Shelter’s behavior assessment a flash point for former board members
By Jeff Ristine • San Diego Union-Tribune
Wednesday, October 20, 2010
Lilo is a golden-coated, 7-year-old mixed-breed relinquished to the San Diego Humane Society after neighbors complained she barked too much; Mason is a strapping American bulldog-mastiff mix picked up as a stray in North County and limping from a leg injury.
Separately, they’re being put through the paces of a behavior evaluation at the Humane Society’s Linda Vista campus, a 15-minute exam that uses a doll, a fake hand, a real cat and other instruments to assess the dogs’ temperament and sociability.
Used to determine what kind of adoption setting — if any — is appropriate for the animals, the test has become a flash point between critics who say it rationalizes euthanasia at the privately supported Humane Society and defenders who regard the evaluation as an essential and proven tool to protect public safety.
The test is a major issue in a growing rift among Humane Society supporters, as 17 former board members wrote a letter to the society this month questioning the agency’s policies and asking that the test be waived for docile breeds and animals with no history of aggression. The society says such lowered vigilance would put the public at risk.
The group of dissident former board members has grown from 11 last month. They are primarily concerned that the society is not living up to a promise — made during fundraising for its new shelter — to end euthanasia of treatable or adoptable pets in the county by 2005. The society now disavows that promise as a broader goal set by others. The former board members say it can be achieved with steps such as spay-and-neuter programs and easing the behavior assessment policies.
In the behavioral assessment of Lilo, she is a model dog, looking up at her handler with soft eyes, licking her lips during a hug, showing only mild annoyance when the fake hand touches her muzzle while she’s eating. Nothing bothers her.
Mason is more of a handful, tugging on his leash and jumping on the handler. He resists repeated efforts to examine his teeth. Mason blocks the hand while eating and jumps at the doll, being held like a baby. He lunges toward Fely, the black-and-white test cat.
Their behaviors differed, but both dogs proved themselves suitable to be offered to the public.
“I would consider (Lilo) for a novice owner,” said Renee Harris, senior vice president for animal services at the Humane Society, who oversees the behavior assessment program. Mason’s high excitability, Harris said, warrants at least a caution to potential owners with small children.
Detractors, however, tell stories of dogs rescued from euthanasia and then successfully placed in a loving home after reportedly getting poor marks in their evaluations.
Sheila O’Leary fostered and later adopted a 2-year-old wire-haired terrier mix that was deemed unadoptable after it growled at the rubber hand during a test. She is appalled that her dog, who behaves so well with her grandchildren, was so close to dying.
“He was going to be put down because he was food aggressive, but he was skinny,” O’Leary said. “If I was skin and bones I would be food aggressive, too. I gave him some food, put my hand in the bowl and he didn’t do anything. He is just a joy.”
Nan Arthur, a San Diego dog trainer and animal behavior consultant, said the typical three or four days at the shelter before a dog is tested isn’t enough to ensure a low-stress evaluation. “Some of these tests can push a dog into things that they normally wouldn’t do,” Arthur said.
The assessments Lilo and Mason passed are a modified version of a temperament test called Assess-a-Pet, developed 17 years ago in New York and now one of two internationally recognized assessment systems.
The tests are conducted in a room about 20 by 15 feet at the society’s Gaines Street headquarters, outfitted with framed photographs, an artificial ficus and a sign reading “The Pursuit of Happiness.” The tests are fully visible through a window to visitors strolling through the dog and cat showrooms.
Three shelter employees conduct each test: a handler, a “stranger” who comes in and interacts with the dog, and an observer taking notes.
In 22 steps, some lasting only seconds, the dogs are assessed for their reaction to affection, toys and minor annoyances. They’ll look for signs of “resource guarding” that can be a behavioral red flag.
Kelley Bollen, an animal-behavior consultant who studied more than 2,000 dogs for a project at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said Assess-a-Pet does identify dogs likely to show aggression.
“It really allows you to get to know the animal very well and screen out animals with aggressive tendencies,” Bollen said. It shows how dogs respond to “normal interactions with humans — things that will occur in the home,” she said.
Dogs that score low in sociability wouldn’t be appropriate for a home with small kids, she said, because “they can’t tolerate things children do to them.” Watching dogs’ reaction to hugging, for instance, is important because dogs tend to perceive it as a form of restraint, she said.
Critics of the test include some former volunteers and employees of the Humane Society along with members of rescue groups who say it’s becoming increasingly difficult to learn of dogs that may be facing euthanasia.
Teresa Baltao, co-founder of Coastal German Shepherd Rescue, said her group got word of an 8-week-old named Cannonball at the Humane Society’s Oceanside campus that was said to have failed its behavior test in April “because he was too aggressive and because he likes to bite.”
The group did its own evaluation, accepted the dog and put it in a home where it has exhibited no behavior problems, Baltao said.
“How do you flunk an 8-week-old puppy?” she asked, saying the dog may only have wanted to play and calling the temperament test “unrealistic.”
The Humane Society’s Harris said that in practice, Assess-a-Pet doesn’t work on a pass/fail basis. “We categorize them,” she said, sometimes working for weeks to modify inappropriate behavior to see if the dog can be made suitable for adoption.
Mark Goldstein, president of the San Diego Humane Society, said the organization cares as much as its critics do about animal welfare. He added, however, “We are responsible for putting animals back into the community … We look at it through the eyes of the public.”
Dawn Danielson, director of the San Diego County Department of Animal Services, said she introduced a standardized behavior-evaluation system similar to Assess-a-Pet in 2002 but scrapped it three years later. Rescue groups were reporting good results with dogs that had done poorly in the evaluations, and Danielson said she decided they were “more of a snapshot in time” than a way of predicting future behavior.
Now the staff at the shelter, which is adjacent to the Humane Society’s facility on Gaines, and volunteers who walk the dogs share their observations with prospective adoption families. Dogs that don’t fare well are offered up to rescue groups.
Danielson said the less formal system is working well and that “people seem to be happy with the dogs” from the county shelter. Nationally, however, the trend is toward more standardized testing.
“It’s tough,” Danielson said. “The jury is still out on who’s right.”