Should Some Dogs Be Labeled “Dangerous”? I’m All For It

When you don't alert your vet about your dog's tendency to bite, that's just not cool. But hiding a dog's bad behavior during adoption is plain unethical AND illegal.


In 1999, I was a young veterinary student in my final year of school, and I had plenty of book knowledge but hadn’t done much hands-on work with animals. Despite my inexperience, I was a called a senior student. Senior students rotated through senior clinics, where we began to practice examining, diagnosing, and treating animals.

During my surgery rotation, I was presented with what I assumed would be a simple case. A Rottweiler came in for suture removal two weeks after a spay surgery. I observed her as I questioned the owner about her recovery. She seemed, to my inexperienced eyes, like a nice dog.

As I bent down to assess her incision site, she lunged and tried to bite me in the face. I jumped and narrowly escaped a disfiguring injury. The owner laughed.

“You’re quick,” he said. “She’s drawn blood on two other vets in the past.”

I was unharmed, but I was mad. The owner, in my opinion, was an a-hole. He apparently thought watching his dog try to maul people was good sport. I was also mad at the veterinary school. Buried in the dog’s records, amongst reams of surgical notations, were comments that the dog was “fractious” and had “tried to bite.” But nowhere on the record was the prominent red sticker, available in dozens of locations in the hospital, that said “CAUTION.”

I had the owner muzzle the dog, I pulled the stitches, and I slapped some caution stickers on the record.

Dealing with fractious patients is a part of being a vet. Most of the fractious dogs I treat are not truly dangerous — they are nice dogs at home, but at the vet they are scared, in pain, or both.

Over the years I have gotten much better at reading dogs. I have worked to develop tactics for finessing clients into revealing whether their pets might bite. I also have worked on techniques for persuading owners-in-denial that their dog might pose a threat to me or my staff. Most important, I have improved my handling of fractious dogs by focusing on working slowly, gently, and in a nonthreatening fashion. For patients who still try to struggle or bite, I recommend sedation (which is far better for everyone involved — especially the patient — than muzzling and struggling). I haven’t been bitten in more than half a decade.

I don’t blame dogs for being fractious, and in almost every circumstance, regardless of how scared or even aggressive the patient, I can get the job done. But there is one exception. Although I can work with uncooperative patients, an uncooperative owner can present an insurmountable obstacle.

Occasionally — and, these days, it’s rare — I am confronted with a fractious dog whose owner’s denial is unshakable. These people refuse sedation. They refuse muzzling. They insist that the dog won’t bite, or they insist that because I’m a vet I should know how to handle a dog like this. (I do: sedation.) For these owners, I have no choice: They are invited to leave. I cannot place the patient, myself, and my staff at risk.

Owners-in-denial are a bit of a chafe, but they are a fact of life. However, the other day an editor at Dogster brought something incredible to my attention: a shelter-in-denial.

CBS Pittsburgh reported on a shelter in New Kensington, PA, that allegedly had several dangerous dogs up for adoption. The shelter was accused of misleading potential adopters about the nature of the dogs, claiming that the animals were friendly, adoptable, and, in one case, “a brindle bundle of joy.”

The story broke about a year ago when two former employees spoke with the news channel. One of the former employees was a veterinarian who was bitten in the face by one of the dogs. She was subsequently fired. The other anonymous employee was a shelter worker who claimed to have quit over the matter. These people claimed that dogs at the shelter, listed as friendly and adoptable, had committed transgressions such as biting police officers and killing smaller dogs.

A caveat is in order. Disgruntled anonymous former employees are not always reliable sources. And only one side of the story was presented by CBS Pittsburgh. The station claimed that a reporter seeking the other side was run off the shelter’s premises, but we’ll never know what really happened there. I couldn’t find much follow-up other than a story reporting that the bitten vet was suing the shelter.

But for the sake of this conversation, let’s imagine that the allegations are true. In that case, this situation is multiple catastrophes waiting to happen.

It is, in my opinion, not merely unethical to behave in the fashion that was alleged in the news article. It is probably illegal. Imagine a shelter that tricks a family into adopting a dangerous dog. Imagine that the dog then attacks a child in the family. Didn’t the shelter have a duty to advise the family of the risk?

I believe the answer is yes. The shelter is creating a massive liability for itself — what self-respecting American family wouldn’t lawyer up in such a situation? And I could easily imagine that a prosecutor might try to hold someone at the shelter criminally liable if the injuries were severe enough to come to his attention (say, through another news story).

Let’s take this matter a step further. Some would argue that a potentially aggressive dog should not be offered for adoption at all, even with warnings. One school of thought holds that such dogs should simply be put to sleep. This is especially popular among some liability experts I know who believe that no warning can eliminate the potential for lawsuits. Some people who believe this way do not advocate training, socialization, or consultation with behaviorists, because a mauling could occur before the process is complete. They recommend going straight to euthanasia. I disagree, but I believe the argument has some merit.

During my career, I have always refused to be a party to the adoption of potentially dangerous dogs. And on the rare occasions when owners have asked me to euthanize dogs because of aggressive behavior, I have complied with a clear conscience. I could not live with a preventable dog-mauling on my conscience.

I imagine some readers have different opinions. I’m interested to hear them — please share your thoughts in the comments.

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