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.
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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.

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.

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.

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

18 thoughts on “Ask a Trainer: When Is It Time to Put a Problem Dog Down?”

  1. I was hoping you could help me. I have a 2.5 year old heeler mix, at least we have been told that. The shelter we got him from at 6-7 weeks of age listed him as a dauchsun. When I got him he was a baby. He has grown to be sweet, all pup and loyal. He got Parvo right after we brought him him. My vet treated him and he got better. Every time we go on vacation we board him at a boarding/ play place for dogs. He has done well until March when we took him over spring break. When we got him back he was fearful and started biting. He never bit before but his play bites. He started having major anxiety as well. We haven’t been able to get him back to his old self. He has bitten children and hard and adults. I can give you the bite history. He is super protective of me and will growl at you and show his teeth at you if you come near me when he is by or with me. When the door rings he goes at it like he will attack or sounds that way. But he is a very good dog just as my husband has said it something has broken him.

    Because of the biting, my husband said we have to rehome him. We have talked about training but because of our children he thinks it’s best. I am devastated, I love him. But I understand the legal side because it’s not just our kids he has bitten. He would be a great dog for someone who can train him and love him like I do or more. A good ranch or large property dog. His name is Frank and he is about 35-38lbs. I would love if a trainer could take him for their own. I cannot and will not take him to a shelter. I have contacted many trainers and they seem to not contact back. Thank you for listening! Any help you be so appreciated.

    If you know of anyone that could take him it would be a blessing. Like I said I won’t put him in a shelter. Many trainers said he might be a lost cause and put him down. I have been referred to Keith Norris he specializes in this. Anything would help me out.

    Maggie Doucet

    1. We just put down our 3 year old heeler for a similar situation. It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life. He was vicious at the vet’s office and around strangers, and had bitten the owner of a boarding facility. Any time I picked him up from boarding he was never himself. It got the to the point where I couldn’t take him around people, and I didn’t trust him around my kids anymore after seeing how he could be. I couldn’t rehome him with a good conscience knowing the damage he could do to someone. It was extremely risky taking him to the vet for anything, even with oral sedatives beforehand. He could get his muzzle off and almost bit me and the employees. Even though I feel like it was our only option, I still feel terrible. I wish you the best and hope that it works out. If you decide to euthanize, just know you’re not alone.

  2. My American staffy got out of the backyard and ran up and attacked a 16 year old dog, he bit him on the neck twice. This is the second time he has had a fight with another dog.
    Besides these incidents he was the most loving, caring dog that would growl or snarl or anything.. just super excitable.
    My mum made the decision to put him down yesterday straight after the attack on the old dog.
    I feel like I could have rehabilitated him, however I live in a tiny apartment.
    I feel really guilty and she feels like she made the decision too quickly as well because she seen the state of the other dog.
    Can you please help me? He was only 4 years old; we adopted him when he was 1 and he was fine with other dogs until a border collie bit him 2 years ago.

  3. I just, today, had my dearly loved dog euthanized. I adopted him two years ago from a local shelter. His estimated age then was 4 1/2 years. At first, he was extremely docile and affectionate. I was concerned he may have been abused and was just frightened and seeking love and security. He was found in a rural area and there is no other known history. However, he was not receptive to visitors to the home ( I live alone). He did, gradually, accept certain people but I always felt cautious. Almost one year later, he started having what I refer to as nightmares ( growling, barking and attempting to bite in his sleep). Once I was sure he was awake ,he looked startled, like he didn’t know what had happened. I did consult my vet, the behaviorist at the shelter and a well reputed private behaviorist over the course of the next year. During that year, he bit me just as I walked into a room, he bit the neighbor boy who had always been accepted by my dog. He scared others away. He would snarl at me and I was not sure if he might attack. Most of the time, this dog was the most loving , playful and affectionate dog one could wish for. But the triggers were not so predictable. While working on a home project, he picked up a foreign object and was chewing away on it ( he frequently chewed and ate rocks ( truly), bark, anything he could find . He would ingest these materials and I could not come close to removing them from his grasp. I only told him to let go but he attacked me ( I was on the floor) lunging repeatedly. I had 10- 12 bite marks on my forearms and significant puncture on my right palm. This dog weighed 22 lbs. I did not have stitches as I was informed that medically they do not like to stitch bite wounds due to potential infection. I then consulted with local animal control, a local vet and a private behaviorist. None of these folks told me to have my loved dog euthanized, but, they all, independently, stated that in such cases the behaviors usually get much worse. I could only wonder what if the attack had been on a child and not me.! After much discussion with professionals and a great deal of soul searching, I decided I must have my sweet loving baby boy euthanized. One of the professionals, the animal control officer, stated that euthanizing could relieve my dog of the stressors in his life, the fear, etc. triggering his behaviors. With great emotional pain, and with the support of my children, I opted for euthanization, at home. This just occurred today and I am still aching, still struggling with whether or not I did the right thing. Intellectually believe I did. Emotionally, I can’t help but remember the loving, happy times that were so gently.
    I guess this long story is to say that it is a painful decision but a decision must be made considering safety and quality of life for all. My heart goes out to anyone facing this dilemma. But, I caution, do not put yourself or your perceived image first. Make a decision that is best for all..including your pet’s quality of life.

    Take care

  4. I have a 4-year-old male unaltered rottweiler. We have 2 other dogs besides him. 1 other large male who is neutered and 1 small female spayed.
    Our Rottie has always been the biggest sweetheart. Our friends loved to come to pet him, and he could cuddle with any of our family, including any member of our 6 children. He was never even snippy once.
    However, around a year ago, he was around an unaltered female Rottweiler a friend had. She is mean always biting at his legs, back, but this to her seems like rough play. She doesn’t seem aggressive just like her “play” is mean. After interacting with her for a few weeks our Rottie started randomly biting his “brother (our older male large dog-he’s a senior) ” viciously. Causing him to need stitches. Then one day out of the blue he picked up our female chi mix by her neck and if we hadn’t interviewed we felt he would have killed her. Now he has to be kenneled and can not be around our other pets, or even as much around people. When friends come now he growls or barks and scares them. He seems to have lost his loving feelings. He still acts like a baby to my husband and me most of the time, and even with the kids. But everyone is so afraid of him because of how he behaves with the other dogs.
    We called a local agency and they sent us to a trainer we can’t afford. They want $9,000 but they do not guarantee he wouldn’t be aggressive afterward. So we called the local SCPCA who said to rehome him, but people notoriously take in dogs and lie about their surroundings. I couldn’t;t live with myself if he killed someone’s pet because they do not heed our no pet household warning. Or worse what if it was their child suddenly?
    We spoke with a local very who suggests euthanasia, but everywhere we turn people are hateful to us suggesting that its a cop out.

  5. My 4y.o Kelpie constantly paces, barks at anything that moves and takes next to no notice of the other dog in the yard but will very occasionally play with her. He always seems so heightened, borderline space cadet. He is not treat or food oriented, you can never play with him enough to calm him and even running him with a vehicle for kilometres at a time multiple times a week is never enough. He has displayed dog aggressive behaviour occasionally however outside of that he has been a great dog. We have moved house to house with larger and larger yards, walk him regularly and even lived on a property where he could run all day and he would follow me on the motorbike each day..its never enough. In the last 4 months he has bitten both my 2y.o (drew blood on the top of his head) and 7y.o (no blood but a scratch inside the lip) in unprovoked circumstances (children supervised by adults whilst they are in company of the dogs). 7y.o was only bitten 2 nights ago. My wife and I have discussed our options, however the common conclusion is to euthanize him. I am struggling with this conclusion however he is not responsive or interested in training (treat/play) and am concerned in the event of him being rehomed he does something more serious. In all honesty I don’t think he would cope with being rehomed. “A dogs final sickness should not be home sickness” is what I am trying to avoid as well.
    This is such a difficult decision. I don’t know who to speak to.
    I spoke to a vet about his behaviour about a year ago before he had ever even bit anyone and they told me to euthanize him based on what I told them with regard to his erratic behaviour.

  6. Hi I need advice please!! My brother toke my dog for a walk as usual. He cam back and told me he had bitten someone. Apparently he left him outside a shop for a minute. He has done before never had aggressive behaviour from him. But I know he shouldn’t have as I always tell him. Anyway he came out and the security guard told him he had bitten a lady. The fruit stall owner nexto him told my brother that she was spitting at him and was all over him acting strange. First tried to kiss him and then started shouting and spitting. I have no idea how bad he has bitten her but I feel worried. I have had him 9 years never bitten before and have no idea what happened as the lady walked off before my brother had come to the dog. What should I do I am thinking all sorts I live my baby but is this a step to far.. Like I said he has never done this and is always friendly. Please advise

  7. I have a 12 pound morkie dog (Maltese,yorkie) that we got 7 years ago.It was a gift for my 8th birthday and we found her from a breeder from a newspaper ad,wish I realize now it was a mistake buying from a newspaper ad that we did not know if the dog was from a reliable breeder or not.We got her when she was about a month old.When we went to pick her up,she just sat there and didn’t seem interested in anything but when we took her home she was playing a lot.She was a good dog up until maybe a few months later her aggression started .She bites if you pick her yo from the couch,and if we try to move her (we do not apply pressure when moving her only if needed) and she will lunge and bite super hard it usually leaves a scar for weeks.We bleed almost every time she bites and she bites up to 4-5 times a day.We know her triggers,but we can’t figure out a way for her to get away from the triggers because she bites.In public on walk she lunges at anything that is alive.She tries to bite people and animals on walks.We have had a public incident once.My neighbor had knocked on the door and I went to open it and my dog has ran out the door to attack my 9 year old neighbor on the leg.She was bleeding and crying.My dog would not let go of her leg so I had to pretty much pull her off her leg which was difficult.It DID leave a scar till this day and that was around 2 years ago.Thats when things started getting worse.More aggressive to her triggers,and more biting,and harder.She has left a scat on my mom and on me.She just won’t stop.We cannot regime her because of extreme separation anxiety and aggressive behavior.She is territorial and dominant over us to the point where we have considered euthanasia which we hate thinking about.I feel like if we had a trainer come that she will attack them.She tries attacks my 3 year old nephew no matter what.When she barks,we cannot stop it.Please help us decide what to do.

    1. Hi Kinsey,
      So sorry to hear you’re experiencing this. Please reach out to a trainer for more help on this issue.

  8. My 120 pound English Mastiff is unpredictable. He has attacked our boxer three times within the last month. Four years ago he severely but my boyfriend on the arm, requiring 40 stitches. Then a year later he bit him on the nose, again more stitches. I’ve put him on Prozac which helped with the pacing, but he seems to be becoming more unpredictable. I am so torn, I love him so much but I’m afraid he will hurt someone who isn’t so understanding like my boyfriend or that he will hurt my boxer. The other thing we’ve noticed is he seems to not want my son to pet him. I worry when he has friends over if it’s more than he can take and if he would just snap and attack someone. He is 6 1/2 yrs old. We got him when he was too young, only 5 weeks old. He has been terrified his whole life. He can’t go for walks because he is afraid. I tried working with a trainer, but then he got sick with valley fever and all training went by the wayside. I don’t know what to do. Can he be helped? I am his security blanket so I don’t think rehoming would work. He is a sweet big old boy, I’m so confused and am having a difficult time with the thoughts of putting him down. Any suggestions?

  9. Hi!

    I have an 11 year old Australian Shepherd. I also have 2 sons 3 and 7 years old. My 3 year old has fallen on my dog by accident on 2 occasions and she has bit his face (no blood and no stitches required). I’m trying to come up with a plan to keep the kids and dog separated without ruining her quality of life. I feel stuck and am afraid that euthanasia is the only option right now. I love her so much, I’ve had her over 10 years… she’s a great dog with the exception of biting my youngest and dog aggressive issues. She is old and has Cushing diesease so I’m not even sure how beneficial it would be to hire someone to help me. I feel lost and confused… thanks!

    1. Hi Ashley,
      Sorry to hear you’re going through this! We suggest working with a professional dog trainer and behaviorist. These pieces might help provide some insight as well:
      https://www.dogster.com/lifestyle/how-to-prevent-dog-bites
      https://www.dogster.com/lifestyle/dog-bites-behavior-health-tips-prevention
      https://www.dogster.com/lifestyle/prevent-dog-bites
      https://www.dogster.com/lifestyle/dog-behavior-health-bites-someone-tips
      https://www.dogster.com/dog-health-care/cushings-disease-in-dogs

  10. My son adopted a dog with severe anxiety issues. (My son did not know about them, the shelter didn’t tell him) He has broken out of crates, doesn’t care about the shock collar, has been on medication and even went to a trainer for a week for 2000 dollars. Nothing has worked my son is a professional person who has to work and cannot be with the dog the required 24/7. He has called rescue places, has tried re-homing the dog with families but no one can deal with he anxiety. Today after a family tried him for 4 days he got the call that it just cannot work out even though they love the dog. My son loves the dog but the dog is miserable. he cannot be left alone for any length of time. My son cannot go to the bank or work or anywhere. He called me to tell me he decided the dog will have to be euthanized as he seems totally unadoptable. (he has tried for over 7 months to help the dog) I know he feels so very bad and I tried to reassure him the dog is miserable. he has no life quality I am not sure why I am writing, I just feel so badly. I already have 2 large dogs in a 900 sq foot house and it would not work to take him.

    1. Julie,

      As I read this, I thought it was my own mother writing a message about my situation. I rescued my dog almost 5 years ago from a shelter, and have not been able to help improve my dogs quality of life – thousands of dollars spent on medication and training. I have had to purchase a working dog crate to contain him while I’m gone (as he destroyed my apartment and home if left uncrated – and broke out of the standard dog crates). His issues are so bad that he now no longer has any teeth because he has tried breaking out of the new steel reinforced crate. My dog’s quality of life is diminished and I feel like a failure for not being able to help – to keep my promise I made that day I got him at the shelter. I’m in denial but I’m slowly accepting the fact I have to put my dog down. Thank you for sharing your son’s experience as I know I’m not the only one that has struggled with this decision.

      1. Hi there,

        Thanks for reaching out. We suggest reaching out to other vets / behaviorists to see if you might be able to remedy these issues.

    1. Hi Teri — We suggest contacting local trainers, behaviorists and vets to get their professional opinions and help.

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