Thursday, August 03, 2017

Killing Dogs in Shelters and Other "Humane" Tales

In an earlier post, I detailed how the "humane" industry came to be the #1 killer of dogs and cats in this country and the irony of how the local kill center came to be called a "shelter".

Now The New York Times has detailed one reason that so many dogs continue to be put down at shelters, and it has a lot to do with phony "temperament" tests concocted by people who mean well, but who are using a
"test" that does do what it says
, has never been evaluated, and is often being administered by people with little or no training.

Bacon, a cream-colored retriever mix, took a behavior test recently at an animal shelter here. He flunked.

Bounding into the evaluation room, Bacon seemed like an affable goofball, ready for adoption. But as he gulped down food, Dr. Sara Bennett, a veterinary behaviorist, stuck a fake plastic hand attached to a pole into his bowl and tugged it away. Instantly, Bacon lunged at the hand, chomping down on it hard.

Shelters have used this exercise and others for some 20 years to assess whether a dog is safe enough to be placed with a family. For dogs, the results can mean life or death.

“If you failed aggression testing, you did not pass go,” said Mary Martin, the new director of Maricopa County animal shelter in Phoenix, which takes in 34,000 dogs annually. Between January and June 2016, 536 dogs were euthanized for behavior, most because of test results.

But now researchers, including some developers of the tests, are concluding that they are unreliable predictors of whether a dog will be aggressive in a home. Shelters are wrestling with whether to abandon behavior testing altogether in their work to match dogs with adopters and determine which may be too dangerous to be released.

Is there anything easier to fix than resource guarding? Is there any place and time worse to test a dog for behavior than at a shelter where it has been surrounded for 24 hours by unknown barking dogs and constant chaos and commotion?

“During the most stressful time of a dog’s life, you’re exposing it to deliberate attempts to provoke a reaction,” Dr. Patronek said. “And then the dog does something it wouldn’t do in a family situation. So you euthanize it?”

To be clear, the "humane" movement did not start with a desire to kill dogs (read this link), and doggy behavior tests were similarly designed with a good end in mind.

In the surge to modernize shelters, tests were an attempt to standardize measurements of a dog’s behavior. But evaluations often became culling tools. With overcrowding a severe problem and euthanasia the starkest solution, shelter workers saw testing as an objective way to make heartbreaking decisions. Testing seemed to offer shelters both a shield from liability and a cloak of moral responsibility.

“We thought we had the magic bullet,” said Aimee Sadler, a shelter consultant. “‘Let’s let Lassie live and let Cujo go.’ From a human perspective, what a relief.”

But the tests were never evaluated for effectiveness, and when they were, they failed. They predict very little, and they are administered by shelter workers with no qualifications who generally cannot teach a dog to stop even the most common of unwanted behaviors.

Dogs thrive on routine and social interaction. The transition to a shelter can be traumatizing, with its cacophony of howls and barking, smells and isolating steel cages. A dog afflicted with kennel stress can swiftly deteriorate: spinning; pacing; jumping like a pogo stick; drooling; and showing a loss of appetite. It may charge barriers, appearing aggressive.

Conversely, some dogs shut down in self-protective, submissive mode, masking what may even be aggressive behavior that only emerges in a safe setting, like a home.

The bottom line is that tests that were never tested, administered by people without training, and done in a high-stress and bizarre location have been used for decades to justify the killing of millions of healthy dogs.

Humane movement? A "shelter"? I'm not sure we've been using the right words for what's been going on down at the pound.


Stoutheartedhounds said...

The article that this came from was discussing the issue of placing potentially dangerous dogs into people's homes, not about the humane/no-kill movement. And I think it brings up a valid concern. If shelter staff cannot accurately identify dogs that would make great pets, then how can they accurately identify dogs that might kill or maim someone? It seems like there just aren't enough people (whether it's shelter staff or potential adopters or even rescue volunteers) who know how to properly evaluate and assess a dog's behavior, let alone manage the dog once it's been adopted. I honestly don't know what the solution is. Is it worse to kill a dog who fails a temperament test but who would make a great pet, or is it worse to adopt a dog out to the public who then goes on to bite and injure people?

Anonymous said...

Many moons ago a fellow dog trainer and I were running a training class for volunteers at a shelter. One of the kennel staff wanted us to work with a large coonhound that had been surrendered because he was sure it would be a great family pet. All I can say is thankfully he steered it towards our program and the dog wasn't adopted out. It is the first (and last) time I have ever had to string a dog up to keep my face intact. And I am fortunate there was another experienced dog trainer to help me get the dog back to a kennel. Most shelter personnel are not skilled observers and not knowledgeable about dogs. "Testing" is a matter of rote - here is the list of things to do so just run down the list. The value of observing a dog in the kennel over time seems to be ignored. It really isn't that difficult to evaluate a shelter dog if one knows how to observe. The problem I am currently seeing is that there is the belief that "every" dog is adoptable (plus the numbers game -- it doesn't matter if the dog is suitable for a certain home or not, just adopt it out anyway.)