“Mr. Kechely, in all your years evaluating and working with dogs, have you ever recommended that one be euthanized?” The county attorney had a smug look as she finished her question, certain that I was one of those ‘all dogs are wonderful and should never be put down’ people.
“Yes, many times.” I answered. Her surprised expression was priceless and she went on to ask what criteria I used to make such a decision? I then spent the next ten minutes addressing the court regarding the standards for evaluations and what would be considered deviations from normal behaviors of a dog based on various stimuli. This opened up the topic of my evaluation of the defendant’s dog and what my recommendation was. I was bluntly honest in saying that with proper ownership and efforts to mitigate the issue of the dog’s negative behavior, there was no reason for the dog to be euthanized. I added with emphasis, however, that the responsibility lay on the owner and if she wasn’t willing or able to meet those requirements then the dog should be euthanized to avoid further issues. With both attorneys done questioning me, I was allowed to leave the witness stand. During a break I told the owner that the dog’s life was now her responsibility, though in reality, it always had been.
This was one of several instances where I was requested by either animal control or attorneys to evaluate and then testify about a dog’s behavior. The question from the county attorney about if I had ever recommended a dog be euthanized was not surprising to me, and I understood why she thought she had caught me in a trap. All too often, especially in rescue, people put the life of the animal above all else, when in reality it may be best to euthanize an animal. Sometimes this is related to health issues or, on occasion, it is the result of extreme behaviors that simply can’t be remedied in a reasonable amount of time. Yes, you can lock up a dog that is severely aggressive, never letting it have any contact with the outside world because of its behavior, but what kind of life is that?
Since becoming involved with Rottweiler rescue work I’ve had to recommend almost two dozen dogs be euthanized due to severe aggression. Not a bad number when you consider Big Sky Rottweiler Rescue has saved almost one thousand dogs since its creation in 1997. Deciding to euthanize a dog is one of the most difficult decisions to make and I don’t make those decisions lightly. I will spend days going over evidence and evaluation results, consulting with other trainers, and finally, when all realistic options are exhausted, I will make the recommendation. Only then can I sleep at night, knowing I did everything reasonable I could to save the dog. It was while being involved with these types of situations that I started looking at bite injuries and how they can be a great indicator of the type of aggression and the intensity of it. That information helped me make informed, not emotional, decisions and, more importantly, helped everyone involved come to a common understanding and acceptance.
Let’s face it, putting an animal down is hard, especially if it is one you love. Sadly, the final act of love often times is making that very decision. I don’t enjoy being one to encourage the act. In fact, one of the most painful things I’ve ever done was to sit next to a friend and convince her that she needed to put her dog down due to a sudden and very violent act of aggression. In those times I have to shut down my emotions and focus on the facts. This is often a hard task given the emotional extremes that people will have in such times.
The pain of that moment, and all those before and after it, is what motivates me to try and educate people the best I can. I always remind people that dogs are dogs and they will never have the cognitive ability to interact with us in human terms. We, on the other hand, can understand and interact with the dog in canine terms. Without question, the majority of cases of canine aggression are the result of humans treating their dogs like small, fury humans. Dogs are not wired for such behavior, especially the more dominant breeds. This is the very reason I started using the term ‘Think Dog’ when teaching people, encouraging them to understand canines and to communicate with their dogs in a manner they will understand. I can’t imagine how many bite incidents could be avoided if more people did just that. I guess that is why I keep doing what I do, though I have stepped back from active teaching and expert witness work, preferring to direct people to others who are doing the same work. Still, I know that if I receive the call I will do what I always do - look at the evidence and make the best decision I can, and yes even one in which the dog has to be put down. You see, I learned a long time ago that having a dog is more than just a responsibility to the dog to provide love, training, and care - it is a responsibility to society. Sometimes that means making the hardest decision imaginable, out of love and out of responsibility. If you aren’t willing to make such a decision then, perhaps, owning a dog is not for you.