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Adopting the unadoptable

What makes a dog “unadoptable?” When does a dog “need” to be euthanized due to its behavior? Under what circumstances do owners, shelter workers or veterinarians decide that a dog is unable to be rehabilitated?

The term “red zone dogs” was coined by the Dog Whisperer, Cesar Milan. A red zone dog is a dog that is dangerously aggressive, unpredictable and thought to be a lost cause. Often these dogs have bitten humans and sometimes they have hurt of killed other dogs.

Think of the expression “seeing red” when we talk about a person seeing red, we mean that they are so angry, they can’t see clearly or think rationally. Getting into the red zone indicates that a dog has crossed over or “snapped” and is no longer him or her self. Sometimes these dogs end up in shelter situations because owners can no longer manage them or are fearful of them; sometimes these dogs are euthanized.

One problem with a dog that has been labeled aggressive or “red zone,” is that dogs are notoriously difficult to evaluate when they are in the shelter environment. The shelter environment may exacerbate any tendencies toward fear-based aggression, or may have an opposite effect. Even in a safe and supportive foster home, it can take months before a dog shows its true colors. During a settling in period, dogs may be more reserved, and more wary; they may also be more food or toy aggressive while they attempt to stake out their claim and boundaries.

Once labeled “red zone,” aggressive, dog-aggressive, or not recommended for families with young children or other pets, the potential pool of adopters shrinks. In a busy, overcrowded shelter, this is a real problem. In addition, in crowded conditions, one “red zone” dog can traumatize other dogs, creating a ripple effect throughout the shelter of anxious or poorly behaved dogs.

Some shelters manage this problem by creating a separate room or area for dogs that have been labeled aggressive or red zone. Some shelters give these dogs a shorter amount of time in which to be adopted before they are euthanized. Other shelters manage by determining in advance through various types of assessment techniques which dogs are deemed “behaviorally adoptable.” Those that are not behaviorally adoptable are euthanized.

Is There an Alternative?
According to some experts, once a red zone dog, always a red zone dog. The dangers and risks of an attack, bite, or worse, outweigh the possible good to come from being rehabilitated. Others stress that becoming a red zone dog is a process: owners, through ignorance or cruelty, create red zone dogs and that training and proper care can heal them. What all experts seem to agree upon is that the level of expertise involved in healing a red zone dog is far beyond what most dog owners and most trainers can address.

The first step in determining whether or not to proceed is always to assess. Aggression can be complex and easily misunderstood. For example, a young male shepherd mix was pulled from a shelter having been labeled “dog aggressive.” He did well in foster care, with no aggression issues detected at any time, neither toward people nor dogs. He was adopted by a family with young children, and after two months in the new environment, the family contacted the rescue organization indicating that he was “aggressive, frightening and had ‘gone after’ the baby.” After a visit by a seasoned trainer familiar with herding dogs, the verdict was that the dog had engaged in some very typical herding behaviors: nudging and “hip checking” and had done some “rude barking.” One man’s aggression is another’s man’s boredom.

Some breeds are notorious for being “nippy.” A firm and confident owner can easily work with these dogs do develop a safe and pleasant environment for both the dog and anyone who might interact with the dog – from neighborhood children to the parcel delivery guy – but an owner who is not ready, able or knowledgeable regarding managing such behaviors could end up with a real problem and a dog unfairly labeled “aggressive.”

Safety First!
Any owner, any dog, any situation that involves biting warrants thorough professional assessment. And any dog that has been considered unadoptable, red zone, aggressive or dangerous needs a level of professional intervention beyond the expertise of most owners or trainers. Truly understanding what you are dealing with is always the first step. What comes next could well be years of work, and years of stress, as you keep both dogs and humans safe.