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When an Aggressive Dog Leaves You with No Choice

It can be a difficult, heart-wrenching decision — this advice can help.

by Karen B. London, PhD
June 17, 2020
Aggressive dog barking while standing in the grass
Fabrique Imagique / Adobe Stock

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Having worked for many years with aggressive dogs, I’ve shared the pain with a number of families facing the difficult decision of whether or not to euthanize a dog because of serious aggression. On multiple occasions, I’ve cried with them (and in private) over the pain suffered in these challenging situations. But I believe euthanasia should only be an option in extreme cases.

When should an aggressive dog be euthanized?

When I say “extreme” cases, I mean clients who can never take a vacation because nobody else can safely care for their dog, and people whose marriages have ended because of the dog. I include the client who told me that when his dog bit him on the neck multiple times in quick succession, his wife was concerned about the amount of blood he had lost. She rushed him to the ER so he could get a blood transfusion that likely saved his life. On another occasion, this same dog bit the wife multiple times, breaking her arm and several bones in her wrist and hand. She required surgery because of the injuries. I include people who live every day in fear that something will go wrong (a broken leash, a door left open by mistake, an unplanned guest), and the result will be that someone gets hurt and their legal liability will destroy their lives.

A factor that makes the decision about whether or not to euthanize even more challenging is the judgment of other people. Some who are critical may simply say that they personally would never euthanize a dog. Others have moral conflicts with deciding to end the life of a pet, no matter what the reason. I understand these objections, but it is heartbreaking for me to see my clients suffer not only the agony of the decision, but the criticism of others.

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Perhaps that’s why this subject is not often discussed, but that’s a shame because anyone in this situation is likely to benefit from advice and thoughtful discussion. They are dealing with unbelievably tough circumstances and I have great sympathy for those facing the awful decision about whether or not to euthanize an aggressive dog. That’s why I was so pleased to see an article written by my mentor and friend, Dr. Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., titled “When Is It Time to Put Down a Dog Who is Aggressive to People?”

The perspective that this decision is highly personal had me nodding and saying, “Yes!” out loud. Families should make these decisions, and individual decisions are informed by an assessment of risk and people’s different tolerances for risk. I completely agree that euthanasia should only be considered if placing the dog in a different home or managing and modifying the behavior are not possible. Members of both species — people and pet — deserve to have their quality of life considered as an important part of the decision-making process.

Are there alternatives?

I advise anyone to consider all options before making such a huge decision. Anyone who comes to the heartbreaking decision to euthanize an aggressive dog deserves to feel confident they exhausted all other possibilities so they can be at peace with their choice. Many dogs who are aggressive respond well to behavior modification and training. Others can be managed to avoid the situations that lead to trouble. Some dogs may only be aggressive around children, so placing them in an adults-only home may make managing the situation possible.

However, there are dogs who are aggressive in many contexts, are unpredictable, do not respond sufficiently to behavior modification, do not inhibit their bites, and have a history of causing serious injury. The result is a level of risk and damage to the quality of life for everyone involved that make euthanasia a reasonable option. Extreme cases are rare, but the people whose dogs are those extreme cases deserve our sympathy, not our disdain. It’s a very personal decision and I want everyone facing it to be able to do so without facing criticism from other people.

karen london

Karen B. London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.