August 21, 2010

How San Diego Shelters Evaluate Animal Behavior Discussed at Summit

By RAY HUARD - North County Times - Californian Posted: Friday, August 20, 2010 6:16 pm

Too often, dogs and cats brought to animal shelters are euthanized because behavior problems make them unsuitable for adoption, according to officials with the San Diego Humane Society.

The Humane Society itself has come under fire from some volunteers at the former North County Humane Society for being too quick to kill animals that they said could be retrained and saved. The San Diego group absorbed the North County agency in January.

To get a better handle on behavior problems of shelter animals, the Humane Society assembled national and international animal behavior specialists for a two-day animal behavior summit that started Friday at the society's San Diego headquarters, said Renee Harris, the Humane Society's executive vice president of animal services.

The big question that behavior specialists will try to answer at the summit, Harris said, is "How can we address the animals in our shelters that are exhibiting behavior problems?"

Although the summit will deal with some of the issues raised by former volunteers at the North County shelter, Harris said it was planned well before agency took over the facility on San Luis Rey Road in Oceanside.

"We really want this to be a think tank to work through our issues," she said.

Critics have complained that animals that would have been put up for adoption in North County before the merger were shipped down to the Humane Society's San Diego shelter, where their behavior was assessed and those found wanting were put on a list to be euthanized.

Harris and Humane Society President Mark Goldstein have insisted that no healthy, adoptable animals are killed at the Humane Society.

"We have not had to euthanize a healthy or treatable animal for the past 10 years," Goldstein said.

The difficulty is defining what constitutes "treatable," Harris said. She said that's one of the things that will be refined coming out of the summit.
Typically, dogs and cats brought to an animal shelter are under stress.

With dogs, that can come out as aggression, or as fearful, submissive behavior and what animal control workers call "kennel stress neurosis."
"They may be licking the walls and won't stop. You even get a glassy look in their eyes," Harris said.

The challenge for organizations like the Humane Society is determining whether that stressed behavior is something that can be overcome with training, or whether the animals have been so stressed that their behavior has become ingrained.

"Maybe there's something we can do differently for those dogs to make them comfortable," Harris said. "What do we need to provide to make them different?"

Harris said the experts at the summit will look at the ways the Humane Society and other organizations assess animal behavior in determining whether a dog or cat is suitable for adoption, Harris said.

The whole issue of animal behavior in shelters "is sort of an evolving, unofficial science," said Michael Baehr, Humane Society marketing and communications director.

The seminar, which was scheduled to conclude Saturday, is part of the Humane Society's Paws to Success program, started in 2008, with a goal of developing programs so that by 2020, euthanasia of treatable animals will not be practiced in any San Diego County animal shelter, Goldstein said.

Conclusions and recommendations coming out of the seminar will be used by the Humane Society and other members of the San Diego Welfare Coalition to tailor programs to save more animals, Harris said.

Coalition members include the Escondido Humane Society, Rancho Coastal Humane Society, Chula Vista Animal Care Facility, San Diego County Department of Animal Services and El Cajon Animal Shelter, Harris said. She said the information would also would be shared with organizations that deal with abandoned and stray animals.

"We'll build our piece and then somebody else builds on that," Harris said.

Call staff writer Ray Huard at 760-901-4062

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