Dogs: Doing the Right Thing

[Content warning: Discussion of animal euthanasia.] Nothing about this column is going to make you happy, and I apologize for that, but this might be one of the most important things you read as a dog owner. (That probably sounds very self-important, but it’s the topic, not the author.)

I think I have mentioned in other articles that I was a director of an animal rescue for about a decade. This experience taught me that if you have a rescue dog as opposed to a rescue puppy, chances are your dog experienced something negative – anything from benign neglect to deliberate abuse – before they came to you. In the right homes, the vast, vast majority of those dogs will go on to thrive and overcome what they have experienced.

This is about the ones who don’t. Let me tell you about two of them. Their names – and a few details – are changed because it just seems like the right thing to do.

Photo of Leo the dog
Photo courtesy of Hedgesville Hounds

Leo was a lab/hound/pit/everything mix who was confiscated at the home of an animal hoarder. I will simplify his medical situation because it was very complicated. In a nutshell, he had terrible mange that he never really recovered from. We tried everything, vet after vet, treatment regimen after treatment regimen, but poor Leo’s skin problems would always come back. While Leo was getting treatment, he was in a variety of foster homes where he would behave well for a while, but then would start to become aggressive and compulsive around the time the skin problems would recur. The foster homes – all highly experienced – simply couldn’t manage him, and it was tearing them up to watch him suffer.

Leo’s problems escalated as he went from home to home until finally one of our most experienced fosters, who had come out of retirement to try to help Leo, made  us face the fact that he wasn’t going to get better,  that we wouldn’t be able to find a foster home for him, and that, more important, he was a miserable, compulsive, increasingly dangerous dog. The other director and I made the decision to euthanize him. We accompanied him to the vet clinic and I watched as the other director held him in her arms and petted him as he fell asleep, and stroked his back as the final shot was administered.

Photo courtesy of Hedgesville Hounds
Photo courtesy of Hedgesville Hounds

Hyacinth was an exquisite bluetick coonhound we got from another rescue we had never dealt with before. She was petite for her breed, and was very reserved. We placed her with a lovely, tender-hearted single woman who was devoted to Hyacinth. Hyacinth never really warmed up to her new owner, and at one point her owner contacted us reluctantly to tell us that Hyacinth had bitten her on multiple occasions, and that she and her trainer had never been able to determine her triggers. Hyacinth’s owner reluctantly sent us a picture of her arms after one attack – they were covered with bruises and punctures. It looked like she had been beaten with a pipe. She agreed to return Hyacinth to us, even though it broke her heart. We put Hyacinth in the homes of two of our most experienced fosters. In the first, Hyacinth clashed so much with the dogs in the home that the situation could not be managed. In the second, Hyacinth charged at her foster and bit him so close to the femoral artery that I still shudder to think about how close a call it was.

We made the decision to euthanize her. Hyacinth’s favorite foster and I went to the vet’s office and watched as she reluctantly fell asleep, terrified and fighting even as she sat in her foster’s lap. When she died, I looked at her face. She didn’t look like the same dog. She looked relaxed and peaceful. Even as we sobbed, we knew that we had done the right thing by Hyacinth.

Based on these and similar experiences, we developed a set of questions to ask ourselves when making the decision to euthanize a dog for behavioral reasons. They were quite simple:

1. Is there someone  who will stand up for this dog? These dogs need someone who can give them a safe and permanent home for the rest of their lives, no matter what happens. They need homes where the owner can manage the animal’s behaviors so that no one is in danger, and so that the dog has some semblance of  a normal life according to our rescue’s standards (i.e., an inside dog who receives regular vet care, exercise and interaction with their human). Such homes are extremely rare, unicorns even, and even if they do exist, chances are pretty good they are already managing a dog that no one else could handle.

2. If, for some reason, the person who could stand up for this dog can no longer do so, what is the likely outcome for this animal? Despite our best efforts, life sometimes throws a curveball – the safe haven adopter might become ill or physically disabled, or have to dramatically change living environments. Would we be able to find another home for this dog? If so, what would happen to the dog while we waited to find this unicorn owner? Would they be bounced around from home to home, until the inevitable severe biting incident occurred? What is the likelihood that the animal would end up in quarantine for biting, wretched and alone, until they were euthanized? (That kind of ending is common when troubled dogs are shuffled around, unfortunately.)

The last one is the most important question of all, and the one that inevitably cemented our decision.

3. Is this dog happy? Is this dog fearful or compulsive, or basically happy with some bad behaviors? The reality is that there are some dogs who don’t ever feel safe. Whether it is due to some fluke in brain chemistry, or the aftermath of abuse, life is a terrifying and bewildering prospect for such dogs most of the time. Even the most loving and devoted human can’t change that. The best they can do is try to reduce the dog’s exposure to the things that frighten them.

We realized that in such tragic cases, our obligation wasn’t always to find them a home. Our obligation was to keep them from suffering. There were fates worse than death for such dogs, and one of them was living in a world where they were always fearful. Another was making sure that they did not die alone, by the hands of someone who barely knew them, all the while terrified and wondering why their human had abandoned them.

We have a moral obligation to help a dog transition out of life in as peaceful and comforting a way as possible, and to be there with them when it happens. It is part of the promise we make to these dogs when we met them, the promise that all dog owners make: that we will keep them safe and act in their best interests, and that when it is necessary, we will let them go.

Author’s note: If this story hits home for you, I’m so sorry. It is almost impossibly painful. Remember, though, that if you are capable of such great love for an animal, you are equally capable of great strength and bravery on their behalf.



By Moretta

Moretta will take that applause. Her Twitter is

14 replies on “Dogs: Doing the Right Thing”

This is such a hard decision to make. Also as someone who does Customer Care it breaks my heart when customers ask about a dog that has been pulled (the term we use at the shelter). My first case was a sweet hound mix that I adored. I went out of my way to walk her all the time but the more familiar she got with me, the more aggressive she got with me too. She began leaving marks and I reported it and a few weeks later she continued to escalate. Despite the training she was receiving, she eventually began lunging and snapping at people as they walked by. I cried the day I found out. Besides behavior, we also make the decision to pull dogs for health reasons. A recent case also broke my heart. This senior boy seemed to be doing well, but his health problems got worse and worse. He was so unhappy in the shelter and I think that aggravated his poor health. Thank you for writing this <3

Woops, my eyes are close to getting very wet. Through the years of having pets we have always been ‘lucky’ that they died on their own accord, instead of having us make the decision. You never completely know, but you have to know that sometimes a decision has to be made.

I think we have to prepare ourselves to make that decision everyday and hope we don’t ever have to make it. I reminded myself constantly that I would need to make a tough choice for one of my dogs. It turned out he died on his own, but I needed to be ready.

OK, so I sobbed when I was copyediting this piece, so I figured I was fine to read it again. Apparently not, since I’m blubbering like a baby again. I have two senior dogs (12 and 14), and I live in dread of the day I may have to make the decision between their quality of life and my desire to try to make them live forever. My boy dog (the 14-year-old) was scheduled to be PTS in a pound when he was a year and a half old. He was rescued and rehabilitated as a subject for a student going through a dog training program. Even with all of the intense training, he has had lifelong aggression issues, which have gotten worse again as he gets older and older. I hope I never have to make this decision. I’m afraid I might not be able to avoid it.

Thanks. The fact that he’s six pounds on a good day mitigates the amount of damage he can do when he’s being aggressive (and he’s never in a position where he can hurt someone — Girl Dog can take care of herself just fine; she’s bigger and faster), but between old age, health problems, and the aggression, I just don’t know. I’m not sure it’s a decision I can make.

I’ve been there, and you’ll KNOW when it’s time to let go. Your boy will lose interest in things that make him happy, he might start spending more time hidden in corners, he might go off his food. Pain meds will stop working. He might act like he’s lost interest in being alive. It doesn’t make it an easier decision, but when it’s time to let go, you’ll know.

And now I’m crying…again…

I agree with Rachel, and I’d like to add that there is something people call “The Look.” You’ll know it when you see it — your dog is telling you he’s ready to go. The key challenge is actually not recognizing it, it’s acting on it quickly, because, of course, we keep hoping they’ll have another good day.

Like Rachel and Moretta, I agree that you’ll know. And the same love that makes you want him to be happy and healthy will give you the strength to do right by him. It won’t make it hurt any less, but it will help you be ready to take the hurt so he doesn’t have to.

I didn’t think I’d be able to make the decision for Artemis, my beloved, raggedy, 18 y.o. kitty, but when I say “the look” Moretta mentioned, I knew I had to. I still can’t talk about it without falling apart, but I know without a doubt it was the right thing to do, and the right time to do it.

And now we all need to hug or something so I can stop ugly crying.

I read the article and understand. I’m 67 and have 9 cats and one dog. I’m not one of those ‘cat people” who collect. Rather these were feral litters abandoned, fostered at my home and not placed in permanent home. So I have 9 and I love each and every one. At my age, I have to think about what to do when I can’t take care of them anymore and I’ve had the above conversations with myself. I have two cats who will be euthanized without question. Betsy is 9 years old now and when I found her on my front step, she was about 5-6 months old. I already had house cats and so I put food out for her each day. She had been abused and would not let me touch her. She did, however, let me move the eventual litter of kittens without problem. And that’s how the herd started in my house. A litter and one of the kittens too smart to be caged for spay and neutering. Betsy stayed. Over the ensuing years, I was bitten and scratched. My forearms are scared. But she was so saveable (eventually). In the last two years, I’ve actually developed a trick that made me safer. Just this morning, I picked her up and gave her a cuddle. Every minute and every scar is worth it. But if she changes owners, she is liable to go back to her biting and scratching ways. Chances, she will be thrown out the back door to fend for herself. And that is not OK for either Betsy or someone else. Everyone must be made safe.

Euthanasia is a choice, but not an easy one. Thankfully, my health is such that I’ll outlive most (if not all) of my animals (except maybe that puppy who is almost two). But I must still be aware of the best way to take care of these animals and the people who love them and some times that may mean Euthanasia.

Thanks. You are totally right about Hyacinth. She was the first dog we had to euthanize for behavior, so we agonized over it. We didn’t want to give up on her, and to be honest, there isn’t a lot of information out there about knowing when behavioral issues are insurmountable, so a lot of rescues spend an enormous amount of time and energy trying to save dogs that can’t be saved. Hyacinth definitely was the inspiration for question three. She was the one that made us see how the world would always be a frightening place for some dogs.

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