Our Struggle With An Aggressive Dog

Some of you may know that we have a 14 year old Basset Hound named Murray.  He has always been aggressive, since 6 weeks of age, but lately things have been escalating and we aren't sure what the future will bring.  He is a great dog 99% of the time, but when we have a lot of incidences in a small window of time, I get concerned for the safety of those around him.

We were Murray's second family, but we knew him since he was first adopted at 6 weeks of age.  Aaron and I inherited him during my last year of veterinary school, when I was in clinical rotations.  I remember being in the hospital for 24 hr shifts and coming home to a howling ultrasonic whining hound dog that wouldn't let me sleep.  We would try to ignore his cries in the crate at night, but you can't let them scream themselves to sleep when you have apartment neighbors.  Thankfully, our old girl Fred helped put him in his place early on, but they would still get into fights on occasion.  

We learned to avoid certain triggers, to pick up on his body language when he was about to explode, and to prevent any major injuries over the last decade.  He was food aggressive, so we separated him at feeding time and unfortunately, we could not give him bones or chews of any type.  He guards and protects his resources, so toys were out of the picture as well.  We were never able to get anything out of his mouth, so we have experienced multiple foreign body procedures.  Small birds and mammals stand no chance against this particular hound dog.

On his annual exam last year, I detected an anal gland tumor.  We know he doesn't have much time with us, so we started giving him some toys and having him play upstairs in the living room.  Before this, we were afraid to bring him in the living room, as this is toddler toy central in the house.  If he decided to swallow something, he could do it in a flash and I would never know it was missing.  He has been playing well with our new rescue, Abbi.  Luckily Abbi is submissive and just lets him have his way.  She tries to play tug-o-war with him, but he just freaks out and we see his crazy eye and snarl starting.  So she drops the toy and walks away.  

Short of him urinating on the carpet (I don't even want to go there right now), things were going really well.  He was spending more time with us and snuggling and being a better family dog.  A couple of weeks ago, the two dogs were drinking out of the same water bowl, which they have done countless times before, and Murray growled and lunged at Abbi.  Dog fights always sound terrible, but no wounds were found on either dog.  This was the first time Murray was ever aggressive about the water bowl, so we thought maybe we missed some other trigger.  Then a week later, Murray was walking past the kitchen table and Pasquale swatted him in the face.  A nail was caught on Murray's nose and Murray lost it.  Aaron was right there to pull Murray back, but redirected aggression led to a full thickness puncture wound (that probably should have been sutured) and a 9 inch bruised forearm to Aaron.  A few days later, we had to more incidents.  One scared Charlie to the point he wouldn't talk for 30 minutes until he calmed down, and the second one was another lunge at the water bowl at the 14 year old cat.

To say the least, aggression is never okay, but there isn't a black and white answer to this.  On one hand, we can isolate him in the basement, but this is not a quality of life.  On the other hand, do we let him back upstairs where he could really harm one of the animals or even one of us?  I would never be able to forgive myself if he caused serious damage to one of the cats or to Charlie.  His cancer has been growing, so do we humanely put him to sleep now?  He has so much life in him and he is not suffering or in pain from the cancer at this point.  You would never know he was sick.  Then I wonder if I am going to cause psychological damage to Charlie if he realizes that his mom is able to end "HIS" dog's life.  Charlie constantly refers to Murray as "HIS" dog. 

I may be taking a risk, but we are letting him back upstairs to be part of the family.  No more toys.  No more communal water bowls.  No kids plates/bowls/food allowed in the vicinity.  Remember to leave a leash on him at all times to be able to pull him away from a distance.  Take out for walks every hour.  Watch him every second for any changes in body language.  Isolation at feeding time.  Lots of things to remember, but so far, we haven't had an issue.  I am hoping that his remaining time in this world will be full of love and free of aggression.

Dr. Leah Wulforst