A smart woman who sometimes writes about pets blogged recently about her visit to a large, urban New England animal shelter. While she was there, she watched a number of behavior evaluations.
Volunteers from a local
This happened last week, people, in 20 effing 10. I could beat my head on rocks.
The HSUS has an endless apologia for the fake-hand, one-strike-and-you're-dead approach to temperament assessment. "Behavior evaluations are indispensable," sez the HSUS — although, gosh darn it, "evaluations can be adversely affected by uncontrollable factors such as stressful shelter environments." You think?
Over at the most excellent Dog Star Daily, Erica Houck Young has a more concise take. Excerpt:
The problem with temperament testing is that it doesn't give us an accurate portrait of a dog's personality/behavior [...] I won't rule out that some clues may be present, such as being wary of handling by strangers, while other things like resource guarding are the product of displaced stress. Each situation needs to be addressed separately and, hopefully, worked on. When I worked as an adoption manager at an SPCA I found that most of the in-kennel behaviors present in the adopted dog almost vanished completely at home. Dogs who resource guarded bowls didn't present any of that with their new families. Dogs who lunged and barked at dogs on leash were calm and going to dog parks without issue. On the other side of it, dogs with "no" issues in the shelter were resource guarding or having trouble with the resident dog they moved in with.Read the entire post here.
Keeping in mind that the plural of anecdote is, in fact, data, here are two anecdotes:
My little pit bull Bounce, the dearest dog ever and the dog with the most perfect, bomb-proof, happy, friendly temperament in the history of the universe, came home from the pound in a food-guarding frame of mind. It was an easy fix — but she probably would have bitten that stupid hand if our pound had employed it. [The shelter supervisor had been to a Sternberg seminar and told me, "That woman wants to kill everything." Have I mentioned how much I love my awesome local pound?] A pushy kindergartner could bury his little arms up to the elbows in Bounce's food dish now, and she'd just wag her tail and give him a lick.
The landshark, in contrast, was so shy and gentle and submissive and stove-up when I brought her home from the pound that she wouldn't touch her food unless I left the room. A few months later she had morphed into a resource-guarding switchblade on legs. Google "alpha bitch" and the results are all about Lulu. Kids? She hates 'em. But she would never have challenged that phony hand.
Erica Houck Young is tired of "pigeon-holing and biased interpretations based on NORMAL dog behavior in abnormal conditions." Toss the plastic finger of fate, in other words. Get the dog out of that concrete, chain-link prison and into a foster environment, and do some training. As the woman says, "It's energy better spent."
But what about abnormal dog behavior in a shelter setting? What should be done with a dangerous dog like Oreo? Should I have titled this post "I'm incredibly thankful Oreo is dead and not suffering like a Gitmo prisoner at the hands of people who think love makes everything better"?
What they did.
Oreo was the unpredictable young pit mix euthanized ["murdered," if that's your ideology] by the ASPCA last November.
The ASPCA was absolutely correct in its decision to euthanize Oreo, if you ask me. God bless them for having the courage to do what was right for the dog, when they knew it would be a public relations disaster of ginormous proportions.
The most horrible thing is not death -- it’s being stuck between life and death, not being able to die and not being able to get better. People in this situation are called zombies. The American culture likes zombies because they make money.[prairiemary]From USA Today:
Oreo lunged and snarled at dogs and people, often growing so angry when she couldn't reach them that she'd redirect her anger at the closest person. She often raged without any clear stimulant at all, as if there was something simmering deep inside her that spilled over without warning.And the sanctuary demanding that the dog be handed over to them? God help us. UPDATE: it was a lot worse than I imagined. [H/T to Heather H in the comments section.]
She had 59 sessions of about 45 minutes each to try to dampen her reactiveness and unpredictability. Nothing worked. "We have one behaviorist who fears nothing when it comes to dogs. About once every three years she's afraid of one. She was afraid of Oreo," Sayres said.
They called in an outside veterinary behaviorist. She expressed grave concerns. It might be possible to drug Oreo every day so she'd pose less threat, the vet said, but the drugs might, as they sometimes (though rarely) do, make her worse.
What sort of life would Oreo have had, in a sanctuary?Seriously, how could anyone imagine that question wasn't asked before Oreo was euthanized?
That’s a good question to ask BEFORE you kill the dog. [Source]
"Unless she was put in virtually complete isolation," she'd live a "life of constant stress," [the ASPCA's Stephen Zawistowski, a Ph.D. behaviorist who was deeply involved in Oreo's treatment] said. She was so reactive to so many things that she was almost always agitated. "We tried to desensitize her, and that tended to make her more reactive. The kind of love, attention and handling that has worked with so many other dogs made her more hostile," he said. Drugging her might have lowered her aggression, but if drugs succeeded, "you have to be certain someone would always maintain and monitor this treatment for the next 12 to 14 years … and there can be organ damage over time." And finally, complete isolation from all people and animals is "not a quality of life we can accept." [Source]
Could Oreo's condition have improved with all that love waiting for her at Pets Alive? Oh, absolutely — and I'm sure Terri Schiavo would have regained consciousness if only her evil doctors had prayed harder. Let's keep Terri on life support forever, and keep trying stuff! Maybe something will work! Excuse my shudder. A dog "in a state of constant stress" due to genetics and/or brain trauma is not, should not, be a kind of guinea pig for rescue groups to take turns experimenting on.
It speaks volumes that of the individuals protesting Oreo's "murder" and demanding the removal of the ASPCA's Ed Sayres, not one, as far as I know, is a veterinary behaviorist, a dog trainer, or a person active and experienced in pit bull rescue.
On its Oreo page, Pets Alive asks, "How is being DEAD rather than alive better for [Oreo's] welfare?"
If they have to ask, they are too ignorant of the scope of canine health and behavior to be given responsibility for a dog like Oreo. [I'm inclined to think they're too overwrought to be given responsibility for a goldfish, but that's just cold, analytical me.] The tragedy is that if Oreo's Law passes, a decision by a group of trainers, veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists could be overruled by any rescue with a 501(c)(3); and an agitated, reactive dog in constant stress might be kept alive for years — warehoused — not because this benefits the dog in any way, but because it makes the rescue group feel so good about itself.
Have to add a heartfelt golf clap for Emily S., who kept her cool in this thread despite the snark, the sanctimony and the personal attacks. Ironic that she was probably the only person in the thread with rescued pit bulls of her own.
Bark Magazine article on temperament testing: Dog is in the Details
Maddie's Fund: Behavioral Assessment in Animal Shelters (2007)