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Severe Dog Aggression and Tough Decisions

Updated: Jan 24, 2021

aggressive Golden retriever

I recently had a lengthy telephone conversation with a woman who had a 14-year-old female Aussie mix, and a seven-year-old female Cocker mix. I know what you’re thinking—but no, the problem was not the two females fighting. These two actually get along very well, and have been together for eight years.

The problem began when the woman’s mother passed away, and she inherited an eight-year-old female Lab mix. Within the first two weeks, the new dog had attacked the 14-year old. By the end of the first month, there had been two more attacks. The woman wasn’t sure what the triggers had been, as none had been obvious scenarios like resource guarding. She had been there all three times to separate the dogs, but there were tears, punctures, and vet visits. Her gut feeling was that if left alone, the Lab mix would most definitely try to kill the 14-year-old. To further compound the problem, the new dog had begun to show aggression toward the Cocker mix as well.

The woman had originally been allowing the dogs into the same room, with the Lab mix on leash and wearing a head halter. However, she’d recently moved the Lab mix to the back yard in order to completely separate her from the other two at all times. She made sure the new dog received attention, yard exercise, and daily walks, but what she really wanted was to know whether behavioral training could fix the situation to the point that all the dogs could all coexist. Contrary to what you might hear from some trainers, there are some situations that are simply not fixable—whether because of the dog or the circumstances—or safe to continue with even if the dog’s behavior were somewhat modified. This dog had already shown a clear intent to cause serious harm to the 14-year-old dog, and to complicate matters, the woman had two teenagers living at home. What do you think the chances are that one of them would eventually leave the door to the yard open by accident? A dog’s life is nothing to gamble with.

It was a tough conversation, and there were tears. That the Lab mix had belonged to her mother was clearly making the woman feel guilty for even considering any option other than keeping the dog forever. I shared my opinion that surely her mother would not want to see harm come to either of the other dogs, or to see her daughter being so distressed. Then I told her a version of the two things that I say to all of my clients in this sort of situation. The first is, “Imagine that you’re living in a house with someone who has attacked you physically. Although someone is keeping him away from you, you know he’s around and that he wants to hurt and possibly even kill you. How anxious and stressed out would you feel, every single minute of every day you were at home? What would your quality of life be like?” I went on to explain that chronic stress is not only harmful to dogs mentally and emotionally, but also physically; among other things, it can cause gastric ulcers, and suppress the immune system, which opens the door for a variety of diseases. Chronic stress was the last thing this poor 14-year-old dog, who had lived in the safe haven of a loving home all of those years, needed or deserved.

The other thing I said was, “Imagine that you decide to keep this dog, and the worst happens; she kills your 14-year-old dog. How would you live with yourself, when you knew this could happen and that you could have prevented it?” I have worked with many complicated, dangerous behavioral situations over the years, but when the truth comes down to that the dog should simply not be in the home, I have found posing these two questions helpful to allow owners to come to the right decision.

The sad truth is, the woman and I both know there aren’t many options for an eight-year-old, dog-aggressive dog. On the positive side, the dog does not show aggression toward unfamiliar dogs on walks, so it’s possible that a home without another dog (or possibly even with a male dog) could be found. I know she’ll certainly try her best. My heart goes out to her and all the dogs involved, and I hope she’s able to rehome the dog. As lifelong management is not a realistic possibility, the only other option is euthanization. Sometimes tough decisions have to be made for the highest good of all, and oftentimes owners already know the truth deep down, but need to hear someone else—a professional—confirm that it’s the right choice. ___________________________________________________________________________________

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