Trigger warning: this article discusses aggression and behavioral euthanasia.
Much has been said lately about the risks of placing shelter and rescue dogs, with a history of or potential for aggression in the home. There is a lively debate burning between those who believe we should save them all, and those who believe in protecting adopters from potential physical and emotional pain and heartache of having a dog who bites. It’s a debate that takes place in shelters and rescues throughout the country. We aren’t talking about dogs in shelters and rescues today.
Today I want to talk about the other dogs. Your dogs. How do you know if the dog you love, the one you picked out from puppyhood or carefully adopted from the shelter or rescue is safe to keep in your home once they begin to demonstrate aggression? How much aggression is too much to safely manage? How do you know if it is safe to rehome him or her or whether behavioral euthanasia is unfortunately in order? Too many families have to make these heart-wrenching decisions, and there just is not much guidance to help them. And before we get too far into this, if you are experiencing aggression with your dog, please, please, please consult with a certified professional dog trainer, credentialed behaviorist, or even better yet, a board certified Veterinary Behaviorist (link: Home | Animal Behavior Consultants of Michigan (animalbehaviormi.com)) And with that disclaimer, here we go.
I ask myself three key questions when I’m helping someone make a decision like this about their dog. In order to be safe, the answer to all three questions has to be affirmative to keep a pet in the home.
Sometimes a quick fix can keep everyone safe. If your dog predictably bites contractors but is delightful with everyone else, you can easily put your dog in a crate with a frozen Kong when you’re expecting contractors. Resource guarding the food bowl? Feed your dog in the crate. Redirecting on you? Walk your dog in a muzzle. In each of these cases, everyone can remain safe.
Sometimes a dog might not be safely manageable in your home, but can be in another. For instance, if your dog bites children when they get too close, and you have three children under four, it will be very difficult to manage your dog to prevent aggression, short of having your dog live in a separate room from your children, and/or muzzling your dog twenty-four hours a day. But, if your dog is only aggressive with children, then he or she could be successful in an adult-only home willing to tightly manage him (read: put him away with something to chew) when and if children visit.
Sometimes a dog could be safely managed in your home, but you’re not up for it. It’s OK to say when. It’s okay to choose to responsibly place a dog because managing that dog affects your mental health, or just because you’re not capable of managing the dog. For example, if a family member is terribly afraid of the dog, it is probably not fair to keep the dog in the home.
Sometimes, a dog cannot be safely managed in any home. For example, if your dog is resource-guarding places of rest, food items, and things you accidentally drop, and doesn’t like to be touched by anyone, that aggression likely isn’t manageable in any home. This dog is likely suffering from both acute and chronic stress and anxiety, and humane euthanasia might be the kindest thing you could do for this dog.
In our industry, we have a bite scale (Please check it out here: ian-dunbar-dog-bite-scale.pdf (apdt.com)) that helps us to assess prognosis. The illustrious and ever-talented Dr. Ian Dunbar created it, and all our professional organizations use it, all the ones I follow anyway. It categorizes bites from a level 1 (air snap) to a level 6 (victim perishes), and it’s a handy tool. To paraphrase:
Levels 1-2: Air snaps, lunges, scratches. If your dog is biting at a level 1 or 2, it’s probably pretty safe to manage your dog in some environment, but you should get certified professional training to help decrease your dog’s discomfort and manage his or her triggers. Even if your dog gets out of your house and bites someone, they are unlikely to seriously injure them at this time.
Level 3 – Punctures from one bite, and not too deep. If your dog is biting at a level 3, it’s possible that your dog could be managed in your home or another, but you really need the help of both a certified professional trainer skilled with aggression or credentialed behaviorist, and a veterinarian skilled with behavior or board certified vet behaviorist to help you determine whether this is safe, and how and where to go about keeping a dog like this.
Level 4, 5 – Deep punctures, deep bruising, multiple bite attack. If your dog is biting at a level 4 or above, your dog is dangerous. You need certified professional training and behavior help to determine whether your dog can safely live with people. You definitely need to consult with a board certified veterinary behaviorist to proceed.
Level 6 – If your dog has killed a human, this choice is no longer in your hands. Your dog must be humanely euthanized, as the risk of fatal injury to you and the public is too great to assume.
It’s important to know that we don’t cure aggression; we can only manage the triggers, and hope to reduce its severity and frequency by reducing the underlying causes and teaching replacement behaviors. The above criteria help us to determine if we are likely to be successful in that journey.
There are so many other factors to consider when living with an aggressive dog, but the above is a good start. Someday, we’ll talk together about how we treat and manage aggression. (Spoiler alert: we usually get the best results by combining management, training, and behavioral medicine to reduce anxiety and arousal and give the dog a longer fuse). But that’s a story for another day.
If you’re reading this because you’re living it, I’m sorry. I’ve been there, and it’s a dark place to be. We’re here to help, though, if you’re ready. And we love your dogs, even the ones who bite.
If you're overwhelmed and have tried everything, know that you are not alone. Forgive yourself for trying anything one can to help a beloved dog and instead try our gentle, science-based approach. Our dogs teach us skill, empathy, gratitude, and excellence — and at A Pleasant Dog, we're proud to share these lessons with you.