The 2 Options for Owners of Moderately-Severely Aggressive Dogs

©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

Dog aggression in all of its forms is the most common behavior issue I see. One of the most important things that owners of moderately to severely aggressive dogs want to know is, “What are my options?” After working with many of these dogs, I’ve learned that there are really only five options – some better than others.

Before I tell you about these five options, I want to tell you what is not an option for these dogs: “The happy ranch for all bad and mean dogs where they are free to roam and live out the rest of their lives in happiness while communing with nature.”

How would these dogs be fed, groomed or provided veterinary care in these “ranches”? What happens to the dogs when it’s 15°F outside? I would also think there would be a tremendous amount of dog-dog aggression with injuries in this environment. Not really a pretty picture when you think through the details. And that’s why these “ranches” don’t really exist.

What are the options for moderately to severely aggressive dogs?

  1. Doing nothing is always an option. The problem with doing nothing is that aggression typically gets worse over time. It rarely, if ever, goes away on its own; it usually escalates.
  2. Another option is to manage the dog’s behavior. This simply means that the owners will be careful to keep the aggressive dog away from all other dogs and/or humans for the rest of the dog’s life. There is an expression in the dog behavior world that is relevant here, “Management always fails.” This means that over time, someone is going to forget to latch a gate, forget to close a crate door, improperly tie a knot in the dog’s tether, etc. In practice, this strategy can look more like Russian roulette.
  3. Rehoming is also a possible option – but usually not a very good one for moderately to severely aggressive dogs. Given that the current owners do the right thing by divulging the dog’s aggression issues to potential adopters, how many families do you think would be standing in line to take this dog?
  4. Although controversial, I believe there are specific times when humane euthanasia is a reasonable option for severely aggressive dogs, especially severely human aggressive dogs. There are many reasons why I think this: potential physical injury, legal liability, poor quality of life for the dog, negative impact on owner’s lifestyle, inability to re-home the dog, poor prognosis associated with elevated levels of aggression, etc. The problem with euthanasia, however, is that once done, all other options are removed.
  5. Behavior modification with an experienced and certified dog behavior specialist, animal behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist who specializes in aggression issues is always an option. Sometimes a dog has such a heightened level of aggression that this is just not possible. However, if a dog is even marginally responsive to input from humans, there are behavior modification protocols that can positively affect aggression in many cases. However, this kind of behavior modification requires time, patience, realistic expectations and resources.

The net of all this is that when we are dealing with moderately to severely aggressive dogs, there are really only two good options: behavior modification and euthanasia. Of course euthanasia should be reserved for the most severe cases (especially human directed aggression) and only as a last resort.

If you have a dog that has aggression issues, please see an experienced and certified dog behavior specialist, animal behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist who specializes in aggression issues.

Further reading:

Do You Have An Aggressive Dog?
Many Dog Owners Don’t Realize Their Dog is Dangerous