Matching dogs and people

Susan Sternberg helps shelters evaluate “fantastic dogs”



Introduction

Animal shelters often face two major obstacles in finding new homes for dogs: they are located in out-of-the-way places and they lack expertise or resources that help them match a dog or cat with an appropriate family.

Many shelters deal with the first roadblock by bringing the animals to the potential adopters at off-site adoption locations in pet supply stores and in mobile adoption centers. Now they can overcome the second barrier as well by applying methods devised by dog trainer and behaviorist Susan Sternberg to evaluate the temperament of shelter dogs.

Sternberg operates a training center, boarding kennel, and small shelter in New York. She worked at the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and at a shelter in Massachusetts, and has been conducting seminars for the past four years. On April 25, Sternberg presented her shelter dog program at the Humane Society of Indianapolis, Indiana, for about 50 people involved in shelter operations and breed rescue.

Sternberg departed from conventional wisdom that says a dog’s breed should be considered in a temperament evaluation; instead, she said, all dogs should be considered as individuals with no breed-based dispensation for behavior she considers unacceptable for adoption. Some people in the audience questioned her negative evaluation of a Rottweiler-hound mix as unadoptable because the dog was agitated, suspicious, and highly distracted with people and aggressive with another dog. They said that her behavior was not atypical of Rottweilers when stressed and a few brief minutes with her were not enough to make that decision. Sternberg stuck to her decisions, however.


The shelter as temporary home

“A kennel is a horrible place for a dog,” Sternberg said, adding that a kennel is easy and convenient, but doesn’t take care of the dog’s emotional well-being.

She encouraged shelters to make decisions about dogs based on the animals’ behavior and temperament, not on lack of space or length of stay in the facility, and to match people with particular dogs to increase the chances of successful adoption.

“More people would come to the shelter if it wasn’t such a crap shoot — Russian roulette,” she said. “We can’t expect people to come and adopt if we’re not going to give them the right dog.”

The evaluation of the dog should get past breed biases and personal likes and dislikes, Sternberg told the crowd. Behavior problems bother some people and not others. All dogs have behavior problems, but owners learn to compromise.

“What’s a problem for you isn’t necessarily a problem for me,” she said. “It’s not about good temperament or bad temperament, it’s what people want to live with.”

Shelter workers should learn as much as possible about the dog before conducting the evaluation. For example, she noted that dogs surrendered by their owners generally show more separation anxiety than dogs picked up as strays and said that all dogs should be observed for two or three days before the test to see how they react to the stress of impoundment.


The test

Sternberg cautioned shelter workers that the testing process can be dangerous and should never be done alone. The dog should always be restrained with a leather noose leash for gentle and firm control. She begins the test with a quick “safety scan” of the dog’s behavior to determine if further testing is advisable. She looks for:

  1. Dogs that are sexually mature are capable of intense or severe aggression. They are more likely to have bitten in the past and must be handled with caution.
  2. Cautious dogs that remain uncomfortable with the tester or with the environment after several minutes.
  3. Aroused dogs that appear hyperactive, unfocused, or reactive or exhibit signs of stress.
  4. Dogs that exhibit no signs of friendliness.
  5. Red flag dogs should be treated with caution or left in the kennel for a longer period of adjustment before testing.

After initial observations, Sternberg proceeds with a teeth exam conducted five times for five seconds each time. This involves lifting the dog’s lips to look at its teeth and evaluating the response. She notes whether the dog struggles or is tractable and whether the exam gets easier or more difficult.

Next comes the hug done only in this manner: With the dog standing in front of her and facing to the right, she slowly brings her right arm up under the dog’s neck and then quickly grabs the back of her own neck with her right hand. At this point, she has put the dog in a gentle but firm hammer-lock and is facing towards the dog’s back end. Talking baby-talk to the dog, Sternberg notes whether the dogs is tense, panicky, growly, or relaxed. She also notes whether the dog remains close after the hug, seeks more affection, is aloof; or actively snubs her.

The remaining tests are designed to determine whether the dog likes to be petted, enjoys interaction with people, is sensitive to a noise made by the tester, guards food or toys, has had prior obedience training, can be easily aroused, has a high prey drive, is willing to guard the tester against a strange person, accepts tail tugging and body-pinching, and reacts to babies and other animals.

The answers to the test should help shelter workers match the dog with a new home. A dog that doesn’t like to be hugged, guards food or toys, or reacts anxiously or aggressively to pinching or to the baby doll may be too tough or fearful for a household with children. A dog that is easily aroused and slow to calm down and has a high level of activity may not be suitable for a quiet, sedate owner and one with the opposite behavior may not be appropriate for someone who wants to jog with his dog or try agility.


The dogs

Sternberg evaluated several dogs in the shelter.

For several hours, Sternberg demonstrated her method of evaluating dogs for adoption rather than consigning them to death based on time limits or a need for space. She encouraged shelters to match dogs with potential adopters and market themselves so that people want to adopt a dog instead of buying one.

The idea is to convince people that shelter dogs are not necessarily pathetic or abused and that adopters don’t have to be saints.

“I want people to think of the shelter as THE place to get a fantastic dog,” she said.


Shelter workers should learn about behavior, training

This information was given as a handout at Sue Sternberg’s clinic for shelter workers at the Humane Society of Indianapolis in April. Pet owners can use this information to recognize and deal with behavior problems and to evaluate shelters much as they would evaluate breeders as an appropriate source of a new pet.

Many dogs that are surrendered to animal shelters have either never been trained, or training has been attempted but failed. Often these dogs are perceived by the owner to have a behavior problem that they do not know how to solve and no longer will tolerate.

Behavior problems do not magically go away while a dog is sheltered. In fact, many behavior problems are aggravated by being sheltered or kenneled, so that a dog may be adopted and returned a number of times. It’s not always “bad,” uncaring, uncommitted people surrendering or returning “good” dogs, but frustrated and misinformed people returning problematic or difficult dogs.

Learning more about temperament and behavior can help frustrated owners deal more effectively with their pets before the situation gets so bad the owner wants to give up. Learning more about dog behavior can help match prospective adopters more accurately with appropriate dogs and can help the shelter identify true problem dogs.

  1. Learning about behavior and training can give a shelter the knowledge necessary to successfully assess and re-home its dogs. Counseling prospective adopters about potential behavior problems and ways to avert trouble spots can make a difference between a successful permanent placement or a return.
  2. Understanding behavior problems, their treatment, management, and cure can make shelter workers more empathetic and sympathetic towards adopters and people considering surrender of a pet. What often seems like irresponsibility or lack of commitment may actually be a frustrated pet owner who has not yet received valid, effective advice.
  3. The animal shelter should be a full-service resource for the community. If the public would turn to the shelter for behavior and training advice and not just as a last resort before surrendering a dog, the shelter image would reflect better in the public eye and would be given a new respect and authority in the community.

Help in recognizing and dealing with behavior problems and evaluating shelters

The following information was extracted from a handout at Sue Sternberg’s clinic for shelter workers at the Humane Society of Indianapolis in April. Pet owners can use this information to recognize and deal with behavior problems and to evaluate shelters much as they would evaluate breeders as an appropriate source of a new pet.

Many dogs that are surrendered to animal shelters have either never been trained, or training has been attempted but failed. Often these dogs are perceived by the owner to have a behavior problem that they do not know how to solve and no longer will tolerate.

Behavior problems do not magically go away while a dog is sheltered. In fact, many behavior problems are aggravated by being sheltered or kenneled, so that a dog may be adopted and returned a number of times. It’s not always “bad,” uncaring, uncommitted people surrendering or returning “good” dogs, but frustrated and misinformed people returning problematic or difficult dogs.

Learning more about temperament and behavior can help frustrated owners deal more effectively with their pets before the situation gets so bad the owner wants to give up. Learning more about dog behavior can help match prospective adopters more accurately with appropriate dogs and can help the shelter identify true problem dogs.

  1. Learning about behavior and training can give a shelter the knowledge necessary to successfully assess and re-home its dogs. Counseling prospective adopters about potential behavior problems and ways to avert trouble spots can make a difference between a successful permanent placement or a return.
  2. Understanding behavior problems, their treatment, management, and cure can make shelter workers more empathetic and sympathetic towards adopters and people considering surrender of a pet. What often seems like irresponsibility or lack of commitment may actually be a frustrated pet owner who has not yet received valid, effective advice.
  3. The animal shelter should be a full-service resource for the community. If the public would turn to the shelter for behavior and training advice and not just as a last resort before surrendering a dog, the shelter image would reflect better in the public eye and would be given a new respect and authority in the community.
Norma Bennett Woolf

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