Is No Kill No Good?

aggressive dog HP blogIt happened again. A dog that was known to have aggression issues attacked a person, severely mauling the woman. In this case the dog was in a city animal shelter, and the person attacked, Priscilla Romero, was a kennel worker with 10 years experience. Now, before you go dismissing the incident as an acceptable risk of the job, think about this: the dog, a pit bull, had a known history of aggression. Prior entries in the computerized behavioral records stated that the dog had previously bitten but did not break skin. Another entry cautioned, “Be cautious of this dog—dog will growl, bare teeth and tries to bite as I’m trying to open the kennel door to pick up empty food bowl.” Romero was rushed to the hospital in critical condition and may need numerous reconstructive surgeries.

The article goes on to describe other incidents where dogs who were known to act aggressively were offered to the public for adoption. But the problem is far from being limited to one or a network of shelters. There have been numerous incidents where dogs adopted from various shelters or rescues have bitten a person or injured or killed the other dog in the home. The “no kill” policy of some organizations, stretched beyond what “no kill” was meant to be (no euthanasia unless a dog is dangerous or seriously ill), allowed those dogs to be adopted in the first place.

I spent a lot of time in the ’90s at L.A.’s West Valley shelter, first as a volunteer and then volunteer coordinator, often spending 30-40 hours a week there. I was also an emergency hire for the East Valley shelter. And I’m the first to say that it can be difficult to judge a dog’s behavior in a kennel environment, especially since many are fearful when first impounded. These dogs are in a new environment surrounded by unfamiliar smells and sounds, not knowing what to expect, and unfamiliar people are entering their space. Showing teeth or even growling while backing away under those conditions are not, in my opinion, unforgivable sins indicating euthanasia. The dog should be given a chance to acclimate and settle in before being assessed for temperament, especially since a previous owner’s description of behavior might not be accurate. However. There are dogs who come in with known bite histories, who show aggression toward kennel or rescue workers, and who are still adopted out. Why? So the organization can proudly boast about how they’re “no kill?” Again, this is not what no kill was meant to be.

While the dog who is still up for adoption after biting, injuring or worse is awaiting a home, he is taking up the space of a perfectly nice dog, or more likely many adoptable dogs, who will be euthanized because the rescue or shelter has no space. How does that benefit dogs? And what about the dog with known aggression issues who is adopted into a home? Whose fault is it if the dog injures or even kills a person or another dog? The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of whoever knew about those issues and still made the decision to send a potential deadly weapon out into the public. If more rescues and shelters were held legally accountable, I wonder how many aggressive dogs would be adopted out.

The other issue is that dogs who are difficult to adopt out because of aggression or unstable temperament sit in shelters or rescues for months and sometimes even years, and many are miserable. There is a vast difference between a legitimate rescue keeping a dog long-term while providing physical and mental stimulation, affection and training, etc. until the dog can find a home, which is laudable, and keeping a dog who could pose a danger locked up until…what? Until the dog degenerates mentally and physically? Until he can go back out into the general public and yet again pose a danger?

As a trainer, behavior specialist, passionate dog lover, and someone who co-ran a rescue, I am the last person who would ever recommend euthanasia for a dog without there being a solid reason. But there has to be a balance between our compassion for dogs and common sense when it comes to dogs who are truly dangerous. Some organizations properly use the term “no kill” to mean “unless the dog is truly dangerous or ill.” It’s the misuse and misinterpretation of the term that’s problematic, along with the fact that the general public assumes that “no kill” means no dog is ever euthanized, period. So rather than having the knee-jerk reaction of “how wonderful!” when we hear that an organization is “no kill,” let’s dig deeper and consider what the term really means for that particular group, those dogs, and the safety of the general public.
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17 Responses to Is No Kill No Good?

  1. Al Magaw says:

    I agree with the article – I’m a big proponent of behavior therapy ( aka, behavior modification ) – not every dog can be saved, but most can, even many of the ones considered to be highly dangerous to humans and/or other dogs – “No Kill” is an excellent policy, but a dangerous dog should not be adopted out to an unsuspecting or unqualified home – shelters often spend $1000s on vet bills to save a dog’s life, why not send dogs with bad behavior to the professional that can change the behavior and save those lives too?

  2. sarahj44 says:

    Thank you Nicole.

  3. Agree with you wholeheartedly.

  4. k9muttblog says:

    Totally agree with the article. Too often when there is a dog as you describe instead of getting the dog to the right place they try to have the wrong person adopt the wrong dog for numbers. Additionally- I ask the question what is worse for the dog that cannot be adopted out to be warehoused to eventually go cage crazy in a 10 X 10 kennel or let the dog go, end the hell it is living in. I know of a number of well known rescues that have 50-100 dogs like this on their property each. Each one of the dogs is in hell and sometimes ending suffering is for the dog.

    • Jenny H says:

      Absolutely. For a dog euthanasia is no more stressful that any other injection. If the dog has serious behaviour problems then it is NOT living comfortably. If the behaviour problems cannot be solved, or cured with medication, then it is far and away kindest to put it down.
      The sad thing is seeing and knowing that some beautiful and well behaved dogs are put down because they have not found new homes.

    • Liz says:

      This is so true. It is a shame that dogs stay in shelter runs for months and months with no interest in them. No kill should not also be used to just warehouse poor dogs. Quality of life is not being met by warehousing these dogs, who then are taking place of more adoptable dogs. At a shelter in SF Bay Area, there was a row of 5 dog aggressive dogs. One had been there 16 months. She was very people sweet but finally went so crazy that she started biting people. All the money lost on preserving this girl, could have helped so many others.

  5. In my experience, most “no kill” facilities are in fact “no kill usually” facilities.

  6. Alyssa says:

    Thank you. I briefly volunteered at a no-kill “rescue” until I discovered the terrible conditions must of the dogs (and, later, cats) were kept in for years. They had a building in the middle of nowhere with outdoor kennels and stacked indoor crates, and even dogs chained up all around. Animals were fed and the area was visited a couple times a week for cleaning but animals were rarely socialized with or taken out for exercise. Many were obviously developing severe behavior problems, especially reactivity on the chain or at the fence. These dogs were outside, rain or snow, sub zero temperatures or 100+, with only wooden dog houses for shelter. Later I heard report that a trailer full of cats was left there but it disappeared soon after it was reported. They used a cover of being “foster-based” and encouraged their rabid supporters to lambaste the local animal shelter for not (yet) having no-kill status (they now are, after much work with Best Friends and local animal control to reduce feral cat populations, the primary cause of euthanasia). I doubt most of those rabid supporters had a clue about the hidden location full of suffering animals. Local law enforcement, for whatever reason, didn’t feel they could touch it due the regulations in the rural area where the building was located. So very sad. Please PLEASE know what you’re supporting and don’t let catch words and phrases draw you in blindly.

  7. iluvalldogs says:

    It has been my experience that when a dog bites unprovoked, it usually gives him the ticket to do it again.

  8. Allison says:

    I agree that many rescues care more about getting the dogs into homes than truly assessing their condition often hiding their inadequacies or not vetting the dog properly and waiting until they are ready, And there are definitely dogs out there who have had a rough life and are so broken and resistent to modifications in their behavior that it is cruel to keep them caged forever. That being said, I’ve also often seen that what one trainer deems dangerous and unadoptable can be fixed by a trainer who applies a sronger approach teaching the dog there are consequences to that aggressive behavior. Left untreated, aggression will continue to escalate. Getting a handle on it will teach the dog how to live in a family environment. Sometimes all it takes is a few strong corrections. Ad while a needle is a comforting stress free way to euthanize, a strong rock your world correction applied a few times teaching the dog that the behavior is unacceptable may make that needle unnecessary. The proper training can save that dog.

  9. Thanks Nicole. I bring this up all the time. When clients have dangerous dogs, I always refer them to a veterinary behaviorist to help make this decision. I wish every single dog on the planet had the temperament and socialization (!) to thrive in our man-made world, but this is not the case. (Don’t even get me started on the feral “Formosan Mountain Dogs” imported from Taiwan.)

  10. Ann Worden says:

    I love the fact that our local shelter uses the term “no time limit” rather than “no kill.” This is, btw, a well-run shelter with first-rate staff that understands that not all dogs are adoptable, and is able to provide their long-term residents with proper care including mental and physical stimulation.

  11. V. Cioffletti says:

    Absolutely agree with article and many of the replies! As someone who worked with breed rescue, I/we would NOT adopt a dog out if it had a history of unprovoked biting. Liability is a huge issue. I still clearly remember a kennel club talk by a vet decades ago. One sentence stuck with me “There are too many nice dogs in the world” …”to take the place of ones that bite”…..the last part of that has my words but the first part verbatim. I also worked with dog bite patients in my career as an RN. 😢

  12. dorothyadele says:

    A few years ago, I had written a post about a vicious chow and my four-year-old daughter. While I watched her on the swing from the kitchen window, a chow, that I had never seen before came in my yard. I ran out the door and down the steps and as I turned the corner, the chow was lunging at her face. For some unknown reason, before I went inside to prepare dinner, I had placed our Labrador retriever next to her in stay position. The Labrador saved her by attacking the chow. Hearing the commotion, the owner came in my yard. She said that they recently adopted the dog from the pound and had no idea that it had aggressive tendencies, and I believe that they returned the dog. To your point, euthanasia makes me sad, but not all dogs are adoptable.

    • wildewmn says:

      What a horrific experience for you and your daughter. I’m glad she was okay. And yes, this is exactly the type of thing that could be avoided by more careful and ethical assessment of sheltered dogs.

  13. Thank you for the great article. This is the same perception I argue against all the time. I do not believe that EVERY dog is savable, I am not willing to allow a dog with a bite history to be put into public. Nor is the rescue I work with, As a trainer, it is a horrible discussion to have to have with a family. But necessary. I am responsible to report any dog that has a bite history if found that they were adopted to the public. I am so sorry for this shelter worker. It’s an attack that should have never happened, I am sending prayers for her well being and continued recovery.

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