I’ve been thinking about writing about this topic for a while now….I have written about it on our Harley’s Haven page a few times when the situation has arisen with one of our dogs, but I feel like the topic deserves its own full blog. Behavioral euthanasia is a topic that no one in vet med or rescue likes to talk about or acknowledge, but it is absolutely one that we should be talking about.
A few months ago we had to make this very difficult decision with one of our dogs in Harley’s Haven, Tucker. It was a really hard decision that was filled with a lot of tears and many conversations to get us to the point where we all agreed it was the best thing to do. For his safety, for his mental well-being, for the safety of his foster home, and because ultimately it would be irresponsible to adopt out a dog who is willing to bite a person and had already bitten several times. The few times we have made this decision it has torn me up to make it, trust me, but I have always known it was the right thing to do. And sometimes the right thing to do is also a really hard decision to make.
Here is the thing. Some dogs are just not adoptable- they have demons that make them a safety risk to themselves and others. And some dogs even in a loving home who has done everything right, have demons that make them a safety risk to themselves and to others. There are some dogs with severe mental disease who live in a prison in their own head, and it is unfair to them and to their families to make them all live that life of fear.
I know we all like to think we can always fix them, I have dedicated my life to fixing and saving dogs. But the hard truth is that there are some who cannot be fixed and cannot be saved. This is a sliding scale of gray – there is not a black and white decision tree on when to make this decision, which is why it is so damn hard to make. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it…there is a horrible negative stigma associated with behavioral euthanasia. This perception that if a family or a rescue is choosing the put a dog down for a behavioral reason that they have failed that dog in some way to end up there. That they could have done something differently to avoid that decision. That ultimately the dog could have been saved had we tried harder.
I am here to tell you that even when you do everything right, and when you try everything to fix a behavioral problem – sometimes we still end up needing to consider euthanasia and that it is the right thing to do. However, it is really important that we do right by them as far as trying to fix the behavior before we end up at this decision. Obviously you should do all the things – make sure you socialize your dog from a young age, work with a trainer and/or a behaviorist, work on positive reinforcement, avoid triggers when you can, and ultimately try behavioral modification medications to assist with the above. But if you have done all of these things, and you have a dog who is still dangerous, who is still willing to bite a person, who is hurting others or themself, then I think it is time to have this conversation.
This is such a hard topic because of the huge swing on either side. There are people who don’t do right by their dog and don’t want to put in the work to fix a problem they created, or don’t want to have to work hard to fix it. Being a vet I have seen this all too often, and those are the times where I say no. I will never euthanize a dog that I think has a chance or who has been failed by their people. Period. And there is the flip side – the extremist people who will keep a dog in a run for years because they are in a no-kill shelter and they don’t believe in behavioral Euthanasia….where the dog slowly loses its mind from living in a 3x5 cell for years with little interaction because he/she is aggressive and reactive and only 3 people can handle them safely. Is that the right thing? Some would argue yes…I would argue that perhaps there are fates worse than death. My main point here is that I think we shouldn’t be afraid to have this conversation. Mental disease is a real thing in dogs, and we don’t have the same resources that we do in humans to manage severe cases – and at times, I think the right thing to do, the safe thing to do, is to let them go. So that they don’t endanger themselves or others.
Tucker was such a sad example of this – despite consulting with multiple trainers and behaviorists, and medications, and hours and hours of dedication from his amazing foster family, at the end of the day he was dangerous. Even with vigilant management, he would still bite members of his foster family, let alone even being able to safely interact with anyone outside of his very small circle. He was a prisoner in his own brain with his extreme reactivity, and as hard as it was to make that decision, we all knew it was the right one because it wasn’t fair to him to live a life like that, and it wouldn’t be right to try to rehome him with how great of a risk it was that someone else would get hurt.
Today’s blog is in honor of Tucker – I am glad we took you in, even though you didn’t have the happy ending we wanted for you, I’m glad we all got to know you and you got to know love. Not every story has a happy ending, but I take comfort in knowing that we did the right thing for him, and I hope that his story can help someone else who is struggling with the decision or who is afraid to talk about it or ask for help. Rest in peace Tucker, we love you and you mattered.