Kayla Fratt, CDBC

“Is this a no-kill shelter?”

That’s one of the most common questions I was asked when I worked at the Denver Dumb Friends League, a huge shelter that provides services to over 20,000 homeless animals per year.

The answer depends on how you define no-kill: Our live release rate hovered around 90% and we didn’t euthanize animals for time or space issues, but we were certainly not a sanctuary. DDFL is open admission, and despite dedicated veterinarians and behavior consultants, there are always some animals for which rehabilitation, adoption, or transfer isn’t in the best interest of the animal or the community.

Some behavioral euthanasia decisions in shelters are clear-cut

When I’m first discussing my concerns about hardcore no-kill rhetoric with skeptics, I bring up clear examples of a shelter dog that was a liability to adopt out — the kind of dog that any reasonable person could see was a bad adoption option.

There was the 2-year-old bully mix who showed up on Christmas Eve in the overnight kennels. He was catch-poled after snarling and lunging at anyone who entered the overnight kennel area. A Post-It note explained that he’d inflicted injuries that resulted in dozens of stitches in a 2-year-old’s head, back, and arms. The dog was put on bite quarantine for 10 days, per Colorado law. The behavior staff always tries to play shaping games with bite quarantine dogs, to keep them from going too kennel-crazy. All we could do for this dog’s 10-day quarantine was Treat and Retreat. Even then, he snarled and lunged at staff through the gate constantly. A sad case, but not a difficult euthanasia decision. Even if he’d been affiliative with staff (which he never was), it would be incredibly irresponsible to adopt out a dog who’d demonstrated that he was capable of that sort of damage. And it’s awful to admit, but being a pit bull-type dog in a breed ban city certainly wasn’t helping.

There was the Great Dane, relinquished for dragging her owner across an intersection to attack another dog, who showed almost no perceptible warning signals before latching onto another dog in her dog test. We emptied a can of Spray Shield into her mouth before she released the other dog. Given her size and lack of warning, this also wasn’t a very difficult euthanasia call.

In the right home, with the guidance of a behavior consultant, could the Dane have been a successful pet? Probably. But finding a savvy home for a 120-pound, dog-aggressive dog in a dense, dog-friendly city isn’t easy. Could that pit bull be successful? I’m not as sure, since no one in the shelter ever saw any affiliative behavior from him. Overall, these euthanasia decisions were relatively uncomplicated. That doesn’t mean they weren’t sad. But they weren’t the ones that keep me up at night. In fact, the prospect of those dogs being adopted out worries me far more than the decision to euthanize them did.

But not all decisions in the sheltering world are so simple. When I want to make a point about the responsibility of not adopting out certain animals, I tell the story of that pit bull. But there are other decisions from my time at the shelter that still bother me.

Many behavioral euthanasia decisions in shelters aren’t black and white

I call these the “grey zone dogs” or “grey zone decisions”: the cases that could have gone either way, the cases where there were good arguments on either side.

Your shelter’s definition of a grey zone dog may differ from another’s. Denver’s adopters are active, dedicated, and relatively wealthy. Dumb Friends League has incredible behavior staff and a fantastic medical team. Many dogs (and cats) that we deemed workable would have been easy euthanasia calls in a rural shelter with no behavior or healthcare team. And some of the dogs that we agonized over or ultimately euthanized may have been considered workable cases at a shelter with the setup for long-term behavior modification and behavior medication.

My point is that there’s no one definition of a grey zone dog. In some communities, any block-headed dog that barks and spins and jumps and bites at the sleeves of adopters is considered a dangerous dog. In others, the dog is adopted out to a runner who lives just outside of town, without euthanasia even entering the minds of the shelter workers. Depending on your community values, community resources, shelter resources, and adopter pool, your tough-call cases will vary.

I know I have a few that haunt me to this day.

Some dogs might have thrived in a small, private rescue where a trainer or skilled foster was available. Roxy, a young (suspected) Malinois/cattle dog mix, is a good example here. She displayed terrifyingly intense kennel reactivity for a 6-month-old and had several Level 3 bites (Dunbar Scale) on her record. But she was whip-smart in training. She scored something like 47 out of 60 on our behavioral risk scale, a clear euthanasia decision by the numbers. But gosh, that little dog was charismatic and was a joy to train. The team agonized over that decision for days. I ultimately argued for her euthanasia despite the pit in my stomach saying that I loved that dog. But she was just “not wired right” — the level of aggression at her age was breathtaking.

Other dogs might have turned around in quiet foster programs, with behavioral medications, or in a long-term facility where they could progress at glacially slow paces. There were nearly countless dogs from Puerto Rico, South Korea, or a local hoarding case that would defecate themselves in fear when kennel staff fed them. They hid in the drains or under the Kuranda beds. In foster homes, they spent months hiding from owners. In the right home with the right person, some of them did eventually come out of their shells and became shy but semi-social. Others came out of their shells enough to bite defensively. Others came back to the shelter, and the behavior staff sat in a huddled room trying to decide what on earth to do with these dogs that weren’t dangerous, but also were hardly adoptable.

Shelters with running or hiking programs and relationships with working dog companies might have better luck with some other grey zone dogs. Fred, Magic, and Balto are good examples here. Fred was an exuberant Lab cross, a pioneer in our nosework program who nonetheless barked, spun, bit at sleeves, and raked nails down people’s sides. He was adopted out to a detection program but returned for displaying too much fear in new environments. Magic the pointer had similar behavioral issues, but more intense. Balto wasa greyhound mix who just could not stop barking and jumping and spinning and biting. I still wonder if Magic and Fred and Balto could have thrived in my home, with a solid trainer and lots of exercise. None of the trio were dangerous — just far too much dog for the average owner. It’s awful to say, and perhaps this is compassion fatigue talking, but I’m honestly not 100% sure what happened to those three dogs. I believe that one or two were euthanized while another was adopted to an active home.

I still think that Rocco, and dogs like him, are best off in programs with a strong fostering community and some behavioral medications. Rocco was a cattle dog, gorgeous blue-ticked with a black mask. He’d been crated 23 hours per day before coming to the shelter, and had a few bites on his record to a child who’d crawled into his crate more than once. Rocco was so anxious that he’d crawl into your lap and stare off into the distance, trembling. We kept him in the training room to decompress for hours, but he’d just whine and pace, whine and pace. I wanted so badly to keep that dog, to put him on behavioral medications and give him long decompression walks, to see if he could be helped. But our veterinary staff said he wasn’t a candidate for medication, and I was leaving for a 16-month international road trip in mere days. On my last week of work at the shelter, I led that little dog into the euthanasia room and held him and cried.

Most recently, a dog came across my inbox as a candidate for Working Dogs for Conservation. She was a gorgeous little border collie, with blue checkers and a black mask and brown legs (I have a type). She, too, had several bites on her record. With very little warning, she’d bite people if they changed position after seeming “totally fine” for minutes or hours. She wasn’t quite drive-y enough for Working Dogs, but I cried when I couldn’t take her — and I’d never even met her. The shelter administration wasn’t comfortable adopting her out (again — she’d already had a few homes), and if a job didn’t take her, she was done. I have little doubt that she could have thrived in a skilled foster home.

In some shelters around the country, Roxy would have been an easy euthanasia call. In some others around the country, I have no doubt that Fred and Magic and Balto could have been adopted out (perhaps as some manic three-dog bikejoring team — they did come through the shelter in the same month).

It wasn’t just dogs. There was Callie, a little calico who bit when handled and swatted if petted. No matter — lots of cats struggle with this sort of overstimulation. She was on our adoption floor until she came down with pinkeye — easy enough to treat if you can handle the cat. But we couldn’t handle her safely to give her eye drops. And without treatment, she’d suffer. Callie might have made it in a smaller shelter with more time for the veterinary and behavior teams to work together on the case.

Then there was Greyjoy, a cat who lost all her teeth from an infection but was so scared in the shelter that she simply curled in a ball in the middle of her kennel, staring out in space, refusing to move for food or petting or anything at all. It seemed cruel to even keep her alive in the shelter. A foster reported zero affiliative behavior, but she wasn’t a candidate for our working cat program because, well, she had no teeth. It’s a bit harder to think of a setup where Greyjoy could have succeeded, but she wasn’t really an obvious euthanasia decision nonetheless.

Of course, there were several other grey zone dogs that were eventually adopted out. There were many times where skilled and experienced staff members disagreed about the decision for a dog that was ultimately adopted. But they don’t stick in my head quite as prominently.

Programs to help reduce grey zone decisions

In retrospect, there are some things I wish we could have tried with certain grey zone animals. Our behavior foster program just never seemed to be able to get off the ground, but I have little doubt that some of those dogs and cats could have thrived in a dedicated home. Our foster families were happy to take on undersocialized kittens or fearful dogs, but high-energy dogs and overstimulated cats? Not so much. It is clear to me that a behavioral foster program likely would have helped enormously.

I also wonder a lot about behavioral medications. The shelter simply didn’t seem to use them much. I wonder if there were options that our healthcare staff didn’t know they could explore.

These animals were already being cared for in an amazing shelter. The behavior staff of seven worked through excellent clicker-training behavior modification protocols and took them on training walks if that was beneficial. (Some of our highly fearful dogs preferred not to go on walks and were trained in their kennels). They really had a lot going for them. But for some of them, it wasn’t enough.

Things might turn out differently in another shelter. For example, shelters without full-time behavioral or veterinary staff would likely not consider the examples above grey zone — they’d be too tough without question. In shelters where space is a huge constraint and it’s a struggle to even find space, dogs like Roxy or Balto might be relatively straightforward decision.

But in a shelter with more resources — a strong behavioral foster program, behavioral medications, hiking programs, large kennels, and the opportunity for ultra-long-term residents — might consider some of the dogs, like Rocco or Magic, to be quite adoptable. The odds tip even more in the favor of a dog like Magic if that shelter is also located in an outdoorsy, active, dog-friendly community.

The goal shouldn’t be to eliminate all “grey zone” decisions. It’s hard to imagine shelter work without tough calls. Even in shelters with every available resource, there will still be grey zone dogs. It’s a moving goal post.