Making the decision: When to put a dog down for biting

This is a place to gain some understanding of dog behavior and to assist people in training their dogs and dealing with common behavior problems, regardless of the method(s) used. This can cover the spectrum from non-aversive to traditional methods of dog training. There are many ways to train a dog. Please avoid aggressive responses, and counter ideas and opinions with which you don't agree with friendly and helpful advice. Please refrain from submitting posts that promote off-topic discussions. Keep in mind that you may be receiving advice from other dog owners and lovers... not professionals. If you have a major problem, always seek the advice of a trainer or behaviorist!

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Barked: Thu May 17, '12 2:07pm PST 
I know that the proposition of putting a dog to sleep for biting is a controversial one. I assure you that I would not have reached this point were there options or solutions along the way. We've done everything in our power to curb this behavior and prevent harm to others. But we cannot predict it. And if we cannot predict it, merely punishing him just doesn't work. Here's my story:

I'm currently dealing with a weighty decision. Rocky is somewhere around 9 years old. I adopted him from a local animal services division (not a humane society) six years ago. Our first year together, he was shy but wonderful. I could pick him up, play with him, all of those normal dog things. No problem. But then something clicked.

His first few bites, several years ago, were all explainable as defense behavior (someone was towering over him and shaking his head, etc.) We knew that the behavior was wrong, we punished him by putting him in the bathroom (I lived in a one bedroom apt, by myself, with that being the only place he would be secluded). From there, it got progressively worse and impossible to predict. He will attack me for something as extreme as attempting to pick him up, or as simple as petting him in his bed.

He bit a friend that was over for dinner and we assumed it was because the friend was shaking his head- something we deemed "dangerous". He bit my sister, whom he has adored from day 1, while she was petting him as a greeting. He bit me several different occasions after he'd been sleeping on the couch and I reached over to pet him, but he awoke abruptly and seemed not to know me or where he was. It was instant and he latched on. His attacks have gotten more malicious.

He has been exhibiting more and more aggressive behavior. We've reached a point where he cannot be taken to the groomers without a muzzle. Initially, we could put a treat inside the muzzle and he'd follow it right in. He figured that out and the second time, we had to hold a shirt over his eyes to blindfold him and then put the muzzle on. After a few times, he figured that out too. After that, we used Benadryl to sedate him a bit and found him calm enough to slip it on without a fight. Yesterday, we had to muzzle him for a vet evaluation and did the same Benadryl treatment, but he never settled down enough to get it on and would snap at us each time we tried.

We had the aggression conversation with the vet, who wanted to perform a routine physical to assess the possibility of there being something physically causing this behavior, but they couldn't get a cage muzzle on him (we'd been using a nylon and hoped the visual difference was enough to fool him. Nope.)

She suggested seeing a behaviorist, however we're very reluctant. The prognosis is not good for dogs with such unpredictable aggressive behavior. The danger has added tension and stress to every interaction. Even simply sitting at home with him, we are afraid to touch him. Our relationship has deteriorated and though we love him so very dearly, we know that this is not healthy for any of us.

He is a positively wonderful dog. His playful nature and youthful exuberance makes me feel as though I'm giving up on him for no good reason. This year, we moved in to a house and for the first time he has a yard. He is at his happiest.

But we also know that he will never completely recover from this behavior. We will never reach a point where we can trust that he won't hurt us, our friends, or the random stranger that he encounters in any situation. We know that this is no life for him. Muzzling is not an option, as he bites if we attempt it. And even if we could muzzle him, 24/7 is no way to live.

He cannot be adopted in to another home because of his aggression and the fact that he still deals with separation anxiety, even after seven years of living with me. I can't imagine what another home would do to his fear and insecurity. If sent to a shelter, he would not make it out.

Perhaps it sounds as though I've already made up my mind. I guess in the end I'm the only one that can make this decision, but I want to know that I'm not alone. I want to know that I'm not giving up on him when the answer is just around the corner. And I find it positively impossible to evaluate him based on the dog he is most of the time (perfect) instead of the dog his when he bites (truly terrifying).

For those of you that have been in this situation, what did you do? How did you decide?

we will dance in- the ring without- words
Barked: Thu May 17, '12 2:30pm PST 
I have been in that position. I remember when Ali asked me what I did when Ash bit I answered "Nothing, I am too busy running to the sink to staunch the flow of blood". She was happy with that because she did NOT want me to punish him for biting.

I think if you have decided that you need to send this dog to the bridge, you should do so. That is a very personal decision and I will tell you from experience it takes a very special type of commitment to work with a biter.

Personally I am glad I decided to do so. Ash didn't growl, his warning signs were subtle, but when they were pointed out, it was as if he were screaming his discomfort at am.

A little whale eye, some look aways, small movements of the corner of his mouth, lip licks and a lumpy whisker bed were my warning signs. I learned to read them well. We did a LOT of counter conditioning and desensitization work, but the nice thing is it was all fun for him and for me.

Today, he is my partner, my best friend and the dog of my heart.

No one can tell you what to do. Working with a biter is difficult, but rewarding. Look to your own heart. If you are not completely on board, don't do it.

And if you do decide to go for it, find a real behaviorist, one with education and credentials and experience. A vet behaviorist may be best.
Shiver Me- Timbers- "Charlie"

My Little Dog, a- heartbeat at my- feet.<3
Barked: Thu May 17, '12 7:06pm PST 
My foster dog Beau had quite the bite history - sending many people for stitches prior to me. I decided to work on it and foster him instead of waiting for the rescue to cycle him some more. Beau, although many things now tolerable for him, will still never be trustworthy around children because children are far more unpredictable(although I must say that I've had more children listen to my instructions with dogs than adults!).

Through A LOT of trust work, positive reinforcement, impulse control training and backing off at ANY hint of discomfort, not only did I avoid getting bit ever in the months I had him, but I also managed to curb his food aggression so that he was okay around people(and according to his current foster mom, can eat with her 7 beagles all in the same room, dishes next to each other), his crate aggression so that he enjoyed his crate, and his touch sensitivities too. It got to the point where he loved to have my company, loved to play with me, cuddle and be around me. He wasn't outright biting anymore, but learned to bark to give a warning that he was uncomfortable if I didn't catch prior signs(many the same Asher listed - I learned a lot from her on body language and warning signs in the time I took on Beau, and learned a lot from, Sunny too).

That said, without experience working with aggression, I likely would not have taken him on, but I had prior fear aggressive experience with Maya(milder than Beau, but high with strangers) and knew a few things already on how to work on the behaviors and how to request or teach him new behaviors for things he once would bite for - barking, sitting, walking away, etc.

If you feel you can never trust him again, he'll never trust you again, that is as simple and honest as I can be. So if you don't think you could handle working on it, OR put in the time, effort and patience, risk anymore potential bites, or afford the help of a veterinary behaviorist(I'm sure there are many people who have worked with fantastic behaviorists that could suggest one near you), then I suggest letting him go. It's not fair to lie to both you and him, but if you think you can do it, absolutely try it. We're here for support either way. hug


the world's- first blond,- agility Beagle
Barked: Thu May 17, '12 8:25pm PST 
I agree with Asher and Charlie. Please find a Behaviorist that is able to work with you. It sure seems you are committed to him, but burned out. A behaviorist can help you unlock the body language and behavior so you can understand why and when he bites.

It will cost more to euthanize him than one home visit from a Behaviorist. It's worth it to know you did everything you could.

I can guess that he is continuing to bite and escalating because he benefits from the result of the behavior.
Sounds crazy? You put him in the bathroom where he could be left alone, which may be what he wants.

I hired a behaviorist a year ago because of a fight between my 2 male dogs. She was more interested in modifying the behavior of the female dog. She was correct. My female was setting the boys off. She is also very nervous around people, especially inside the house. The behaviorist suggested curbing her behavior around the "Boys " so she doesnt get them over excited and giving her comfort behaviors, like somewhere to retreat to, to cope with company. Her favorite place is the Powder Room, next the laundry room, then the basement landing.

The point is....I'm very experienced with dogs, rehabbed rescues in my home, reformed bad boy Sonny in to the lovable goof he is today. (Sonny is my reformed biter and was removed at his owners request after only 5 painful days). BUT, I didn't see how her behavior was out of control because she wasn't on the attack.

hug please know we are pulling for you, no matter what happens.

Barked: Thu May 17, '12 8:57pm PST 
Something is definately up with him. Could be that he hurts or that he's got mental issues. I had an older dog that would snarl and snap, but only did it a few times. He also got lost in the backyard, or would stand in the middle of the kitchen like he forgot why he was there. Could be behavioral. Don't know. All I know is that if I had a dog that was biting that much I would put it down. I also have children that visit my house to think of, I just can't have a biter.

Always my angel.
Barked: Fri May 18, '12 12:59am PST 
Not sure what I'd do if I were in your situation, but I don't think you should feel bad about either decision. You need to do what's right for you, knowing what you know about your situation and abilities.

I know that's a very nonspecific answer...but I hope it helps. hug
Apollo (In- Loving- Memory)

Only the Good- Die Young
Barked: Fri May 18, '12 5:07am PST 
Well I was in your situation with Apollo. He was very human and animal aggressive. He actually pulled me down to attack another dog with me attached to the leash. He tried to get over our fence to go after dogs. With him being so big and starting to go after us, we had no other choice. hug
Jax (earned- her wings- 5/30/12)

Give me your- toy.
Barked: Fri May 18, '12 5:30am PST 
Jax is a biter out of fear. I chose to work with her and I'm glad. She was/is not as unpredictable as your dog, but I learned to read her signs and just avoid those situations all together. She has never bitten me, just strangers or people who push themselves on her. Have you tried playing games with treats to get him to choose to interact with you? Don't go to him, have him come to you? I do agree that it's a personal decision and no one here will judge you on that decision which ever way you go. A behaviorist consult is a great idea. They may be able to determine why he's behaving the way he is. At least you may find out why he's behaving that way before you make the decision. Good Luck!

Beauty and the- Beast
Barked: Sun May 20, '12 7:23pm PST 
It is a very hard decision to put a dog down due to biting/aggression. I agree on the above posters that a behaviorist may help. I have worked with my rescue dog for the past 1 1/2 yrs and there is continuous improvement - she was six when I got her. She had bitten my 9 yr old granddaughter and a neighbour (unprovoked). She did not like anyone approaching me - she was improperly trained as a protection dog. I had to step up the training which she had to learn that anything she did, it was because I let her, she ate because I let her eat, etc etc. She had to learn I was her pack leader. She is a much happier dog, but I will not take the chance of her biting again - so it is still the muzzle and crate, which does not bother her anymore. I do not agree that a behaviorist cannot help a biting aggressive dog - at least get an opinion.
I am throwing it out there but it seems that your dog is ruling the roost and had gotten away with bad behavior for years Yes, put them away when they step out of line (when she bit), but that was the best time to get into training. Your dog does not recognize you as the pack leader. You will never be the pack leader over your dog as long as you fear her. Sometimes it can be as simple as taking her for long walks (you leading and not her though) and it a great way to bond and show her you are the leader. You have to get a muzzle on her, if it is on her all the time, so be it. When visitors come over, put her in the crate. If I had a choice to muzzle my dog or put her down, it would be the muzzle for sure.
It hard to give you my thoughts, as I do not know what the home situation is for structure and consistency for your dog.
Best of luck and keep us posted.

Barked: Mon May 21, '12 1:21pm PST 
First off, thank you all so very much for your supportive and realistic responses. It's very easy to look at a sweet face and forget the danger.

For clarification sake: putting him in the bathroom entails removing all soft surfaces that he might lay on (bath mats) and fun distractions (garbage cans he may rifle through). During this "punishment time", he sits at the door, whining to be let back out. It is obviously something he does not enjoy. After about ten minutes of this, I admit to myself that he has forgotten why he's in there and let him out. Sometimes he is seemingly remorseful, cuddling up close and doling out extra affection. Others, he's just happy to be out of that room, trotting about the house and trying to discover anything that may have changed since he was put in the bathroom.

Asher, your assessment of waning signs is spot on. The "whale eyes", as you stated, is our biggest tip off. Granted, sometimes we mis-read and everything is fine. All the same, we'd just rather not take a chance. Sometimes the lip flare/snarl occurs, but for the most part, we receive no warning. I will look for the lumpy whisker bed, as I'm certain I've noted it before, but did not make the connection. I know that the reward is worth the work, but I'm not certain that the reward is attainable.

We are in touch with a certified veterinary behaviorist, a pricey endeavor at $290 for consult and home visit, but worth it. The worry comes when I realize that it will be more than a single appointment. Rocky has always been incredibly healthy (and for that we are grateful), so this is an investment for us. We're not used to lofty vet bills. His first opening comes at the end of June, so we will be attempting to muzzle train him up to that date. We plan to give him Benadryl so that he relaxes enough to get the muzzle on, and then leave it on for a while. We'll take it off, with nothing bad having happened, and hopefully convince him bit-by-bit that the muzzle is not a bad thing.

Charlie, kudos to you for your diligence and optimism. I know that food aggression is incredibly hard to break. Thankfully, we do not have that to deal with. Your point about mutual trust is a huge one. I know that he will sense our lack of trust and i know that we must establish ourselves as the dominant members of the "pack". Thank you for your support.

Sonny, your assessment of my current relationship with him as "committed to him, but burned out." couldn't be more accurate. Many nights crying over this are the result of that, and knowing that my energy and focus just weren't the best. I've taken a step back, evaluated the situation, and feel ready to deal with it and give it my all. The two options cost roughly the same (if we can fix things after one behavior appt), so we're not bringing money in to the discussion. He is alone when he is punished in the bathroom, but as a general rule he enjoys people more than alone time. He whines whenever he is shut in a room (i.e. if company is over and we lock him in the bedroom to avoid danger, he will sit at the door and whine to come out).

Roxanne, I agree that there are mental issues. He is a shelter dog with unknown history (we don't even know what got him to the shelter. He was a stray). The pain is a scant possibility. The bites don't result from touch in any consistent place. I agree that, were children a common presence in our home, the decision would be made. Luckily, we are not quite to that point.

Lisa, I appreciate your support and assurance. Thank you.

Apollo, I'm so sorry your situation was beyond help. Rest in peace.

Jax, he is a very social dog and we interact without incentive. He has never been very playful; it's as if he doesn't really know how to play games. He'll do the natural dog things- tug of war, chasing around the yard, chewing on bones. But repeated instruction/action games (fetch, etc.) seem to be of no interest to him. I agree that finding out the source/reason is worth it, regardless of where we end up thereafter. Thank you for the advice.

Seela, your advice that training needs to be strict and enforced to the point that "she had to learn that anything she did, it was because I let her, she ate because I let her eat, etc etc. She had to learn I was her pack leader." is probably the clearest explanation of that mentality. I think it's an approach I've never really utilized and could benefit from. I approached our relationship as one of mutual benefit, and to some extent equality. I wanted my dog to be the casual, go anywhere, may as well be a person sort. I wanted him to have some free will and not always be at my heels. I imagined your approach as a more stressful one, but now I see it may have been the smarter option for him. Thank you for your advice. I see it as a solid approach here on out.

Thank you all again, so very much, for your support, reassurance, and honest accounts of your own struggles.

I'll keep you updated on how he is doing.
Andrea (Rocky's mama)
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