January 10, 2010

The trouble with "temperament tests." Also: Oreo

Fish-belly white and dressed to depress: it's "Sue Sternberg’s essential temperament assessment tool." Because nothing says "I'm great with kids!" like exhibiting confusion or shutting down when you're starving and they give you food and then some schlemiel starts poking you in the face with a stinky piece of plastic.

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 humane [Gaaack...! Sorry, I choked there for a minute] "humane" group tested the dogs. Each hungry dog [most were noticeably below a healthy weight, the blogger said] was given a dish of canned food, and after the dog had taken a couple ravenous gulps, the fake hand was used to try to take the food away. Any dog that growled or snapped was labeled unadoptable and slated to be killed.

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"?

It depends.
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.

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.
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.]
What sort of life would Oreo have had, in a sanctuary?

That’s a good question to ask BEFORE you kill the dog. [Source]
Seriously, how could anyone imagine that question wasn't asked before Oreo was euthanized?
"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)


Heather Houlahan said...

Don't forget the most depressingly damning, or damningly depressing, development of the Oreo debacle:


As a volunteer with a 501(c)3 rescue that is very much closer to the "save 'em all, make it work" end of the spectrum than the Sterberg-esque "find a reason to kill 'em" end, I shudder at the thought that we would be legally forced to hand over an animal to some other rescue after the organization had made the hard decision that euthanasia would be just that. (This has not happened often, but it has happened, and it was the right call.) We own the dog. We get no taxpayer funds, are not a public agency. Why should a hard decision by a 501(c)3 about a dog they own be treated any differently than the same decision by a private person? Or is the next step going to be to mandate that individuals turn over their dangerous or suffering dogs to any rescue that cares to claim them?

It should not be a shock to anyone that animal rescue organizations are not invariably staffed by clear-headed pragmatists with healthy ego boundaries and rich sources of personal and professional validation.

I have the scars on my body core to testify to the perceptual and moral failures of one such breed rescue. I thank doG every day that it was me the beast went after, and not the new adopters' grandchild. He meant to kill.

Luisa said...

Heather, thanks. Here's a direct link to the site you posted.

"Or is the next step going to be to mandate that individuals turn over their dangerous or suffering dogs to any rescue that cares to claim them?"

Given the ignorance of most legislators and the decibels produced by the Cult of No Death Ever, I'm afraid I could see that happening.

Unknown said...

Oh geez, you're making me think and stuff. Darn you!

My pit bull failed her temperament test. Too shy. Yeah, seriously. Her life, which eight years later is full of not-so-shy moments, would have ended. Scary stuff. T-tests are tools. That's it. They shouldn't result in an automatic death sentence.

I disagree about "oreo's law" - the same law works great here in California. It's been around for years and we haven't seen the kind of fallout the fear-mongering crowd is claiming will happen. We have seen more dogs transferred to appropriate rescues than ever before. Reduced kill rates. That's good, in my book. I see no logical reason why it wouldn't work in New York.

Heather Houlahan said...

My understanding is that the Hayden law applies only to public pounds, not 501(c)3's.

Big difference.

Luisa said...

Oreo's law
Hayden's Law

I am not a lawyer, but Hayden does seem to address the issue of a dog or cat with "a behavioral or temperamental defect that could pose a health or safety risk or otherwise make the animal unsuitable for placement as a pet." If the shelter believes such a dog "is not adoptable" and will not "become adoptable with reasonable efforts," the shelter is not obliged by Hayden to relinquish the dog to a rescue group. In my interpretation, anyway, and as I said, IANAL.

More link goodness:

Hayden Law analysis
Hayden Law Update
[both from Maddie's Fund]

Luisa said...

Heather — I think you're right. And yes, that's a big diff.

Rinalia said...

The Hayden Act applies to private and public shelters. I don't know how New York's codes define "adoptable animal", but that would be the only key discrepancy if they don't define it the same way as California. Oreo's Law does not apply to all 501(c)3, but only duly incorporated SPCA's and Humane Societies as well as county/city shelters publicly or privately contracted. That's just like the Hayden Act.

But check it out:
Sec 12:31108....Does this look familiar?

" (b) Any stray dog that is impounded pursuant to this division
shall, prior to the killing of that animal for any reason other than
irremediable suffering, be released to a nonprofit, as defined in
Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, animal rescue or
adoption organization if requested by the organization prior to the
scheduled killing of that animal. In addition to any required spay
or neuter deposit, the pound or shelter, at its discretion, may
assess a fee, not to exceed the standard adoption fee, for animals

Ore's Law is taken straight from the Hayden Act (the author chose to add the specific shelter info, but the Hayden Act still applies to private and public shelters).

Now, if, during analysis, lawyers or leg counsel feel there is confusion OR if opposition expresses their concern about the wording, stuff can be changed. Introduced bills rarely, if ever, retain original language. They go through all sorts of revisions. But to discard this bill entirely seems rash. Instead, focus on getting it to be like the Hayden Act (which, by the way, faced the EXACT SAME opposing arguments when it was introduced)...if you like the Hayden Act, that is. :)

BorderWars said...

My first exposure to Sue Sternberg was her lengthy appearance in the documentary "Shelter Dogs." It was easy to dismiss her as someone who cares deeply but ineffectually, is sort of a recluse-hoarder type with perhaps too many pets of her own, and yet is rather creepy in that she seems to thrive off of the plight of the dogs. Munchausen by Proxy.

Only later did I find out how influential she is, her lecture campaign, and the wide adoption of her "tests."

I think she is the closest thing to the dog Anti-Christ that there is. It frightens me that she's in the world, that people who have the power to kill my dogs listen to her, and that caring volunteers have bought into her notion that slapping a hungry dog in the face with a plastic hand is measuring something useful and predicative.

She isn't evil like some comic book villain or Snidely Whiplash, she's evil because she has effectively given people an excuse to free their guilt while they mass slaughter dogs rather haphazardly.

We know that the shelter mentality that she lives in is a failure and will always be a failure, so much so that "we kill them because we have to" is a self-fulfilling mandate. In that environment, Sternberg's tests provide absolution for sin, although they are as pointless as random executions or any other arbitrary system for picking which dogs get flushed.

themacinator said...

i am so so so so sorry that i read that thread (including comments) before i went to bed last night. i couldn't sleep. it was terrible. what happened to disagreeing without nastiness? on all sides. agree- emilys was amazingly un-nasty in the face of what was essnetially a mobscene of disagreeing. also love that someone linked to my post. aww, the blogging love :)

anyway, as usually, LGH, i think you've nailed it. yes, ttests suck, even if they're the tool we have ATM. and no, oreo wasn't the right dog for the sanctuary. and, even if petconnection didn't think it was relevant, that sanctuary wasn't right for that dog.

life is not black and white- the aspca is not good or evil, and sanctuary is not the opposite of the aspca.

thanks for speaking out.

Anonymous said...

Life isn't black and white. And those effing grey areas make decisions like 'to kill or not to kill' really difficult sometimes.

We've taken in several fosters who were described as dog-aggressive, human-aggressive, resource-guarders or a mix of all three. In many cases the problems just slip away once they're in a home with healthy structure and boundaries. But not always...

I had to hold a foster I couldn't fix in my arms while she died. It broke my heart to put her down - but after nine months with us she was still unpredictably dangerous. The people who gave her to me because they couldn't deal with her wailed and moaned about how hateful I was - but none of them (three previous homes) were willing to take her back.

It is absolutely terrible to have to make that kind of heart-breaking decision. But - I think that these decisions need to be made by people whose hearts are broken by them.

EmilyS said...

hey thanks for the shout out, Luisa! I'm rarely "accused" of keeping my cool. ;-)

I'm still peeved that no one, from Christie to Winograd has ever actually asked Sayres what was his personal involvement (if any) in the decision about Oreo; yet all felt free to attack him hysterically. (we aren't doing that journalmalism, thing, you know...) At some point it was no longer about Oreo at all...

Luisa said...

I think it was about Oreo to the extent that Nathan Winograd could use her as a weapon against Ed Sayres.

The Sayres-hate is eating Winograd alive, and it's not pretty.

Memorable quote: "[P]eople are questioning whether [Oreo] was truly as aggressive as Sayres is trying to make out. There have been unconfirmed reports that staff and volunteers have claimed the ASPCA is exaggerating, and the ASPCA has not yet released any videotapes of her which would shed light on the real extent of her alleged aggression. According to unconfirmed reports, two staff members indicated that while the dog did show aggression, she could also be very affectionate, and as a result, they felt she was treatable. Unconfirmed reports also indicate that staff members asked Sayres for a reprieve so she could be placed in a sanctuary. And finally, unconfirmed reports indicate that a volunteer was able to go in and handle Oreo, despite some aggression issues. I have not been able to verify the veracity of these claims..."
but so what — I'm going to post them all here anyway!

Stay classy, dude [shudders].

Anonymous said...

Whenever the internets are roiling with a canine kerfuffle, I come to Lassie Get Help for sanity and perspective.

No non-profit (outside of Peta, because when it comes to publicity they think way outside the box) would want to put down a celebrity rescue. Had Oreo worked out as an adoptable animal, there would have been more new stories and the more folks coming out to adopt and quite likely donations. She was the last dog they wanted to put down, I'm sure.