Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sue Sternberg - part 1

I attended the Sue Sternberg seminar presented by the Oakville Humane Society this past Sunday. For both supporters and critics of her methods, it was a very worthwhile talk. Afterwards, I was going to write up a well organized and coherent report on the day's events but unfortunately that's not going to happen because that would require too much, well, organizing and coherence on my part. Instead, what you're going to get is a rambling account of what she talked about, at least according to my foggy memory and my somewhat vague notes, interspersed with some personal commentary.

It's probably going to take a few posts to get all the details out there. I'm doing this, giving this much blog time to her, because most of the stuff I've read about her and her Assess-a-Pet temperament test turns out to be incorrect or doesn't present the whole picture. Why this misrepresentation? Probably for the usual message muddling deficiencies of any form of media but it may also be because Sternberg's message now is more refined than it was when she first created the test almost fifteen years ago. Back when she first started working in shelters, before all this new fangled assessment stuff existed, when Sternberg asked a shelter worker if a dog was safe to handle and how one could tell, the reply was that one just knows. Many bites later, it became apparent that one didn't always just know. This was the incentive to come up with a more procedural approach to determining the temperament of a dog to replace the rather mystical "one just knows".

The important question now is, as it has always been, does her test do what she says it does? Specifically, does it provide a fairly accurate personality profile of a dog with respect to how that dog deals with people and other dogs so that aggressive dogs can be red flagged while compatible matches can be made between adoptable shelter dogs and their prospective families?

At the risk of ruining a surprise ending, in my opinion, Assess-a-Pet does a pretty good job of painting a personality profile of a dog, relative to other dogs, but, and this is a big but, how you use those results to determine the adaptability of a specific dog may differ substantially from what Sternberg might do. And thus the crux of the controversy may not be so much the test itself but the person wielding the test. The assessment places the dog on a temperament scale. Where the failure cutoff on that scale is located is up to the shelter.

Continued here.

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