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Some Thoughts on Euthanasia from APDT’s Gimme Shelter

Sue Sternberg

The Gimme Shelter column is a regular feature in the APDT Newsletter,
an educational publication of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.


Some Thoughts On Euthanasia

During a recent Web surfing expedition, I came across an animal shelter’s Web site that was advertising a large mixed breed dog for adoption. The dog had come into the shelter as a stray at the age of one year, and was still awaiting a home at the age of ten. I wondered, not for the first time, if it was humane to keep that dog alive in a kennel for nine years.

Dogs live in the moment. That is one of their best qualities-their spontaneity, their in-the-moment zest for life. They neither dwell over the past nor daydream of a better future. They simply live in the moment. Is it humane to watch a shelter dog bound and rebound off the walls of his kennel every day (or spin in his own excrement) while we, his caretakers, daydream of a better future for him in a home?

How do we define emotional health?

Shelters and kennels are architecturally designed to hold lots of dogs for short periods of time, not lots of dogs for long periods of time or indefinitely. Nevertheless, we are keeping dogs alive for longer periods of time. We may have agreed not to euthanize the dogs, but what provisions have we made to ensure that the dogs remain sane? Has anyone identified the minimum requirements for the emotional health of shelter dogs?

Considering a dog’s emotional health suggests that we need to ask ourselves about the dog’s quality of life. Quality of life issues cover a myriad of concerns, including but not limited to the following types of questions:

  • Aren’t we responsible for more than just the dogs’ physical health, nutritional requirements, fresh water and a clean, sterile kennel?
  • What about leash walks? How many leash walks per day should be the minimum requirement for dogs in shelters?
  • What about petting? Should there be a “touching” or “stroking” daily requirement?
  • What about toys? Bedding?
  • What about peace and quiet time?
  • Should a dog be kept alive regardless of physical pain, suffering, disease, aggression, severe separation anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders until a natural death occurs?
  • Should a dog be kept alive indefinitely, no matter how he or she adjusts to long-term shelter life, until either a natural death or an adoption occurs?
  • What behaviors or physical ailments make a dog “unadoptable”?

Evaluating the shelter dog

Two questions should be asked of every dog awaiting adoption in every kennel in every shelter in this country. The questions deal with the two most important issues pertaining to euthanasia: quality of life and behavioral adoptability.

  1. Is this dog a better dog today-behaviorally, mentally, and emotionally-than he was yesterday?
  2. Is this dog a better dog today-behaviorally, mentally, and emotionally-than he was the day he came in?

If the answer is not yes to both questions, I believe the dog is better off euthanized. And I don’t believe the decision hinges on opinions, policies, emotions, or feelings about euthanasia.

The controversy of euthanasia

I recognize that euthanasia is a controversial, highly emotional issue. But after traveling to shelters across the country for the last seven years, I believe that not one temperamentally adoptable dog would need to be killed because of a lack of space or time. Too many shelters are holding aggressive and dangerous dog interminably, while just around the corner another shelter euthanizes dozens of highly adoptable dogs for lack of cage space.

The decision to euthanize must be made in the best interests of the dog. He is living in the present. It is a human’s responsibility to make sure the dog is not living in what the dog would consider hell. It is selfish to keep a dog alive if he has deteriorated emotionally or behaviorally, or his mental health is gone. It is unfair to offer to the public a dangerous dog or one who will be a behavioral nightmare for life.

I have been assisting with, performing, injecting, holding, comforting and making decisions so others can euthanize for more than 20 years. My most recent experience with euthanasia is as profoundly disturbing as my first. And yet, when I repeatedly see dogs living a hellish existence in shelters with virtually no hope of an eventual adoption, euthanasia sometimes seems to be the more humane option.

While my mission in life is to prevent the euthanasia of any “adoptable” dog in a shelter due to lack of space or time, I also care passionately about preventing the adoption of dangerous dogs and stopping the torment and torture of interminably or permanently kenneled dogs.

Sue Sternberg is a lecturer, shelter owner, trainer, and creator of the infamous “Assess-A-Hand.” She can be reached at Rondout Valley Kennels and Animals for Adoptions, 4628 Route 209, Accord, NY 12404 or at

The Assocation of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) was founded in 1993 by Dr. Ian Dunbar as an organization for pet dog trainers to become better trainers through education. The APDT now includes over 3,000 members worldwide, including world-renowned trainers, certified animal behaviorists, humane society personnel, service dog trainers, and veterinarians. For information about how to find an APDT trainer, please call 1-800-PET-DOGS or visit their Web site at


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