This months blog is a difficult one to discuss. There is not much in the world of behaviour that is quite as controversial as the decision to euthanise a dog, it’s the worst outcome, heartbreaking for owners, trainers, and vets alike.
The same as all controversial subjects, this one tends to provoke strong feelings and opinions on both sides. Regrettably, when emotions are running high, misunderstandings and false assumptions are all too common.
Some well-meaning dog lovers which behaviorist and trainers encounter, whether in person or through online discussions, have argued, passionately that euthanasia for a behaviour problem is never justified. It’s always a travesty, a selfish decision and an inexcusable failure on the part of the owner or trainer that ends up costing the dog its life.
At the other end of the scale, I frequently meet people who cannot understand why an owner would keep a dog with aggression problems or any other kind of serious behaviour problem; after all, why would you want a “nasty” dog in your home? Also, I am shocked at times by how casually some trainers or other professionals in the field will recommend euthanising a dog based on nothing more than a first impression and a quick summary of the owner’s concerns.
The goal for this post is not to convince you of anything you may have strong feelings about regarding euthanasia. I am aiming to provide you with 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 grey.
The only absolute, is that the decision is never easy.
A very memorable behaviour patient of mine over the past two years was a large, muscular dog I will call “Toby” He was a Mastiff, Pitfall cross, large and stunning with piercing Blue eyes, which I seemed to look deep into one’s soul. You could just tell that he was reading your body language from the onset. Which two previous behaviourist found intimidating; it didn’t help that he weighed in at over 140 pounds with no extra fat.
His owners made an appointment with me when he was about 12 months old to discuss his behaviour, as he was becoming increasingly aggressive towards people visiting that he barley knew; such as family friends and relatives. Even passers-by on the street outside; were terrified of Toby.
The aggression first of all started as growling and barking at visitors in the house when he was about six months old, thereafter, things had rapidly declined.
By the time I first saw him, the situation had escalated to a very dangerous level. He was now lunging aggressively at strangers and would use his teeth to make his point if not physically restrained by a lead or behind a strong barrier which for him was s steel framed pen behind a dense hawthorn, hedge row.
The situation was complicated by the fact that Toby had a habit of jumping, in an attempt to escape the back garden at the end to run amok in open land, with predictable results, including a few very scary “near misses” in which he had approached and lunged at ramblers outside while they were out enjoying the countryside.
He was very loving and closely bonded with his family husband and wife, and two children, one eight and the other thirteen. However, he displayed some troubling signs of resource guarding over food and toys, and occasionally growled when he was asked to move off of the sofa or other resting places. These issues were considered fairly minor by his owners at the time, although it had been escalating in frequency and severity over the past few months. In a nutshell, this was twisted chaos.
During our initial meeting, I sat chatting with the owner in her home on the sofa, dropping treats on the floor and completely ignoring Toby when he was walked in on his lead.
He approached the corner of the sofa 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 sofa were I was sat in an attempt to bite. This was an anxious moment, to say the least. A nerving intense display of aggression, with very little prior warning and no provocation apart from my presence in the room.
The risk factors I will discuss in more depth below.
The treatment plan that we discussed for Toby that day was detailed and comprehensive, and included the following recommendations:
Total physical separation from all visitors, interim, so, short term. This meant he would be confined to 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.
Note: This was given special importance as a safety issue, due to the very real risk of serious injury to any visitor if he was allowed to come into contact with them .
More secure fencing at the end of the back garden to completely prevent any possibility of escape, for example, six 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-lead at all times. This was also given special importance 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.
Desensitisation 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 explained that Toby 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.
To be honest I was extremely concerned about Toby at our first meeting, and discussed this in detail and at length with his owners. He is a large, powerful dog who was clearly capable of causing serious injury. His aggressive behaviour 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, therefore training him safely would be a challenge, and it was likely that he would need to be carefully managed around strangers to some extent for the rest of his life.
Within a few weeks of our initial visit, it was clear that things were going very well. Toby’s household was a quite chaotic one; entirely normal with one child and one teenager, but unfortunately not conducive to successfully managing a dog with complex behavioural issues. There was different friends and relatives in the house daily, which made it a challenge to make sure that Toby was always safely confined in another room when they were there.
The owners had priced a new, stronger fence, but couldn’t afford it. Consequently, they couldn’t put Toby in the garden by himself. Now he’d always enjoyed spending time in the garden, so this change was stressful for him and added stress, combined with being constantly underfoot in a 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 Toby 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 neighbours and anyone else who happened to be around in the village.
Five months after our initial meeting, I received an emotional call from Toby’s owner stating that collectively they didn’t feel safe and wanted to him to be put to sleep. Apparently, during one of his escapes, he attacked and nipped a passer-by on skateboard, but didn’t puncture the skin. This, understandably, was very traumatic for everyone involved.
Later the same week, as the family’s teenage daughter attempted to push him away with her foot because he was too close to her feet, Toby grabbed her by the leg, hard and shook from side to side. He had been resting. Her jeans prevented any serious puncture wounds, but there was significant bruising and she was quite frightened by the incident.
I am frequently asked by clients and acquaintances alike, If I recommend euthanasia for aggressive dogs or, at what point do I advise owners that they must euthanise. I would never suggest euthanasia.
The decision about if you should euthanise a dog for a serious behaviour problem is very personal, and it’s only the owner that can make that decision. Although, I believe that 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. The information I provide is important for the owner to have, to make an educated decision about what’s best for their dog and their family.
I do give my opinion on if euthanasia would be a reasonable choice, if asked. In some cases, I may during out initial consultation gently explain that this should be considered as a last option; if there are noticeable, serious risks, however, the final decision is theirs.
How do we decide when euthanasia should be considered?
Which dogs are likely to cause serious harm and require intensive long-term management?
Which dogs have more positive prospects for significant improvement and a reasonable normal life?
These questions are important. If we return for a moment to the Toby case, it provides 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 behaviour
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/she 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/her or work with him/her safely, because things can go from “good” to a person bitten and bleeding at any moment. Muzzle training is a total must for a dog who gives no precise warning signals, which is an additional hurdle for owners to clear before they can begin working on the aggression itself.
This is a key reason that no reputable trainer or behaviourist will ever recommend punishing a dog for growling, snarling, barking, or giving other displays of aggressive intent. It is important to remember that the dog is communicating these signals to tell us that he/she is uncomfortable, which are extremely valuable! Now, dogs who don’t give these signals are much more dangerous, and are at a higher risk of being euthanised for this reason.
The size of the dog
It’s a simple fact, sadly, that the larger-breed of dogs, such as Rottweilers are capable of doing a lot more serious damage than smaller ones, like a Poodle or Chihuahua who will never cause the same sort of severe injuries that a German shepherd or Mastiff can, even if their aggressive behaviour is similar. For this reason, larger dogs are more often euthanised for aggressive behaviour compared to 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. By doing this 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 presents a challenge when we have 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, like having a chew toy taken away, compared to one who seems “fine” 90% of the time and bites unpredictably every now and then.
In Toby’s case, his aggression towards strangers was very predictable, but his occasional resource guarding behaviour and aggression towards his owners in close proximity 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 an additional factor that was important in Toby’s case, the busy home environment.
To give a realistic prognosis for any dog with a behaviour problem, you must 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.
Toby’s owners were good people who loved their dog very much, and tried their best to make things work. Unfortunately, their family unit and busy social life made the situation challenging from the onset.
If Toby had belonged to a very committed single adult, who had the ability to keep him safely confined and only a few visitors, ad-hoc then there would have been 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. Consequently, it would have been virtually impossible to prevent occasional mistakes like letting the dog out when visitors were present, or having him sneak past one of the children to escape the house.
It’s also important to note that for a dog with fear aggression towards strangers, such as Toby’s, this type of household is incredibly stressful to live in. Furthermore, the relentless flow of visitors meant that he was often confined away from the family, which he had trouble dealing with despite medication, treats and puzzle toys, and other measures to help him relax and enjoy his “quiet time.”
The owners had to consider his quality of life in addition to their ability to manage him safely. I could feel Toby’s energy and concluded that he was not happy. Did this mean, then, that euthanasia was the only option? Well, lets look at some other options.
His owners were afraid for their own safety, and were also justifiably concerned that he would hurt one of their neighbours or visitors. They loved him and were truly devastated, but felt that they were no longer able to keep him in their home.
Could a new home be found for Toby with a different, knowledgable owner, who could handle him better? In my opinion, It would be difficult.
Rehoming can be a reasonable option for some dogs especially if their issues are very specific, like a dog that doesn’t get along with a housemate, but is otherwise happy and well-adjusted, or a dog who is fearful of small children in a home with a child.
Sadly for Toby, he was quite fearful and dangerously aggressive towards anyone he didn’t know well. Therefore, this would have included any potential new owner. In addition, due to the severity of his aggression,
I was not comfortable attempting to place him in another home with a family. A dog like this can seriously injure or even kill someone, if things go wrong. It would have been unfair and irresponsible to pass along the responsibility for this behavioural risk to someone else.
Should they give him to a shelter or rescue centre?
There are always owners who will choose this option, as an alternative to having the dog euthanised. In my opinion, this is sad and dreadful option for aggressive dogs. A dog like Toby 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 behind bars or a kennel run with very limited human contact. There are other options which I explain to my clients with animals who have behavioural issues, although sometimes they are awful.
In the case of Toby; it’s a happy ending, I was able to find him the most suitable owner where he will live in the most appropriate environment. He now lives with an x service person in a remote part of the UK. Toby has no contact with any other humans and is happy and relaxed. At there first introduction I could feel the connection between then, Toby’s body language was positive, there was no hesitation, he walked up to his new owner and licked them. I get email updates now and then. They were meant to be together.
If you take anything away from this story, remember, there is a positive outcome most of the time but spare a thought for the owners with fearful dogs, or those who bite, because they really are trying to do their very best to deal with an incredibly difficult situation. For some, euthanasia is the least awful option for them. Be understanding and don’t judge unless you have been in the same situation yourself.