Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sue Sternberg - part 2

Continued from here.

The video shows a 9 week old puppy sniffing around a room. It pays not much heed to any of the people in the room. Sue Sternberg tries to interact with the pup by stroking its back. The pup turns around and mouths Sternberg's hand. Another stroke and the puppy snaps. Another stroke and the puppy bites. Sue notes the difference between a bite and an exploratory nibble. A nibble happens with the front teeth, a bite with the back teeth. When a dog tries to bite at something with its back teeth, like when a person tries to crack a hard nut, it means business and it's going to hurt. A nibble is loose. A bite clamps down. Sue puts the video on slow-mo and freezes it just before the bite. We all clearly see the upper teeth exposed snarl of a furious little puppy.

A puppy several weeks older and twice as large is brought into the room with the first pup. Within seconds, the poor older puppy is being ambushed by the younger one. All snarls and teeth, the younger one is relentless in its obssessive taunting of the older pup. The older pup is removed from the room.

Next, an adult bull type dog is brought into the room. For the first couple of minutes, the puppy stands by the sidelines while the older dog checks out the room and greets the people. It doesn't take long, though, before the puppy starts making run by attacks on the adult dog. The adult dog tries to maintain some sort of discipline but to no effect. The puppy works itself up into full intimidation mode. The adult dog backs up behind someone's legs and looks around hoping for an escape route, looks into the camera as if pleading to be taken out of the room.

I later ask Sue what happened to that puppy.

"I'm assuming he was euthanized. That wasn't my shelter," she responds.

Sue Sternberg has helped rehome thousands of dogs and improved the quality of life of thousands more through community programs like Lug-Nuts and Training Wheels but stories like this one are a constant concern for her. This time the highly destructive dog was flagged and held back but what about the ones that slip through? Several times throughout the seminar, she talks about her rising anxiety level whenever she's recognized in public by someone who knows of a dog from her shelter. It seems her first thought isn't, "Oh good how's it doing?" but "Oh no, what's it done?" One anecdote involves a pre-surgical moment, right after the anesthetic has started to kick in when suddenly the anesthesiologist says to her, "Hey I recognize you. My best friend adopted a dog from you," and to illustrate the feeling of helplessness and worry she experienced, Sternberg brings her fist up to her open mouth and bites. "But it turned out it was a good adoption," she says, relieving the mock tension in the room and we laugh.

There is no doubt that Sue cares about dogs but she also cares about her human clients. "You have to be as concerned for people as you are for the dogs," she says, probably suspecting that the room's biases are more on side with the dogs. "Especially," she continues, "if you adopt out into the community you live in. When I go out on the trails with my dogs, I often encounter dogs [and their owners] which have come from my shelter so it's especially important not to adopt out any aggressive ones."

From all these stories, I start to wonder if she isn't a little too risk averse, erring too much on the side of caution, not taking into account the greater possibilities of success once dog and owner have bonded and stablity is introduced into a dog's life.

"You don't know what it's like to be responsible for wrecking someone's life," she says. "You don't know what it's like seeing a grown man cry because he loves his dog but his dog has done something terrible. It tears families apart."

"There are also the liability and insurance issues," she says. There are only two remaining insurance companies in the U.S. willing to insure dog shelters. If a shelter knowingly adopts out an aggressive dog and the insurer finds out, the shelter could lose its insurance and to get re-insured with the only other company would be prohibitive if not impossible.

Is there anything specific in a dog that would make her decide that it wouldn't be worth trying to fix, that it's unadoptable?

"No, it would be the overall dog. How his sociability tests related to his mental sensitivity? How his teeth exam test related to the stranger test? It's the overall components of the test. It's also related to how he's kenneling. What's his frustration level? How does he respond when other dogs pass by? It's also how many dogs do we currently have in the shelter that are going to need single adult experienced homes, people willing to train and modify behaviour. If we already have ten dogs that require special owners and he's the eleventh that would have us make a different decisions for him than if we only had highly adoptable dogs and no other problem dogs."

A few years ago, I watched a documentary film about Sue Sternberg called "Shelter Dogs" . In it, there was a sequence showing the process involved in deciding to euthanize a dog. It was agonizing to watch. It was also very brave on Sternberg's part to let that process be filmed. I suspect it made her a few enemies.

"Oh yeah, I get hate mail," she says. "I got one recently from someone saying I was a monster and that I'm going to spend eternity in Hell with Hitler."

Continued here.

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