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Taking Risks

How do you decide on where to draw the line of risk? Dr. Emily Weiss digs into the many facets of this scenario and asks for your thoughts.


Back when I worked with individual pet owners, I would encounter a variety of creative aggression management techniques that had worked for them until the point where they did not… thus their call to me. You may remember me sharing with you the story of the woman who called me from her bathroom. I could barely hear her as she spoke in a whisper… that is, until I heard a muffled but voracious bark/growl, after which she cursed and said, “He found me.” Her dog had learned long ago that the way to get attention was to make a bit of a ruckus while Mom was on the phone. Over time, through variable reinforcement, the dog had escalated to hysterical barking, growling and biting whenever the phone was lifted. She managed the behavior by sneaking the phone into the bathroom and shutting the door while her dog was busy elsewhere. It worked until it didn’t…

Another that sticks with me was an elder client who always had a Chesapeake Bay retriever. However, she was now 80, living alone on a low-population island that required access by ferry—and she had recently bought a field-bred, confident pup. A relative called me in as the dog, now 10 months, had brought the woman down more than once and had caused significant cuts and bruises. We had an initial phone call and I set up a time to come to the island to do an assessment. The relative promised to board the dog until we met. Then, before I did the assessment, I received a call at about 7:30 in the evening. It was my new client and she was screaming—the dog had broken into her bedroom (she had apparently convinced her relative she could keep the dog at the house but outside) and was a small door away from getting to her. I was on the mainland—she was on an island…and yes, she was screaming. Thank goodness there was an emergency team on the island at the time and she, and the dog, were unharmed. 

It is clear that people manage all sorts of behaviors and take risks in their own homes—and many times nothing bad happens, other than the pet is loved. As we move from dogs in homes to dogs in shelters waiting for homes, where do we draw the line of risk? When does the risk for harm to others outweigh the loss of life (through a humane death)? This question is one that is tackled in sheltering daily—with the line drawn all over the spectrum based on whatever glasses one is wearing. Take the snapshot of Baby that I shared a while ago—or that of Buddy

There is another side that is just as urgent and important. The other side of that spectrum is declining the adoption of large dogs (safe large dogs) to families with kids, or euthanizing dogs who show a bit of fear (equating fear to the potential for aggression—which is not an accurate equation). There is also using criteria that has no basis in fact or prior behavior to determine if a dog is an appropriate candidate for re-homing.

Managing aggression in a solid home setting is not easy. Rehabilitating it is even harder—and in some cases, impossible (also, there is little in the way of research on the rehabilitation of aggression). We still feel for those dogs who have caused harm to a human. The risk of making the wrong decision is a weighty one, as significant aggression can often be managed for a lifetime without incident. It is a decision about which we can never with 100% surety simply say, “Yes, by not placing this dog I have assured one less injury.”  

Reading a dog who is fearful can be difficult. As these animals tend to shut down, they can be less likely to attract our lens… and unfortunately, some of these dogs are more likely to fall much closer to the “take no risk” end, even when they do not aggress. I am so excited about the great work happening at the ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center to develop proven protocols to rehabilitate fearful dogs. This data can help remove the perceived risk for a large population of dogs.

An owned dog with aggression issues draws the resources of his owner—be it extra time, emotion, the cost of professional help, etc. A sheltered dog with aggression issues does the same, and if he is the only dog vs. one of hundreds in the system, the risk shifts.

What muddies the water even more are the many dogs who display behavior in a shelter environment that may correlate with aggression outside the shelter, but is not actually aggression. There is a chance that aggression could develop—and a chance it may not. There you go.

I have been involved in a few professional gatherings to discuss the risk line. The conversations have included shelter professionals, veterinarians and Ph.D. behaviorists, and even (or maybe especially) among this group, there is little agreement as to where to draw the line. And as acts of aggression can be so circumstantial, I can understand this lack of agreement. The safest dogs may cut skin with a tooth, dogs can panic due to extreme pain and more…

While we may not all ever see out of the same lens (ok, we won’t), understanding the goals of the decisions are important. Using the available data and information to make decisions is important, and so is acknowledging that we won’t know for sure, but will still need to decide. What do you think?


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