Why We Can’t Save Them All – Euthanasia and Aggressive Dogs

One of the most challenging decisions a dog owner could face is whether or not to euthanize an aggressive dog.

I’m talking about killing a dog in order to prevent harm to others – pets, children, elderly parents, a spouse, neighbors, strangers.

I have long believed no dog of mine will ever come before the safety of any person, but of course unless I’m faced with such a decision I can’t be sure what I would do.

And that’s the thing.

How can I possibly judge someone else for making a decision I know so little about?

euthanizing aggressive dogs

I re-shared an old post of mine recently where I’d written about language and how we should be careful with phrases such as:

“Blame the one on the other end of the leash.”

Or, “There are no bad dogs, just bad owners.”

Sometimes these statements may be true. More often, they’re not. You can read the full post here.

My foster dog, Barkley

I fostered a small dog with serious aggression issues awhile back.

He was turned into the rescue because his owner could not handle Barkley’s outbursts. He had been going after another family member. Read about Barkley here.

In my house, this 15-pound dog would get upset and lunge for my throat. He would launch himself towards my face.

After these “episodes” he would pant and tremble, sometimes urinate, seemingly afraid and confused about what had happened.

Barkley1

He was a nice, little dog 99 percent of the time, but the other 1 percent was something damaged and frightening, even in a small package.

I often regret my decision of not encouraging euthanasia for that dog. Had he been larger, there would’ve been no question, but I think the rescue and I did make a mistake.

Of course, these situations are judgement calls and we can only do the best we can.

Rescue groups and foster homes are not always right. Neither are dog owners, trainers or vets. See the essay, “The Wrong Dog.”

Is it wrong to kill a dog humans have ‘failed’ on?

On Facebook, someone left multiple comments on my post. She said it’s wrong to kill a dog for aggression because humans have “failed” that dog.

This is her belief; it’s not mine.

Yes, people do “fail” on dogs all the time.

Usually this does not result in aggression. Sometimes it does.

For me, once a dog seriously injures someone, the question is no longer just about what is causing the aggression.

The questions become:

Can my dog live safely in society?

Who can safely care for my dog if I have to travel?

Will my dog harm another person?

Is there hope for improvement?

How is this affecting my dog’s quality of life?

How is this affecting MY quality of life?

Is my dog getting worse?

Yes, people make mistakes. We fail to recognize the early warning signs. Often, we’re simply in denial about the animals we love so much.

It’s never simple.

Sometimes the aggression is caused by a physical issue, a mental illness, pain, confusion, trauma as a puppy, an unexplainable instinct.

It’s true, there are no “bad” dogs but dogs are capable of incredibly damaging behavior.

Dogs can do bad things.

When we ignore that, we do a disservice to all dogs and the people who love them.

I want to share this quote from an anonymous commenter on my blog post who goes by the name “A.”

“I decided it was time … for her to have a peaceful, dignified passing and for us to no longer live in fear of her. I love her …”

My dog Ace

All I wish for people and dogs is peace.

Have any of you ever found yourself judging another dog owner’s decision about an aggressive dog?

Further reading:

When to euthanize an aggressive dog – ThatMutt.com

New York Times essay “The Wrong Dog” – summary on ThatMutt.com

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29 thoughts on “Why We Can’t Save Them All – Euthanasia and Aggressive Dogs”

  1. I’ve never judged someone for making such a decision. I can’t imagine how hard it would be. The bottom line for me would be if the dog lived in such fear or extreme chemical imbalance, how can they really have a good quality of life and is it worth putting others lives in danger?

  2. I agree with every word of this, Lindsay. Thank you for writing it. I could not have imagined having to make this decision for a pet/family member, and yet, as a responsible dog parent, I found myself in this very situation three years ago. The emotional pain was staggering, and it hurt further knowing other dog lovers may be judging me for making the only safe decision I could in a situation they had not experienced. It is hard for most people to relate to what it is like to be afraid of the dog you also love, or to describe the horror and shock of seeing that dog attack a child. Especially when that dog also has a good side. Thank you for your compassion not only for dogs, but their owners as well.

    1. Hi Rachel. Thank you for all the supportive comments you’ve written to others on my past posts where they’re going through something like this.

  3. Thank-you Lindsey for writing on this sensitive subject. I have written before about what happened to me and my rescue ,Cosette, even now I still have questions, about what i could have done to make her better. This morning i woke up thinking, i should have worn gloves. i should have boarded her at the resor-t traing, after the last biting episode, How come the clampings hurt like fire ,yet she didn’t puncture me, when she clamped. It goes on and on. I put her down ,not being able to rehome her and not wanting her to live in solitary the rest of her life
    thank-you if there are others in similar circumstances please write, and let me know i am not alone.

    michelle

    1. Hi Michelle. Thank you for sharing your story here and on other posts. I know it is helpful for others who are going through something similar. So sorry you had to go through such a thing.

  4. Twisted and his four little Angels

    This post about putting aggressive dogs down.
    I live in London England, with my four little monsters which happen to be Staffies and they have as bad a rep over here as Pits or this year at least they are the two target breeds. So when deciding to get a dog a Staffie was my second choice behind a pit but I new I would get to much hassle off the police so I made the sensible choice and stuck with Staffies and I never regretted it to this day as they are the most soppy loving things I have ever met and as I have never owned a dog before this just made it even better as a choice.
    But I have people screaming and jumping out of the way some days ( makes us feel so loved) and all the bad press these dogs get just adds to it. But I can honestly say even though my four would lick you senseless before they would bite you I made a decision a few years back that if they ever hurt anything because they just feel like it and there is no other reason I would have them put to sleep and even though it would break my heart to do it they can’t be let off with just deciding to hurt anything else for nothing, I’m sorry it’s just what I feel.
    Where as if some one hurts them or me in any way or breaks into our home after all the signs that I have up. Then I’m sorry but I would be the first one to praise them for protecting us not that I condone it but I can understand it. And too me that’s where the deciding factor should be as far as I can see , I suppose you will get loads of angry comments about my choices but that’s what I hope I would be strong enough to do for there benefit as well as mine because the only other choice would be life through a muzzle and my lot go absolutely mental when I have to muzzle them to the point they get left in rather than muzzling them .
    Yours
    Paul

  5. I feel blessed that I have not had to deal with an aggressive dog in my household. I would hope that I would be strong enough to recognize the hazard and prevent people from getting injured. Proper training is clearly overlooked far to regularly with dogs but many more reasons cause aggression other than training. I feel that, just like humans, dogs experience(or are born with) various things that can cause aggression.

    I have found myself judging a friend for keeping a dog that was not properly exercised and on multiple occasions had bitten not only me but her children. The dog gave no warning(snarl, bark, ear position, lip curl) before a bite. I don’t feel like the dog should necessary be put down but I feel that sometimes a dog can just be wrong for a household. When helpless children are involved I feel that keeping an aggressive dog around is detrimental unless extreme precautions are made to separate the two. I wish I could help more with my friends situation but you can’t help people who won’t accept it. Being in denial of aggression seems more common in my experience.

  6. I too found myself resorting to euthanasia after a few years of trying to reform a boxer-pit mix my son rescued from a friend. We knew little of her early months, and by the time the friend gave her up she was known to snap at his young daughter. Knowing how children can taunt dogs, we felt we could train her. She had aggression issues we later out not just with children, but also adults. And cats. And our other dogs. We lived on pins and needles, justifying keeping her after attack upon attack. It was finally too much, and we saw she was really never relaxing. She seemed to be always on guard for another threat to her safety. She fought over food, our attention, toys, who would leave the house first. You name it. I consulted our trainer, other trainers and our vet before making the decision to end her life. Our vet suggested her early months must have been very rough, and perhaps she developed a sort of PTSD. I miss her sweet side and her sad eyes. This is the only dog I have found frustration in my inability to help out of many my husband and I have owned in over 40 years of marriage.

  7. What people who judge in situation like this don’t understand is that sometimes a dog is aggressive for reasons beyond any human’s control. Dogs can have mental illnesses or brain dysfunction. They can have congenital malformations of the brain; they can have brain tumors. I remember a lovely Lab belonging to a childhood neighbor – his skull was slightly misshapen when they got him, giving him a quirky squint. It became more pronounced over the years (this was in the 1960s when any sort of intervention for such a malady was pretty much nonexistent). He eventually became absolutely vicious and attacked their little boy, nearly killing him. They were never cruel, he was well trained – but over time, that progressive distortion of his skull must have been damaging his brain and possibly causing him pain.

    If someone told me that they were going to euthanize their dog because they were tired of taking care of it, yes, I would judge (and probably take the dog off their hands) – but no-one who has not gone through trying to rehabilitate a severely aggressive dog, or having a formerly friendly dog become aggressive for reasons unknown or impossible to change, should not stand in judgment of a decision to euthanize for severe aggression. It’s heartbreaking enough without other people deciding they know all about a situation and giving unwanted opinions.

  8. I’m sure it is a terrible thing to have put down an aggressive dog (I haven’t had to do that), but I think that is worse to let one be in a situation where he/she can seriously hurt or kill another dog or human. Every time an aggressive dog maims or kills a human, the repercussions for that breed are serious. There are so many people willing to wave a “ban the breed” sign over every serious incident and that isn’t fair to the dogs that are not aggressive.

    While it is easy to always blame the humans, sometimes animals, just like people, have a few wires crossed and there’s no easy answer.

  9. This is a very thoughtful post, Lindsay. It really is good to look at all sides. I agree that many behaviors a dog develops is due to how they are raised. But I also think that there can be inherent mental issues. This is the same with people. Some people develop mental issues because of life circumstances while others are born with them. Back to discussing dogs, I believe Pierson’s aggression with other dogs is inherent. Of course, I know nothing of his first year of life. I do know that when I rescued him, I rescued both him and his dog buddy both living at that park. And I know he didn’t like Maya at first but accepted her because he was in her territory. And he wasn’t aggressive with other dogs at first, but he had a very dominant personality when it came to other dogs. In raising dogs my entire life, I’ve noticed that most dogs tend to change after the two-year mark. Puppy behaviors dissolve but sometimes a dominance issue also emerge. For example, most of my dogs did fine as puppies when it came to me being able to take food or toys away from them as needed. But after the two-year mark, training became necessary because they no longer wanted to allow me to be near them when they had food. Even my sweet Maya got a little protective just after she turned two when I got to close to her while she was eating one day. With that being said, Pierson’s dog aggression also got worse after he turned two. Considering the fact that I did try to socialize him, that he loves Maya, that he and another dog lived together as strays, I think his dog aggression is how he is wired and is not due to how he was raised. Training is helping to alleviate his dog aggression somewhat, but I doubt he’ll ever be completely cured of it. Fortunately, he has no aggression towards people.

    1. Thanks for sharing your example with Pierson. It’s so unfair for people to put so much blame on the owner when some things are just out of our control.

      1. Are you familiar with cesar Milan the dog whisperer? He does,amazing things with agressive dogs. I do believe most dogs who are agressive can be retrained using cesar Milans methods. To me it’s worth a try before having to put a dog down.

        1. Lindsay Stordahl

          Cesar Millan has made such a huge difference for dogs. I know he gets a lot of criticism but he’s made such a big difference and saved many lives. However, not everyone has access to a professional due to where they live, financial limitations or time restraints.

  10. Thank you for this post.

    I live with the fear that I may have to someday make this decision. If anything were to ever happen to me, Bruce would have to be put down. I cannot go on vacation. He cannot go places. He cannot interact with people or dogs other than Les, my sister, or my dogs. It is so hard, because at times he is the sweetest, most affectionate dog.

  11. Lindsay, as usual you do a wonderful post. Belle, our first rescue and my first dog was put down a little over a year ago because she nipped my other half. The man who had picked her up from the local shelter, took her on walks, car rides, etc… She decided that she didn’t like a puppy across the street from a friend of ours and she broke the netting in the back of a truck canopy to get this dog. Our other dog followed suit and CV was worried we would have to put both dogs down. The vet we saw tried to talk us out of it, and then told us of a golden retriever she had that she didn’t trust around her kid. The dog nipped with no provocation from the child when she went to the bathroom. And so the dog was put down. The way I look at it is this: we gave her 5 wonderful years in a pretty stable home and if we had her we wouldn’t have Missy. And Missy is a hoot. A total princess and goofball but we completely lucked out with her. Thanks for the heartfelt post on such a tuff decision.

    1. So sorry about your loss, and thank you for sharing some of your story here from time to time. I know it’s helpful for others to hear they’re not alone. I am also thankful you gave Belle a wonderful 5 years and I know how much she was and is loved.

      1. In return thank you for having a forum that lets it be ok to share these type of stories and to know that you are not alone. We shouldn’t judge people sometimes, we don’t know the whole story. Its not something I share a lot because I think its a private thing, but it does need to be shared. The funny thing is we looked at each other the other night while D.O.G. was trying to playing with Missy and both of us said, we need to get him a big playmate, whether or not that happens any time soon, we shall see, but the boy might be getting a playmate…

  12. I work at a shelter, & staff deal with these issues often. It sucks. What makes things murky for me is dogs that have animal aggression (I’ve certainly been redirected on) or play too aggressively. I wish there were resources to try & rehab them all…give a few a chance. There aren’t, of course, & safety & well-being first. Its just sad.

    1. Temperment testing in most shelters haven’t changed in the past 20 plus years. Many good dogs have died because of this. Animal farm is a GREAT resource for shelters and rescues. If only these shelters and rescues would implement them. Less dogs would be set up for failure.

  13. It’s never a fun subject but when a dog becomes a major liability something has to be done. I’ve read a lot of heartbreaking stories of people coming to grips with having to euthanize their dogs for aggression – and in each case my heart broke for them – but in the end I believe it’s the right decision. There are some dogs that are too aggressive or unpredictable to make suitable companions.

    And when it comes to the saving them all mentality I know it’s good in theory, but people tend to forget that the meaning of no kill means healthy, adoptable animals won’t be euthanized. In general shelters/rescues can still be no kill if they’re euthanizing 10% or less (for behavior/medical issues). But that argument is another story..

  14. I have adopted 6 retired racing greyhounds thought out the years. The last one was different from the breed, which they loving sweet gentle souls. She was also all of these things, well trained and very loving but out of the blue she would strike. No warnings. The first time I got bit in the forehead. A couple of moths later, my lip. The last time she grabbed my head and wouldn’t let go. Had to call my husband to get her off. Luckily for me the stitches were either at my hairline or on my scalp. Now I was afraid. The rescue group would not take her back because they could never place her and encouraged me to euthanize her. It took time to wrap my head around it but knew she could not be trusted. I truly believe that there was a problem with her brain wiring. So sad.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      Oh I’m so sorry to hear of your story. That sounds so sad and so scary. So sorry you had to go through that.

  15. Hi. We have a neighbor next door who has a pitbull who was trained to be an attack dog. He actually got out of his yard and bit me. My neighbor felt so bad. BUT I get the dog. I know he can’t help it. She does her best to keep him in her yard and he hasn’t gotten loose since. I have also seen how cesar Milan works with agressive dogs on his show. I do believe they can be retrained. My neighbors dog is not agressive to her at all. If she has to take hI’m somewhere she muzzles him. I feel bad for her. Her 2nd dog another pitbull is a real sweetheart. She thought about euthanasia but I said don’t do it because of what the dog did to me.

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