This week’s topic is not an easy one to discuss. Few things in the world of behavior are quite as controversial as the decision to euthanize a dog – it’s a tragic outcome, heartbreaking for owners, trainers, and veterinarians alike.
Like all controversial topics, this one tends to provoke strong feelings and opinions on both sides. And unfortunately, when emotions are running high, misunderstandings and false assumptions are all too common.
Some well-meaning dog lovers I have encountered, whether in person or through online discussions, have argued vehemently that euthanasia for a behavior problem is never justified – it’s always a travesty, a selfish decision and an unforgiveable failure on the part of the owner or trainer that ends up costing the dog its life. I disagree wholeheartedly with this view, for reasons we will discuss below.
At the other end of the spectrum, I often meet people who cannot understand why an owner would keep a dog with aggression issues or any other kind of serious behavior problem – after all, why have a “mean” dog in your home? I’m also startled at times by how casually some trainers or other professionals in the field will recommend euthanizing a dog based on nothing more than a first impression and a quick summary of the owner’s concerns.
My goal for today’s post is not necessarily to convince you of anything – you may have strong feelings about this topic already, and that’s okay. What I am hoping to do is provide some perspective, and to help you better understand what really goes into making this decision. No matter how black-and-white it might seem in theory, real life has many shades of gray.
The only absolute, is that the decision is never easy.
One of my most memorable behavior patients over the past few years was a large, handsome dog I’ll call “Jackson.” He was a retriever mix of some sort, shiny and beautiful with strikingly intelligent eyes, weighing in at over 100 pounds without an ounce of extra fat.
His owners scheduled a behavior appointment with me when he was about 14 months old, because he was becoming increasingly aggressive towards anyone he didn’t know well – family friends, visiting relatives, and even passers-by on the street outside were afraid for their safety if Jackson was around. The aggression had started as growling and barking at visitors in the house when he was around six months of age, and things had rapidly gone downhill from there.
By the time I first saw him, the situation had escalated to a truly dangerous level – he was now lunging aggressively at strangers and would bite if not physically restrained by a leash or behind a solid barrier. The situation was complicated by the fact that Jackson had a habit of digging under the fence and escaping the back yard to run amok in the neighborhood, with predictable results – including a number of very scary “near misses” in which he had approached and lunged at neighbors outside their homes.
He was very loving and closely bonded with his family (husband and wife, and three teenage children), but also displayed some troubling signs of resource guarding over food and toys, and occasionally growled when he was asked to move off of the couch or other resting places. These issues were considered fairly minor by his owners at the time, but had also been escalating in frequency and severity over the past few months.
All in all, a tangled behavioral mess.
During our initial meeting, I sat chatting with the owner at her kitchen table, dropping treats on the floor and completely ignoring Jackson as he was brought in on a leash. He approached the table where we sat with curious sniffing and a loose, relaxed body, seemingly casual and friendly – then froze for a split second before lunging at the back of my chair in a deadly serious attempt to bite.
This was concerning, to say the least. A frighteningly intense display of aggression, with very little prior warning and no provocation apart from my presence in the room.
These are risk factors that we will discuss in more depth below.
The treatment plan that we discussed for Jackson that day was detailed and comprehensive, and included the following recommendations:
– Complete physical separation from all visitors, at least in the short term – meaning confinement in his crate in a different room, or in the garage, prior to anyone entering the house and lasting for the entire duration of their visit. This was strongly emphasized as a safety issue, due to the very real risk of serious injury to any visitor that he was allowed to come in contact with.
– More secure fencing in the back yard to completely prevent any possibility of escape (i.e., a 6-foot privacy fence with at least 3-4 feet buried underground to prevent digging) or eliminating any opportunities for him to be outside unless on-leash at all times. This was also very strongly emphasized, for obvious reasons!
– Reward-based training to teach him to be comfortable wearing a head collar (Gentle Leader or Halti) and a basket muzzle. These were to be used for safety and better physical control in the future, if/when we felt that he was ready to begin working on a counter-conditioning plan in the presence of visitors.
– Desensitization and counter-conditioning to the presence of strangers using high-value food rewards over time. This was discussed in very general terms at the initial visit, and it was emphasized that Jackson would not be ready for this until he was comfortable in his muzzle and head halter for safety.
– A trial course of daily medication to help reduce his level of anxiety around strangers (Prozac, in this case) in combination with a DAP pheromone collar.
I had serious concerns about Jackson at our first meeting, and discussed them at length with his owners. He was a large, powerful dog who was certainly capable of causing serious injury. His aggressive behavior was intense and explosive when it happened, and unfortunately, he gave very little warning before lunging to bite. All of these factors together made for a very difficult situation – training him safely would be a challenge, and it was likely that he would need to be carefully managed around strangers to some degree for the rest of his life.
Within a few weeks of our initial visit, it was clear that things were going poorly.
Jackson’s household was a fairly chaotic one – entirely normal with three teenagers, but unfortunately not conducive to successfully managing a dog with complex behavioral issues. Various friends and relatives were in the house almost daily, which made it a challenge to make sure that Jackson was always safely confined in another room when they were there.
The owners had priced a new, sturdier fence and determined that it wasn’t financially feasible for them. As a result, they were no longer able to put Jackson in the yard by himself. He had always enjoyed spending time in the yard, so this change was stressful for him – this added stress, combined with being constantly underfoot in the busy household, led to a worsening of his previously minor resource guarding issues.
Despite the family’s dedication to the plan and attempts to keep Jackson confined, the frequent comings-and-goings of various family members resulted in occasional escapes through the front door or garage. Getting him back in the house was stressful and time-consuming for everyone involved, and was also dangerous for neighbors and anyone else who happened to be outside.
The last straw finally occurred about six months after our initial meeting.
During one of his escapes, Jackson attacked and bit a jogger passing by the house – this, understandably, was very traumatic for everyone involved. Later the same week, as the family’s teenage daughter attempted to step over Jackson while he was resting, he grabbed her by the foot and shook her leg hard from side to side. Her shoe prevented any serious puncture wounds, but there was significant bruising and she was quite frightened by the incident. As a result, even his family no longer felt safe around him.
His owner called me the following day, in tears, to say that they wanted to put Jackson down.
I am frequently asked, by both clients and acquaintances alike, how often I recommend euthanasia for aggressive dogs – or, to put it another way, at what point do I tell owners that they must euthanize?
My answer is simple: I don’t.
The decision about whether or not to euthanize a dog for a serious behavior problem is very personal, and it’s the owner’s choice to make – period. I do think it’s an important part of my job to provide every client with an assessment of the risks involved if they choose to try and work with their dog, as well as a realistic prognosis for improvement. This is important information for the owner to have, to make an educated decision about what’s best for their dog and their family.
I will give my opinion on whether euthanasia would be a reasonable choice, if asked. In some cases, I may gently offer it as an option during our initial consultation if there are obvious, serious risks – but the final decision is theirs.
So how do we decide when euthanasia should be considered? Which dogs are likely to cause serious harm and require intensive long-term management, and which ones have rosier prospects for significant improvement and a fairly normal life?
These are important questions. Let’s return for a moment to Jackson’s case – it illustrates a number of serious risk factors that can make an aggressive dog particularly dangerous and difficult to work with safely, including the following:
Intensity/severity of aggressive behavior
It’s intuitively clear to most owners that a dog who approaches aggressively, lunges, and bites is much more dangerous than one who hides, cowers, and snaps only if cornered. In the same vein, we also look at how much damage the dog causes when he bites – a dog who bites hard and causes serious injuries every time is a bigger risk than one who has good bite inhibition, and causes no puncture wounds or bruising during a bite.
Lack of clear warning signals
This particular risk factor is a big one – if the owner can’t tell when the dog is uncomfortable and likely to bite, it becomes very difficult to relax around him or work with him safely because things can go from “fine” to someone bitten and bleeding at any moment. Muzzle training is an absolute must for a dog who doesn’t give good warning signals, which is an additional hurdle for owners to clear before we can begin working on the aggression itself.
This is a major reason that no reputable trainer or behaviorist will ever recommend punishing a dog for growling, snarling, barking, or giving other displays of aggressive intent – these are communication signals that tell us the dog is uncomfortable, and they’re extremely valuable! Dogs who don’t give these signals are much more dangerous, and are at a higher risk of being euthanized for this reason.
Size of the dog
It’s a simple fact, unfortunately, that large-breed dogs are capable of doing much more serious damage than smaller ones – a Yorkie or Chihuahua will never cause the kind of severe injuries that a German shepherd or Rottweiler can, even if their aggressive behavior is otherwise very similar. For this reason, larger dogs are more often euthanized for aggression than smaller ones.
Predictability of triggers
The first step in working with any aggressive dog is to identify what types of situations or interactions normally trigger the aggression, so that we can either avoid them or put together a training plan to work on them. If the dog’s triggers are not consistent or difficult to determine, this makes it challenging to put together an effective treatment plan. Paradoxically, it’s much easier to work with a dog who growls or bites 100% of the time in a given situation (such as having a chew toy taken away) than one who seems “fine” 90% of the time and bites unpredictably every now and then.
In Jackson’s case, his aggression towards strangers was very predictable… but his occasional resource guarding behavior and aggression towards his owners in close quarters in the house was not, and was all the more frightening because it caught them off-guard when it happened.
Finally, it’s also worth discussing one more factor that was important in Jackson’s case – his busy home environment.
To give a realistic prognosis for any dog with a behavior problem, you have to look at the whole picture. This means considering the owners’ ability to follow through with the recommended treatment plan, and what daily life is like in the house.
Jackson’s owners were good people – they loved their dog very much, and tried their best to make things work. But unfortunately, their large family and busy social life made the situation challenging from the start.
If Jackson had belonged to a very committed single adult, who had the ability to keep him safely confined and rarely had visitors, there is a chance that he could have been managed successfully. He would still have been an extremely dangerous dog around strangers, but a lifestyle that ensured very limited contact with people apart from his owner might have made this a more manageable problem.
A big family with children (or teenagers, in this case) meant that there were simply too many variables to control – even for very dedicated owners, with so many people coming and going, it can be nearly impossible to prevent occasional mistakes such as letting the dog out while company is over, or having him slip past one of the kids to escape the house.
It’s also important to note that for a dog with fear aggression towards strangers, like Jackson, this type of household is incredibly stressful to live in – the constant stream of visitors meant that he often had to be confined away from the family, which he had trouble coping with despite medication, treats and puzzle toys, and other measures to help him relax and enjoy his “quiet time.” We had to consider his quality of life in addition to the owner’s ability to manage him safely, and I truly felt that Jackson was not happy.
Does this mean, then, that euthanasia was the only option? Let’s look at some alternatives.
His owners were afraid for their own safety, and were also justifiably concerned that he would hurt one of their neighbors or visitors. They loved him and were truly devastated, but felt that they were no longer able to keep him in their home.
Could we have found Jackson a new home with a different owner, who would have been better able to handle him? Not likely, in my opinion. Rehoming can be a reasonable option for some dogs – particularly if their issues are very specific, such as a dog that doesn’t get along with a housemate dog but is otherwise happy and well-adjusted, or a dog who is fearful of small children in a home with a toddler.
Unfortunately for Jackson, he was quite fearful and dangerously aggressive towards anyone he didn’t know well – this would have included any potential new owner. In addition, due to the severity of his aggression, I would not have been comfortable attempting to place him in another home. A dog like this can seriously injure or even kill someone, if things go wrong. It would have been unfair and tremendously irresponsible to pass the responsibility for this kind of risk along to someone else.
What about surrendering him to a shelter or rescue? Some owners choose to do this, as an alternative to having the dog put to sleep by their own veterinarian – I will say that I think it’s a truly sad and terrible option for aggressive dogs. A dog like Jackson is clearly not adoptable, so the only possible outcomes that await him in this situation are euthanasia (surrounded by strangers, in an unfamiliar and scary place) or life in a cage or kennel run with very limited human contact.
So yes. Technically speaking, there are other options. As I tell all of my behavior clients – there are always options. But sometimes, all of them are awful.
There are far worse things in the world than a kind and peaceful euthanasia. If you take anything away from this discussion today, remember that most owners with fearful dogs, or dogs who bite, are doing their very best to deal with an incredibly difficult situation.
For some, euthanasia is the least awful option there is. Be kind, and don’t judge unless you’ve been there yourself.