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Ask a Trainer: When Is It Time to Put a Problem Dog Down?

Most of the time, Monte was the best friend you could ask for. But the rest of the time, he was out of control. After the first time he bit someone, it hit us: we had to help this dog, or he needed to be euthanized.

 |  Mar 20th 2012  |   141 Contributions


It would be hard to find someone who loves dogs more than I do. Almost every day, from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed, I am working with, playing with, writing about, and talking about dogs. Sometimes, I talk, think, write about, work with, and play with dogs so much that I wouldn’t be surprised if my brain was furry and floating in a sea of cerebral dog slobber. (Gross, I know.)

Even before training was my profession, I loved dogs. I love all animals, which is a big reason I have been a vegetarian for nearly two decades. I don’t like to see animals hurt, afraid, or living less-than-quality lives. So imagine my shock when I found myself, a dog lover of the highest caliber, wrestling with the decision over whether I should euthanize my dog for a behavior problem.

I’d wanted a Saint Bernard ever since I was little. I found one on Petfinder, and my husband, Jim, and I rescued a dog then named Beethoven, who was renamed Monte in about five minutes with a six-pack of Chicken McNuggets from McDonald’s. 

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Monte and Casey. Photo by Casey Lomonaco.

But unbeknown to us, we had adopted a giant breed dog with pretty severe reactivity toward other dogs. While I’d spent my childhood surrounded by dogs of varying breeds, I’d never met a dog with “behavior problems.”

Around 99.9 percent of the time, Monte was the best friend you could ever ask for. But the rest of the time, he was very strong, potentially dangerous, and out of control. We tried some training techniques we’d seen on TV (with some reservations), but things didn't improve –- in fact, the problem seemed to intensify. We were forced to wrestle with a difficult decision after the first time Monte bit someone: We have to help this dog, or he needs to be euthanized.

I was a dedicated and fairly experienced dog owner. We don't have kids, and we were committed to Monte’s rehabilitation, whatever it might involve. If I was unable or unwilling to help him, who else would? What were the risks associated with passing those issues to someone else? What was Monte’s quality of life like? While he was often playful and happy, he would often melt down into a doggy panic attack. The triggers for his anxiety and reactivity were initially unpredictable, and I was worried about him. How does it feel to live on edge, heart racing, pupils dilated, scanning the environment for potential threats whenever you leave your house? I wanted Monte to live, but more than anything, I wanted him to live happily and well.

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Monte learned how to relax and be a big happy goofball.

We ended up consulting with a local trainer. I was a skeptic turned clicker training advocate. We learned how to manage, and to teach Monte new skills. While he was never a “normal” dog, the situations he was able to enjoy expanded dramatically, and we were able to do things we’d never imagined were possible, like having a doggy play date with carefully selected, socially tolerant dogs. And I became a dog trainer, because I wanted to learn everything I could about helping dogs and their people.

Sometimes I meet a client who is feeling a lot like I was then. Usually, the family has already discussed euthanasia and is seeking professional training as a last-ditch effort to save the dog. Been there, done that. (Note: Seek a good trainer as early as possible if you encounter a new behavior problem in your dog!) Often when I arrive, their eyes are red and their noses are running, tissues at the ready. “But he’s so wonderful most of the time. He really is a good dog,” they say. I always tell them, “I know he is.”

Behavior problems are the most common reason for euthanasia in dogs. We are often quick to judge people who euthanize their dogs for reasons other than health issues, and while some might seem worthy of being judged -- those who don’t want to house-train their pets and then euthanize them for having accidents (yes, this actually happens) -- there are also many compassionate dog owners who are deeply in love with their dogs, but who are desperate to resolve a dangerous behavior problem.

If your dog has a serious behavior problem, you have several options before seriously considering euthanization. You can manage the dog by keeping him out of the environment likely to create the response or the triggers; you can work on training and behavior modification; and you can consult a vet for medication to treat the behavior. Note that training and medication will not resolve a problem without appropriate behavior modification and management first. Rehoming may also be an option, but for dogs that are repeatedly displaying dangerous behavior, there are significant ethical and liability questions to be considered (which will be a topic for another day).

While I’m comfortable tackling certain behavior problems in dogs, I have to refer others to veterinary behaviorists, or those who have at least a master’s degree in behavioral sciences. It is part of my job to make sure my clients have access to the best behavioral care in the world, whether or not I can provide it, and whether or not they choose to pursue it. Generally the behaviorist makes a plan for the dog (vet behaviorists will sometimes use medications as well), and I help the client implement it. 

But sometimes, even in the best of circumstances and with the best of care, euthanasia may be an appropriate option.

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What Do I Need to Consider Before Making a Decision? 

1. Resources: Dealing with a dog that is dangerous to itself or others requires a significant investment of time and money. One of my clients spent a week’s pay and drove four hours each way for a four-hour consultation with a vet behaviorist, which included blood tests and a comprehensive wellness exam. She spent a good portion of the next week’s income on muzzles, medication, a new head halter, calmative aids, and a bunch of really high-value treats. Not everyone is able to or willing to do this, including really great people who dearly love their dogs.

2. Children: If your dog is aggressive toward children who live in or visit your home, the prognosis is guarded. They may never be able to have safe access to each other, and the dog may have to be crated or separated when kids are present. What is this dog’s quality of life like? What is the quality of life like for the human family?

3. Compliance: You may have to totally change the way you live. This may mean canceling travel plans because your aggressive dog cannot be boarded safely. It may mean walking your dog-reactive pup long after your neighbors have retired for the evening, or before the birds start chirping in the morning, or temporarily walk him at a different location.

4. Ability to control the environment:  Since keeping a dog with behavioral issues requires a substantial amount of management, how will you be able to manage the environment and presentation of triggers? It's easier if you live alone or have a cooperative partner in the household.

5. Liability: Some homeowners' insurance policies will not cover a household containing a dog with a bite history. You may have legal issues to consider in determining the future of your dog.

6. Your own circumstances: My own anxiety issues made rehabilitating my own reactive Saint Bernard very challenging. Your emotional or physical disabilities can make a successful behavior modification treatment plan impractical or less successful.

7. Geography: There are currently only about 50 veterinary behaviorists in the United States, so you may have to travel to find one. The good news is that many of them will develop treatment strategies with vets and trainers through video and telephone consultations.

8. Support team: Are all household and family members on the same page in terms of commitment and expectations? Are your “staff” -- vet, trainer, behaviorist, etc. -- willing to work collaboratively to help you be successful?

What Are Some of the Dog Factors Which Influence A Euthanasia Decision?

1. The dog's age: Generally, the longer a dog has been rehearsing an unwanted behavior, the harder it is to fix.

2. The dog's breed and size: While toy breeds can do a lot of damage, a bitey Chihuahua can be removed from a dangerous situation far more quickly than a giant breed dog that wants to bite.

3. Severity of the problem: When your dog bites, how hard does he bite? A dog that air-snaps is more easily rehabbed than a dog who has drawn blood or -- worse -- sent people to the hospital.

4. How long has it been happening? It’s much easier to address an aggression or reactivity problem after the first growl than it is after the 47th bite.

5. Number of problems: Rehabilitating a dog with separation anxiety is hard enough. But what if your dog also displays dog aggression, territorial barking, or aggression toward strangers, your children, or other household pets? Such a dog can be a challenge even for the most dedicated and experienced of handlers.

6. Predictability of triggers: It is much easier to address a behavior problem where the dog is set off by tall, bearded men with deep voices than it is to rehabilitate one that reacts to anything on two legs or four wheels.

7. Health: I favor a holistic approach, which means that in order to be behaviorally well, a dog must be physically well. Your dog's treatment plan may include medical tests, supplements and medications, or a dietary change or weight loss plan. 

8. Quality of Life: A dog that spends every waking moment pacing, whining, engaging in self-mutilating behaviors or obsessive compulsive behaviors, or separated from the family in the basement or yard is leading an unhappy life. How well such dogs respond to medication and/or behavior modification definitely affects the prognosis for change.

If you are seriously considering euthanasia for your dog's behavior problem, don’t hesitate to consult your veterinarian regarding your concerns, and do seek out a qualified behavior professional. Don't make such an irreversible decision without seeking the best professional advice available.

And if you do have to euthanize your dog for a behavior problem, please forgive yourself. I know there is a lot of stigma associated with it. Many pet owners who have made the decision question themselves -– Did I do something wrong? Could I have done more? Am I a bad pet owner? Should I ever have a dog again?

Again, a qualified behavior consultant can be a great source of support. Look for someone who can counsel you on selecting the right dog when you are ready, and work with them to develop proactive strategies to prevent behavior problems, so you and your new dog will not need to go through such experiences.

Further reading:

Treat or Euthanize? Helping Owners Make Critical Decisions Regarding Pets with Behavior Problems and Treat or Euthanize? Putting It All Together: Prognostic Indicators by Lore Haug, DVM, MS, DACVB

Love, Guilt, and Putting Dogs Down by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D

"It's OK to Cry" by Pat Miller

Photo credits: Casey and Monte pictures courtesy of Casey Lomonaco, Hand holding paw from Shutterstock.com

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