Monthly Archives: September 2013

When Veterinarians Refuse to Euthanize Aggressive Dogs

A life would have been spared had one vet honored a family’s request.

A recent article about euthanizing aggressive dogs has inspired me to write about a topic I believe gets very little attention but represents an important safety issue for our communities–veterinarians who refuse to euthanize “otherwise healthy” dogs that are dangerously aggressive.

We have personal experience in this matter. Years ago, one of our volunteers had a dog (we’ll call him Bubba) that was aggressive toward people. She had worked with several trainers, tried different management techniques, and progressed to simply keeping Bubba isolated at home, properly contained, away from the world as much as possible. She loved him, and she wanted him to have a long, happy life. Unfortunately, living with the stress of having a dog that could seriously hurt someone if she made one mistake (left a door or a gate open, didn’t watch him like a hawk in the yard, etc.) wore on her. Bubba wasn’t getting any better. One mistake and someone could pay dearly, and the quality of life for her dog wasn’t what she wished.

She made the decision to euthanize him, got up the courage to pick up the phone, and called her veterinarian. The clinic told her they would not euthanize Bubba because he was healthy. The vet did not feel comfortable ending the life of a young, healthy dog.

Our volunteer, already in tears, was devastated. She second-guessed her decision. She felt guilty for  having made that decision. Her sister decided to make an offer the volunteer couldn’t refuse. She would take Bubba. Our volunteer felt a wave of relief and agreed.

I believe it was the very first day Bubba was in his new home when tragedy struck. Bubba, who was already a dog afflicted with anxiety, found himself in a strange yard. He escaped.

We’re not sure exactly what happened next. The volunteer received a call with the bad news. Bubba had gotten out. He had been hit by a car, and at some point, someone had tried to help Bubba, but he acted aggressively toward the person. I cannot remember, years later, whether Bubba actually bit the person. I just know that Bubba’s injuries were so severe, he had to be euthanized. His last moments on this Earth were not pleasant. His death was not an easy one.

Another story comes from someone who wasn’t one of our volunteers but contacted us with suggestions on dealing with aggression between their two dogs. Now, we know that all breeds have dogs that exhibit dog aggression. Some dogs do well with other dogs, and some dogs don’t. Rather than euthanizing the vast majority of dog-reactive dogs, we think it best that they simply be the only dog in a home.

However, sometimes dogs present such a danger to other dogs (and people who may get in the way), that the only responsible thing to do is to humanely euthanize them. Those are few and far between, but they exist, and as responsible members of a community where others’ safety will be in jeopardy, sometimes ending a life is the right thing to do. I’m not saying those dogs cannot be effectively managed. They can…until there’s a slip-up, and there always is because every human on this planet is flawed and imperfect. If one slip-up will mean the death of a person or living, sentient member of the household, it is best to euthanize the dog.

Here is the story, in her own words, of a woman who lived through “the worst days” of her life. Her story involves two dogs, Mickey and Rufus.

In 2001, my son brought home the most adorable pit bull puppy.  My first thought was, “what on earth are you doing bringing in that type of dog into our home?”  The dog was a 19th birthday gift from his girlfriend; they named him Mickey.  Not knowing much about the breed other than the media hype I did my own research and found that the breed is not so different than others but they did thrive on socialization and love exercise.  At the time, we had an old lady cocker spaniel, Baby, and the two became fast friends.  Never was I concerned about the two of them together or Mickey being aggressive towards her, he was just a loving and sweet dog – no remote sign of aggression.  At some point in time, pretty early on, Mickey decided I was his and the guy had stolen my heart and he was mine.

I had Mickey for 13 wonderful years and during those years he had many dog friends.  He never had any formal training but he was one of those dogs who always followed your command.  We had a weekly play date with a friend of mine who had a large dog – perhaps a Shepherd-Rottie mix – but those two had a blast playing together.  We would take them down to the local junior high school and they would chase each other, wrestle, and run until they were ready to collapse.  If there were ever another dog off leash, I would call to Mickey and he would come running to be placed on his leash.   Yea, he was a great dog.  Mickey also had a girlfriend, Precious, a Chihuahua-Dachshund mix, and her mom and I would take them to the same school and they would chase each other and Mickey sensing her small stature, was so very gentle with her.  Yes, these two loved each other.  My gentle Mickey was a true ambassador for his breed and all our neighbors loved to greet him and he loved the little children on our block and was most patient with them.  He turned many of our family and friends opinion of pit bulls.

Mickey (L) and his gal pal, Princess.

Mickey (L) and his gal pal Princess.

Mickey was just the best.

Rufus came to us in June 2007.  A friend’s son, irresponsibly in my opinion, had bred his pit bulls and his dog had a litter of 8.  The father ended up taking in most of the puppies at his home because the son lived in an apartment. Of course, there was some difficulty in finding a home for all the dogs (not free) and to his credit, he was selective of the purchasers.  We were not in the market for a second dog, let alone another male, but when we got the call that the dog was going to the pound unless we could take him, we had a hard time saying no.  We had taken Mickey to meet the puppies and Rufus seemed the most calm and followed Mickey around the yard and was the only puppy that didn’t jump at him.  Rufus was 7 months when he joined our home and he was neutered after a couple weeks.

Rufus & Mickey

Rufus & Mickey

The first few months were great; the dogs got along well and there were no issues – or so it seemed.  We first noticed a little problem with food because Mickey was used to sharing his food with his friend Baby (the cocker).  We quickly remedied that issue and fed Rufus in his crate and Mickey in the kitchen – food problem solved.  We also had to rid the house of bones and toys because we saw a little aggression when the other wanted the bone or toy because their first fight came about over a toy and skin was punctured – toy problem solved.  After that time, the dogs enjoyed their time together and wrestled and romped around the backyard.

During one of their playtimes in the backyard, we noticed that Rufus was missing the steps on the porch.  We had always thought him to be a little clumsy, not to mention his interesting eyes, but we realized that his eye sight might be diminishing.  Light bulb moment, his cool looking eyes were actually dilated eyes.  Sure enough, after a trip to the dog optometrist, we were told he had a genetic condition, degenerated retina (something like that), and that he’d be blind by the time he was a year old.  This answered a lot of his behaviors; high anxiety during walks, heightened sense of smell of dogs, cats, squirrels while on our walks; oddly, even though he could not see, he always seemed on a mission to get somewhere on our walks.  He was very difficult on a leash as he could work himself in a frenzy over a dog across the street or he wouldn’t give a care. 

Rufus loved to sit on the front lawn with my husband Jim after his walks and it was sweet how they would both relax.  He was always on the leash because he was a bolter if the opportunity was there (I didn’t even go into the many times he snuck out and ran, ran, ran, where?, I don’t know).  Where Mickey had great self-control (he could sit on the porch watching me do yard work and not budge when another dog or person walked by), Rufus had none. Did I mention he was extremely territorial?  Well, one of these late mornings while Jim and Rufus were sitting on the lawn I noticed a woman, Lisa, and her lab walking down the middle of the street.  I said to Jim, dog, but before he could assure me he had a good handle on Rufus, Rufus bolted and broke his collar and chased Lisa and dog – actually, it was the dog because he just ran to where his senses took him and actually knocked down her and attacked her dog.  Luckily Mickey was not a fighter because being a dog, he thought he would join in (yea, great to see two pit bulls after one dog) but the woman just pulled him off and he took one look at me and went running to the porch. Rufus on the other hand, would not let go and of course, we all did what we weren’t supposed to do and we got in the middle trying to get Rufus from biting – yes, we both were nipped – but Jim got the worse although not too bad.  Fortunately, Lisa was SO understanding and her dog was not hurt.

Another time, we learned that he had gotten out of our yard one evening while we were out but weren’t told until the next morning.  The two large dogs that lived across the street and had gotten out of their yard – from what I can tell, there was lots of barking from our dogs and theirs and then Rufus broke the gate and went after one of the dogs.  Fortunately no harm was done to the dog just a scare to the neighbors.  Needless-so-say, Rufus was not the most liked dog on the street.  I say that, but no one said “get rid of him” and they got to know that he just was “special” due to his blindness.  We also re-enforced our yard and assured the neighbors he would not get out again.  It was shortly after this time that we enrolled Rufus into a 3 week dog training in a boarding facility.  The trainer said he was difficult to train, very stubborn, but once he completed the training, he was easier to handle on the walks but still anxious.  The upside, we had no more incidences for 3 years because we made sure we did not put Rufus in a situation for failure – he had a secure yard and we knew his cues of when he was not comfortable and when sitting on the front lawn, Jim was always alert to what was up and down the street.  Oddly, Rufus did meet other dogs on our walks and did well; no aggression and it made us happy to see that he could enjoy other dogs a bit.

One Friday night in March 2011, after Rufus had been part of our household for almost 4 years, we were all winding down for the night. Rufus was snoozing on the couch and I was off brushing my teeth.  I hear Jim say loudly, “hey, stop” and a lot of grr-grr-grr and  I run in to see Jim in the middle of Rufus and Mickey.  Mickey had jumped on the couch, as he had done hundreds of times before, and Rufus attacked.  We didn’t understand why; did Mickey startled him?  Did Mickey step on his sore foot?  Luckily, no damage was done to either dog but Jim’s hand had a nice wound; I got a little one too. Mickey was quite frightened and shaky.

The next day, Jim went to work and I watched the dogs cautiously.  I have to say, the remainder of the night before, all was calm.  Anyway, Saturday the dogs were both cautious of each other as well and before early afternoon, they were back to normal.  Jim ended up going to the doctors as his hand was quite sore and infected.  He stayed home from work on Sunday and had just taken a pain killer when he decided to take a nap with Rufus.  Once again, Mickey decided to join them and jumped upon the bed and again, Rufus went after Mickey.  This time he got a hold of Mickey; Jim was holding Rufus’ neck so that he would not thrash. I tried everything – probably all wrong – to get him off of Mickey.  Then I heard a guttural sound from my sweet Mickey, I knew I had to act quickly and I noticed a large screwdriver with a very large handle and I stuck it between Rufus’ jaw and it came loose.  I grabbed Mickey and held him and Jim was able to grab Rufus away because he was ready to go after Mickey again.  We were devastated, and Jim was ready to give up on Rufus, or so we thought.  I immediately took Mickey out for a walk and we went to my friend who has Precious. He felt safe there and enjoyed visiting with Precious and her mom.

That morning, Jim took Rufus to the Front Street Shelter but fortunately they were not doing in-take on Sunday.  I say fortunately because as upset as I was with Rufus, he was our dog, I loved him too, and did not want to know that he live his last days being scared in a shelter with a likely euthanasia as his fate.  You see, with his age, his blindness and his past dog aggression, I didn’t see a promising future.  When Jim called our vet at the time, he was told they would not euthanize him because he was healthy.

It was at this time we contacted [Chako] to see what we might do.  We didn’t know what prompted the aggression towards Mickey and we were also looking for support that we were doing the right thing in euthanizing him.  You were great; you gave us some ideas but also supported our decision and gave us the name of a vet that would come to our home to put him to sleep.  One of your suggestions was to keep them separate but at the time, we didn’t think that would work since we have a small home.  Anyway, the longer we waited, of course the more difficult the decision to put him down was, as much of a difficult of a dog he was, he was also sweet and we did love the big guy.  We ended up building an outside kennel and purchased a large indoor crate that looked like a furniture piece.  He stayed in the outdoor run if the weather permitted it and was crated indoors when the weather was not so good.  We did crate rotate and this worked for a number of months.

We found that we could have them out at the same time, but we never let them get too close, especially on the couch as this seemed to be Rufus’ trigger.  Go figure, he couldn’t see but could sense when Mickey jumped on the couch.  One March evening in 2012, I was home alone and getting ready to go meet a friend. I had both dogs out – it was manageable if you were alert.  Knowing that Rufus would be crated most of the night, I wanted him to have some time outside the crate.  I fed Rufus first and he went to the couch to sit.  My mistake was that I left the living room windows open – the couch was in front of the windows – and often a noise would cause Mickey to check out the sounds.  I was feeding Mickey in the kitchen, I turned my back for a split second and Mickey starts to bark and runs to the couch – panic sits in – I calmly run into the living room and Rufus runs towards me and you can see his mind working and had I grabbed him quickly (I had done so before) when I saw the look in his eyes I could have stopped a horror.  He turned and went after my Mickey.  You can imagine the next few minutes – which seemed like hours – of me trying to break them apart.  I tried a fire extinguisher, but all that did was leave a big dusty mess – I can’t remember exactly how I got Rufus to release but by the time I did; both Mickey and I had bad wounds.  Mickey was traumatized and didn’t want to return in the house.

Fortunately my wounds did not get infected but the pain was with me for awhile. Mickey’s wounds got infected and it was at this time I told my husband that if this happened again, I knew that Mickey would not live through another attack.  I was already resenting Rufus for making my Mickey’s life not peaceful, but also started to resent my husband for not putting Rufus down when we had planned to.  I will admit, I too was heartbroken when we had set up the in-home euthanasia, and I was rather surprised at the rallying of all our neighbors at our heartache BUT also their relief when we couldn’t go through with it.  I just kept going back to that one office call to our vet that refused to put him down when we first asked because we would have been relieved of a lot of future heartache.

In August 2012, my husband had to travel to Florida for the entire month.  He was concerned about me taking care of the two dogs; he confessed his main concern was another incident for me by myself.  I managed well; walked both dogs separately and we had no incidents.  Jim got to come home  the weekend of August 17th for a visit.  Sunday, August 19th we ventured out for breakfast.  You know when you know something is off?  Well, this was one of those mornings.  Rufus was placed in his crate but he was not settling down, I would say agitated.  My husband and I couldn’t decide where to go for breakfast and in fact, had a miserable breakfast. When we arrived home, as we walked in our hearts sunk as there was Rufus, or rather NOT Rufus as the crate door was open and he was not there.  I immediately said in a panic “where’s Mickey” knowing the worse was yet to come; Rufus comes out of the bedroom (I think) and I hurriedly place him in the crate and Jim runs to the backyard and I hear “f—“, “oh God”.  There was my Mickey, just standing in the backyard in shock, covered in blood.  Who knows how long he was out there, what prompted Rufus to let loose on Mickey, what prompted the attack but I can venture a guess Mickey was on or got on the couch and the crate safety lock wasn’t properly secured and Rufus got out and the couch was Rufus’ trigger.

Jim picked-up Mickey and placed him in the truck; I got in too, and when I got in the back seat, Mickey moved to the back and put his head on my lap.  My sweet, sweet Mickey. He was loosing so much blood but we both had comfort with me holding him. Mueller’s Veterinary Hospital was great; no judgment and wanted to assure us that such things happen with all types of dogs. We spoke to them about Rufus and they said if Mickey were to make it, he needed to be a one dog household. Which we knew all along; we explained the history and said we knew this was his last straw and she said “we can help you with this”.  When we left the vet of course we had to leave Mickey in their care but they let me see him before we left and as I pet him his little tail wiggled – the techs were pleased to see that and said that was a good sign.  Of course, deep down I knew he wouldn’t be coming home, but I couldn’t fathom the thought.

Jim returned to the vet with Rufus, and he was peacefully put to rest with Jim by his side.  As much grief as this dog inflicted on us – both humorous and tragic – we were heartbroken to lose him this day as well.  He had a happy life with us; yes, he had aggression issues towards dogs, but never to humans I have to tell myself he had 7 years of a happy life with us because someone else that might have had him may have given up on him with his blindness.  I know some think we were crazy to love a dog like Rufus, but we did and we tried to work through his issues. 

Mickey lasted 12 hours; I couldn’t sleep that night. The first reports was positive but around 9 pm that night, the vet called and asked to place him on another medication as he was getting agitated.  It didn’t surprise me, Mickey was very much the homebody and had a bit of separation anxiety.  Again, I was lying to myself but knew he wasn’t coming home.  Around midnight, they called again to let me know his organs were shutting down so that we could come say goodbye. As difficult as it was to see my once full-of-life Mickey laying there lifeless I had to be there for him for his last breath.  Some people say, “it’s just a dog” but this dog was very special to me, he saw me through some rough times in my life and was there for me during both my parent’s passing and was oh-so-gentle with them.  He didn’t deserve to go the way he did.  The vet on duty that night at Muellers was so understanding and kind; she let me sit with Mickey until I was ready for him to go; she even assured us that Rufus went peacefully.

While we loved Rufus and cried as many tears for him, had the first vet listened to our reasons why in 2011, it would have saved us all from a lot of injury and heartache.  Mickey might still be alive today as he was a very healthy dog.

It is still difficult for me to talk about the loss of our dogs.

The Internet being what it is, I’m sure there are many people who will criticize either of the owners above for their decisions to euthanize. Yes, Rufus’ crate could have been placed in a separate room, behind a closed door. Bubba should not have been left unsupervised in the yard, even for a minute. Ultimately, however, each person knows their own skill and comfort level. In a family situation, where there are multiple people, sometimes it is difficult if not impossible to ensure crates and doors are always locked. This becomes even more problematic when there are children living in the home. Plus, sometimes, people just make mistakes. It happens to all of us. It just takes one off day.

Rufus could have been rehomed, but then the reality of finding a home for an aging, blind, seriously dog-aggressive dog isn’t the easiest task in the world. Of course, the family could have opted never to bring Rufus into their home, especially considering they had another male, but then who knows what fate Rufus would have met.

I’m a firm believer that the quality of life is much more important than its quantity. Death is inevitable. Dogs, as a species, are lucky because, unlike humans, they live much more in the moment. For example, almost all dogs that lose a leg scarcely seem to notice, as if they have no idea that having three legs isn’t quite normal. We are the ones that lament the loss, feel sorry for our beloved pet, but the dogs just make do and learn to get around pretty much as well as they did before without ever seeming to miss the leg they once had.

So dogs don’t tend to sit around pondering their own mortality. They live for each moment and don’t worry about what tomorrow holds. A dog that lives 5 great years and goes peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by those who love him, is far luckier than a dog that lives 11 years of neglect, abuse, and misery and dies alone and scared.

I believe that, when people who truly love their dogs make the decision for humane euthanasia, they do so because they know it’s the right thing to do. No one can effectively second-guess their decision because no one is in the exact same situation. Every dog and every situation is unique. Veterinarians who make blanket refusals to euthanize an aggressive dog because it is healthy do their clients and their communities a grave disservice. In fact, one could make the argument that a seriously aggressive dog is not, in fact, healthy. Most (though not all) aggression is caused by fear. A dog that lives in fear, acting out aggressively at anything and everything that frightens it, is, in fact, suffering. Then there are dogs whose aggression is not caused by fear. They are just, as the saying goes, “wired that way.” Genetics drives them to want to attack dogs or people, for example, not because they fear them, but because they are, essentially, programmed to do so. While training and behavior modification regimes, along with medication if necessary, can help, one will never change the underlying genetics of a dog. Each person has to make the decision, after careful thought and, often, trial and error, whether he or she is capable of responsibly managing such a dog for the rest of its life.

Instead of flatly refusing to euthanize a dog that is physically healthy, veterinarians could ask questions such as “Have you spoken to a behaviorist or trainer?” or “What management techniques have you tried?” Ultimately, however, flatly refusing to euthanize a dog simply because it is physically healthy (while it is their right) puts the family, the other pets in the household, and members of the community at risk. Yes, clients can shop around and call other vets, but those who have long-standing relationships with a veterinarian feel most comfortable with that doctor. In a fragile, emotional state such as that brought upon by having to make one of the hardest decisions of one’s life, being rebuked by a veterinarian someone has grown to trust has the effect of crushing one’s resolve. It is the rare person who would buck up, call around, and stick firm with the decision to the end the life of a family member.

If Bubba had seriously hurt someone when he’d gotten out, imagine how much worst the situation would have been, both for the victim and Bubba’s custodian (who would likely be facing a lawsuit). Imagine if the owner of the Presa Canarios who killed Diane Whipple in San Francisco had approached that same vet to euthanize her two healthy but aggressive dog, and the vet had refused.

The issue of dangerous dogs is a significant one. Many communities now hold dog owners criminally liable for injuries their dogs cause to others. Cases of serious attacks and fatalities have made news repeatedly. If every person who had a dog he or she knew to be a serious danger to others euthanized that dog in a humane and loving manner, there would be far fewer dog-bite related fatalities and fewer dogs dying in stressful, scary shelter environments. One unstable dog can cause the death of, not only people, but thousands of innocent dogs.

In October 1989, a toddler wandered onto a neighbor’s property in Denver. He was bitten by the dog identified as a Pit Bull and died from his injuries.  As a result, Denver banned Pit Bulls. Between 1989 and 2009, Denver killed approximately 3,500 dogs pursuant to the ban (dogs that even look like they might be part Pit Bull are confiscated and euthanized no matter how wonderful their temperaments). Since 2009, even more dogs have died (the total number of innocent dogs that have lost their lives as a result of that one dog likely exceeds 5,000). Denver isn’t the only community to have banned and killed Pit Bulls. Florida, Ohio, Kentucky and many other states have communities with similar laws and California almost implemented such a law after a San Francisco boy was killed by a dog in his home.

One veterinarian who refuses to euthanize a “healthy” but aggressive dog may play a part in someone getting seriously injured and many innocent dogs losing their lives. In addition, with laws now holding owners criminally liable if their dogs injure someone, a veterinarian who refuses to euthanize an aggressive dog puts an owner in a very precarious situation. In fact, refusing to euthanize an aggressive dog can actually cause someone to lose her life. Around 2003 in New Jersey, a woman turned her Doberman pinscher Luger into an animal shelter after it bit her. She paid for the dog to be euthanized. The shelter didn’t euthanize Luger. Instead, they adopted Luger to another woman, Valerie DeSwart. The shelter claims it informed DeSwart of the dog’s bite history. Ten days later, Luger killed Valerie and the animal shelter came under investigation by the police and Burlington County prosecutor’s office. The manager of the animal shelter was brought up on criminal charges.

Euthanizing a dog in a humane and loving manner does not entail dropping a dog off at a shelter to be euthanized in a strange, noisy, scary environment surrounded by strangers. In addition, while that dog is waiting in a kennel to be killed (as most shelters are understaffed and working with a backlog), that kennel space is unavailable to another dog. Two dogs, therefore may very well lose their lives, and their last days will be spent in misery. The very last gift anyone can give their dog is to be with her during her last moments, in a familiar environment with a juicy hamburger at hand, speaking softly and sweetly into her ear.

What are your thoughts? Have you had similar experiences? I ask that you be gentle, whether you agree or disagree, because the people in our stories are real and, to this day, continue to have real heartache as a result of their experiences.