Are pitbulls aggressive or is it that the human caretaker is aggressive? - photo Shaojin Alianto Tio (Flickr)
I am learning and exploring dog temperament testing. I expect similar methods apply to cats. I am concerned with the assessment of a dog's temperament in relation to deciding whether the dog should live or die as this is what happens in animal shelters in the USA and I presume other countries.
Dogs brought to shelters are assessed for their adoptability. Dogs that are seriously ill and/or aggressive are "euthanised" on the basis that no one should adopt them.
This places a heavy burden on the accuracy of the assessment and on the staff testing the dog. Nathan Winograd in his book Redemption says that, "over 90% of dogs entering shelters are neither hopelessly suffering nor vicious, yet are being treated as such". By implication therefore over 90% are killed and not rehomed.
He says that the problem lies not with the dogs but the mentality of the shelter directors in not truly committing to a philosophy of No Kill, and as a consequence using a dog temperament test that is badly flawed and which errs towards dogs failing a temperament test when they are in fact perfectly adoptable.
To quote Nathan Wingograd, briefly, if I may:
"...in many - if not most - shelters across the country (USA), dogs are being killed as unadoptable based on deeply flawed test results that are wrong more than they are right, where different staff could easily get different results and with very poor predictive validity in the home...."
I am shocked to read that as it means that hundreds of thousands perhaps millions of dogs and cats are being killed in cat shelters when they shouldn't be.
He also makes the point that cats held unnaturally in small cages will necessarily behave in a fearful manner, the environment making it all but impossible to assess a cat's character.
The Tompkins County shelters are committed to no kill and have truly achieved this as I understand it. Lets remember that the phase, No Kill, can mean different things to different people. It is a flexible term even though it shouldn't be. If No Kill means "we don't kill any animal that we don't need to", then a lot of No Kill shelters are not No Kill shelters because they are killing unnecessarily. If No Kill means that no animals are killed, very few shelters achieve this.
Tompkins County shelters use different methods for testing dog temperament than that which is usually practiced throughout America. This leads me on to another controversial and shocking point that Mr Winograd makes. He says that the dog temperament test most commonly used by animal shelters is one devised by a certain expert, namely Sue Sternberg. Sue Sternberg is still featured on the internet. Here for example is an audio/video:
In 1999 Sue Sternberg conducted a seminar at the invitation of the San Francisco SPCA. She tested 8 dogs and failed 5 (62%) as being unsuitable for adoption on the grounds of temperament.
The San Francisco SPCA disagreed and adopted the dogs. The five she failed for aggression were successfully rehomed without "any significant behavioral issues". Of the three she passed as adoptable, one came back on the basis of inter-dog aggression and a bite of the caretaker. In short Sue was drastically wrong. And her methods are or were (I hope the latter) the foremost in the country.
When it comes to deciding between life and death of our companion animals we should expect high standards of decision making, shouldn't we? It seems that either carelessness or a conspiracy exists. Is it possible for so many shelters and high profile administrators to get it wrong? Is their a conspiracy to kill under the cover of a misrepresentation that a high proportion of dogs and cats are unadoptable? And if so why a conspiracy? Is big business behind this. Is the market in dead dogs and cats too valuable to stop?
Sounds bizarre and extreme. But I think not. Eliza has posted two stories recently about animal cruelty. They concerned two dogs, shot for the hell of it. Is this worse than the yearly, legalized slaughter of millions of cats and dogs that need not be killed? And remember not all shelters employ humane killing techniques.