Behavioral Assessments in Shelters

  For a long time now, I have performed behavioral assessments for rescue groups and shelters to help them learn more about a dog’s personality and potential issues.  Recently, I had been asked what I feel about the different tests out there. I have been researching the data on each of them and decided to put them to the test. My first test was the Sue Sternberg Test or Assess-a-pet test. You may be surprised to hear the results.

The Sue Sternberg Test: Epic Fail

  Many of you may not realize that Sue Sternberg said her own dogs would not even pass her test, but sadly, hundreds of shelters use this as their standard testing for decisions on life or death of an animal.  How can we use a test that even the founder claims to see as a death test?  Interestingly, I found another article that talked about this death test. In it, they quote  Jean Donaldson as making the comment that, “We couldn’t get Sue’s test past the reliability issue, 4 out of the five dogs tested with the Sternberg test and deemed unadoptable, did fine.”

  Of course after reading this, I tested my own pack using this method. I had an intern perform the test as to not “taint” the results. Needless to say, my pack, the dogs that help others every day and live peacefully together, would have all failed her test. My biggest surprise:

  Takoda, my 2 year old f/s husky. Takoda has no history of aggression, is highly sociable and is used every day in private sessions to help other dogs overcome their issues. Hundreds of clients can back this.  The results of Takoda’s assessment using this test declare her:

  • Unsociable
  • Unsafe to handle
  • Dominant

  Had Takoda been tested using this method, she would have been killed. I can’t even begin to imagine how many dogs are killed unnecessarily because of this test. The Assess-a –pet test indicates whether a dog is “submissive” or “dominant”. There is no room for outside variables in this test; it is simply black or white.  

  For example, one test is to hold a dog’s muzzle closed for a count of 5, and repeat it 5 times. If the dog struggles to get away it is deemed “dominant”. This is a death sentence for the dog, instead of noting the dog may have some facial sensitivity and suggesting a program, the test than goes on to say if you could not perform it to hold on longer with a little more strength. What this test does is ignore the fact that we are threatening and provoking them and immediately suggests the dog unsafe to handle. The test may end here which means the end of their life as well.

  Another part of the test tells the assessor to ignore the dog and just hold the leash. If the dog does not acknowledge the assessor within 60 seconds, the note says the dog will unlikely tolerate handling, touching or unwanted affection. Really? Most of our pack members walked around for 2 minutes and did not acknowledge the assessor. Why? Because they were not being invited to. How many dogs that have received proper training, got loose from a yard and picked up by animal control, were tested and killed for not having the “social ability” within 60 seconds? I know many owners work hard at teaching their dogs to be calm around strangers, isn’t that what we want?  I think people need to be forewarned about this test and ask their local shelters what test they use. If your well trained calm dog is ever tested they may be killed for being polite.

  I will be testing other dogs with the other tests over the next few months, please stay tuned.

Tara and the “pack”


4 thoughts on “Behavioral Assessments in Shelters

  1. Thank you so much for posting this. The fake hand portion of the test is a joke too. Seriously – do you really think that a dog whose nose is a thousand times more sensitive than mine who has spent any time living with humans can’t tell the difference between a rubber hand on a stick and a real human hand? So a starving stray fresh off the street who isn’t just totally okay with being harassed with a fake hand while he’s eating is an incorrigible resource guarder?

  2. I finally had access to watch the HBO special on Sternberg’s shelter. I don’t think I’ve ever been so appalled in my life. I’ll be honest, there are very few things that I absolutely cannot watch and must turn away, at least so far.

    I could not watch a good majority of that documentary, whether for my own petty reasons or the same ones I read here on your blog, for the few TTs that were shown.

  3. As a fellow trainer and animal behaviorist, I have to thank you for coming out with, this, I personally find the test repellent, and as a scientist, is based in subjectivity with no real understanding of animal behavior.
    Part of the problem lies with those that administer the test, untrained and overwhelmed with animals that must be “tested” , most shelter worker and rescues while well intentioned, are not knowledgeable enough to weed out the poorly trained from the truly aggressive.
    Until shelters are willing to educate those who administer such “tests”, the animals are doomed to fail.

    Laura Waddell, PhD.

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