When Should a Shelter Dog Be Euthanized for Behavior?

*The thoughts and opinions in each post on this blog are those solely of the attributed author and do not necessarily extend to all program collaborators or to Ethics in Animal Care itself.* 

By Ethics in Animal Care


With all the many difficult conversations to have in the world of shelter and rescue, this one likely still rises head and shoulders above the others as the hardest. The answer may cost a dog his or her life, often a dog that we love and have developed a relationship with. It is an enormous responsibility to carry and a decision that must be grounded in a solid and in-depth knowledge of dog behavior with full consideration of facts, consequences, resources, and options.

And yet, how often is that last sentence true? In far too many places, it’s a decision made by individuals with little to no education or informed experience in dog behavior and with limited exploration of what we know to be true about the dog in question, the circumstances of the incident(s) including the shelter environment itself, the potential consequences to the community, what resources are available to support that dog, and what options exist both to explore and serve as a suitable fit.

Because of our lack of clarity and standards in this process, a problem the dog behavior field itself is plagued by, we end up with decisions made on the basis of things like emotion and kennel space. To be sure, neither of those are insignificant issues, but they are absolutely not an acceptable stand alone barometer for life and death decisions.

That seriousness, the fact that we are making life and death decisions for sentient creatures whose care has been entrusted to us, cannot be overstated. This is an incredibly important conversation to have but it’s being hindered by a counterproductive dynamic of defensiveness and accusation amongst various factions in the shelter and rescue field that has taken the focus in these decisions off the dogs whose lives quite literally hang in the balance and put it on the humans. The decision makers might be murderers or martyrs, depending on who you ask. Neither of these lines of thinking are honest or productive and we have to move away from them if we’re truly committed to getting it as right as we possibly can.

When I first became someone who was part of this process, my initial guiding questions were:

  1. Is this a dog I’d feel comfortable and safe with living in my own home? If there are caveats, what are they and are they reasonable?
  2. Is this a dog I’d feel comfortable and safe with living next door to me and my own animals? If there are caveats, what are they and are they reasonable?

While I still feel these questions are an excellent jumping off point, if they’re not being answered by individuals with an in-depth knowledge and understanding of dog behavior, they’re not going to get us very far. We need to do our best to define those things that might cause one to answer no.

My simplest definition of a no answer, or rather where euthanasia as an option enters the conversation, is as follows: If a dog is likely to seriously injure or kill a person or another dog in the course of everyday life scenarios, or has already done so in the past, the dog is not safe to house in the shelter or place in the community.

*Of note is the specificity of people and other dogs and the intentional omission of other animal species. This is because, although it is a behavior we often rightly do seek to modify,  predatory behavior towards other species is well within canine behavioral norms, particularly for certain breeds who have been selectively bred to hunt.*

While the vast majority of dogs who display some form of aggressive behavior (see also: Understanding Aggression + Aggression & Some Reasons Behind It) can be safely managed and make positive progress in modifying their behavior if provided with appropriate intervention, there are exceptions where the risk of serious injury should management fail is simply too high. With both humans and other dogs, it is the level and location(s) of damage and not the frequency of fights or behavior incidents that is paramount. All available information relevant to the incident(s) should be taken as a whole to build the most accurate risk assessment possible (see chapter 6 for more detail).

It is worth noting that dogs getting into scuffles and fights with one another is not abnormal or of serious concern on its own. A dog who tussles often without causing injury may have some social issues they need help with (or perhaps humans who need to stop putting them in inappropriate social situations), but they are actually demonstrating that they are a safe dog with excellent bite inhibition. On that same note, a dog offering warning behaviors to humans is a dog who is communicating that something is not okay and is seeking to avoid physical confrontation.

In the event that a dog is not safe to place in the community and has a poor prognosis for becoming so, even with appropriate intervention, what can be done?  For some people, the decision to euthanize is the logical next step and in many cases it is in fact, at least as our field, resources, and options stand today, often all that’s left. But I would still like to push this conversation further.

For a long time, and in many places even today, the ‘not adoptable’ label was applied to any dog who wasn’t deemed perfect enough for adoption. There are still a lot of people that argue we should only adopt out the ‘cream of the crop’ of shelter dogs. They assert that no one wants to adopt dogs with known behavior issues and when they make that statement, their line in the sand for what constitutes an unacceptable behavior issue varies widely. I strongly, so strongly, disagree with this mindset.

But I do agree with two assertions those who take that position often cite. We do have a lack of resources and we do hurt our mission by adopting out dogs in a way that furthers the idea of shelter dogs as damaged. And here is the crux of where we get lost. The counter arguments to this often rely on anecdotal stories about that one dog. We did save him so we have the resources or maybe adopters were frustrated when they discovered his behavior but we got him into the home and they love him and kept him anyway.

To address a problem and continue moving forward we can neither deny that the problem exists nor throw up our hands and say we’re doing all we can. We have to acknowledge and identify as explicitly as we can what the problem (or barrier/deficiency) is and then map a course for how we can address it and keep moving forward. If we acknowledge that we don’t have the resources to help this dog and that we’ve done all we can to seek them out elsewhere but that the dog could be helped if we did, what will it take to build those resources and save the next dog and the next?

There are many of us, myself included, who are never going to be convinced that kennel stress or leash reactivity or being generally unruly and untrained are ethical or acceptable reasons to kill a dog. If a dog wouldn’t die for a behavior in a home, they should not die for that behavior in the shelter. Furthermore, there are many of us, myself included, who do want to adopt dogs with known behavior issues and have the resources and desire to provide those dogs with a safe home and the intervention that they need. In the latter case, we are not the majority but guess what? Neither are the dogs who need us.

What matters here is that we do not hide those issues, nor do we exaggerate or dramatize them or diminish the role the shelter environment plays, but that adopters know to the best of our knowledge what they are committing to. And having done years of adoptions of dogs with known behavior issues, you will often be very surprised by what people want and are/are not willing to work with when you’re honest and give them a pressure and guilt free chance to decide. Hiding behaviors or guilting someone into taking a dog home fails far more than it succeeds and it does erode our ability to save lives. Not only have we alienated that adopter, we’ve created a word of mouth chain reaction that says shelters and rescues lie and our dogs are damaged.

So where does this same line of thinking take us for dogs who are not safe to place into the community and for whom the prognosis for successful, reliable behavior modification is poor? Years ago, I fostered a dog who met this criteria with serious, injury causing aggression towards both people and other dogs. I loved her and despite not knowing what I was getting when I brought her home and having to work very hard and very carefully to set us both up for success, she never bit me or anyone else during my watch. But she did seriously bite other people and other dogs and it was during the course of normal, every day life, not under extraordinary circumstances or without the option to choose flight or avoidance.

If I’d lived alone, I probably would have fought to adopt her at the time but that wasn’t an option. At a meeting about her fate, I had to excuse myself to cry in the bathroom and I remember thinking, “I understand that we can’t adopt her out but we can’t kill her.” Both I and that dog are incredibly lucky that she got into a wonderful, nationally known sanctuary and that she is independent enough to thrive there (not that she doesn’t have plenty of human interaction but it is important we acknowledge that even the best sanctuary is not the same as a family home).

That she was able to do so is rare and I have since known and had to say goodbye to a significant number of dogs  who were not so lucky. In some cases I agreed with the decision and in some I did not. But even when it was clear that euthanasia truly was the only safe, humane option, I cannot honestly say I’ve ever felt okay with it. Even when it’s carried out with the utmost compassion and care, it’s taking the life of a sentient creature who wants to live. I know, understand, and empathize with the practical reasons for these decisions. I often agree with them. But I also know why the people who fight against them, even in the case of dogs who clearly pose a serious danger, do so. I want every one of those dogs to have the option to go to a reputable, safe, highly skilled sanctuary capable of not just keeping them alive but providing genuine quality of life.

Right now, the reality is that option doesn’t exist for the majority of these dogs. And what’s more, most shelters and communities in this country haven’t fully developed the behavior and enrichment programming the shelter dogs who are safely adoptable need or the full spectrum of prevention services to keep them out of the shelter in the first place. I believe if all of us were willing to identify the resources we wish we had and work to the best of our ability to develop them rather than blaming the other side for either not saving enough dogs or trying to save too many dogs, we’d get there much faster. There is only so much any individual person can do and our chronic blame game  is pushing many valuable human resources away from the field and holding those who stay back. We do not have to agree on everything and if we can do it respectfully, there is nothing wrong with sharing information or trying to change someone’s mind.

There is also nothing wrong with admitting that even when we are confident the decision to euthanize is our only choice, it is still difficult to reconcile in our minds and hearts. It hurts terribly to be involved in this aspect of our system in any way. But if we can get better, more honest, thoughtful, proactive and informed, about the way we make this and all decisions related to animal care, if we work together to build our capacity rather than shutting down and saying we already have everything we need or attaining it is impossible, someday all those resources we wish we had are going to be there.

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