Harsh Truths And Difficult Choices: The Reality Of Behavioral Euthanasia

Harsh Truths And Difficult Choices: The Reality Of Behavioral Euthanasia

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.

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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.

What then?

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.

25 thoughts on “Harsh Truths And Difficult Choices: The Reality Of Behavioral Euthanasia

  1. Excellent article on a very, very difficult subject. As rescue, I have have to euth three fosters for unprovoked biting. I learned early on that not all dogs can be saved … and that not all dogs “should” be saved, so badly broken they were beyond our best efforts and a definite liability risk.

    1. I lived a similar situation as you wrote above – 5 years ago. My boy was just the greatest until he hit 21 months then he turned in an aggressive, suspicious, and scary dog. I took him into the vet and had every tested so we could think of to rule out a health problem everything came back normal, I took him to a behaviorist and she gave me strategies to work with him like you did with the above family. He was doing better although I couldn’t trust him. After 2 years of working with him one day out of the blue he lunged at my husband’s face and tried to bite him, thank goodness he didn’t connect. I had to make the decision to euthanize him, hardest thing I ever did. I have grandchildren I couldn’t take the chance of him hurting one of them. I couldn’t send him to a new home it just wouldn’t be right. I still cry for him wondering if I could have done something different but everyone who knew him told me I did the right thing, including my vet. Something was wrong I just wish I knew what. Trust me if I could have kept him I would have, he was just too unpredictable. His quality of life wasn’t good since he couldn’t be a “normal” dog. His ashes are on my hutch I miss him every day.

      1. I’m so sorry to hear about your dog! That sounds like a very difficult situation – unpredictable aggression can be extremely difficult to manage, even with a good training plan in place. Every owner I have ever worked with who came to this decision was devastated about it; it’s certainly not something that anyone chooses lightly, and I truly believe it’s the best option in some cases.

        I agree that it sounds like you did the very best you could for your boy. Thanks so much for sharing your story. <3

    2. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I agree that there are some dogs with severe, unpredictable aggression issues that simply cannot be managed safely in a “real life” situation. It’s a truly sad outcome, but I have fully supported the owners in every behavioral euthanasia decision I have dealt with.

  2. You also have to think of the dogs life in these situations. Is it fair to the dog to be locked away from everyone or in a crate where he is isolated? In many instances it just makes the behavior worse when he is out. It’s not fair to expect a dog to be locked away and losing whatever social interactions they did have. I had a foster that was aggressive to all strangers. She had a very very small group of people she could be around but at the same time those people had to be careful to even not pet her over her head. All in all, there were 3 people total that she could be out with. By that I mean she was a snuggle bug with me and them. Luckily they were the ones that adopted her and they also did boarding and ran a rescue and knew what they were getting into so she’s in a safe environment as it’s the country with no neighbors and she has a huge fenced in play area outside in addition to being inside. So in this case she is able to have a life where at my house she had to be locked up anytime someone came over. I love that girl with my whole heart but I don’t go see her because I don’t want to confuse her as she was here with me for a year.

    1. You’re absolutely right – I do believe it’s important to consider the dog’s quality of life in these situations, as well as the owner’s ability to manage them safely.

      Some dogs are quite content to spend time alone in a bedroom or crate with special chew toys or treats to keep them busy, but others find this very upsetting and stressful no matter how hard we try to make it enjoyable for them. If a dog has to spend most of his time locked up and separated from his family in order to keep everyone safe, it’s very fair to ask if this is really humane as a long-term plan.

      I’m glad that you were able to find a good solution for your aggressive girl, in a home with people she trusts and lots of room for her to run and play without encountering any strangers. I wish that every dog with aggression issues could be this fortunate. <3

  3. Thank you for your article. It helped me to read it. I had a similar situation 5 years ago and it still eats me alive. I had been fostering for years and had worked with many behavioral issues. One of my fosters I ended up adopting did great at first and got along great with my two other dogs. Plus he reminded me of a former dog of mine and was a real sweetheart. Then he started to show food issues. I tried doing what I had learned and used successfully previously. Then the food turned to other resource guarding even insignificant items like a piece of paper that fell on the floor. It wasn’t everything and I never knew what would set him off. And it wasn’t just with my dogs but with me too sometimes. But other times he was super sweet and playful even. He was friendly with people and even dogs most of the time. I got a behaviorist involved and my vet. He was on prosaic and I was working all the tips and tricks from the behaviorist gave. He was separated in a bedroom from my one dog he seemed to have the most issues with and with my other dog they would occasionally play so they would be together sometimes. One day he attacked my one dog and almost redirected on me. I was terrified and heartbroken. I knew for mine and my other dogs safety he couldn’t live with us. My fiancé (now husband) loved him too but was not very dog savvy and could have been hurt if a situation happened. I couldn’t rehome him because since he was so unpredictable I would be putting others in danger. And if I took him back to the shelter he would be put down there alone and scared in a cold dark shelter. With the blessing of my vet and behaviorist I did what I thought I would never do and had my vet put him down. I was there with him when it happened and it was the worst experience in my life. I hate myself for it and don’t know if I’ll ever forgive myself. I didn’t foster for a few years after that. I just started back this last year. My first foster back had some food aggression so I had some PTSD on that. But she worked out fine and did great. She found a great home with two other dogs. I guess I needed her to help me realize that all resource issues aren’t unmanageable. Thank you again.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear about your dog – that sounds like an incredibly difficult situation. Stories like yours are exactly why I wanted to write this post, although it wasn’t easy.

      Many times, well-intentioned dog lovers truly have no idea of how serious and dangerous to manage some aggressive dogs can be – there are sometimes situations that are just not safe for anyone around the dog, no matter how hard everyone tries. Dogs with severe, unpredictable aggression like this have a mental illness – it isn’t “normal” aggression (which is adaptive and serves a communication purpose, even if we don’t like it), but something far more dangerous. And some mental illnesses, just like physical ones, are not able to be treated effectively no matter how skilled or dedicated you are. It’s a truly sad outcome for everyone involved, but sometimes there are no other feasible options.

      From what you’ve described here, it sounds like your decision was the best one you could make – for your dog, and for your family. Thanks so much for sharing your story. <3

  4. I have been in the veterinary field for quite some time, (lets say over 25 years) I have seen things change for people and dogs quite a bit. I was given a back hand in the car when I was young if I maybe mouthed off to my parents, yet when my son was born it was turned into “time outs”. I have also seen people create monsters of dogs simply because they do not want to get the respect from their dogs. We use treats for everything, we don’t want to teach then how to walk on a leash, we treat them like they are the new age millenniums, no responsibility for their actions and owed everything. I have had my ups and downs with my own dogs and have had to learn what works for each one. First and foremost I see this dog written about having troubles right from the beginning.”Occasionally growling” when asked to get off the couch is a red flag and shows how they dealt with everything. If you don’t demand respect (Not by beating them or giving a backhand as I stated I received, just to clear that up immediately) but obedience. That is 99% the answer. Not begging to do things with treats. Sorry there is a time and place, but many times clients do not have enough wherewithal to determine when it is appropriate and when it makes it like a reward for being disrespectful.Animals are much like kids. If they are never taught, they do what they feel is the right answer. This new age of not expecting anything of the pet because it may make them upset is creating more of these sad situations. I see it weekly and if the client is willing, can help them before they get to this. Make your dog work for everything, sit prior to eating, walk in the heel position at all times, come when called 100 %, if you can get your dog to listen to you then you wont get to this. If you have to chase them with a treat to get them to look at you then you then you are not the parent. Dogs are pack animals and this poor dog never knew where his place was in his pack. Sometimes the leader, sometimes not. We owe it to them to not let this happen. Sorry but I see this so often and it makes me sick. Especially when clients allow me to help guide them with dogs I see heading this way. I have watched them grow and realize getting a dog to be disciplined is really the best way to get them to a balanced life. I hate seeing things that could’ve been avoided.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your perspective! You’ve brought up a few points here that I think are very much worth discussing, so I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

      You seem to equate using “treats” with permissive and ineffective training, and I’m sensing some general disapproval of reward-based training methods for aggression issues in dogs – I would respectfully disagree with this stance, as would every major group of veterinary behavior professionals and educated trainers currently in existence (see guidelines from ACVB, AVSAB, APDT, etc. in the US, or similar bodies in other countries).

      Treatment for aggression issues involves changing the dog’s emotional response to the trigger situation, from fearful/defensive/threatened to happy and expecting “good things” for dogs – food rewards are certainly not the only way of doing this, but they are one of the most powerful and effective options at our disposal. If you have seen examples where this led to “begging to do things with treats”, or “chas(ing) them with a treat to get them to look at you”, this not a flaw in the training method itself, but in the execution of it. Poor training is poor training, regardless of what techniques you are using 😉

      I am also very cautious when I hear anyone recommending more “discipline” for these dogs, as in my experience this is often a euphemism for some type of punishment. If you mean providing a structured and predictable environment for these dogs, so that they know what to expect and how to get things they want politely, then yes – I wholeheartedly agree, and this is an important part of our treatment plan for dogs with aggression issues. If you mean some form of verbal or physical correction, then I’m afraid I don’t agree at all – we have strong evidence that this is very likely to make aggression worse in the long run, even if it seems to “work” temporarily by suppressing the unwanted behavior.

      The idea of being the pack leader over your dog has also been thoroughly discredited for quite a while now, and doesn’t play any significant role in the treatment of behavior problems in pet dogs. See the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) position statement on dominance theory for more information on this: https://avsab.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/Dominance_Position_Statement_download-10-3-14.pdf

      Finally, I would gently ask you to think carefully before implying to owners who have done their very best to help their dogs, that the euthanasia “could’ve been avoided” if only they had done something different. I have only had to euthanize a handful of my behavior patients over the years (thankfully!) and all of them were truly troubled dogs that had severe, unpredictable aggression that presented serious logistical difficulties for safe management. These dogs are mentally ill – more punishment will not make the situation better, and in fact has a high risk of making things worse over time.

      I feel strongly that owners who have had to make this decision deserve understanding and support, rather than judgement and second-guessing – particularly when they have made it with the input of a trained professional.

      Thanks again for your comment, as it’s always great to hear from someone else in the veterinary field. I welcome you to offer your thoughts anytime. <3

      1. I feel like when the dog wants to bite strangers that’s one thing. Biting the owners well that is another. If my personal dog bit me unprovoked I am not sure how I would handle that. I work with a veterinary behaviorist and as you know we sometimes see the worst of the worst.
        One particular dog I cannot forget is a smaller 30# dog that the owner was given poor advice to “alpha roll” his dog, growl at his dog and punish him. The dog became an unpredictable biter. He already had a tendency to bite if maybe you scooted him away from food on the coffee table, or pet him when he didn’t want to be pet. The punishment only led to more aggressive harder bites and more unpredicted or faster bites. He bit hard too. I worked with him for a recheck and silly me wiped my hands off because of treat crumbs and that sent him to launch at my hands. Lead me to believe his predictors were hands doing something he didn’t like or reminded him of a punishment technique the owner used.
        The dog lacked any initial warnings, lacked a growl and was hyper alert almost all the time.
        I think I need to email them and see how things have been going!
        Back in the day I made a mistake of punishing a growl with my husky x that is uncomfortable around new dogs. Well that backfired! He started just wanting to “scare them” instead or reach over to bite them. It took years but he really is proud of his growling skills now! We can let him around new dogs, he can growl at them but we also help him through the situation that is causing him to growl.
        My wish in this world is that people who own dogs that are showing any behavior problems come to the veterinary behaviorist when they are young. When problems haven’t raised into biting. They can start with good advice right off the bat and start managing and helping their pets before they get worse. They can not go see the shock collar trainer or be told to “alpha roll” their dog. They can be lead in the right direction and maybe sometimes or in most cases keep their dog. The ones that are truly dangerous and show no warnings or triggers that is hard.. hard for everyone. Let’s hope we only see those dogs once in a while. In the meantime! Veterinary behaviorist are here to help! So let’s use them! It is not hard to start a conversation with people and sometimes they just need a little push in the right direction!

        1. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences! You’ve given some great examples of why we don’t recommend any kind of punishment for aggressive behavior in dogs – it often makes things worse over time by making the dog more fearful, and also suppresses valuable warning signals such as growling, snarling, etc. that let us know when we’re pushing things too far.

          And yes, agreed that early intervention is always best! Getting a qualified professional involved at the first sign of a problem, rather than waiting until the situation is dire, definitely offers the best chance for success. Veterinary behaviorists are indeed there to help, and worth every penny of the consultation fee – I worked with Dr. Meghan Herron at OSU as a senior vet student many years ago, which was a wonderful experience all around.

          Unfortunately, a major obstacle is that the dog training industry is so unregulated – like you, I see many dog owners who have been given incredibly poor, damaging advice by previous trainers prior to ending up in my office. We need better education for the public on how to identify a qualified behaviorist or trainer vs. someone who might be well-intentioned, but lacks the knowledge and education to treat serious behavior problems.

      2. It’s sad to see veterinary professionals share extremely outdated and inaccurate behavioral advice with their clients.

  5. Thank you so much for this article. Years ago I adopted a dog with no aggression history (allegedly). He was with us for months before attacking one of the children in the household who’d patted him while the dog was sleeping. He was a large dog. There was no way to predict if this could happen again. We’d never seen a hint of aggression or resource guarding. For all the reasons that you listed I didn’t feel that there was any other option but, just thinking about that day makes me feel physically sick. I feel like I betrayed him. I’ve told myself so many times that there wasn’t an option but, seeing someone outline it as you did…so helpful to know that this a horrible situation but it’s one that others have faced too.

    1. I’m so sorry to hear about your dog! What a heartbreaking experience. I’m glad that the post was helpful for you – one of the reasons I wanted to write on this topic is that I see so many owners consumed with guilt over their decision, along with unwarranted judgement in some cases by others.

      The truth is, life is rarely simple or black-and-white – as much as we might wish that all aggressive dogs were “fixable”, this just isn’t the case. You made the best decision you could for you and your family, as well as the most humane choice possible for your dog. I hope you’re able to find some peace. <3

  6. I sure hope you are testing for hypothyroidism or adrenal issues before allowing dog owners to euthanize or you are doing them a tremendous disservice and killing dogs unnecessarily.

    For my 11-month-old Welsh Terrier euthanasia was being considered. Thank goodness his vet understands the thyroid and with three days of treating (brand name, twice a day, empty stomach) he’s been fine for four years.

    1. You are correct that any relevant medical issues do need to be considered and ruled out, as part of the initial work-up in any serious behavior case. Thanks very much for your comment, and I hope you found the post helpful. <3

  7. Thank you for a measured and compassionate post on a difficult subject. My dog is also named Jackson, and his story has a happier outcome because of positive training methods. He started biting strangers around a year old, and we immediately hired an experienced trainer who sounded quite a bit like Nay, above. I want to share our brief experience with him because it’s an illustration of one possible outcome of “disciplining” a fearful dog.

    The trainer worked with us in our home. He gave us some good advice (less chaos, regular routines, especially around greetings), but he also wanted us to “be the leader” so that Jackson would have confidence in us. He began by trying to teach Jackson to walk behind my husband — around and around the yard, up and down the driveway, wearing a prong collar he brought with him, popping the leash when the dog’s nose came in front of my husband’s foot. The dog was bewildered; he had no idea what was being asked of him; he fought the leash. The trainer called him rebellious. After about an hour, the dog leapt on my husband, grabbed his arm, and grappled. Afterwards, we talked it over on the deck. The trainer thought there was about a 70% chance that Jackson would have to be euthanized. The dog curled up in a corner, totally shut down. He didn’t relax until evening. And when I took the prong collar off, I discovered that his neck was bleeding.

    We told that trainer that we wouldn’t be continuing with him.

    Since then, we have used exclusively positive reinforcement training, and it has worked very well. It’s been five years. We have a toddler. Jackson is asleep under my desk as I type. We are aware that we can never entirely trust him with strangers (reading your post makes me realize that we should have muzzle trained him), but he’s a wonderful companion to us all. When the doorbell rings, he and the baby bark together.

    I just wanted to provide a counter to Nay’s emphasis on more discipline/fewer “bribes”. Negative reinforcements scared this dog more, and had we gone that route we very well might have had to consider euthanasia. I’m deeply thankful that my Jackson was amenable to positive training methods, and have so much sympathy for those families (and dogs) with harder behavioral problems.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with your own “Jackson”! It always makes me really happy to hear success stories like this 🙂

      Your experience mirrors what I have seen a number of times personally as well – old-school training methods involving lots of “discipline” and showing the dog who’s boss are still unfortunately quite common in my area, so many of the aggressive dogs I work with have already had a bad experience with a previous trainer using punishment-based techniques like this. I agree with you that it quite often makes things worse, resulting in a confused and frightened dog who is more dangerous than before.

      Seeing so many of these dogs blossom and do well with a more positive approach is incredibly rewarding, and I’m so glad that this worked out well for your boy. This is a much more common outcome than euthanasia, thankfully! Kudos to you and your family for your hard work with him.

      Thanks again for your comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. <3

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