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  • Mike Fry

What Nearly Everyone Gets Wrong about Dangerous Dogs

Some dangerous dogs
Some of the dangerous dogs with whom I have worked over the years. Top row from left to right: Bandit, Cowboy & Oliver; Bottom row from left to right: Buster and Kramer

During my career I have been fortunate to have worked with some dangerous dogs. I'm talking seriously dangerous dogs. Dogs that required protective clothing to handle; Dogs that required double leashing and a buddy system to take out into secure yards; Dogs that would seem fine one minute and then the next would - for no apparent reason - aggressively lunge at and try to grab your face. I have the scars to show for it. Because of my background working in wildlife rehabilitation, I always had a special appreciation for the dogs that were more challenging to handle; and early in my domestic animal career, I quickly realized that the topic of dangerous dogs was an area that needed more understanding.

My interest in challenging cases combined with my commitment to saving every life I could while running Minnesota's first open-admission, No Kill animal shelter left me uniquely situated to have some very informative experiences with a list of extreme cases. These pooches (many more than are pictured above) taught me some of the most important lessons I have learned in the field of animal sheltering. I can honestly say that I learned something valuable from every one of them. Each touched my heart in some meaningful way. Collectively, they also taught me that nearly everything people think about dangerous dogs is wrong.

Most animal shelters get dangerous dogs wrong by labeling any dog with a bite history as dangerous. News flash: Dogs bite. Nearly all dogs bite. They are predators with teeth designed for biting, and they bite for all kinds of reasons, including some good ones. They communicate with their teeth. They play using their teeth and they, understandably, defend themselves with their teeth. The Center for Disease Control (CDC), the government agency that tracks dog bite data, says that human behavior is the primary cause of most dog bites. This means a few important things:

1) Shelters should not kill dogs simply for biting.

2) We can reduce dog bites by teaching people how to interact correctly with dogs.

3) When animal shelters kill dogs because humans have done stupid things, they fail to teach people anything and often end up punishing the victims of bad human behavior.

More about all of that is explained in my video Dangerous Dogs and Not So Dangerous Ones, which you can watch below.

With all of that said, I want to focus on people at the other end of that spectrum: Those who believe no dogs should ever be destroyed for behavior, or those who conceptually agree that dangerous dogs in animal shelters should be euthanized, but who, from a practical perspective, never agree with it when it does happen. They are OK with a small percentage of animals being destroyed as being aggressive, so long as those beings are simple statistics on a report. As soon as those canines have names and faces, however, the emotions attached to ending those lives prevent them from agreeing with the decision.

To be clear: the numbers of seriously dangerous dogs is a tiny percentage of the dogs that enter animal shelters, generally less than 1% of the total canine intake. Yet, even though it is a small percentage, when animal shelters are taking in thousands of dogs per year, they are certainly going to be handling some dogs that are willing to use their teeth in unpredictable ways and when unprovoked in order to inflict bodily harm on people. Furthermore, when not attacking or biting people, these dogs can be smart, obedient and loving animals to whom staff and volunteers will easily bond. I know, because I have fallen in love with some seriously dangerous dogs during my career.

I could tell you the full stories of many of these dogs. However, doing so would fill a whole book. I will, therefore, have to settle for giving you the short versions of helpful dangerous dog stories.


Cowboy was a 120 pound Newfoundland/Lab mix who was brought to the animal shelter where I worked along with his brother, Tibbs. Both were unruly and reactive and required expert dog handlers when they were surrendered to the shelter. Since they had been young puppies, they had lived the lives of "resident dogs" in the back yard of a family who had provided no training and little socialization for these beautiful and very special brothers.

The two dogs were nearly identical and their behaviors were very similar at first. However we quickly learned to tell them apart because of their behavior. Tibbs had a good amount of bite inhibition. Though he would bark and appear aggressive at times, he would not follow through with a bite. Cowboy, on the other hand, possessed little bite inhibition. Tibbs would frequently be the target of Cowboy's biting. We quickly realized that we needed to separate the brothers, if for no other reason than Tibbs' own safety.

Once separated, both dogs became easier to handle and the behavior of both dogs improved. Tibbs quickly became a sweet, well-behaved dog who was adopted by a loving family. The last time I heard from Tibbs, his family sent a photo of him a couple of years post-adoption. He was snuggled up with his human "dad" in front of their fireplace. They said he was the sweetest cuddler in the world and thanked us for all we had done for him. Cowboy's story did not end as well.

Because of his lack of bite inhibition, Cowboy was designated a "red" dog at the shelter, which meant that he could only be handled by staff people, and a select group of special volunteers.

Because of his behavior, introductions to new people were always challenging. In spite of his difficulties, he settled into life at the shelter remarkably well. We could get him in and out of his kennel without difficulty. He got regular walks and play time. But, it was as if he had two personalities. Most of the time he would be this sweet giant goofy dog. Then, usually with no warning, he would suddenly become a very different dog. What would trigger the change would vary and was unpredictable.

Those of us who chose to work with Cowboy knew the risks when we started. We also knew the likelihood of success was small. Behaviorists with whom we consulted informed us, as they also had about other dogs with whom I had worked, that a dog with little bite inhibition or bite restraint (which helps a dog limit the degree of damage caused when they do bite) that is more than 4 to 5 months of age, has a grave prognosis for rehabilitation, because dogs develop bite inhibition and bite restraint as puppies. After that period, if they don't have it, they are not going to get it. Knowing that, we tried anyway, as we did with many other dangerous dogs. We were, in fact, so committed to working with dogs like Cowboy that we built a special housing area, with large outdoor play areas, for dangerous dogs.

We worked with Cowboy for a little more than 2-1/2 years and we got to know him for the smart, sweet and goofy clown that he could be. We were able to give him food, comfort, exercise and companionship. Unfortunately, as the behavioral science predicted, two things were were not able to give him were bite restraint and bite inhibition. That meant that he remained a dangerous dog; and therefore, another thing we could not give him was the thing he wanted the most: a family of his own. Most of the time he was great to be with. However, when he wasn't, it was really bad. Multiple people suffered bad punctures and crushing wounds with deep bruising. His target of choice was the face and neck.

Throughout his stay with us, we contacted various sanctuaries to see if they would take Cowboy. None would. We eventually concluded that we had done all that we could for Cowboy. Yet we still did not want to destroy him. So in desperation, we contacted a new and very progressive shelter dog behavior rehabilitation program and were successful getting him placed in it. In February of 2012, I made the long drive with Cowboy to deliver him to his last chance in Colorado, a chance that he ultimately failed. I remember the day I got the call that he had injured another person. I was very sad, but not surprised. I was glad they had tried to help Cowboy. I was glad that we had tried. I will also be forever proud that we stepped up to a challenging situation to see how far we could push the limits of canine behavior modification. I am also glad that Cowboy helped us learn the limits of what love and care and training can do for some dogs.

It is crucial to say that when we transferred Cowboy into the Colorado-based training program, that we were fully transparent about his history. We were also honest about our expectations with the staff and volunteers who knew Cowboy. Additionally, the final outcome we logged for him in the end was a euthanasia for behavior and that everyone who knew and loved him was aware of the final outcome.

When I examine the dogs with which I have worked that clearly demonstrated a lack of bite inhibition and bite restraint, and that would inflict significant bite wounds when unprovoked, the number of them that were fully rehabilitated is zero. They all made progress. Some of them made remarkable progress. None of them became safe to place into homes.

Naturally, I worked with many other dogs that had all kinds of bite histories that were not truly dangerous dogs and dogs that had all kinds of behavior issues that were rehabilitated. A few of the dangerous dogs with which I have worked were kept in sanctuary for the duration of their lives, a fact that I have never been able to fully celebrate for a number of reasons, most importantly because the lives they lived - though the best possible to provide for them - were clearly significantly less than they wanted. Stable, loving families of their own were the things they all wanted most. And, with staffing and volunteer turnover being what it is, even the semblance of a stable family was not something any facility was able to provide.

The topic of behavior euthanasia for dogs in shelters is a topic that has been discussed a lot in recent weeks. From my perspective, with the learning I have had working with these amazing though dangerous animals, no one has gotten the topic right. On one end of the spectrum are people who promote what they call "Socially Conscious Sheltering," which openly advocates killing animals that may be a bit more difficult to place into homes. I recently hosted a panel discussion on that topic and recommend watching that video below.

To put it simplistically, shelters operating according to that model are killing the animals that need their services the most in order to import and adopt out (often with very large adoption fees) the easier, more desirable pets. I consider that model of sheltering to more of a pet store, profit-oriented model of sheltering than actual animal rescue. On the other end of the spectrum are those who attack truly progressive No Kill shelters for euthanizing dogs that have lengthy histories of unprovoked and unpredictable biting. One case in point was a dog named Tucker who was recently destroyed by Austin Animal Center (ACC), a facility often thought of as the flagship of the No Kill movement. Animal Control in the City of Austin, Texas has, after all, maintained a Live Release Rate (LRR) of more than 95% for many years.

The realities of Tucker's case include the fact that Austin Pets Alive! (one of the nation's most celebrated No Kill rescues) would not take Tucker, because they understand the limitations of today's canine behavior science. Tucker's bites were not insignificant and they occurred in different situations in which they were unprovoked. Those facts did not stop some No Kill advocates from attacking ACC for destroying Tucker.

One No Kill advocate wrote of Tucker's situation: "To be sure, there were also records of bites. And a few of the dog walkers noted growling and snapping related to food and being returned to his kennel; specific triggers solvable with training." In my opinion, such a statement is not supported by behavior science. One of the critiques used by opponents of No Kill animal sheltering in an effort to discredit the entire movement is that No Kill advocates seek to place dangerous dogs in the public. In fact, successful No Kill shelters like ACC do not place dangerous dogs. Therefore, when No Kill advocates attack them for not placing dogs like Tucker, these advocates tarnish the entire movement.

When a dog that bites when unprovoked and in unpredictable situations, it is always sad. I, personally, find it gut-wrenching. For the No Kill shelters that are doing their jobs right, it is a sad reality of the job, at least until canine behavior science finds a way of helping these dogs.

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