Should aggressive dogs be put to sleep?

I saw an article this week which did the rounds in one of the rescue groups that I foster for. The article was written by a dog trainer who was very passionately supporting a zero tolerance approach to dog’s showing aggression towards humans. If a dog growls you should “go hell for leather” on it so it never dares to do it again. Dogs continuing to show aggression should be put to sleep as the risk is too great, especially if there are children in the house. There were a few digs at “positive” trainers and the undertone was that they were letting dogs “get away” with being aggressive.


At any one point in time, I usually have an “aggressive” dog in my house. They have usually had several bite incidents and facing a put to sleep decision if they can’t find a rescue place (which can be difficult for dogs with bite history). A family member questioned why I help these dogs rather than the “nice” ones. It is a fair point, as rehabilitating a dog with issues takes considerably more time and resource than an issue free dog (plus the very real possibility that you may get hurt). I can see the argument in countries like the US, where so many healthy dogs face a death sentence as there simply isn’t enough space for rescues continuing to take in dogs.


In the UK, the number of bite incidents are rising. Dog trainers are reporting an increase in cases of aggression towards people in the home, particularly over the past 12 months. It seems lockdown is not only impacting human mental health but our pets are struggling too.


What I think this dog trainer failed to take into account (or just had no compassion for) was that dogs bite for a reason. Sometimes the reason is easy to understand, like the dog has injured itself and bites in a pain response to being moved. However, in many cases the reason is not so simple. Breeding in the UK is largely unregulated in terms of temperament and in rescue we see the same lines coming in again and again with common issues like resource guarding. I worked in relinquishment for one of the rescue charities and I could tell you the issues from just looking at the photo of the dog 90% of the time. How dogs are managed also plays a huge role…some dogs will cope with mismanagement, however for many, incorrect management (even such as not providing enough undisturbed sleep) will impact their behaviour in a big way.


The other area which started me on the road to learning more around difficult dog behaviour were the underlying causes that so often get missed. Medical conditions such as thyroid disorders, underlying pains that are difficult to identify, inflammation from poor diets and stressful lifestyles. Causes can be really complex, but we are getting increasingly sophisticated at identifying them.


I do agree that dogs showing aggression need extremely careful management, especially if children are involved (in most cases it is just too big a risk and child free environments are much more suitable). However, I think we have a duty of care to that dog to investigate the underlying causes. Someone bred that dog (responsibly or otherwise) to fulfil a demand that dog owners created. A zero tolerance lacks all compassion for an animal that has been powerless in the situation.


If you find yourself in a situation where you need help with your dog’s aggression, please be careful as to the trainer you use. In my experience, fighting fire with fire (ie you will do as I say) can spectacularly backfire. Be extremely careful with trainers giving advice that includes “correcting” growls or aggression. I have been at the end of the chain when these dogs have ended up in rescue and for some dogs, all it does it make them more difficult to predict behaviour and therefore more dangerous. One of my latest foster dogs went to an experienced home who tried to “correct” some guarding behaviour. He didn’t take it very well and ended up on my doorstep after giving them a big scare. Rehabilitating aggressive dogs is possible without the use of corrections…using a positive approach not only keeps you safer, but also rebuilds a dog’s trust quicker, creating a less stressful environment for everyone.


If you are interested in dog training with Herb Pet, enquiries can be made via our website. I cover both the local area (Barnby Moor, Bawtry, Blyth, Retford, Worksop, Sheffield, Nottingham, Newark – Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and surrounding counties). Online and further afield enquiries by request.