Module 4: The Case of the Barking Dog

What’s the Worst Thing that Could Happen?

In the News

Shelter animals are frequently in the news—often to raise awareness about the needs and plights of communities’ homeless animals. But, sometimes they make headlines when horrible things happen to the people who come to their aid—particularly shelter dogs. In this news story, a 57-year old man was killed by a dog he adopted just hours earlier. And, in this story, a 64-year old woman was killed by a dog she adopted only 2 weeks prior.

Rottweiler dog
Rottweiler dog on a leash in the shelter’s kennel. The dog appears attentive but relaxed. This is the dog that killed his owner within hours of being adopted.

Sometimes the news stories involve dogs that attack or kill other dogs, like this one where a dog that was adopted earlier the same day, broke away from his new owner to grab and kill a beloved Maltese named Teddy. Teddy’s owner was holding him on a leash outside of an ice cream shop when it happened. In a different story, a foster mom describes what happened when her foster dog attacked her sister’s dog and then redirected his aggression on her. According to the story, the dog inflicted severe damage to her and went on to do the same to another caregiver at a later time. In this case, the dog continued to be actively available for adoption—with no mention in his description of his aggressive and dangerous behavior.


Re-homing Animals with “Behavior Issues”

Shelters do not typically guarantee the pets they place for adoption. Adopters are usually asked to sign forms acknowledging the lack of guarantee for behavioral or medical health issues. This is certainly reasonable. However, if a shelter knowingly places an animal with a history of aggression and that animal later injures someone, there can potentially be serious repercussions for the shelter.

Liability is an issue that should be taken very seriously by any shelter, rescue organization, or individual that is considered the “owner” or “caregiver” of an aggressive animal. Liability does not necessarily end when ownership is transferred to another individual or agency by any method, be it sale, gift or adoption. Furthermore, even if there is a complete understanding of the problem and all necessary precautions are stringently adhered to at all times, there is no guarantee that a harmful incident will not occur for which a sheltering organization, including its veterinarian and board of directors, could be held liable.

Most government or municipal animal shelters are tasked with protection of public health and safety. It is the duty of animal control agencies to protect the public from stray and vicious animals, and to enforce rabies vaccination laws. Shelters must be cautious about releasing animals with known bite histories. Shelter policies often state that dogs that are deemed to pose a safety risk to the public will be humanely euthanized.


According to the ASV Guidelines

“Shelters must have protocols and criteria in place that attempt to identify and manage animals at high risk of causing harm to shelter personnel, the public, or other domesticated animals. Decisions about rehoming require careful consideration of public safety, potential risks, and whether mitigation of these risks is feasible. Euthanasia is the appropriate outcome for animals at high risk of causing serious harm to people.”


The public does not always agree with decisions to euthanize animals that are deemed dangerous. Legal battles over the custody of such animals can result in lengthy stays for sheltered animals that might be difficult for shelter staff to safely handle. During this time, the animal’s welfare will certainly suffer in long term confinement and their behavior may worsen. Such situations can be emotionally challenging for all involved, and often times the animals involved suffer the most. This news story is a real life example of these controversies: the article reveals that “Onion”, a family dog that tragically killed a 1 year-old boy in April 2012, was released by animal control, rather than being euthanized, after nearly two years in the shelter during which legal wrangling between the city and animal rights advocates was occurring.


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