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April 05, 2006


George Saunders wrote a really funny story about a company that captured pest racoons for soft-hearted homeowners, promising to release them back into the wilderness. Of course, they just bashed the racoons' heads in and dropped them in a pit. Along the same lines, anyway.

Sadly, this market, of a fashion, already exists.

I've been through this, we had a fantastic dog that we'd adopted from the pound who it became obvious hadn't been properly socialized as a pup. He was great with the family, but without warning or provocation he bit someone. Went through tons of training etc., but we had to quarantine him from contact with the "outside"; however, with young kids it became clear that this wasn't an option. One of the girls wasn't paying attention and opened the door to a neighbor friend without locking him up. I rushed to the door and tackled the dog as he was lunging at a 5-year-old girl. I loved the dog, but I also knew I had to put him down. Once a dog has bit someone, the shelters and rescue societies won't take them (and shouldn't).

Once you know how many dogs and cats are euthanatized every day, you'll realize a market does exist. The number of animals killed simply because they aren't adopted is appalling. You may have to kill a vicious dog, but you can save a doomed dog in the process. We adopted another a shelter dog immediately. It sucks, but it is a market of sorts.

I have a pound puppy. He has bitten my father several times and my boyfriend once. He's a small dog, part corgie, part jack Russell.

He is an anxious, worried animal and his biting behavior comes from fear. He worships my boyfriend now and biting isn't an issue any more. He accepts my dad now and I'm not worried about more biting incidents with him either.

I think he was neglected and abused but I don't know. He is missing one ear and is blind in one eye from an an eye injury which could have been treated but wasn't until he got to the dog rescue folks.
I'm not worried that Blackie will seriously injure anyone. I do warn people who try to pat him, however. He isn't out to hurt anyone--he overreacts when he is scared with a quick, sharp nip.

Best Friends is a no-kill charity that specializes in hard to place animals. They had a coyote for awhile.

lilylily -- alas, they were full when I needed them. And Macallan: I was looking specifically for a place where further bites wouldn't be an issue, meaning isolation, no kids, and a very secure run. Somewhere, someone must have such a place and need the money.

Yeah I got what you were after Hilzoy, but as you know keeping a dog isn't free. Food, Vet, etc. would mean that you'd have to cover those costs and a profit to the keepers. So that's a marginal cost + profit that you could use to keep those two dogs alive or you could apply that marginal cost to saving two other dogs. Either way, two dogs die.

Are coyotes a close enough species to domestic dogs to breed fertile young? With foxes???

Ok, so dogs are wolves at the 99.8% level, but coyotes are 4% different - that's similar to the difference between us and chimps - rather startling there are dog/coyote hybrids. I guess it's because the species evolved together occupying similar niches with the possibility of genes crossing over, no chromosomal fusion handwave where are the biologists to rescue me?

Hey Rilkefan, Wikipedia claims that many canids can produce fertile offspring, but you can't get dog-fox offspring, oh well. I've known a couple of wolf-dog hybrids that were quite nice, if a bit rambunctious and strong willed. I've also known a Shiba, and I can't imagine a Shiba-coyote mix being anything other than anti-social.

Some dogs, such as those that are half coyote, are naturally and instinctually aggressive, territorial, and protective. Then there are those calm domesticated dogs. However, there is a separate category of dogs that are bred by default to be viscous (dog fights) while others in this same division are born into some other form of abuse (widely varying) and wind up viscous. But what happens?

I hope I am not breaking posting rules here, but I will site and quote an abstract of an amazing Nature Neuroscience article from August 2004:

“Here we report that increased pup licking and grooming (LG) and arched-back nursing (ABN) by rat mothers altered the offspring epigenome at a glucocorticoid receptor (GR) gene promoter in the hippocampus. Offspring of mothers that showed high levels of LG and ABN were found to have differences in DNA methylation, as compared to offspring of 'low-LG-ABN' mothers. These differences emerged over the first week of life, were reversed with cross-fostering, persisted into adulthood and were associated with altered histone acetylation and transcription factor (NGFI-A) binding to the GR promoter. Central infusion of a histone deacetylase inhibitor removed the group differences in histone acetylation, DNA methylation, NGFI-A binding, GR expression and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) responses to stress, suggesting a causal relation among epigenomic state, GR expression and the maternal effect on stress responses in the offspring. Thus we show that an epigenomic state of a gene can be established through behavioral programming, and it is potentially reversible.” Weaver, IC., Aug;7(8):847-54, 2004, Nature Neuroscience

Basically, this study presents evidence that the way a mammal ‘pup’ is cared for and treated during newborn stages directly impacts gene expression through epigenetics. Essentially, there are signals, most likely balances of stress hormones responding to stimuli, which (through biological mechanisms) either express or inhibit gene functionality, by causing DNA to be tightly wound (repress gene activity) or loosely wound and accessible (promote gene expression) and persists through an animals lifetime.

The whole dog discussion made me think of this. Makes you wonder about human behavior and upbringing. For example, think of the documented successes of Head Start programs for preschool children.

Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is generally a rescue for old, infirm or abused animal, but I recall in at least one case (from Cleveland, about 8 years ago) in which they took a dog that had bitten someone and which a judge had ordered destroyed. I don't know if that's their policy generally -- the FAQ doesn't seem to state outright that it is or isn't -- but they have done so in the past, and they're sufficiently isolated that it's a likely option.

But, generally, yeah, there's not much to be done. Even a hundred nonprofits wouldn't constitute an adequate market if not sufficiently funded.

I'm not a fan of dogs generally (they are too heirarchical and tribal for my tastes), but I understand that people to develop enduring bonds with them. Still, it seems a little overboard to spend significant amounts of money keeping a vicious animal alive just to avoid guilt. If that money is really disposable and you want it to be spent in ways that help, wouldn't it be better spent on humans? Habitat for Humanity, Doctors Without Borders, yada yada...

I love my cats, and I feel a great deal of responsibility towards them, but in the end of the day they are cats, not people. If I couldn't keep them and couldn't find someone to take them in and love them I would have them put to sleep. A little jab and then - nothing. It's not like they are going to hell. I'd feel depressed, but I'd deal.

Some dogs, such as those that are half coyote, are naturally and instinctually aggressive, territorial, and protective.

What are they are protective of? is it their territory, their owner? I'd expect dogs to be protective of owners to varying degrees, but in general to a greater extent than hybrids. Is this uninformed supposition even close?

Togolosh, I partly agree, but I dislike this notion of pitting charity to animals against charity to people. I also go to movies and spend money in other ways that could do more good being sent to Oxfam or Unicef.

Bernard: at least in my limited experience, there are two distinct problems with hybrids. First, you get some of the traits of whatever non-dog species you've hybridized with, and this can be undesirable. (In particular, we have spent thousands of years selecting dogs for trainability, and, depending on the particular mix you end up with, this can just vanish. Bad news.)

The second, though, is just that whatever normal psychological equilibrium a given species has, it's all disturbed by hybridization. This might not be a big issue in psychologically similar species -- e.g., two goat-like species that spend their time doing goat-like foraging things -- but in the case of dogs and cototes, or dogs and wolves, it introduces a whole new level of nuttiness into the picture.

Add abuse and no socialization, and it's a complete disaster. In the case of my two dogs, one seemed to me to have a lot less to work with, in terms of living with humans -- she always seemed to regard me as a sort of useful lawn ornament who she had some mysterious obligation to protect. Because she was more indifferent to humans, she was less damaged than her sister, who was both a lot more attuned to humans and a lot more deeply crazy. -- I mean: both were vicious: they were very protective of me and the yard, massively predatory (think: my cats), fearful in the way that makes viciousness worse, and could, on a dime and simultaneously, transform from two dogs into something out of a horror movie. But Nicola was, in addition, profoundly nuts in a way that Karina, her sister, was not. And I always thought that it was not just the abuse, but the fact that she had such a deeply unstable temperamental mix for the abuse to work on.

To those who wonder about why I didn't just get different dogs who would also be put to sleep without my intervention: I think a lot depends on whether you take dogs to be fungible or to be individuals to whom you can get individually attached, and have individual obligations. If I had adopted a child who turned out to require expensive care of some sort, we wouldn't say: send him back and get another, and send the extra money to Oxfam; after all, that way you'll save more kids. And the reason for this is (I think) not just that dogs are dogs and people are people; it's that once I adopt a child, I care for that child, and I am trying to help him, not just to maximize the number of kids I help, and taking him as a convenient object of my assistance.

I felt sort of that way about my dogs. Initially, I adopted them because there they were, in the pound, about to be put down. But at that point I assumed (or so I thought) some responsibility for them (plus, I loved them.) And I don't think this is just guilt, or a confusion about dogs being dogs and people being people -- it's about whether you take yourself to have obligations to specific individuals or just to maximize the aid you give.

I should say that none of this should be taken as a well thought out view that I had. I was, in fact, massively torn about what to do, as you might expect, given that I spent three years trying to rehabilitate them, and during that time basically stopped inviting people over to my house because of safety. I had no idea what to do.

Hilzoy - excellent response to my point. I understand your perspective, and sort of agree. I fully accept the notion that taking responsibility for a particular creature implies obligations to that creature which go beyond generic obligations to all creatures, which it seems to me you fulfilled by spending three years trying to get the dogs to the point where they didn't pose a threat to anyone.

togolosh - it's a little beside the point of both Hilzoy's post and Cowen's question to simply observe that you yourself would not spend money in that way. Well, okay, but so what? I wouldn't spend money on having botulism injected into my face, but that fact has been stunningly irrelevant to the development and thriving of such a market. I think Hilzoy's onto something - I bet there are plenty of people that would pay a $1000.00 one-time fee to get rid of a loved but vicious and untrainable animal guilt-free.

This is a really tough position to be in and I feel for you.

My dad had always wanted an Akita. He had surgery and a long housebound recovery following the surgery. Us kids pooled our money and bought him a purebred Akita puppy during this period, mostly as a companion.

Bad plan. They bonded too well. The dog was overly protective and ill tempered. Even family members had to be protected from it. Whenever there was a get together the dog was locked into a room and everyone warned not to open the door.

If you are unfamiliar with the breed, they are massively large and powerful, originally bred to hunt large game, including bears. They are easily capable of killing a full grown man, much less a child.

Over the years it bit a cousin in the face and mauled my brother’s dog. He could not face the prospect of putting it down. It escaped the house more than once and mauled neighborhood dogs. It wasn’t until the threat of a serious lawsuit that he faced reality and put the dog down.

It is a tough call to have to make. But sometimes a dog just can’t be broken of that behavior, at least not reliably. You could go years thinking you had resolved it only to have it attack someone out of the blue.

But it’s still a crappy situation to be in.

Dogs, schmogs. There needs to be a market for my poetry;)

"There needs to be a market for my poetry;)"

Market. Poetry. Two words that don't go well together.

(Meant in a friendly spirit, not a stinging spirit.)

Have you considered being a cowboy as well? (Same parenthetical again.)

Yes I have considered being a cowboy, but not for thirty years now. Soon I'll have to give up on breaking DiMaggio's record as well.

Seven dollars please
That's still less than fifty cents
Per syllable. Sale!

I know! I know!

What about a market for really, really smart people who are crippled by their fanatical dedication to the pursuit of the internal logic of difficult subjects?

As someone who has been a dog-owner virtually all of his life (I'm now on my seventh and, yes, I'm old enough. Most have lived to their full life expectancy) I've developed an increasingly more severe perspective on this issue. As others in the comments have suggested, as much as we love our pets, they are not people, and all owners have a requirement that they properly socialize and train their animals.

Most don't, and that's OK because most dogs and cats are innately social, but that doesn't make one any less responsible for the behavior of one's pets. It is, though, a reflection of someone favoring their convenience over anyone else's. So little poopsie ate the neighbor's tomato plants? So cute!! I'll be happy to pay for the damage. Oh, did l'il old schmendrick nip/bite/scarf down your little finger? How terrible of him! Oh, I'm so sorry Fido scared the living bejesus out of your child. He really only meant to lick her.

Allowing any animal to remain who is a fear-biter or excessively territorial becomes a self-indulgence that someone will pay for, whether it's the enforced solitude of the owner or the easily-foreseen injury to another person (god forbid, a young child).

As much as I am an essentially uncritical fan of your writings and your ethical analyses, Hilzoy, IMHO, you're so far off-base here, you're likely to be picked off. Those dogs should have been put down. It may not have been their fault, but they were an obvious and easily avoided danger to everyone.

Of course, you have every right to keep them, but apparently, you were not in an appropriate environment for such animals. Really, in every way it's a bit like carrying around a loaded gun. Sooner or later it's going to go off, and your love for them is essentially beside the point.

I still love your thinking, but I confess I'm shocked. This smacks of princess behavior.

vicious and half coyote, 'nuf said

put them down before some child gets a face ripped off

The responsible action isn't always the easy action.

The responsible action isn't always the easy action.

It rarely is...


...except in the long run.

Save the rustbelt: you will notice that I referred to them in the past tense. They are both dead now.

My sister had a Tibetan Mastiff who became more protective when he got older, right till the point that they had to put him down because he started to bite people visiting their house.

The one anecdote I always have to tell is that they had burglars who stole money *whilst the dog was sleeping in the house*. So he missed more or less the only opportunity in his life to legitemitely bite a person...

At which point my brother in law went to a row of petshops, looking for a bell to hang up behind the door.
"What for?" they'd ask.
"To wake up the watchdog" he'd answer earnestly, never really understanding why that message sent some people (including me) to stitches.

hhilzoy, i am sorry that yu had to put the two dogs down. It is probably cold comfort that you had to. They got three years of life from youu htat thhey otherwise would not have had and you did your best. it is hard to say of a living being "you shouldn't exist, you are a mistake" and it is a tragedy thhat animals suffer for the folly of humans, who claim to be thhe superior beings but so often fail to live up to that claim. They weren't just dogs. They were two indiividuals. I don't knnow why life is so dependent on suffering or why so many sentient beings are expendable. If I was God i would design a better system.

Togolosh, I partly agree, but if it was your life or my dogs, well, sorry but see you later. See, I know them and I don't know you. And I mean 'know' them, like a brother or sister and they know me. I have had sick animals put down and believed it was for the best and would do the same for my human friends and relatives as well as my animal freinds. Most people are stupid around animals. I recommend Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin for reasons why animals sometimes are vicious.

there is a solution for you to keep your dog, even in the city: the plastic 'basket' muzzle.

9 years ago i adopted a huge (tall, slim, muscular 36lbs!) problem shiba from a shelter. at one yr old he had been given away 3 times without the shelter or the previous owner telling the next one the real reason. in addition to his rare size, his intelligence, resourcefulness and ability to get what he wanted through manipulation as well as intimidation was so astonishing that many people wondered whether he was some kind of hybrid, rather than a dog. after a year of failed attempts at training not to bite, steal, guard,etc and much money spent on reimbursing victims for bites, torn clothing, stolen handbags, food,etc., i went against the common wisdom of putting viscious dogs down rather than muzzling them.

the plastic basket muzzle is a lifesaver. he can breathe, run, smell things, even drink.

with the muzzle i have travelled the world with this dog - planes, trains, automobiles, old age homes, hotels, hostels, restaurants, camping - i put it on him any time we leave the house and any time strangers, or (especially) my boyfriend come over. he isn't crazy about it but accepts it as 'now we're going out gear'. with the muzzle on people are more respectful of my warnings 'don't touch my dog, he isn't friendly'. now and then he still tries an 'attack' but the victim can't really complain when they haven't been bitten, only bumped with plastic!

for 8 years now, the muzzle has allowed me not only to keep this 'unsocialized' dog in civilization and off death row, but to even
travel freely and give him the stimulation and social contact he needs. he is about 10 now and i am sure i will have him for the rest of his life. his temperment is exactly the same as when he was 1 and i still see him as a dangerous wild animal. the key is not disciplining him, but disciplining yourself to always muzzleing the dog and never letting him off leash without it, unless he is alone in an enclosed run.

i hope this has been helpful to others who have fallen in love with biters. you don't have to be separated, kill them or pay fortunes to foster homes on deserted islands-- just buy a few of the right kind(not the nylon ones or metal baskets) of muzzles and teach your dog to associate muzzles with fun!

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