There are so many causes, definitions and remedies for dog aggression. The word “aggression” itself is very vague, and can range many behaviors from guarding their favorite toy from the other dog in the home, to biting a toddler for stepped on their tail, to a dog unleashing a full body attack on their handler without any provocation. Some forms of aggression are incident related where the aggression is shown because of a particular trigger where the dog is otherwise fine (like the child stepping on a tail example), and others are pervasive, chronic and severe. No matter what kind of aggression that is shown, there are many interventions that can be implemented. Especially when children or other animals are involved, these behaviors cannot go unaddressed. A dog that is intolerant of a toddler stepping on them needs to be confined away from children – a simple, obvious and effective form of aggression management. You cannot stop a dog from being intolerant of children, you cannot train them to just accept pain or manhandling without the risk of a blow up. So this kind of dog has an inherent aggressive tendency that nobody could blame him for! It is just part of his personality or breeding to not be tolerant of these things, so if the dog is otherwise fine, simple confinement in these situations is all that is required. Other dogs, however, require what trainers affectionately refer to as “the lockdown”. This protocol is the very first intervention I give for dogs who have more pervasive aggression. Resource guarding is when a dog guards food, toys, people or any other object and it is an extremely common form of aggression that is nearly always remedied by the lockdown protocol, which basically involves a rotating routine of confinement and rigorous training, as well as altering the way the family interacts with the animal and what he has access to in the home. The protocol is very individualized but follows the same basic foundation. Other elements can be added to this depending on the nature of the problem, the individual qualities of the dog or handler, but that is the basic idea. This routine puts an end to most aggression, but some dogs respond exactly as expected to it in every other way, but still show aggression. While there are other techniques and interventions, it is then that I will begin to suspect that the cause of the aggression may be genetic and therefore will not respond to training.
In very simplified terms, dogs can be aggressive because of homelife or upbringing, which can be remedied by training and lifestyle changes, or because of mental illness, which cannot. So if the dog is perfectly healthy, and training and lifestyle adjustment isn’t working, and the issue is clearly a genetic short fuse, then what? What if the family cannot afford the trainers or veterinary costs? There is a dog in the home that is a danger to others, and they have no way to work with the dog, what do they do? Do they keep the dog as-is and risk disaster? Do they put them in a shelter and not disclose the aggression thus putting others in danger? Is it ever appropriate to euthanize a dog to prevent disaster, or is it just a cruel, unnecessary and lazy solution? Like everything else in the dog world, this is a hotly debated topic. Just like humans, some dogs have issues that they are just born with. Dozens of generations of careless breeding has created so many animals that are absolutely insane, there is no other way to say it. Some dogs are just crazy, and what sets them off cannot be anticipated. An example is of my Adrien, who mindlessly and viciously attacks my hands when I shuffle cards. Why?? I have no idea. His eyes glaze over, and without hesitation he attacks. He also does this with metal tape measures.. He has a major screw loose in general, and that is one of those weird triggers that cannot be explained in any other way. These dogs are dangerous. That lockdown protocol won’t fix that kind of dog. It will help, but it won’t cure. So what do we do with a dog that is just inherently dangerous? Whose homelife, activity, management and training is exactly what it needs to be for success, but it still shows serious aggression? This is where we get into the difficult discussion of the appropriateness of euthanasia.
In theory, the majority of these dogs can live out their lives without incident. Again, I’ll use Adrien as an example. He is special needs. Nobody can watch him, nobody can handle him, nobody can feed, walk or even interact with him when I am not there. He is dangerous, and he is unpredictable. He shows signs that he is about to bite, but usually by the time you pick up on them, it is too late. Sometimes he is very cool with other people and can be really affectionate and sweet, but you never know when you will touch him in the wrong spot and wham. If you approach him with your arms high or your elbows away from your sides, he’ll go for you. He is on Prozac, which has helped A LOT (I will write on this topic another time), but it doesn’t fix him. Nothing has fixed him and nothing will. So, he and I live a very careful lifestyle together of mutual respect and compassion. I speak his language now so I know what to do to ensure we all live very happily and comfortably together. I love this dog and he loves me, he is probably my favorite dog and despite his insanity, if I had the opportunity to clone him, I would. But if anything ever happened to me where I could no longer keep him, I would have him euthanized. If I had a child, he would have to be euthanized. I would never try to rehome him, because he is a 90lb unpredictable time bomb. Even if I tried to rehome him, nobody would take him! Who would?? So what do you do? He can live a very happy and healthy life without problem in the right home, but that right home is so rare that in practice, euthanasia would be the only responsible thing to do. This kind of dog is, unfortunately, fairly common. Most people with these dogs end up walking on eggshells for the dog’s lifetime, and their stories very often involve the dog biting a child, or a family member, or killing another dog or cat. I cannot tell you how many of these dogs I have met. You really see these dogs shine in the grooming salon..
If a genetically-aggressive dog’s homelife is just right, and it’s owners are very well versed in aggression management, then there is every chance a dog like this could live just fine. But these homes are very, very, rare. So sometimes the only responsible option is to euthanize the dog. I have done this with one of my own, it is was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make, and I hope I never have to do it again. It was horrible to know that I sent a healthy happy dog to his death for something seemingly fixable. But the reality is that he was not healthy, and he was not happy, and his problem was not fixable. It is akin to mental illness in humans where it is so difficult to pin down what can be helped and what is just chemical, and it is awful trying to figure it out when it is in your own head, let alone for others watching you to discern, and the same can be said for our dogs. We cannot ask them what they are feeling, we can only do our best with what we have, and ultimately, it is our responsibility to keep our animals safe and comfortable, and also the other people that this animal will come into contact with. The reality is that every dog that shows aggression has to potential to be another bite or death statistic, and while the majority of aggression cases are remedied fairly simply, many are not, and many more go unaddressed because owners don’t acknowledge it, or just don’t have the resources to help. And so euthanasia is always a responsible option and we should not be ashamed to do so.