Updated: May 25, 2021
Making the decision to euthanize your dog for behavior is incredibly difficult. It's a decision that only you can make - but you don't have to make it alone. Below, you'll find a series of factors to consider while you make a decision about the best option for your dog.
Factors to consider
There are a lot of factors involved when choosing the best option for your dog. Many people look for some magical equation that tells them whether or not they should euthanize; unfortunately, this doesn't exist. Instead, we should consider each of the following factors, determine what we can handle and what we cannot, and decide whether we can change any of these factors enough to impact the outcome.
One of the most important considerations when making a decision for behavior about euthanasia is safety - for you, your family, the community, and your dog.
If your dog has bitten or "attacked" another animal or human, consider the following:
• How many bite incidents has your dog had? A dog with multiple bite incidents may not necessarily be more dangerous than a dog with only one bite incident, but it does give us more information on the triggers for and predictability of bites.
• How severe were the bites? The word 'bite' is used to describe a large range of incidents. Did the bite break skin? Did the recipient require medical attention or die? Refer to the Ian Dunbar Bite Scale for a standardized measure of bites (Dr. Dunbar considers dogs with level 1 and 2 bites "safe" while level 5 and 6 bites are candidates for euthanasia; like most things, real life is not quite so black-and-white, so additional considerations should be taken). In most cases, if the dog bites again in the future, it will be at the same level or higher.
• Did any of the bite incidents consist of multiple bites? Did the dog "bite and retreat" or repeatedly go in for more? A dog who bites once and then runs away may have a better prognosis than a dog who does not (but again, this should not be the only consideration).
• Where was the bite? Bites to the neck or stomach (sometimes referred to as "kill bites") are often significantly more of a risk than bites to a hand or leg, even if the level of bite was on the lower end.
• Was the dog in pain or sick? When painful or sick, the "flight" option in "fight or flight" may not be realistic for the dog. The dog may bite in situations in which he would typically walk away. If the dog is sick or painful, is it something that he can heal from, or will the disorder persist for the rest of his life? What is the likelihood that he will be in a similar amount of pain in the future?
• Was there a clear trigger for the bite? Did the dog bite for a clear reason (such as being hit, being cornered without escape, fast movement, loud noises, etc.), or was the bite "out of nowhere?" Did he display signs of discomfort prior to the bite? In some cases, a dog may learn that other signs of discomfort are unproductive and jump straight to growling or biting; dogs who suffer from a neurological disorder may also bite without predictability.
• Can triggers be avoided in the future? For example, if your dog bit a child who was running around screaming, can you prevent the dog from being around children in the future? If your dog bites when someone approaches his resting space, can you avoid ever having someone walk by? Some situations may be preventable with management; others are difficult or impossible to avoid.
Whether your dog has bitten someone or not, consider the following:
• How likely is the dog to hurt someone in the future? Has the dog displayed behavior that may escalate into a bite in the future, or has behavior gotten more severe over time? Consider how predictable that bite may be.
• Is the dog a danger to himself? Dogs who suffer from anxiety disorders may inflict harm upon themselves. For example, a dog with severe separation anxiety may do anything it take to get to you, including cutting up his face or chewing on a gate or door until his teeth break. Consider the amount of damage the dog has done to himself and how likely it is for damage to occur in the future.
Remember, you don't have to wait for a serious incident to occur before you make the decision to euthanize. If the odds of an incident occurring are high, that should be taken just as seriously. Consult a Certified Professional Trainer, A Certified Behavior Consultant, or a Veterinary Behaviorist for input on the likelihood of future incidents occurring.
Quality of life
It's important to evaluate the quality of life that you, your dog, and your family have or will have in the future.
Will your dog...
• Be able to live in physical comfort? Will he be able to live reasonably pain-free? Are there realistic medical options to help him?
• Be able to live in emotional comfort? Will he suffer from fear or anxiety? Are there realistic training, management, and/or medical options to help him?
• Be able to receive enough mental and physical enrichment? A dog who must live under heavy restrictions may struggle to get enough exercise and work his brain. Lack of enrichment can make behavior problems worse, or the dog may become depressed and shut down.
• Be able to interact with others? Will he need to live in partial or complete isolation to keep him and those around him safe? Dogs are social animals, and without companionship, his quality of life may decline.
• Be able to live happily under restriction? How much time will he need to wear a muzzle or be in a crate? Will he always need to be on leash? For some dogs, these restrictions are no big deal; for others, being under restriction is miserable.
Will you and your family...
• Be able to live in physical comfort? How much will you need to physically rearrange your home to keep everyone safe? What is your risk of injury?
• Be able to live in emotional comfort? Heavy management and working with behavior issues is emotionally taxing. Will your mental health suffer?
• Be able to do 'normal' things? Does your dog prevent you from doing things like go to work, socialize, or do the things that you love? How much of a toll is it taking on your life?
A miserable life isn't much of a life - for your dog or for you. Try to think objectively about what each member of the family's life will look like and whether it's realistic long term.
Everyone's resources are limited in some way. Money, time, emotional willpower (and yes, I think this counts as a resource - we all burn out at a certain level) - these are all things that have limits. This is probably one of the most painful factors for a lot of people; it's not that you don't want to make things work, you simply don't have the resources for it to be a realistic option. Sometimes this is the deciding factor, and that's never easy.
Is rehoming an option?
In some cases, rehoming your dog may be an option. Your dog's safety or quality of life may be low in your home but thrive in another home (for example, a dog who has bitten a child may not be able to live in your home anymore, but may be successful in a home without children). Or perhaps you don't have the time or money to modify your dog's behavior, but it's reasonable to someone else to be able to do so. We have a full post on rehoming and the factors to consider, which you can find here.
Who can help you decide?
While you are the only one who can ultimately decide what's best for your dog, you don't have to make this decision alone. A professional can give you a realistic idea of your dog's prognosis and future behaviors to help guide your decision.
Dog trainers and behaviorists.
A consultation or evaluation by a Certified Professional Dog Trainer or Certified Behavior Consultant will help you analyze your dog's past behavior and make predictions about future behavior. Choose a trainer or behaviorist who uses force-free methods and has experience with making risk assessments. Your trainer or behaviorist should also be able to give you recommendations for the management and training necessary to keep your dog, family, and community safe. From there, you'll need to determine whether those recommendations are realistic for you.
A veterinarian will be able to determine whether your dog's behavior may be rooted in a medical issue. Behavior may change when a dog is in pain or discomfort. Mental health disorders such as anxiety can also make a huge impact on a dog's behavior. A dog who is suffering from a neurological disorder may not be able to control some of his behavior. Choose a vet who has experience in behavioral medicine; if you have one in your area, a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist will have the most up-to-date practices and the most experience when it comes to prescribing a medication for behavior. From there, you'll need to determine whether managing your dog's health is realistic for you, or whether medical intervention will be enough to keep everyone safe.
Should you consult with friends and family?
Who you consult in your personal life is up to you. If you have someone in your life that you know is looking out for your best interests, talking things through with them can offer a lot of clarity and peace of mind. If you have other people in your home, a family discussion is likely a good idea. Remember that not everyone is going to "get it," and someone who has a strong opinion and/or makes you feel guilty may not be the right person to consult.
Should you keep trying?
If you've read the first post in this series, you'll remember that we touched on the guilt that often comes with the decision to euthanize for behavior. While some people are comfortable making the decision based on a prediction of future behavior, other people feel that they need to try everything before they make the decision. Neither option is right or wrong, but it's important to be realistic about your options.
Is training and/or management a realistic option?
Have you consulted with a trainer or behaviorist? If not, do you have the resources to do so? In some cases, you may be surprised by how much a dog's behavior can be changed through management and training. In other cases, the amount of training and management needed to keep everyone safe simply isn't realistic. Not everyone can build an 8ft brick wall around their yard, or keep their dog muzzled 24/7, or rotate their dogs for the next ten years.
If you have the resources to do so and training and management are realistic for you, working with a trainer or behaviorist can make a huge difference in behavior. In some cases, it may not change behavior enough to keep everyone safe or improve quality of life, but will give you peace of mind in making the decision to euthanize. If you don't have the resources or training and management aren't realistic, there's no requirement to break your back to make it happen. You can make the decision at whatever point along the road feels right for you.
Is rehoming your dog realistic?
Many people think that if they could just find the "perfect fit," their dog would be able to live a full, happy life. Sometimes that's true - the "perfect fit" is out there, and finding them is a realistic option. In some cases, though, the "perfect fit" is so rare that finding them is next to impossible. With millions of homeless dogs across the country at any given time, it can be extremely difficult to find someone who is capable of and willing to take on a dog with behavioral problems.
You might get lucky and find that perfect person - but how much are you putting on that person? It's easy to see that happy adoption as the fairy tale ending, but as trainers, we see the other side of it. Another person who loves their dog, but spends huge amounts of resources and experiences a lot of heartbreak. It can be so difficult to be objective when the alternative is euthanasia, but try to be realistic about what the future will hold not only for your dog but for the person who adopts him.
So, what now?
In the next post, we'll cover a variety of resources for helping you make a decision as well as resources for those looking for support after euthanasia. In the meantime, if you're looking for professional guidance, contact us to set up an in-person or video evaluation. We're always happy to answer your questions via email or facebook message at no cost, too.
Margo Butler, CPDT-KA