olivia was about 6 months old when we got her and for about 6 months, all was well in my house. The dogs played together and liked each other very much. Olivia was a delight – a large wiggly girl who was delighted to shove her head in your lap and be pet or snarfle your face to let you know she was happy to be here.

Gus loved her, too. They raced around the yard, playing kill attack death! It was a delight to see. Happy dogs, loving life.

And then something happened

Olivia started attacking Gus, given half a chance. We had several massive scary dog fights. Because combined, they weighed more than I do, the fights were also hard to stop. And someone was going to get badly hurt.Olivia

Because I strongly believe in consulting experts when you are at a loss, we brought the trainer we’ve worked with before and did everything she suggested. We kept them separate, encouraged happy interactions, etc. All of it. Right down the line. We loved these dogs and wanted to help them be friends again.

Seven months later, it’s simple wasn’t working.

Olivia got a new beginning

After thinking about what was best for both dogs, we came to the devastating conclusion that one of them had to find a new home. Because we had the Aussie first and because he has health issues, we decided to keep him and turn Olivia over to a rescue group. The weekend we gave her up was a very sad weekend. But it was best for Olivia and for Gus, who was very stressed out from living with a dog that attacked him, given a chance.

We gave our information to the rescue people for her new owners, if they wished to be in touch. Several months after we gave her up, we got an email from her new owner. The new owner and I had a long honest talk about Olivia’s issues at our house. We all hoped it was Gus-specific. Much happiness, as Olivia had a new place to live and her owner loved her too. She saw the glorious wonderful dog we saw and was committed to providing her a good home.

A good end to a story, we thought.

Olivia at about 18 months

Olivia at about 18 months

And then something happened

Several months later, I got a message, asking me to call. It was bad – Olivia attacked her other dog out of the blue. The new owner and I talked about what happened and how strange it was. Olivia gave about one second warning and then was on the back of the other dog, biting his neck, snarling, her eyes glazed over. When M finally broke the fight up, Olivia almost seemed to come to and peed herself, clearly terrified because people were yelling at her.

“It’s like she’s not even there,” I said. “It’s almost like a seizure or a trance.”

M said she was going to start working with a behaviorist and her vet. She loved this dog as much as we did. With a different house layout and about an acre of land, she had more room to work with Olivia. Olivia was about 90 lbs and these fights were hard for M to stop, as she was outweighed by both dogs.

I heard from M over the next 2 years. Sometimes Olivia was not doing well at all but sometimes she was doing very well. We were rooting for her. If ever there was a dog that simply loved life, it was her. In her new home, she raced around in the snow in the winter, digging and laughing. She licked faces every chance she got. She played with her co-dog. She  slept curled against him. She was a doll.

And then something would happen and she became a 90 lb golden ball of crazed fury. Who, when the “attack” was over, seemed to have no memory of it. She wanted to lick the face of and be near the dog she just attacked.

M tried medications, as dog brains are very much like ours. She got a muzzle. She worked with behavioral changes. And, she told me, things were getting better. The attacks were decreasing, she was doing better overall.

And then something awful happened

And then, at the beginning of February, when Livvie was probably about 4, it all fell apart. On Super Bowl Sunday, eyes glazed, Olivia attacked the other dog. M put the muzzle on her and removed her from the area for a few hours. Later in the afternoon, eyes still glazed, with the muzzle on, she went after the other dog again. She tried to attack the cats, who she loved. It was as though she had lost her mind. She had never been in this odd trance state for hours. It had always lasted less than 10 minutes, tops.

That evening, muzzle off, eyes still glazed, she did the unthinkable – she tried to attack M. Who wasn’t hurt badly, thank heavens. But this was a line that can’t be crossed.

Hard decisions

M later told me that before the attack, she was thinking Olivia might be OK, that the diagnosis she had in the back of her mind wasn’t true. At the vet, with the behaviorist, they all faced the facts they didn’t want to face.

Olivia, looking lovely

Olivia, looking lovely

Olivia had Rage Syndrome. Her brain was simply wired wrong. And there is no cure or treatment. And it gets worse over time, until no one, people or animal, in her environment is safe. Olivia’s attack on M crossed the line. It was time to make the decision no one wants to make.

Surrounded by people who loved her, they euthanized Olivia. It didn’t matter that her people so badly wanted her to be better. It didn’t matter that Olivia didn’t want to attack people or other animals.

Things to hold on to

Everyone who knew Olivia is devastated. She was a loving, wonderful, glorious girl. I’ll remember the fun she and I had in my pool, which she loved. I remember the snuggle times we had in front of the fireplace, me rubbing her belly and her lovely eyes staring into mine. She was a joyful delight in the world.

She was a wonderful dog who never had a chance. Her brain was simply wired wrong and no matter how much we wanted that to be not true, we could not love her (or train her or medicate her) out of it. I’m consoled that she got my family and M, who gave her the very best life a dog could want. And loved her enough to do the right things by her, even though it’s so terribly hard.

A sad sad day.


By Sharon Burton


  1. I’ll have to tell you the full story of Roscoe P. Minimutt some day. A very similar story to Olivia’s except Roscoe was only 16 lbs, so everyone wrote him off as “reactive” and a dog with “small dog syndrome” who could be managed because we though we knew what his triggers were (pretty much everything and anything).

    Roscoe committed doggie suicide last week when he attempted to kill our new puppy, and then went after me when I got in between him and the puppy (who was not even attempting to defend himself at all of 3.5 months old). Puppy is OK, but scratched and scared. I’m OK, but if Roscoe had been a 30 lb dog, I woudn’t have an Achilles tendon anymore.

    We had been managing Roscoe and his issues for 7 years. Operant conditioning, behavior modification training, and training in general were all attempted. We resorted to spatial and access management when it became clear that the usual techniques just weren’t going to apply to Roscoe. Roscoe and his history were such that there was no possibility of rehoming him. We didn’t want to take on the liability, and we were of the opinion that he had a better chance at not being dumped in a shelter with us than with anyone less experienced, or dedicated.

    Long story short: project management can go sideways for even the most experienced project manager. There are just so many things you can prepare for. And then all your careful preparations and understanding of how things should go fly out the door in the blink of an eye.

    Project management lesson learned: there are just some things that cannot be managed.

  2. cate bramble

    So sorry about this. You did everything you could with the information at hand.

    Sometimes Rage Syndrome can be helped by acupuncture. Next time.

    • Sharon Burton

      M tried acupuncture. She tried everything there is to try. For this dog, none of it worked. So terribly heartbreaking.

  3. [heartbroken sobbing]

    I didn’t even know Olivia, and I’m bawling. Poor dog. She really never did have a chance. Or maybe, the people who loved her until the end did the very best they could with what they knew about Olivia’s problems. Thank goodness for those people; they did what was right, although it was excruciatingly difficult.

    Hugs to you all.

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