Social media has been mad with the story of Bela, a 9 year old German Shepherd whose owner died and who left in her will that he be euthanized, his ashes mixed with hers and they be buried together. People seem to miss the fact that Bela is, by many accounts, including the word of the person who was designated to care for him after his owner’s death, aggressive, possibly dangerous.
In my county any dog who has bitten a person unprovoked (meaning when not being beaten or not defending their home) or bitten another animal is considered “potentially dangerous”. Let’s talk for a second about what that means. Biting is a form of communication for animals, the same as kicking, growling, scratching and stomping. Plain and simple animals don’t rationalize and communicate like we do. They hear, see, smell things we don’t. Their brains work differently, process or become overwhelmed by things differently. Much like a person on the autism spectrum who can be overcome by external stimuli and act out (the infamous “meltdowns”) or someone with anxiety disorder or schizophrenia having a panic attack, only the way their brains works makes them less likely to be able to “rationalize” their way out of it. Not that you can anyway.
When your brain is literally working against you, telling you this or that is a danger or throwing you into a fight or flight situation it can be impossible to fight even when you know you have a condition and know what your triggers are. Now add in that your life is entirely at someone else’s whim, someone that might be nice, or mean, or likely you translate it as both at times (you know, because people deny dogs the food they want and a dog might not understand that’s because it’s chocolate or loaded with onions and might kill them), you’re territorial and immediately uncomfortable to outright paranoid when not in your territory or when new people come around (and now it’s both!).
German Shepherds are wonderful dogs. I adore them. They are not easy to own dogs. People are afraid of them because of their size, their recognizably and their reputation as a guard breed. They are absolutely not for just anyone to own. They require training.
I worked with one at Petsmart who was a gorgeous boy, never gave me a lick of trouble for anything, didn’t even try to pull me around the salon. He jumped on the grooming table on his own and held up his feet for me. (Some dogs wouldn’t dream of biting, but they will resist nail trims by leaning all their weight on the foot you are trying to hold or trying to yank or hide the foot from you with their bodies. This was funny the first time it happened to me. When a 120 pound lab comes in and I had to hold him standing and fight for his foot and do the trim it gets painful quick. I really appreciate a dog that’ll hold it’s feet up.) But GSDs were one of the most feared breeds in the salon for a reason. That same beautiful wonderful dog that was a pleasure to handle, when in a kennel would snarl and charge the door, flick foam and generally terrorize any dog or any person other than me that walked past him. There were many times that I thought the kennel door would pop open and he’d attack someone. He certainly tried to convince us of that. But when I did open the door it was right back to waiting to be told to come out and staying in a heel and being perfectly behaved.
At my current job we have a GSD who not long ago killed the owner’s cat. He’s bitten multiple other dogs and is something of a terrorist in his neighborhood. He’s pretty easy to give a bath and nail clip to though. I would not want to own him if his owner died and bequeathed him to me. I would not trust him around my other animals or my neighbor’s animals.
Which bring me to a more painful topic. If you’re a regular blog reader you know that at the beginning of the year someone dumped a sickly, intact, heartworm positive pit bull mix in our back yard. If you aren’t my Facebook friend you might not know how this story ends.
We contacted a number of rescues and only one returned our calls, but couldn’t take him. We spend hundreds of dollars treating him for heartworms, then one night he bit my partner Jason. And not a warning bite or a “I was going for the toy and missed” bite. He bit him hard, broke the skin and tried again. We contacted everyone we could think of for help. The message was clear, no one wanted him, and no one wanted to help us try to train him either without at least $60 an hour (that was the most reasonable price and that was a nonprofit humane society).
We adjusted meds, we worked on training with the backing of a wonderful vet team, we neutered him as soon as it was medically safe (and even then we pushed things). He got decent at walking on a leash. He got to where I could hand feed him or pet him while he ate. He still snapped at Jason, and then he started growling at the kids when it was time for a potty break and he didn’t want to go out.
Then one night he cornered our cat of eight years and attacked him, breaking his spine and killing him. The kids witnessed it, in fact the kids had tried to intervene and if I hadn’t insisted that he be wearing a leash while inside so that he could be handled without being touched my daughter would have been bitten too. And he never bit lightly.
The truth was sometimes he was a sweet dog, leaning on you, wanting pets, always happy to see you, wanting to make people happy by sitting and offering a paw. He was amazing for some fairly invasive medical treatment as well. And sometimes when he didn’t want to do what you said, or thought you were close he tried to take chunks out of you. He never trusted us and we stopped trusting him around the time of the first bite.
We talked about building a kennel in the yard and only myself or Jason handling him. He was only allowed in the house with a leash for goddsakes, so that none of us got bitten because he had tried! What kind of life was that? What kind of life would any of us be living, with a dog who was more than willing to hurt us?
We made a last attempt at rehoming him. Gods we made multiple attempts at rehoming him because we were so out of our ability level. But here’s the thing NO ONE WANTED HIM. No one was willing to put time money and effort–RISK–into him when there were hundreds of cute, lovable, not-biting dogs that needed to be saved.
So we made the terrible decision to humanely euthanize him because while he wasn’t a bad dog, he wasn’t a safe one either.
I have cried so much over that damn dog. We all have. We’ve held each other and consoled each other. We did everything right. But you cannot save them all.
Aggression is that deal breaker. It’s the complication that cannot be ignored. Sometimes dogs have situational aggression like cage aggression or they bite when you mess with their feet. You can work around that. You can take steps to modify their behavior and improve the situation and lessen the risk. But aggression doesn’t just risk your skin, it’s can be dangerous to each and every person your dog can or might come into contact with. Your vet, their techs, the mailman, your niece, yours kids, anything smaller than it…And it can end up with other beloved pets (yours or someone else’s) grievously injured or dead. It can end up with huge medical bills, vet bills, lawsuits and insurance issues.
It is not as easy as “Well if you don’t want the dog I do”. And believe me no one wishes it was that simple more than the owners and rescue professionals who have to make these decisions.