Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Sue Sternberg - part 5

Continued from here.

Sue Sternberg started this thing called Lug-Nuts which is a program geared towards communities which are encountering an increase in dangerous dog problems, especially dog fighting. It's a informal weight-pulling competition open to all breeds of dogs with no experience necessary. The dogs wear proper sled harnesses and are encouraged to pull using treats such as hot dogs. The winners get cash prizes which are automatically doubled if the dog is spayed or neutered. A free spaying and neutering program is also offered. These events have been highly successful and shelters across the United States have expressed interest in setting up similar programs locally. There's a great on-line article about it called Don't Be Like Mike.

These community building projects and other events keep Sue pretty busy. Her schedule for the next couple of months is back to back traveling with seminars, training sessions, workshops. For someone who knew she wanted to work with dogs since she was a kid, this seems like an ideal career.

"Yeah, I try to appreciate my life," she says. "My first dog related job, I lived in New York City, when I was fifteen I started my own dog walking, dog sitting service. When I was eighteen, I was going to college part time in Massachusetts and got a job cleaning kennels and I also became the dog control officer for the town I lived in. It was bizarre. The town hadn't had one in a couple of years and no one wanted the job and everyone knew I loved dogs so they asked me if I wanted the job and I said yes and I was sworn in and they asked if I wanted to carry a gun and I said no thanks. But, it was a good job."

She also started her dog training career at around the same time.

"I was an assistant dog trainer when I was eighteen and the woman I learned dog training from was an amazing handler. She could read temperament in dogs like nobody else and I remember she saw way more in dogs than I did at eighteen and I kept asking her "How did you know?" and "How did you see that?" and while she was brilliant at what she did she was never able to say "This is what I know and why." Most people back then in the Eighties and early Nineties - nothing was very described in dogs at all, just gut feeling and experience."

I ask her if her gut feelings now about a dog ever differ from the results she gets from Assess-a-Pet.

"It can be somewhat different. Like sometimes a dog can be a resource guarder and that's not something I feel I can eyeball because, you know, the dog can be really sweet and sociable in every other way but really heinous around food. And the other is ... if I meet a dog in a non-shelter setting, like if I meet a stray dog and I'm just hanging out with the dog, I might think the dog is really easy and fine and doesn't seem aggressive at all and it's a perfectly reasonable dog but then if I have somebody assess the dog, you see that for an average person who's not handling it like a trainer, the dog could be, not totally different, but could be more snappish or much more out of control for someone who doesn't know what they're doing.

"The most common thing I see is that most testers and people who work in shelters really seem to prefer and are drawn to dominant and pushy dogs. A lot of people who test will miss a lot of subtle things because they feel in their gut the dog is fine - because it is fine for them. I've never met a shelter person yet who was testing dogs and failing good ones. The bias is absolutely slanted towards passing dogs that are still pretty dangerous."

I ask her if the assessments have proven to be good predicter of what how a dog will behave after adoption.

"The things where it seems very accurate are in indicating the degree of problem behaviour and owner satisfaction. The more red flag behaviours on the test corelate with more problem behaviours in the home. On the other hand, we see a very low return rate [on dogs which are successful in their assessment] and certainly a very low return rate for any aggression and that's important to us."

Sue says that the percentage of problem dogs entering shelters now is much higher than it was a decade or more ago. She feels a big part of that is due to how successful spay neuter campaigns have worked on dogs belonging to responsible owners but hasn't worked at all on the irresponsible ones who continue to breed and raise problematic dogs.

"In a training class, in public, you tend to see the dogs that are working out but in a shelter system, particularly an open shelter, you tend to see the ones that don't work out. Sometimes they're perfectly great dogs and don't work out because someone's lost their house or lost their job but sometimes they come to the shelter because they are more problematic than the average person can deal with."

Of course what she says is nothing new. It's just not something I hear very often coming from the world of dog rescue. We are so inundated with news and first hand experiences of horrible things that are perpetrated onto dogs that our world view gets skewed. We become like the cops who deal with criminals all the time and pretty soon everyone looks like a criminal. That's not fair nor does it help the situation and so I must remind myself that not all people who owner surrender their dogs are assholes. I just personally haven't met any of the good ones. Assholes, on the other hand ... like just the other day I was at a brunch and overheard a woman talking about her new puppy and when her friend asked what happened to her old dog, the first woman made a cutesy "oops I did something bad" face and explained that she got rid of it because it made too much noise. See what I mean? They're everywhere.

Okay, take a breathe and back to the topic at hand.

When I listen to Sue talking about assessing dogs, she reminds me of a doctor talking about patients: somewhat removed, logical, not dripping with emotion. She reminds me that not all dogs are angels. And I admit, even in my limited experience, which I know is very different from the experience of someone working in an over run American shelter, I've met a couple of dogs I literally wouldn't want to touch with a 3 foot dog catcher's pole and there were a few more I didn't really enjoy spending time with. It's important to acknowledge what these dogs are and the potential for harm these dogs can cause. Whether someone uses Assess-a-Pet or some other behaviour assessment system or just goes by gut feel, an assessment is being done regardless and one can only hope that whatever method is used, it provides a safe and compassionate result.

I leave the last word to Sue ...

"It's important to observe all behaviours and to say that you see them and to record them somewhere because usually it's not one kind of gesture that will make or break a dog, it's obviously a combination of gestures you see from the dog as it travels through the shelter system. But, if you've ever worked in a shelter, every dog isn't just this anonymous dog, it's an important dog and if it's your breed or your type of dog, you're already kind of in love with it and you don't want to say anything bad about it because if you say something bad about it, you worry that your observation may break the camel's back and then someone may take that dog and euthanize it. So in a shelter system it's hard to be an objective observer of dogs because the destiny of the dog is up for grabs.

But it's still important to learn the dog behaviours and to see their gestures because it'll allow you to communicate with whatever dog you're dealing with so that the interaction you have with the dog is less stressful for you and the dog and gives you a much better understanding of every dog you deal with. If you learn to see behaviours, you'll have more questions about what they mean and that's good because if you ask the right questions, eventually the answers will come."


Connie said...

what a great read. I am trying to decide if I want to go to a Sternberg conference in Indianapolis. I know not everyone agrees with her so I wanted to try and find out what other people thought and came across your blog.

I have www.saveindianananimals.blogspot.com stop by and visit :)

Fred said...

If nothing else, Sue is a very good speaker. She's informative, funny and tells a good story. Even if you don't agree with her completely, I'm sure you'll be able to take something away with you that you'll find useful.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great blog - I'm on my way to see Sue speak this weekend and its nice to be able to get more info and be better prepared. I also wanted to say that the Lug-Nuts idea seems like an awesome way to reach out to a whole different set of dog owners. It seems like a cool event for a shelter to host to get more involved in the community, keep in touch with people who have adopted dogs and maybe even recruit more volunteers. I think it would be neat if the shelter let people compete with adoptable dogs too and if they won a prize the money would go back to the shelter.