You also shouldn’t have to carry the burden.

I get a lot of questions about animals on a wide variety of topics and I try to answer each and every one. When they have wider appeal, I’ll post my response. Last week, I posted on Facebook that “It should be illegal for veterinarians to kill healthy and treatable animals regardless of what their clients want them to do. And someday, it will be.” One of the commenters asked how I “feel about an owner of a healthy dog bringing [him/her] to their personal vet for euthanasia when the dog has a long and documented bite history?”

The short answer is that no one individual should have the right to kill a dog who is otherwise healthy and, likewise, no one individual should feel like they alone should have to make the decision. Policy that acknowledges this not only protects the physical well-being of dogs, it protects the emotional well-being of people, and it can do so without putting public safety at risk. The goals of protecting dogs and people are not mutually exclusive. Let me elaborate.

We have plenty of examples of progressive shelters who receive dogs brought to them specifically to be killed (what is termed “owner requested euthanasia”) for a history of aggression. But instead of being killed, some of these dogs are successfully rehabilitated. Dogs like Sugar who was surrendered to the local shelter because she was “aggressive toward people and other dogs.” She was rehabilitated while in the shelter and eventually a foster home’s care and “now trusts humans/new dogs she meets the first time.” She also found a loving, new home with another dog. Had she been taken to a veterinarian to be killed, she would never have been given the chance.

Sometimes dogs like Sugar are easy because the dog was provoked and is not offensively aggressive. Sometimes with dogs like Sugar, it is because there was some other underlying issue, like a medical condition that manifested itself as a behavior/aggressive one and resolving the underlying condition resolves the behavior. Sometimes it is more challenging, involving weeks or months of rehabilitation to get the dog to a point that he or she is safe to place, with the original family not having the patience, desire, resources, knowledge, and/or skill set to do so. Sometimes, the behavior remains but a different person can better handle the dog or control his or her trigger, so that he or she is not a threat to others. And finally, sometimes, the dog is sent to a long-term environment like a sanctuary where he or she can live out the rest of his/her life, while protecting the public from him/her for as long as he/she remains a threat.

The point is several-fold. First, if the public can be protected short of killing a dog, we owe that to dogs (we also owe it to them because they have interests independent of their human caretakers). Second, lay people and veterinarians do not have the skill set to make the determination of prognosis. Third, they often also get the diagnosis wrong (as in the case of provocation). Sometimes, even trained professionals get both the diagnosis (is it offensive aggression?) and the prognosis for rehabilitation wrong. Fourth, there’s no rigor, no defined terms, no incident evaluation by a team of professionals, and therefore, no due process.

In an ideal shelter, a team would evaluate the circumstances of the bite through a proven protocol that has reduced killing of behavior dogs to less than 1%, even while reducing overall dog bites (in one city, serious dog bites were reduced 89%).

I realize some of this, at least at this time in history, is aspirational. And I do not pretend to begin to know what every individual with an individual dog is going through or what their local shelter is like (or even if “shelter” would itself be a euphemism for a neglectful, abusive pound). But I also do not say any of this without personal experience. I cared for similar dogs when I ran shelters. I also lived with a dog who had bitten seven people. He ultimately lived a very happy life with another dog, cats he liked, lots of toys, and walks, with one exception: I kept him away from other people. Truth be told, he did not like other people so it wasn’t a deficit for him. But the more salient issue is, why should he have been killed even if the person he was with felt that was the easier choice? And that is what it comes down to doesn’t it? If there is another place for a dog to go, where the dog can live out his life, while the risk to people is abated, why should personal preference of someone else dictate that that animal be killed?

Moreover, why should someone caring for such a dog lack the support they need? Such a state of affairs is not just unfair to the dog, it is unfair to the person. Nobody should be in a position where they feel alone and feel like they must make a decision between the life of their dog and the safety of their family, especially as they almost always lack the information and tools needed to properly assess diagnosis, prognosis, and rehabilitation. They should have access to assistance, to a team of professionals which form a safety net that can meet the twin goals of protecting the dog and protecting them. They should not be in a position where they feel that they have nowhere to turn and thus are making a guilt-inducing, heart-wrenching decision to kill an otherwise healthy dog from what is often a place of ignorance as to the dog’s rehabilitative capacity or lack of access to rehabilitative services or, in the event of their failure, a life-affirming alternative placement.

Finally, we’ll always be limited in our understanding and treatment options for dogs in need of behavior rehabilitation if all we do is kill them. In other words, it is a slaughter with no end. We need to increase our understanding of and treatment options for these dogs, something that is precluded by killing.

Of course, I realize we have a long way to go where this becomes the norm, rather than the exception. And even longer before dogs are given the legal right of personhood and all that entails: namely, the full right to due process of law. Thankfully, some neuroscientists who study dogs are calling for it now. In his pioneering research, Dr. Gregory Berns shows striking similarities between humans and dogs in regions of the brain associated with positive emotions. And this, writes Dr. Berns, “suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.” “[R]ecent rulings by the Supreme Court have included neuroscientific findings that open the door to such a possibility. In two cases, the court ruled that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. As part of the rulings, the court cited brain-imaging evidence that the human brain was not mature in adolescence. Although this case has nothing to do with dog sentience, the justices opened the door for neuroscience in the courtroom. Perhaps someday we may see a case arguing for a dog’s rights based on brain-imaging findings.”

Accordingly, Dr. Berns posits that neuroscience warrants changes in how we view and treat dogs, namely that the law should not regard dogs as property, but as legal persons. When that happens, the question of whether a person has a right to kill a dog who is not irremediably suffering will be moot “for violating the basic right of self-determination of a person.”

But if the ability of people to have dogs with behavior problems killed was illegal, and, instead, they were required to surrender them to shelters and we reformed those shelters, then we’d have a gatekeeper. (I realize we are not there yet in many, indeed most, communities.) And with a gatekeeper, there’d be an alternative. And killing in the face of a lifesaving alternative is wrong. Because animals who have a place to go should not be killed. Because in order to save lives, animals should not be subject to the prejudices and whims of those in power over them. Because we need to eliminate discretion which causes animals to die despite lifesaving alternatives.

There’s already precedent for this. Courts have ruled that a family who does not believe in chemotherapy or blood transfusions cannot choose to allow their child to die if those things can possibly save the child’s life. There are laws that say a family cannot cut down a tree on their own property because public policy is against cutting down trees. Isn’t it worth considering a vision for the future that just like kids and trees, a dog has a right to life (and potentially lifesaving behavior treatment or even sanctuary care) despite the desires of the people who have control over him? Why should it matter if a person does not believe in sanctuaries if a sanctuary can save the dog’s life? In fact, precedent for such a viewpoint already exists. Over 20 years ago, California courts invalidated a will provision that said a dog was to be killed upon her owner’s death. The court (and then legislature) found that it violated California’s public policy that dogs who have a place to go be killed just because the dog’s human caretaker requests it.

Where do we draw the line? It will change over time. In fact, it already has. Over one hundred years ago, you could torture and kill your own dog because “it” was your property. Today, the dog has a right to be free of such violence. In fact, “he” has a legal right to more: food, water, and shelter. Today in New York, a shelter can kill an animal despite a rescue group ready, willing and able to save that animal. In California, shelters cannot legally do that. Someday, despite the “I’m the owner” protestations to the contrary, neither will people who have given up on a dog. Someday, none of us will not be able to have the animals we live with killed if the animal is not irremediably suffering.

That is called progress; the march of history. And every journey to a better future started by recognizing the value of that ultimate destination.


Have a comment? Join the discussion by clicking here.