Friday, August 22, 2008

Sue Sternberg - part 3

Continued from here.

Sue Sternberg and her Assess-a-Pet is the progenitor of most of today's temperament tests, all of which either try to enhance or replace the original, and so the most extreme praise or vitriole is reserved especially for her. It's too bad the argument is so heated because the truth always gets lost when people would rather spend more energy throwing mud than trying to get to the facts. If the effectiveness of her test, or any temperament test, is to be judged fairly, personal attacks are not the way to go.

Temperament tests, behaviour assessments, temperament evaluations - call them what you will - have made big inroads into shelters' adoption programs all across North America. There's the SAFER test by Emily Weiss, there's the test developed by Jean Donaldson at the San Francisco SPCA, the Puppy Aptitude Test by Volhard and there are dozens if not hundreds more out there developed by various experts - some of whom are only experts in their own mind. And maybe that's part of the problem. The reputation of the better researched tests gets sullied by the riff raff.

Here's an excerpt from one test found on wikiHow. Shmarmy comments are mine in square brackets. Sorry, I couldn't resist:

Aggressiveness Test [Oh goodie. No beating around the bush on this one.]

1. Step near the dog. [Uh-oh]

2. Watch. See if he:
Acts like he will bite.
[Good use of the technical term "acts like" because everyone knows what "acts like" looks like]
Bites. [Yes, the best way to test for biting is to get bitten, preferably several times so that you can be sure of the results]
Attacks your clothing or shoes.(Never think this is cute) [It's good to know that stalking shoelaces isn't cute. The next time that Frenchie puppy next door nibbles on mine, I may have to notify Animal Control.]
Jumps on you. (Is curable, but not with other signs of aggression) [So if that Frenchie puppy chews my shoelaces and jumps up on me then I guess it's doomed. I'll break the bad news to its owner, gently.]

3. Also, see if he slinks into the corner. That signals a shy dog. [Or maybe it wants to pee]

Alright, enough of that. There are versions of temperament tests out there that are so ridiculous that anyone using them should be given an "are-you-a-dumbass?" test before being released back into the general public and allowed to procreate.

Another biggie stacked against the notion of temperament testing is the question every dog owner asks oneself, "Would my dog/breed pass that test?" as I'm sure everyone at the seminar asked themselves. To assuage our collective fear, Sue tells us that the temperament test is mostly irrelevant for our dogs because we are all way above average dog owners who know enough to deal with problem behaviours. This sounds a bit like flattery and, in my case, possibly undeserved flattery, with intent to mollify but hey, it works. But still, it doesn't address the issue for the millions of dogs that don't belong to us.

It's a general perception that because temperament testing is a test, there is a pass or fail assigned to each dog. And maybe in some shelters there is but that would be a misinterpretation of what temperament testing is about. Perhaps the word "test" should be taken out of the terminology and replaced with assessment or profile. As a matter of fact, I'll do that right now. It's a behaviour assessment from now on.

Properly used, a behaviour assessment is one tool a shelter can use to match dogs to owners - which is the good news. The bad news is that a behaviour assessment can also be used to determine which, if any, dogs in a given shelter/adoption environment may be considered for euthanasia. I guess it comes down to this. 1. How useful is a behaviour assessment in helping a shelter match a dog with an owner who can take properly care of that dog and 2. if the shelter isn't able to find a match, how long does the shelter keep the dog caged up?

The answer to 2. is easier because it's I don't know. I suspect if I were a dog and I had a discussion with all my doggie friends, some would preach give me freedom or give me death while others would think better fed than dead. I think Sue would agree with that interpretation. She doesn't believe it's humane to keep a dog in a kennel for life but she certainly wouldn't encourage euthanizing a dog if it's kenneling well just because it's been there for "too long".

The answer to 1. is that it seems behaviour assessments are working. Shelters, such as the Animal Humane Society in Minnesota or the Kansas Humane Society, which have implemented behaviour assessments have reported statistically better adopter satisfaction as well as far fewer returns. Kelley Bollen, an animal behaviourist from Massachusetts SPCA has recently completed a study of over 2000 behaviour assessed dogs which show very good corelations between aggression red flags appearing on tests with aggressive behaviour pre and post shelter life (this study is yet to be published). None of this provides a nationwide perspective, so hopefully more studies will be done, but it's a start.

Behaviour assessments, by their artificial nature, will never be a replacement for real life but just because a crash test dummy isn't a real person doesn't mean it can't be used to get useful information. Maybe to humanize it, behaviour assessments need to be tempered by a dose of gut feel and a shot of "I feel sorry for that guy" but to discount them completely is akin to putting on partial blinders and is disadvantageous to both the dog and adopter. After all, wouldn't it make more sense to match a food possessive dog with someone who has no young kids and is willing to work to correct that behaviour than to send the dog home with someone with toddlers who might like to share in the dog's supper?

Continued here.


Sarah said...

Firstly I must tell you I am addicted to your blog. You are a nice writer and your photos of the dogs are charming and thoughtful. I came across you by accident and now read you every few days.
Secondly, a comment re Sue and shelters and temp testing. As a rescuer, the problem I see with the testing is that while testing certainly gives shelters a guide, it also seems to encourage shelter workers to stop thinking for themselves. I have seen this repeatedly when an 'aggressive dog' gains a friend in a shelter and that person lobbies us to test it outside of the shelter environment.
I like your coverage of the Sternberg seminar and would like to know if you would allow me to post it on my blog in one piece.
Sarah Ruckelshaus

Fred said...

Thanks, I'm really glad you enjoy the blog. Sometimes I do all this writing but then I look at the dogs in the pictures and I realize that my words can't begin to match the life and personalities of the faces that look back.

Feel free to use the Sue Sternberg piece although there's some more coming if you're wanting to post it all in one piece.

I can certainly see your point with regards to becoming solely dependent on testing. They're not infallible and they're works in progress, as all the various test authors would admit, so for someone to put complete faith in them and disregard all other factors seems at best premature. Dogs are living creatures and to try to perfectly and completely describe a living creature with words and test scores is, I think, impossible.

Sarah said...

How funny, when I saw the photo of the little terrier mix the other day (with no verbiage) my first thought was that this photo needed no words :~)
I would like to post the Sternberg review in one piece when it is complete. Would you mind letting me know when you are finished?

Caveat said...

Fred, what kind of camera do you use? I am thinking of upgrading and your pics are so clear and crisp I thought I'd ask. Maggie is certainly a beauty, I doubt she'll wait long for a new home.

As for temp testing in shelters, well, the problem is that the tests are very open to interpretation, so they really aren't tests, they're guides.

Then there's the problem of dogs exhibiting very different behaviour at shelters than they are likely to show after six months in a new home.

I'm not against the idea but I do believe it's a fad, that there are lot of charlatans trying to cash in and that ultimately, experience with dogs is your best guide.

What did we do before we had all this dog psychology going on? People adopted dogs and things seemed to work out. I really think you can over-analyze and get into a forest vs trees situation.

And yeah, call in that Frenchie, stat. He sounds like a menace to society.

Fred said...

The pictures were taken with either an old Canon G1 or a newer Leica C-Lux. I've recently only been using the Leica because the battery on the G1 is pretty well done. Don't let the names or the technology dazzle you, though. Most digital cameras these days do a pretty good job.

I find the most important thing about taking dog photos, after the dogs themselves, is shooting in a soft light which means either shooting under a cloudy sky or in shadow. Having said that, some of these images were taken under bright sun but I find they don't work as well or require more post processing to reduce contrast harshness, etc.

All the dogs in the pictures are past guests of TAS and have all been adopted out unless otherwise specified. As for Maggie, you're right, it didn't take long for someone to take her home.

Jason said...

"some of whom are only experts in their own mind"

I really don't like stating the obvious but Sternberg is one of those "experts."

I have seen her test and I have seen her tests. She is not good for dogs. She worries because she has a reason to worry. If I poked you enough times, you would get ticked at me. Simple. Poking a dog is pointless. A 9 week old puppy does not know how to use their mouth. So yes, you will get hard bites, serious bites, nips, and mouths. The dog is learning. If they put that dog down, shame on them.

Anonymous said...

I can't believe this battleaxe isn't in jail. She's no animal behaviouralist....she's a nutjob who is taking whatever shortcomings she has out on these poor animals! When she dies, I hope she gets locked in a room with all the animals she killed. Trouble is, the animals would probably be kind to her...because that's what they are..KIND. Something she would know NOTHING about. What a lowlife scumbag.