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When to Consider Behavioral Euthanasia


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The decision to euthanize your dog is never an easy one. Your dog is a beloved family member and it’s incredibly difficult to say goodbye. But it’s even more complicated and distressing when the reason for the euthanasia is based on your dog’s behavior rather than their health. You might feel guilty and wonder how you let your dog down. But in rare situations, behavioral euthanasia is the only responsible and ethical decision.

What is Behavioral Euthanasia?

Behavioral euthanasia is the term used for humanely ending a dog’s life because of severe behavioral issues. This is not usually related to physical health, and it’s not about nuisance behavior like pulling on leash or jumping on guests. It’s about aggression – a dog who could or has caused harm to people or other animals. Simply put, some dogs are euthanized because they are unsafe for life in our society.

These dogs aren’t necessarily snapping and growling all the time. In fact, they might be quite loving with their owners and behave appropriately most of the time. And in fact, any dog is capable of biting given the right circumstances. But the key issue is that these dogs aren’t trustworthy. They might have clear aggression triggers, or they might be completely unpredictable. But they are dangerous.

Are There Underlying Health Issues?

Aggression has many causes such as fear or stress, but it’s important to rule out physical ones before taking any action. For example, a dog in chronic pain can be irritable, and health conditions like a hormonal imbalance or psychomotor epilepsy can lead to aggression. At the first sign of behavioral issues, you should consult a veterinarian to rule out any health concerns. There might be medical treatment to address your dog’s dangerous behavior.

Is the Behavior Predictable?

It’s also important to assess how predictable your dog’s behavior is. If you know exactly what triggers your dog’s aggression, you might be able to avoid those situations. This may make your dog’s behavior manageable. For example, if your dog is only aggressive around children, you might be able to always keep your dog away from kids. However, you never know when you might meet a child on the street or at your front door.

Or your dog might have more generalized triggers, like other dogs or strangers. That can make it very hard to predict possible incidents. Every time you leave your house or your doorbell rings, you could be facing a dangerous outburst from your dog. The harder it is to predict triggers, the harder it is to control them and therefore prevent aggression.

Finally, your dog may not have predictable triggers. Or at least none you can see. That makes it impossible to avoid incidents. Instead, you must always be on the lookout for warning signs such as raised hackles or growling, and then act accordingly to prevent escalation. That’s exhausting and stressful. Plus, you might not always intervene in time. A dog that attacks out of the blue is the most dangerous of all and may simply be too risky to keep in your home.

Mixed breed dog head in profile looking up on a black background.

Does Your Dog Have a Bite History?

Your dog’s history of aggression may also play a role in your euthanasia decision. Is their behavior getting worse and worse, or has there only been one incident? The more a dog rehearses aggression, the harder it can be to handle. But if you’re able to start behavior modification treatment early on, you might be able to change your dog’s behavior enough to feel safe having them as a pet.

Whether your dog has a bite history is also an important consideration. A dog that has snapped at the air is easier to treat than one who has a history of multiple bites or severe bites that have punctured or torn the skin. That’s why it’s important to get professional help as soon as your dog shows any signs of behavioral issues. Unfortunately, a dog with a serious bite history is more likely to be euthanized than one who has yet to cause physical harm.

What is Your Dog’s Quality of Life?

It’s possible to handle a dog’s aggressive behavior through careful management. For example, walking them with a muzzle or keeping them away from other dogs or whatever their triggers might be. But the more triggers a dog has or the more unpredictable their outbursts, the more you will need to manage their existence. They might spend hours and hours crated. Or you might be unable to walk them, so they’re relegated to the backyard.

If this is a temporary situation while you work on behavioral modification, it can be well worth it. But if this is your dog’s permanent living situation, you need to consider their quality of life. Are they ever getting to socialize with people they are comfortable around? Are they getting enough physical exercise and mental stimulation? Do they ever get to be a dog? In some situations, the measures you need to enact for safety may be extreme and euthanasia could be the kinder option.

What are the Alternatives to Behavioral Euthanasia?

As already mentioned, management and behavioral modification can be extremely effective in dealing with aggression. They require vigilance, effort, and patience, but with the help of a professional, like an animal behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist, you can make great strides with your dog. Treatments like desensitization and counterconditioning can change your dog’s response to triggers. And management techniques, like a gate across your front hall, or tools like a muzzle can allow you to control your dog while you work to reverse underlying motivations. Finally, medication may help your dog cope with the world and be more receptive to your training.

However, sometimes it’s unsafe to keep your dog in your home even with management, especially if you have small children. And sometimes you don’t have the time required for behavior modification. In that case, rehoming your dog might be the solution. This may get your dog away from their triggers and in the care of somebody able to do the work to address their issues. For example, if your dog is aggressive with cats, rehoming them in a feline-free home might make all the difference.

But never rehome your dog or surrender them to a rescue or shelter without giving a complete and thorough history of the behavioral issues. It’s unfair to put others at risk, and depending on local laws, you might be liable for any damage done by your dog. Be sure the person taking your dog knows exactly what they are in for and is willing to treat and deal with your dog’s aggression. Depending on your dog’s specific issues, this might be an impossible request.

Get Help With Your Decision

The decision to euthanize your dog for behavioral reasons is not easy. Plus, it can be hard to see the situation clearly when fear, guilt, anger, and other understandable emotions are at play. Don’t decide alone. Consult an animal behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist to get an objective assessment of your dog’s aggression and your options. They can’t make the decision for you, but they can help guide you toward doing what’s best for you and your dog.

The post When to Consider Behavioral Euthanasia appeared first on American Kennel Club.

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