Contemplating the Unthinkable: When Does Canine Aggression Become a Reason to Euthanize?

Other topics
Canine Aggression

Thankfully, most of us will never have to think about it. But as a veterinary professional, the issue is as inevitable as the occasional bite to the face, which happens more often to kids aged five to nine than to any other subset of humans.

Last month’s patient was a textbook case. She’d bitten three people. Each event involved an increasing degree of deliberateness and efficacy. Unfortunately, her targets also increasingly favored the young. Shockingly, a nearly severed pinky finger was involved in the final incident. Which explains why the neighbors were clamoring for her demise.

Unfortunately, this dog’s issues ran deeper than the torches and pitchforks on her family’s front porch. This whip-thin, mid-sized Chihuahua-Lab mix was picked up as an impressively timid six month-old at the local pound. Presumably never socialized during the critical window of development (7 to 11 weeks), she presented as the classic scared dog with a tail between her legs, a crouch in her step, and a look to match.

By the time she presented for her first behavior evaluation she was two-and-a-half years old. Young, but old enough to have reached social maturity, the time by which dogs’ “personalities” will have stabilized and their interactions with the world around them reached a steady state. In other words, even with all the training in the world, it would be hard to expect this dog to be trustworthy around children –– ever.

Unfortunately, the issue was not as clear-cut as the evidence would suggest. With her family this dog was 100% perfect. She’d never bitten any household members –– far from it! Outside of chance interactions with strangers and guests, she’d never much interacted with anyone. The strange thing was that she seemed super-friendly with everyone. Until something unexpectedly changed in the interaction. And then she wasn’t. It was inexplicable.

Inexplicable. But unpredictably predictable, nonetheless. This dog would bite again if given the chance. Which is why the neighbors wanted her euthanized.

To their credit, the owners were thoughtful people who knew their active, hectic lifestyle would make 100% canine control impossible. They were not the right home for a dog with her predisposition and their household’s limitations. But knowing what they knew, neither could they in good conscience find her another home. Who knows what untoward acts they might feel responsible for if she ever again gained access to children?

After some in-person deliberation and a couple of phone calls, her family decided to take steps to euthanize her. It was the right decision, but one that probably proved more painful than most. After all, it’s one thing to euthanize a sick pet who’s come to a natural end; it’s quite another to anesthetize and deliberately overdose your dog because she’s confused about what the world expects of her.

In truth, I tend not to find the act of euthanasia a sad experience. Not in the context of a normal, natural end of life. It’s only the humans’ reaction that gets to me. But in this case I cried not just for the people who would miss her but for her poor maladjusted soul too.

I mean, if you think about it, it wasn’t really her fault. But we still had that finger to think about. And future fingers. Or arms. Or noses. Or throats. Who knows?

You might blame me for my participation. What kind of a veterinarian kills a healthy dog? And you might have a point. But as we all know, “healthy” goes way beyond the body’s doings. For dogs, their fundamental “healthiness” overlaps so completely with their relationship to humans that any failure in socialization can have disastrous results. In this case, the tragedy was not just that she lost her life, but that in doing so she paid dearly for what humans did not do for her. Neglect, after all, can be just as abusive as violence.

Catastrophic cases of aggression like this one aren’t always handled so carefully. In fact, I’ve seen several cases go south when owners elect to isolate the aggressive dog, only to see unfortunate “accidents” happen. With dogs that are dangerously aggressive, even one mistake can cost dearly.

A fraught topic, to be sure. But it’s one I invite you to contemplate, nonetheless. Think about it: What would you do if your dog bit a baby? How far would she have to go before you could bring yourself to consider the unthinkable?