I recently had a training call from a woman who was very distraught. Between crying jags, she explained that she was afraid she was going to have to put her dog down. After calming her and getting more information, this picture emerged: The woman lived alone with her 2-year-old male Lab mix. Her brother and his wife would sometimes come to visit. The last two times they walked through the door, the dog growled at them as he backed away. When I asked what happened next, I expected to hear that the brother tried to pet the dog and was bitten, or something similar. That wasn’t the case. In fact, the couple was able to enter the home and the dog eventually relaxed. I was confused. Was the growling the reason for potentially euthanizing the dog? Surely there something else that hadn’t yet been mentioned? Nope. That was it. Her brother had informed her that the dog was dangerous and should be put down.
Once I explained that the dog was growling to express that he was uncomfortable, and that if this was really the only issue there was absolutely no need to euthanize this otherwise healthy, sweet dog, the woman was greatly relieved. I went on to explain that although growling at people is not a behavior anyone appreciates, it’s a dog’s early warning system and is, in that way, a good thing. To head off any further advice she might get from her brother, I added that dogs who have been punished for growling often go straight to biting with no warning.
Sadly, over the years I’ve heard similar stories, although normally if the owner was considering euthanasia or rehoming, the dog in question had done more than growl at someone. What exactly constitutes a deal-breaker where the dog can absolutely not stay in the home varies from one person to another, depending on the dog’s behavior and the owner’s circumstances. A dog who has begun to snap or even bite might still be able to stay in a home where an adult is willing to implement behavior modification, but if there is a very young child who has been on the receiving end of a bite, it might be a deal-breaker where the dog is rehomed to a family without children. On a less dramatic note, life circumstances change and a deal-breaker could simply be that the owners no longer have time to give the dog a good quality of life. In those cases, rehoming can be the kindest thing for the dog.
There are situations where it’s obvious that a dog’s behavior is an absolute deal-breaker. A dog who has seriously mauled someone, for example, is too dangerous to be a “pet” in any home. I would still never recommend euthanasia without having dealt with a case personally and thoroughly, and I can easily count on one hand the times in thirty years that I have recommended it. I do know people who have kept truly dangerous dogs long-term, but those were very dog-savvy people who understood what solid management entails and were able to carry it out. For the average pet owner, that would be extremely difficult.
There are so many sources of information available to pet owners online and elsewhere that it can be difficult to assess which information is accurate. I appreciate owners who call in a professional, and I’m always thankful in situations such as the woman with the Lab to be able to give advice that might change the future for that dog. ______________________________________________________________ You can find my books (including pre-orders for Help for Your Dog-Reactive Dog), recorded seminars, and blog at www.nicolewilde.com.