It’s the single, most common question I receive. “Do you have a protocol you can share with our shelter on making behavioral euthanasia decisions?” On the surface, it seems like a simple enough question and over the past few years, I’ve presented webcasts and written blogs on this subject. I believe people struggle with the information we provide because they want me to provide a clear policy for deeming which dogs are and are not savable. Behaviorist Kayla Fratt recently wrote an important article in the IAABC Journal explaining why the vast majority of shelter dogs with behavioral challenges and bite histories are in the ‘grey zone,’ and their outcome depends on the will, the programs and the tolerance for risk in a particular community.
For the past eight years, I’ve been arguing that black and white criteria for behavioral euthanasia decisions is wrong for a number of reasons. It fails to consider the individual animal, has not been shown to increase safety in the community or in the shelter, and leads to the needless deaths of countless dogs who deserved a chance at a live outcome. I’ve now led or helped lead three, open admission shelters in the past eight years and in every case, we’ve demonstrated that increasing lifesaving is consistent with public safety. Additionally, we’ve shown reducing behavioral euthanasia builds trust with our volunteers and advocates, increases engagement with the community and allows us to be totally transparent with the public about how and why we make life and death decisions.
Today, as the director of a large, open admission shelter taking in 13,000 dogs annually, my job is to build programs and policies that balance public safety and lifesaving. We euthanize dogs for behavioral reasons and there are some dogs we do not believe can be safety returned to the community, whether through adoption or rescue placement. These high risk dogs are ones we aren’t willing to take a risk on because we believe they’re likely to harm another animal or human if released (Sadly, we are probably wrong in many cases, but we are consistently trying to use our best judgement). The number of dogs euthanized for behavior though is very small– about 1-2% of our total dog intake.
The following are the key components to our program at Pima Animal Care Center and offer some guidelines for shelters wanting to reduce behavioral euthanasia. If you want to decrease behavioral euthanasia, these four steps are all you really need to know.
Whenever you have a potentially at-risk dog in your care, learn everything you can about what happened to lead up to the dog being considered for euthanasia. Contact the previous owner and consider contacting any bite victim if you feel it’s appropriate. If the dog escaped a yard, use Google Earth to view the fence. A dog that jumps a three foot, dilapidated fence is a lot different than a dog who scaled a secure, six foot wall. Learn about the dog’s previous history if you can. Did it live with other animals or children? When did the problem start? Is the dog acting differently in the shelter than was reported in the home? How does the dog do in playgroups with other dogs? Can you send the dog to a trained, behavioral foster home for a few days to see how she does in a home environment? Remember, a healthy animal’s life is at stake so we learn everything we can.
All shelters should stop euthanizing dogs simply because they have broken skin, either by inflicting a minor bite or puncturing skin with a nail. This is an unethical practice and should not be allowed to occur in any shelter. Some bites are really scary and some are really severe. However, a dog using its mouth to communicate, in itself, is a normal behavior. When we consider the stress and fear dogs feel in the shelter environment, it’s especially understandable they may inflict a bite. I’m in no way saying some bites should not lead to a euthanasia decision, but in any case, severity of the bite, repetition of biting and the context must all be considered when making behavioral euthanasia decisions. If you’re not sure about a particular situation, contact a veterinary behaviorist who can help you evaluate the situation and make the best decision.
In 2015, my colleagues and I conducted a study to see if we could save behaviorally ‘euth-listed’ dogs just by sending them to foster. Over a two-year period, we sent 52 dogs who were scheduled to be euthanized to foster homes and saved 92% of them simply by getting them out of the shelter environment. Since then, hundreds of shelters have started sending dogs who are behaviorally declining to foster homes with similar results. For dogs with more serious behavioral challenges, shelters should consider other viable alternatives, including rescue groups who have a demonstrated track record of successfully rehabilitating and rehoming dogs. Recently, after one of our dogs, Lencho, inflicted a redirected bite onto a volunteer, we decided the dog could not continue to be safety handled in our care. We reached out to Save Them Dog Training and our volunteers raised money to send Lencho there. After several months of training and decompression, he was adopted into a great home. When you have an at-risk dog, work as a team (staff, volunteers, foster caregivers and advocates) to determine if there may be viable, safe alternatives to euthanasia.
It’s scary, I know. Reaching out to volunteers and even the public when you have a dog that may end up being euthanized. You might worry that you’ll get backlash or that people will just tell you to save the dog without offering solutions to make that possible. We, as an industry, have got to get over this fear and make it easy for people to help us. At our shelter, we have several groups of volunteers dedicated to saving at risk dogs. They provide in shelter behavioral modification; they help identify safe outcome options for the dogs; and they work as our partners in lifesaving. It’s exhausting work and sometimes we get frustrated with each other or have to have really hard conversations. As the director, I personally sign off on every behavioral euthanasia decision, so I’m often directly involved in these discussions and brainstorming sessions. Sometimes, we just have to say, “I’m sorry, but we’re going to euthanize this dog because we don’t believe we have a safe outcome option for them.” More often, however, we ask for the volunteers’ help, tell them what kind of placement we’re willing to consider, and give them one to two weeks (or more) to help us figure it out. Without our volunteers, we couldn’t save half the dogs we do. They’re a critical component of saving dogs with behavioral challenges.
There will be people who tell you it can’t or shouldn’t be done and will fight to euthanize dogs. The best way to counter emotions-based criticism is to carefully track the data related to life and death decisions and share this information with the public regularly. Life and death decisions for healthy animals is one of the hardest things we do and these decisions should never be made by one person. As a starting point, consider assembling a group of people who can come together and examine each at-risk dog to give each and every one a fair chance at a live outcome. What does success look like? When the day comes when you have to make a decision to euthanize a dog for behavioral reasons, you know you’ve learned everything you can about the dog and considered all possible live outcome options for them.