For decades, animal shelters have evaluated whether a dog was dangerously aggressive by poking a rubber hand attached to a pole into a dog’s food bowl while he was eating – then pulling the bowl away from him. If the dog lunged or bit at the rubber hand, he was determined to have “failed” the “aggression” testing. The shelter could deem the dog too dangerous to be placed with a family and – depending on how crowded the shelter was – the results could mean the dog would be euthanized as a “behavior risk.”
Fortunately, thinking has been changing about how to evaluate a dog’s personality or temperament, especially in the stressful, unfamiliar shelter environment. [I’d be so bold as to say that if any of us at home were to stick a weird looking/smelling rubber hand into our own nice dog’s bowl during her dinner, and tried to remove the bowl, there’s a chance her natural instincts would kick in and she would not look kindly on this intrusion!]
Even some of the behaviorists who were involved in developing the rubber hand test are now realizing that the test results are not good predictors of whether a dog will be aggressive out in the world or in an adoptive home. Shelters are struggling to decide whether to abandon behavior testing altogether in their work to match dogs with adopters, while still trying to determine which dogs might turn out not to be safe pets.
As THIS New York Times article pointed out,” these tests were an attempt to standardize measurements of a dog’s behavior. But evaluations often became culling tools. With overcrowding a severe problem and euthanasia the starkest solution, shelter workers saw testing as an objective way to make heartbreaking decisions. Testing seemed to offer shelters both a shield from liability and a cloak of moral responsibility.” The Times article then quoted Aimee Sadler, a leader in innovative thinking in the shelter world [who happens to have been my first dog trainer – and whose first training client was my adopted Weimaraner, Lulu!].
As the article pointed out, “We thought we had the magic bullet,” said Aimee Sadler, a shelter consultant. “‘Let’s let Lassie live and let Cujo go.’ From a human perspective, what a relief.” That quote may sound sincere when taken out of context, but knowing Aimee as I do, I recognize this was a sardonic comment, indicating her belief there is a fundamental flaw in the thinking behind this behavior testing. Listen to my radio interview with Aimee Sadler last year on DOG TALK® (and Kitties, Too!) which centered on her unique training program, Dogs Playing For Life, that she brings to shelters around the country, bringing that shelters dogs out to play together in carefully chosen playgroups.
All of this is important food for thought – take it as further encouragement to adopt from shelters, with the understanding that we need to cut some slack for dogs while they are in the shelter, and realize that much of their behavior is influenced by the unfortunate circumstances in which they find themselves.
Tracie Hotchner is a nationally acclaimed pet wellness advocate, who wrote THE DOG BIBLE: Everything Your Dog Wants You to Know and THE CAT BIBLE: Everything Your Cat Expects You to Know. She is recognized as the premiere voice for pets and their people on pet talk radio. She continues to produce and host her own Gracie® Award winning NPR show DOG TALK® (and Kitties, Too!) from Peconic Public Broadcasting in the Hamptons after 9 consecutive years and over 500 shows. She produced and hosted her own live, call-in show CAT CHAT® on the Martha Stewart channel of Sirius/XM for over 7 years until the channel was canceled, when Tracie created her own Radio Pet Lady Network where she produces and co-hosts CAT CHAT® along with 10 other pet talk radio podcasts with top veterinarians and pet experts.
Tracie also is the Founder and Director of the annual NY Dog Film Festival, a philanthropic celebration of the love between dogs and their people. Short canine-themed documentary, animated and narrative films from around the world create a shared audience experience that inspires, educates and entertains. With a New York City premiere every October, the Festival then travels around the country, partnering in each location with an outstanding animal welfare organization that brings adoptable dogs to the theater and receives half the proceeds of the ticket sales. Halo was a Founding Sponsor in 2015 and donated 10,000 meals to the beneficiary shelters in every destination around the country in 2016.
Tracie lives in Bennington, Vermont – where the Radio Pet Lady Network studio is based – and where her 12 acres are well-used by her 2-girl pack of lovely, lively rescued Weimaraners, Maisie and Wanda.