Let Biting Dogs Lie: Fix ‘em or forget ‘em.

My best friend recently put down his 3-year-old Rottweiler, Zeus. He had a very aggressive cancer. I trained him when he was 12 weeks old and he was part of my extended family. When the diagnosis was confirmed, it was a slam dunk decision to give him his last few weeks of life based on quality and then end it before he suffered. This loving and thoughtful decision points out a glitch in our cultural perceptions. While ending a life to prevent pain and suffering seems to be the logical choice in all cases, what would you do if the problem was behavioral and not medical?

A Problematic Shift in Circumstances:
I was just recently contacted by a vet who decided to breed a single litter of purebred dogs. She found a good sire for the litter and double checked everything she could. Needless to say the pups were raised with exceptional care. They all found homes and then something started to happen. Three of the pups grew up and bit people. One was returned and has bitten twice more in the care of the breeder. It doesn’t get along with other dogs. It can’t be trusted in an adoptive home. Now it’s not such a clear cut decision. He’s perfectly healthy – and capable of making someone else perfectly unhealthy. Ironically, a behavioral “cancer” is doubly dangerous. Eventually the dog will bite the wrong person or bite too often and the aggression cannot be covered or hidden any more. Meaning he will die, it’s just a matter of time. The problem is that he will end up hurting other animals or people before he does. Though physically healthy his behavior is going to get him killed…as it should. There is no place in civil society for dogs that bite people.

If that sounds harsh consider the alternative. There are many dogs that are protected and shielded from the consequences of their actions. The owner’s love for the dog is touching until you consider the victims. I once worked with a doctor whose large-breed dog was known to be “touchy” about food. The owner had a birthday party for his daughter. The dog bit a little girl in the face over a piece of cake. If it had been the birthday-girl the owner could have more readily solved the problem – he was a plastic surgeon. The dog didn’t let his owner off the hook – he bit someone else’s daughter. The parents of the injured child weren’t very understanding. It was their child.

That’s where love, intelligence and responsibility often part company. If you have two of those components the dog may live. If you don’t have all three and prioritize the latter two, there are going to be problems. A love-only owner will protect their dog, no matter what. An intelligent and responsible owner will realize that if it happened once it can happen again. That limits the dog’s life, sometimes considerably, but may allow it to live. Any action not designed around the dangers associated with having a biting dog is reckless.

Let’s Be Perfectly Clear:
To drive this point home requires understanding a very important fact. Transferring a biting dog does not relieve the owner of liability. The same is true for animal shelters, trainers, groomers, veterinarians or any other person who may want to save a “misunderstood” dog. In a court of law it’s even worse on professionals. They should know better. This fact is often unknown or unconsidered in the rush to save a life. Again, love puts all logic aside as the future victims of the dog are not weighed into the decision. This perspective can come back to haunt those who wish to ignore the reality. Imagine being sued by a victim two owners down the road. That you judged the first owner as responsible and gave all the cautions and warnings may mean nothing. Try getting sympathy from a jury when the plaintiff’s attorney points to the scarred face of a child.

What to do about it:
The first thing to do when you get in the middle of a biting dog problem is start to think rationally. Why are you getting involved? Is it owned by a friend, loved one or colleague? If it’s just a dog that came to your attention you have to question putting yourself at risk. That is because seven out of ten dogs in this country aren’t going to see their first birthday. Most of those dogs have no history of biting. To save a biter while five or six other dogs die is a big decision. That means the only reason to save the dog is that you somehow heard about it. Mickey the Pit Bull mauled a little boy in Phoenix, last year, and a flood of support gave him special treatment. He is currently in a program with inmates at the county lock-up. During the time he was held at Maricopa County Animal Control I was there with a client to adopt a dog. Even if you love Pits to death, about 80% of the Pit bulls in the kennels at that time were destroyed without ever attacking anyone. The only thing that made Mickey special was that he disfigured a child. Why didn’t those dogs get a chance? Because nobody knew about them.

If you are bound and determined to save an aggressive dog there are a few things that can reduce your risk.

  • Start shopping for a trainer that has unquestionable credentials working with aggressive dogs – and then check the credentials. A good place to start is with veterinarians and groomers. They need to know who has success with aggression and who doesn’t. Ask to speak to former clients. They may or may not choose to do that unless you have an existing relationship with them.
  • Someone, has to be willing to pay full price to affect the change. Don’t ask for discounts. There aren’t that many people who can give you a reasonable assurance of success. They deserve every penny you pay them to literally save the dog’s life and they are the most critical person in that process.
  • Do some soul searching. Are you reacting because you are caught up in the moment or is this dog somehow special. Try not to get caught up with a dog because it is pitiful or the circumstances are unfair. The next victim isn’t going to accept that as an excuse for why you interfered.
  • In the event that you realize the dog is a danger to others then take a very deep breath and do the right thing. While there is no behavioral guarantee that a dog will never again bite someone, there is one thing that can.

In the event that you choose to go through with rescuing and saving an aggressive dog, be prepared to make some tough decisions. Decide in advance how much time and money you are willing to spend. Prepare a speech to answer all the questions that will arise if your efforts fail and someone gets hurt. Most of all, see it through. This is a situation that does not lend itself to half-measures. If you have to, take the dog into your home or put it down. Don’t try to kick the can down the road. If a biting dog comes into your life, let the biting end there, one way or the other.

7 thoughts on “Let Biting Dogs Lie: Fix ‘em or forget ‘em.

  1. Not sure if you have a particular dog in mind, a specific case that you envision in your mind, that prompted the writing. Context matters to me. I don’t believe in universals. This for example: “A dog that bites has no place in civilized society.” Too black and white for me. First, I am still searching for “civilized” society but that is another story. “A dog that bites” is easier. All dogs bite. That is what nature gave them to use as needed. They use their mouths as we use our hands. The teeth are in there. Stuff happens. Add to that, I would say 95% of humans are clueless about dog communication and behavior. The actual kind. Not the anthropomorphized vision of it. And so long as that is true, dogs in general will have cause to use their resources, their natural instincts. If you meant dogs that maul that would get a different response from me. But to generalize bites that way does a disservice to dogs. Air snaps are on the bite scales commonly used to evaluate bites. Level 1 actually. So a no contact “bite” would be included in your post? I would reach a different conclusion from your reasoning. Rather than penalize dogs for being just that, I would say that a human who cannot conceive of an animal using their natural physical resources and instincts should stay away from said animal. Otherwise you will likely set up that animal to fail. I don’t think humans should feel entitled to animal ownership but should earn it. Much like a drivers license .

    • lizblue: I would suggest that you have created a straw-dog argument, meaning you have problems with definitive statements and so wish to argue a minor point while not addressing the broader theme. The correct way to argue the point would be to give examples where biting dogs are acceptable in civilized society. There are a few but they are exceptions – and are delineated by law and cultural practice. A police dog can bite under limited circumstances – but may not bite a suspect after they are restrained. A military dog may attack someone – but that begs the question of whether combat in Afghanistan is civilized. Other than that, polite, civilized society does not allow for biting dogs. They invariably die. I’ve killed a couple hundred or more that were in a shelter specifically because they bit someone. Your bias is revealed in your final sentence. The point of the article was to illustrate our cultural conflict and point out the logical result of a dog biting humans. It is best stated in this quote from the article. “Eventually the dog will bite the wrong person or bite too often and the aggression cannot be covered or hidden any more. Meaning he will die, it’s just a matter of time. The problem is that he will end up hurting other animals or people before he does.” While you are concerned about the animal being set up to fail, you seem indifferent to calloused about the victims.

  2. Not many people without sense can understand the potential dangers that lie with the pit bull. They are blinded with denial and it is getting them or someone else serious hurt or killed. It’s time this nonsense comes to an end don’t you think?

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