The Ethicist: Weighing a Canine Conundrum
JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
It's not quite the dog days of summer yet, but we do have a canine question this week for our ethicist, Randy Cohen. He writes The Ethicist column for The New York Times Magazine and helps keep our listeners on a short leash.
Mr. RANDY COHEN (Columnist, The New York Times Magazine): Hi, Jennifer.
LUDDEN: And we have Lisa on the line. She did not want us to use her full name.
LISA (Listener): Hi there.
LUDDEN: Tell us about your problem.
LISA: Well, a couple of weeks ago, completely unprovoked, my dog of five years nipped my neighbor's ankle.
LISA: And since that time we have really been struggling with whether or not it is appropriate to keep a dog who has actually bitten a human being.
LUDDEN: Have there been any more incidents since then?
LISA: No, there haven't. And, fortunately, our neighbor is doing very well, and there haven't been any lingering problems as a result. But we've been talking with our dog trainer and what have you about, you know, how we can manage this in the future if we decide to keep her.
LUDDEN: Did the trainer have any good advice?
LISA: Yes. The trainer has had some really great ideas, and we're very happy to, you know, try to implement those things. But at the same time every day we go through the question of: Should we keep her or should we put her down, or should we turn her over to someone who is maybe more experienced in dealing with problems like this?
LUDDEN: Randy, what do you think Lisa should do?
Mr. COHEN: Well, you certainly shouldn't think about euthanizing a dog because it bit one person one time. And, you know, the neighbor may say the dog was unprovoked, but I want the dog's side of the story. That--I mean, I've never met your neighbor, who I'm sure is a very nice person. Another way to think about the question is: Does your dog represent an ongoing danger to other people? And if that's so, then you have to take some action but nothing, I think, as dire as you're suggesting; that I think it's really--working with your dog trainer is a great way to start.
There's the concept of the fence. If the dog is uneasy around--say, some dogs find the herky-jerky motions of children or, you know, ungraceful people like me sort of threatening-looking. So you might want to separate the dog, isolate the dog from people the dog perceives as a threat. In extreme cases, you might think about muzzling the dog if you're out walking amongst other people. But animals have real moral standing, and they're a real responsibility once you've let one into your life, and you can't so casually think about killing a dog.
LISA: Well, it's definitely not a casual thought, and it's just one of the three options that we realize that we have. And that, of course, is the worst option to us because she's been a loved member of our family for five years. And we've worked really hard with her, and this is a totally out-of-character behavior.
LUDDEN: Well, out of curiosity, Lisa, what did the trainer suggest?
LISA: The trainer has suggested a program that would be pretty intensive, that we can start doing immediately, to really recondition her response to strangers.
LUDDEN: Well, Lisa, good luck.
LISA: Thank you very much. I appreciate your time.
LUDDEN: If you've got a question for Randy or if you want to whack him on the head with a rolled-up newspaper, write us at email@example.com. Put the word `ethics' in the subject line, and please include a phone number so we can reach you.
Randy, thanks for joining us.
Mr. COHEN: My pleasure, Jennifer.
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