When Should an Aggressive Dog Be Euthanized?

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Dog Behavior By Erin Jones 14 min read June 24, 2020

when to euthanize a dog

Deciding to euthanize a beloved pet is one of the most difficult decisions that anyone can possibly make. Especially when it comes to behavioral euthanasia – the decision to euthanize a dog for severe behavioral concerns. 

Though this option is never made lightly, there are a small percentage of dogs who will never be manageable or fixable. They are dangerous to themselves and others and thus are living a poor quality of life in solitude via extreme management measures. 

You should never have to make this type of decision alone. A behavior consultant and your veterinarian can help to guide you through the decision. But ultimately, the decision is personal. It’s yours to make. 

Below, we will discuss some of the things you’ll need to consider before deciding whether to euthanize your dog for his aggressive behavior or continue with management strategies and behavior modification.

Key Takeaways: When Should an Aggressive Dog Be Euthanized?

  • Some aggressive dogs may be dangerous enough to warrant euthanasia.
  • You’ll want to make these types of decisions in conjunction with your veterinarian and a certified canine behavior consultant.
  • It is important to consider your living situation and the resources you have to offer when deciding whether or not to euthanize an aggressive dog.
  • There are a few viable alternatives to euthanasia, which may work in some circumstances.

Signs and Behaviors That Dog Euthanasia May Be Warranted

Every dog and every situation will differ, and the decision to euthanize an aggressive dog will ultimately come down to the severity and danger level of the situation.

When considering euthanasia, you’ll want to think about the following four things:  

1. The Intensity Level of the Aggression. 

A canine behavior consultant can help you to assess the severity of the situation using Ian Dunbar’s Bite Scale or Dr. Sophia Yin’s Canine Bite Levels.

Both scales have six categories:

  • Level 1: The dog snaps at a person but does not make contact.  
  • Level 2: The dog actually bites the victim and achieves tooth on skin contact, but causes no puncture wound.
  • Level 3: The dog’s bite penetrates the victim’s skin, but the wound is  shallower than the length of a canine tooth.
  • Level 4: The dog not only bites, but he clamps down and/or shakes his head too. Because of the clamping and pressure applied, the wounds are deeper than the length of a canine tooth.
  • Level 5: The dog inflicts multiple bites or attacks victims multiple times. 
  • Level 6: The dog bite leads to the victim’s death.  
bite levels

If a dog has a bite history, it is important to note the frequency and severity of the bites that have occurred. Generally speaking, the more severe or frequent the bites are, the more likely you’ll have consider euthanizing your dog.   

2. The Absence of Warning Signals 

Almost all dogs give a warning before they bite — very few bites happen “out of the blue.” In fact, there is usually an escalation from mild stress signals, to severe warnings, to an eventual bite if the warnings are not heeded.

However, in some rare cases, a dog may not give any warnings at all. This could be due to medical or neurological issues. It could also be because he’s been punished for giving warnings in the past. 

Dogs who fail to give warnings are often considerably more dangerous than dogs who communicate their feelings before reaching their breaking point

canine aggression ladder

3. Unpredictable Behavior 

If your pup displays warning signs, such as growls, snarls, or stress signals, when he gets upset, then his behavior is predictable. If you know his triggers – for example, he becomes agitated or anxious when he thinks you’ll take away his food (aka resource guarding) – his behavior is also predictable. 

This is a good thing.

Predictable behavior is often manageable behavior. We can prevent bites from happening and work to modify his underlying feelings of fear or anxiety to decrease the likelihood of a future bite. 

However, if your dog is truly not giving any warning signals or there are no discernible patterns to his aggressive behavior, it can be incredibly difficult to manage him and to ever feel truly safe.

This could result in a dog who spends the majority of his time kenneled for preventative measures, decreasing his quality of life.

4. Size of the Dog 

It isn’t an easy thing to talk about, but size matters when considering behavioral euthanasia. Clearly a large German shepherd or cane corso can do much more damage than a papillon. 

This is not breed discrimination; it is simply an undeniable fact that larger breeds are capable of inflicting much more severe wounds than smaller breeds.

This means that you may have to consider euthanasia more seriously for a larger dog than a smaller dog, even if they have similar bite histories. 

behavioral euthanasia for dogs

The Potential Ramifications of an Attack or Bite 

When trying to decide if euthanasia is appropriate, it’s important to consider the consequences of caring for an aggressive dog. Especially if the dog has already done something serious, such as biting a child or killing another dog. 

Ultimately, in the United States and many other Western counties, our dogs are considered property. That means we are financially, emotionally, morally, and legally responsible for their actions.

That means you’ll want to consider what could happen if your dog bites someone. This includes:

Physical Injury

As we have discussed, bites can vary in severity, but almost certainly, bites usually get worse over time (more frequent and/or more virulent). But whether this is your dog’s first bite or the most recent of many, the results can be very serious.

In a best-case scenario, a minor bite could be simply startling and painful. It may not cause punctures or bleeding, but perhaps bruising and broken trust. Minor bites might also cause small punctures, and it’s important to visit your doctor in order to have the wound properly cleaned and tended to.

But in a worst-case scenario, there could be multiple bites and head shaking. This could result in very serious wounds, including lacerations, severe bleeding, or broken bones. In extreme cases, these injuries could ultimately lead to the victim’s death.

In such scenarios, you may even have to use emergency intervention to stop the attack and contain the dog. No one wants to imagine that this kind of thing could happen, but sadly, it can

Mental or Emotional Trauma

If there is one thing that is particularly upsetting for dog parents, it’s having your very own dog behave aggressively towards someone. Particularly if the target of your dog’s aggression is someone in your household or if that target person is you.

But there’s no getting around it: Mental and emotional trauma often follows a dog bite or attack. 

We tend to feel as though we have failed our pups in these situations. That they must not love us. That we are “bad” dog parents. Or, that somehow, it’s our fault.

On the other hand, for those who have been attacked by a dog, whether it’s their own dog or a strange dog, there is an inherent underlying fear that often develops towards that dog, or any dog. 

Unfortunately, the trauma of an injury goes far beyond the physical wounds and may scar our minds forever.

dog euthanized for aggression

Legal Ramifications 

In most places, dogs are considered our property under the eyes of the law. Therefore, the liability you carry for your dog can be based on the idea of negligence

This can be in the form of failing to properly secure your dog or entrusting him with someone deemed unfit to restrain him, for example. According to Rebecca Wisch from Michigan State University College of Law, the court may consider several things when deciding whether a dog owner is negligent: 

  • Was your dog’s action categorized as a “dangerous” activity?
  • Does your dog have a bite history or a history of aggressive behavior
  • If so, did the defendant have any knowledge of your dog’s aggressive history?
  • Was your dog’s dangerous behavior what caused the harm?

Therefore, if you have prior knowledge that the dog has behaved aggressively and haven’t done your due diligence to manage your dog, you could be liable.

Some states may also impose a more stringent specification called “strict liability”. In those states, the liability is automatically yours for attacks, bites, or injures. You may even be held liable for damages if your dog simply chases someone. 

In other words, it’s not necessary to prove that the owner was negligent in these states.  

Additionally, nearly all states, most Canadian provinces, and several countries have some laws that govern what can be termed “dangerous dog” laws.  

This could result in anything from breed specific bans to “strict liability” for dog parents of “dangerous breeds or dogs”. This strict liability law may also mean that you will be liable regardless of whether the person who was bitten was trespassing on your property or not.  

Financial Ramifications 

Vet bills, doctor’s bills, and training costs could be the very least of your worries following a dog bite. You could also get sued if your dog bites another person or animal. 

Insurance policies may provide you with some financial protection. However, not all insurance policies will cover the costs associated with a bite, and the amount could also be in excess of your policy payout. 

euthanize a dog after biting

Owner Considerations When Debating Euthanasia

There is no one size fits all answer to whether someone should euthanize their dog for behavioral reasons. It’s a personal and often devastatingly hard decision. Always speak with your veterinarian and certified behavior consultant before you make any decision

The following may help you decide when it is right to have a conversation:

Your Resources 

You will need to decide if you have the resources to both manage your dog and to be able to work on a treatment plan.

Everyone who makes the decision to euthanize their dog loves them very much. We want to do what’s best for them. But despite what you read and hear, love isn’t always enough.

It is emotionally exhausting managing a dog with serious behavioral issues. It can also be very expensive to work with your behavior consultant and veterinary team.

Knowledgeable behavior consultants cost anywhere from $80 – $100 or more per hour. Online behavior consultations can bring down costs considerably, but for extreme cases of aggression, in-person work is often preferable.

Your Living Situation 

There are a lot of variables to consider when living with a severely aggressive dog. It is important to consider the costs and benefits of living in a home with these types of serious behavioral issues. 

For example, you’ll want to consider if there are:

  • Children in the house
  • Frequent visitors
  • Other dogs or pets

Also consider whether these are avoidable or manageable variables, and how much this might affect both you and your dog’s quality of living. For example, is it feasible to keep your dog separated from most other people?

Do you have a way to ensure your dog still gets exercise, affection, and everything else he needs to enjoy a high quality of life, while being managed in a way that prevents him from biting anyone?

These variables may be out of your control and they may be a vital component to your life. 

dog aggression solutions

Your Dog’s Age 

Age may or may not play a factor in your decision. Overall, I would say that age doesn’t matter.

Any dog of any age can become aggressive for many reasons, including  medical-, psychological- or trauma-related issues. It could be genetics, and sadly, there’s not much we can do about that other than to continue to push for better breeding regulations. 

However, there may be other factors you’ll want to weigh when making your decision.

If your senior dog has suddenly become unpredictably aggressive in part due to a cognitive decline at the age of 13, you may decide that he has had a great life until this point and there is likely only going to be regression from here on out.

If, on the other hand, you have a young puppy showing aggressive behaviors, diligent hard work with behavior modification and behavioral medication may be successful. But just because he is young, doesn’t mean that it’s a solvable problem 100% of the time.

Your Dog’s Breed 

Dogs are individuals. Of course, some dogs have been bred specifically with certain drives and traits in mind. But aggression is not a breed-specific trait, and any dog of any breed can act aggressively

However, some breeds are larger and stronger than others, making their bite force simply much more dangerous to the victim. A standard poodle, for example, by weight and size alone, can do more damage than a miniature poodle.

Your Dog’s Quality of Life

It’s important to consider this question carefully: Does my dog have a good quality of life? Beyond his basic needs, is it possible to also achieve his emotional needs? This may differ from dog to dog. 

An older Lhasa apso may be quite content to stay on his property for the rest of his life and enjoy your company solely. But a young husky may find this kind of life very depressing and stressful.  

Ask yourself: 

  • Is my dog able to experience life the way he should or could? Or is he spending 15 hours a day in a kennel because he can’t be trusted around people or another dog in the home? 
  • Are you able to provide him the proper care he needs, or is it too risky to handle him? 
  • Is management so restricting that his entire agency and ability to express natural behaviors inhibited?

These are tough questions to face, but they are imperative to help guide you through this very emotional decision. 

euthanasia for aggressive canine

Alternatives to Euthanasing an Aggressive Dog

It is entirely possible that a change in circumstance or environment may be helpful, or that behavior modification and medications might be the best route along with solid management strategies to keep everyone safe.

It’s best to exhaust all options before you consider the possibility of euthanasia. Some of the best alternatives to euthanasia include:

Rehoming 

Sometimes, though not always, finding a new home may make the situation better.

Perhaps a home without children, or other dogs would be a better fit for your pooch. Or maybe a home that is less busy or located in a rural area. 

Rehoming your dog is not a guarantee that your dog’s quality of life or behaviors will improve. But for some dogs, it very well could.

Behavior Modification or Training  

Behavior modification can sometimes help address a dog’s aggressive behavior.

But it is important, first of all, to choose someone who is very qualified with aggression cases and follows a scientific and modern approach to behavior modification. 

A good starting place is the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants or a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist. A professional can build a treatment plan using counter-conditioning techniques and systematic desensitization.

Over time, these techniques can be successful in helping your pup to change his reflexive negative emotional reactions to something more positive and to teach him alternative coping strategies. 

Additionally, a professional can help you to understand the root cause of your dog’s aggression and how to better read and understand his body language.

Medications 

There are several types of pharmaceutical products out there, from tricyclic antidepressants to SSRI’s that may help with the underlying fear or anxiety related to your dog’s aggressive behavior. 

You will need to speak with your vet about the different options and what might be best for your dog. Medication, however, is not a solution on its own and should always be used in conjunction with behavior modification.

Management Strategies

To work with any aggressive dog, a great muzzle is a key tool to keep everyone safe.

There are some wonderfully designed options out there for everyday use, such as the Baskerville Ultra muzzle or Bumas, and others that are similarly designed “basket” muzzles. 

muzzles for a dog

The Muzzle Up! Project has excellent tutorials on how to fit a muzzle and condition your dog to enjoy wearing a muzzle as well, all delivered by experts in the field.

Other management options may include double leashes and a harness when walking providing extra control and a back-up safety measure should one leash fail.

Additionally, you can install a safe and well-constructed fence for containment, or place your dog in a kennel when visitors come over. These tools, when used wisely, may help you to prevent an unfortunate situation from happening.

No management, however, is foolproof. And it’s strongly advised to seek professional assistance. 

***

Making the decision to euthanize your dog is a personal one. No one can make that decision for you. However, there are resources and professionals who are out there to help you. The first thing is to let go of the idea that all dogs can be rehabilitated through love. 

Have you ever faced this decision with a dog in your life? Tell us your story. Your story may help others to know that they are not alone.

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Written by

Erin Jones

Erin is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. After completing her MSc in Anthrozoology, Erin moved to New Zealand early in 2019 to complete her PhD at the University of Canterbury – New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies. Her research focuses on the ethics and social constructs of the human-dog relationship and humane training practices. She lives in Christchurch, New Zealand with her husband and their dog, Juno.

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