Dog Behavior Training: Treat or Euthanize

When doing dog behavior training, we’ve all had at least one – that case where we just don’t know if we’ll ever be able to improve the dog’s behavior. Inevitably, it’s an extreme emotional problem – aggression, fear, or anxiety. The animal is either hurting himself or hurting someone else. We all have our own way of dealing with these situations. Personally, I don’t want to recommend euthanasia. I feel that the dog should be seen by a veterinary behaviorist, because there are many things they can do that a trainer cannot. Until this avenue has been explored, I feel it’s inappropriate for me to make that life or death call.

I have vivid memories of one particular case I had like that. It was a rescued coon hound. The background info said that he’d been a medical research dog. Of course, we never know for sure if this type of information is correct. I had some doubts because a coon hound is a pretty big dog, and most labs want smaller animals because of space issues. However, this dog was not normal by any stretch of the imagination, and that type of environment could certainly result in aberrant behavior.

The owners brought the dog to me, and the minute I saw him, I knew I was not going to approach him – he was flat out scary – this was not going to be straight forward, good old dog obedience training! He had a hard stare the entire time he was there, as well as penile crowning and piloerection. He was not affiliative to me or the owners. At this time, I was running a dog sanctuary, and he didn’t even seem particularly curious about the dogs in the environment. No sniffing around, looking out windows, etc. Just very abnormal behavior, in my opinion.

During the intake I learned that the dog had attacked the husband (the less dog-savvy of the two) three times. The last time he sent the husband to the hospital. The dog was a severe resource guarder and they lived in a very small space. They had an apartment in Manhattan, and anyone who’s lived in New York City knows that unless you’re wealthy, you’re going to live in a very small space. They also had a small one-room cabin in the Catskills. So, in either home, space was tight.

In the last incident, the husband had been in the kitchen cooking dinner and the dog started growling and stalking the husband – I assumed he was guarding the food that was cooking, but it could have been something else. The husband backed up, but the dog came after him. As we know, in most aggressive situations, the dog just wants space between you and him or the object he’s guarding. In this case, the fact that the husband was creating that space didn’t affect the dog’s behavior. He trapped the husband in the bathroom and attacked him, sending him to the hospital for several stitches – I can’t remember how many, but it was a lot. That was when they called me.

The wife was willing to euthanize the dog, but the husband wasn’t. The wife was dog savvy and didn’t have problems with the coon hound except in specific situations, and she was experienced enough to know how to deal with those situations. It was the husband’s first dog, and he was adamant that he wanted to try working with the behavior before giving up on him.

After taking the history, I decided to refer them to the vet behaviorist in Cornell. In dog behavior training, we trainers do not have to make that decision. We can, and should, refer a case like this on to a vet behaviorist. There are many things a vet can do that a trainer cannot.

The first reason I didn’t want to take on this case was because I was frightened by the dog, so that didn’t bode well for working with him. I could have given instructions and kept my distance, or we could have desensitized him to a muzzle but, all-in-all, I really didn’t want to work with this dog.

The other reason I didn’t want to take on this case was because the wife was adamant that she wanted to walk in the woods with the dog off leash. I felt this was dangerous and a liability waiting to happen. I could see the dog guarding something – a carcass, garbage, whatever – and some innocent bystander walking by and getting attacked. Unless the wife would agree to keep him on leash, I wasn’t willing to risk that. And she really wanted him to be able to roam.

They met with the vet behaviorist, and it was recommended that they euthanize the dog. They called me, very upset – they hadn’t like the vet behaviorist and felt that she had no empathy. Personally, I wasn’t at all surprised that she recommend euthanasia, and was in agreement with that recommendation. However, they did not want to work with her and really wanted me to help them. Aargh!

I wasn’t going to put myself in that position. I’d already decided I didn’t want to work with this dog, and had informed them of that decision and why I made it. However, I did give them some dog behavior training help. One of the situations where the wife had problems was when the dog was in his crate, so I gave her a protocol for approaching and opening the crate. The other situation was when he had chews, so again, I gave her a protocol.

They reported back to me a couple of times to let me know that things were going well. The wife had no problem approaching the crate, and could even take chews away from the dog. However, the situation with the husband had not improved much – at this point it was a whole lot of management.

Then, one evening I got a hysterical call from the wife. The dog had attacked the husband and he was in the hospital with some very serious injuries. At this point, the husband agreed that the dog should be euthanized. It was a difficult call for the owners; they suffered a lot of guilt over that decision. Personally, I had no problem with it. I didn’t see this dog ever being reliable enough to be considered safe.

Ultimately, this situation was a pretty easy call. It’s those other cases where you feel like there’s hope for the dogs that are difficult. And that’s why Dr. Lore Haug will be doing a webinar for us on that very topic!

If you’d like to attend this webinar, you can get more information here: 

Susan Smith, CPDT-KA, CDBC is the owner of Raising Canine, LLC, (, which provides online education for professional dog trainers and dog behavior consultants, as well as business and marketing education and consulting to help their businesses, including an intensive course for those wanting to become professional dog trainers. Sue is also the co-author of the book “Positive Gun Dogs: Clicker Training for Sporting Breeds.” Sue is certified through CCPDT and IAABC. She is an ex-Board member for the CCPDT, an active, professional member of CCPDT, APDT, and IAABC, and was named APDT Member of the Year in 2004.

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