Can Every Dog Be Rehabilitated?

aggressive dog HP blogI recently came across an article in which a dog who was known to be “nervous, growling, and didn’t like children” was sent away for training. While in the trainer’s care, the dog mauled her. According to the lawsuit, “With the pit bull still attached to her left breast, Ms. Rickles backed into a laundry room where the dog released his grip, enabling Ms. Rickles to close the door. The pit bull then broke through the door and attacked Ms. Rickles a third time, latching onto her left arm and breaking it in two places.” After this horrific incident, you might assume the dog would have been euthanized. Indeed, a Texas judge did sentence the dog to death. However, the dog’s owner pleaded for the dog’s life, and it was agreed that the dog would go to the training facility of a well-known trainer who would “take the pit bull and rehabilitate it” and not release it until it was “fully deemed a safe member of society.”

Unfortunately, the training facility allegedly released the dog into someone’s care prematurely. A woman who was visiting her friend at that home got mauled. According to the lawsuit, the dog ended up inflicting “disfiguring wounds, deep muscle and tendon lacerations.” Incidentally, the training center was the Dog Psychology Center (Cesar Millan’s facility), but how you or I feel about Cesar is not the point. The real question is, can a dog who has demonstrated severe aggression ever be rehabilitated to the point of living safely among people?

Apparently a lot of rescues seem to feel the answer is yes, judging by the number of training calls I get from people who have adopted aggressive dogs. Just last week a woman called who had adopted a Bichon who had bitten three people. Two of the bites were disclosed by the rescue organization, and the third happened to her once the dog was at her home. I’m not familiar with the rescue group and don’t know whether any behavior modification was attempted, but I have seen all too many dogs over the years who were known for having aggression issues be adopted out.

Most rescues are overcrowded, and although there are some where trainers do behavioral rehabilitation, theose are few and far between. I’m not suggesting that a dog who displays aggressive tendencies to any degree should be euthanized—far from it. I’ve personally worked with many, many aggression cases ranging from mild to severe over the years, and helped the dogs and their owners go on to live long, happy lives together. But would I knowingly adopt out a dog with serious aggression issues? Never.

Even outside of a rescue/adoption situation the real question is, can every dog be rehabilitated? My personal belief is the answer is no, no more than every violent criminal can be. Many dogs who are capable of inflicting irreparable damage live in homes and are friendly with their owners, who have learned to never allow the dog access to other people. This is called management, not training, and is often a last resort. Management is of course never 100% and things happen, but it’s often the only choice left.

If a dog causes extreme harm, such as the case with Gus, that dog should be euthanized. Period. As one of the biggest dog lovers you’ll ever meet, who also has a lot of empathy for owners, I do not say that lightly. But human safety must be the first priority. And any trainer who believes they can fix any dog no matter what has an overabundance of hubris and a serious lack of understanding of dog behavior. Let’s give dogs the benefit of the doubt where appropriate, and do everything we can to help them behave better and improve their chances of having a long, loving life. But let’s be realistic as well, for the highest good of everyone concerned.
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19 Responses to Can Every Dog Be Rehabilitated?

  1. Sergio Reyes says:

    Great article and very professional view on safety topics. In The Dunbar´s recommendations about levels of biting, level 5 will be Euthanasia because it is impossible the complete isolation of the dog. I hope this sentence will be learn for all trainers working with aggressive dogs “But human safety must be the first priority”.

  2. Karen Deeds says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I get a lot of requests to work with dogs that are in rescue with a bite history and is exactly the reason I wrote my seminar “In Whose Best Interest”.

  3. Frejay says:

    I agree with you 100%. I am still at the very beginning stages of my dog career – definitely not at the point where I can rehabilitate aggressive dogs myself. But in my volunteer work I have seen dogs that seemed like a hopeless cause respond amazingly well to training, and have been adopted out. But I’ve also seen dogs that just didn’t progress – or only progressed with the person training them. Often I think if it was a different situation and we had more time, maybe we could get them there… but in this situation there is no time or money. One dog in particular sticks in my mind. Everyone was so invested in him and gave him as much time and training as they possibly could, but at the end of the day he just wasn’t progressing and the hard decision had to be made – he just couldn’t be trusted. I think it is unfair on everyone involved to adopt out a dog that can’t trust. No body wins.

  4. Dan Torres says:

    My boy Caine just met a person he last saw almost five years ago. This person was amazed the dog greeting him with a wagging tail and a wiggle butt was the same adolescent of eleven months that used to be afraid of him. Back then Caine raised his hackles barked like hell and peed himself. Luckily for Caine I became his dad and taught him that people were not enemies.My friend was amazed that Caine was the same dog. He never thought what I made happen was possible.

  5. Gerry Ingram says:

    You know, you are one of my heroes when it comes to dogs. Actually, your just a really great person too. I have to say this article is spot on. I would also like to add that there are too many trainers who take on cases that are way over their heads. We as trainers need to be aware of our own limitations. The dog owners are also a factor that needs to be considered. I have only suggested euthanasia as an option once, but two other times I have basically given owners permission; I’m sure you understand what I mean by that. Those were dogs that were going to take a lot of work, likely drug involvement and the owners were not able to commit to it. Its just wrong to pass that on to someone else and wrong to pass the dog around to yet another home.
    Thanks Nicole for yet another great article.

  6. Janice says:

    Love, patience and kindness can do miraculous things for troubled dogs. Can we rehab every aggressive dog to a reasonable level of public safety and quality of life? Though it makes me sad I feel we cannot. I believe that the kindest thing we can do for the most tortured dogs, the dogs we cannot help, the dogs that will never be safe because they can never experience mental or emotional peace is to give them a gentle respectful end of life. And to make all efforts possible to save the ones that we can, to protect and raise healthy and balanced puppies, to educate the public.

  7. Julie says:

    Yes yes yes, all they need is love, stimulation and perseverance

  8. juliabarrett says:

    I love dogs. I adore dogs. I agree with you 100%. This is one of the reasons I will not adopt a dog. My German shepherds come from a breeder I trust. Her dogs have never let me down. The GSD is the only breed I want and if handled improperly they can become aggressive, either out of sheer aggression or fear. Mostly fear. I want to know what I’m getting. I want to know about the dog’s parents. I admire GSD rescue groups. But I won’t do it. Rehabilitating dogs is not for me. I’ve had experience with aggressive dogs. No. Those dogs need to be put down and I’m a bleeding heart when it comes to animals.

  9. Mia says:

    The dog you describe wasn’t even in it’s standard, a pit should NEVER have human aggression, right there I wouldn’t touch the dog with a 10 foot pole.

  10. Peggy Swager says:

    There are several problems with the rehabilitation of the more severe cases. One is that not too many people/trainers/behaviorists don’t know how to do this. Two is that some dogs will need “special” work to maintain that change, and the right kind of human dog relationship. Even loving owners may not fill that role for the dog (I do not mean being some kind of fictitious alpha to the dog–but solid leadership does make a difference, as well as understanding dog cues that lead to aggressive responses, and more). Three is that even if you board and train the dog, some dogs don’t transfer their training from you to the owner. Even if you work with the owner, some dogs owners can’t learn the right skills to manage dogs with aggression issues that require management. My philosophy is that we must not put people in danger with dogs.

  11. Al Magaw says:

    we do behavior modification and deal with mostly “3rd strike” dogs – most of the dogs we have worked with have gone on to live successfully and peacefully in their old home, or in a new home – I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with some very dangerous dogs, but I have to agree with the author that not every dog can be saved – some, maybe 2 or 3%, seem to have some sort of neurological problems that will never be overcome no matter how much is put into saving the dog – even careful management is not going to end the danger from those few dogs

  12. Stephanie says:

    Thank you for posting this! It’s important to be realistic about hard situations.

  13. balmy says:

    Why take on the liability of adopting out aggressive dogs? Er, or at least what the insurance industry classifies as the most vicious of breeds (due to statistical records of maulings and death.) If the dog is of a vicious breed and has shown aggression… euthanize it already. Do not place the public at risk. There are plenty more non-aggressive adoptable dogs out there.

  14. As someone who specializes in working with aggressive dogs I couldn’t agree more with your post.

  15. Maureen Griffin says:

    I am guessing that those who think that no dog should ever be euthanized for severe aggression also have never held a child whose face has just been disfigured by his best friend’s dog, never had to lie on a Guernsey with a sheet over your face while the doctor stitched up your nose and lips and never had to speak to a person whose loved one killed by a dog. I’ve done all three and I have NO patience for those who feel that the life of an aggressive, maladjusted dog is more important than what I described above.

  16. J Riddle says:

    Problem I see is the reality of rescue is the overcrowding and the ignorance of some fosters/rescues to fully identify and disclose issues. I know of such an instance where a bulldog was placed in a home that it should never had been placed. The dog was “adopted” out to a situation that was doomed from the start and as a result, the dog was eventually euthanized for biting. This dog had a prior bite history that was not disclosed and the adopter was in over her head from the get go. Had the dog been placed in the proper home and gone through behavior modification, he may still be alive. As a foster for a rescue, I have turned down applications to adopt dogs that I feel are not a good fit for the dog or the applicant. I also interact with the foster dogs enough to know if there is any chance of aggression or biting that it would be noted immediately and the dog would be evaluated for behavioral issues. Each case needs to be looked at individually and not judged purely by breed or a single incident. I agree that a dog that has struck out repeatedly needs to be judged accordingly. Seriously, look at the Vick dogs. They were given a chance to survive after evaluation and rehabilitation. That may not be possible in every instance, but let’s not be too quick too judge and make sure the dog is given a chance before we just put it down. In some instances, there is no other choice. I realize this, but let’s make sure the dog is put into the proper hands before this decision is made.

  17. M Ayers says:

    As a member of the Board of Directors of a reputable rescue not only will we not bring a dog with a bite history into our program we have euthanized dogs who have proven to be non-safely adoptable to the general public. We have used trainers to help with more minor issues and been successful.

    • Al Magaw says:

      it troubles me to see your comment M Ayers – my volunteers and I rehabilitate 3rd strike dogs on a regular basis – While not every dog can be saved, by far the most can be turned into peaceful, friendly, happy, friendly dogs with proper training – careful attention is paid to breed specific behavior, and adopters, if the dog is from a shelter or rescue, are carefully chosen – we’ve found that it’s common for the right dog to be in the wrong home, or to put it another way, the wrong dog was chosen for the home it was in and the dog winds up in trouble, or owners don’t have the skills, motivation or energy to properly train their dogs – livestock guardian dogs are condemned because they guard the fence and a small back yard, red tick hounds are condemned because they go crazy without a chance to do anything that might fit the behavior they were bred for and the list of the wrong breeds being chosen for a lifestyle that doesn’t suit their breed specific behavior – a big lab/rottie that I adopted myself, was, at 2 years old, the most dangerous dog I had met at the time, and still ranks as my biggest challenge 6 years later – he drew blood on both of my hands when I took him from the vehicle he was transported in – I had to use a plywood shield to enter his pen to feed water or clean – anyone 30 feet away from his pen was challenged by a 110 lb black dog that was slamming into the fence, head high, teeth bared, face contorted, hair up, and roaring like a lion – that same dog is now my #1 therapy dog, helping dogs that have some of the problems that he once had – I don’t have a count of the number of dogs I’ve successfully helped, but it would be in the 100s at least – no, we can’t help them all, but we’ve helped most of the dogs that have been brought or sent to us, and lost very few – I’d be glad to share with you how our rehabilitation program works if you might be interested in saving some, or most, of the dogs that you are losing now

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