Open thread: Assess-A-Pet Shelter Assessments

As a spin-off of the last few posts, I was googling around and found this:

It’s a list of behaviors, defined, in the same way that, say, Brenda Aloff’s book has photos and defines behaviors.

The list above is Sue Sternberg’s. She’s the person who pioneered a program called “Assess-a-Pet,” which tells shelters which dogs should be put down.  All of the behaviors on that list are ones she defines as either pass or fail behaviors.

To give things away a little bit, I’ll give you a hint, because I’ve read portions of and skimmed all of her book.

The pass behaviors are:

Soft Eye


Bow (IF the tail does not go above the body)

In some circumstances the throat-showing behavior is OK. In some others it is not.

Every other behavior in the list, if offered at any time, for any duration of time, is a sign that the dog is unsafe and should probably be euthanized.

Unsafe behaviors not in that list include:

Turning away from another friendly dog

Mouthing hands without licking when given affection

Whining while trying to reach a child OR pushing a child with the nose OR trying to come between an affectionate adult and a standing child (these, specifically, are instant fails because it’s a “highly predatory behavior” that indicates that the dog wishes to cut off, bring down, and consume the child)

Please read every link over in the left-hand bar, then come back and comment here.


15 thoughts on “Open thread: Assess-A-Pet Shelter Assessments

  1. “When the dog (male or female) lifts one rear leg (or uncommonly both rear legs, usually seen in terrier type small dogs) to urinate. Which leg is lifted should be noted. Angle of height of lifted leg should be noted.” – Should I get out my protractor and ruler??? As for which leg, it depends on which way he is facing, and what he is peeing on. Which, silly me, I always thought was rather logical.

    “I then noticed that the dogs who sat on my shoe and disgusted me would position themselves in such a way that I could feel their anus on the top of my shoes.” – Okay… really, you can feel their anus through your shoe? My dog has a cropped tail. If he’s sitting “normally” (i.e. not in what I call his lazy sit) then his anus will be touching something, since there is nowhere for it to go.

    “the healthiest and least risky relationships are ones based significantly on respect, friendship, love, shared joy, etc. and the most risky, least healthy relationships are ones where the majority of the relationship is based on treating the other as property, or as if the other is ‘owned’.” – Right. And what exactly does that have to do with shelter dog assessments? And if dogs shouldn’t be “owned”, then what legal right does a shelter have for selling them?

    “I have noted that dogs who sniff one spot for 3 seconds or longer and do so more than once during testing, are more likely have dog-to-dog aggression issues.” – well, let’s just kill off all the hounds then. Don’t make any provisions in the assessment for the natural drives in each dog. Let’s kill off all the terriers too, since they have prey drive. And all the herding dogs, since herding behaviour can been seen as a modified prey drive. And let’s kill off all the large, guardian/protection breeds, since … ugh.

    “It makes sense that dogs with issues with other dogs, whether they’re fear-based or based in anything else, would want to gather as much information about the other dogs that were in the environment before them.” – no, it makes sense that any curious or stressed dog would want to gather as much information about any new environment they are in.

    “Testing for Sociability is the first part of Assess-A-Pet™, and takes about TWO MINUTES.” (emphasis mine). TWO MINUTES? You are going to make the decision on a pass/fail basis for a dog in a new, stressful environment in TWO MINUTES?

    Seriously, this woman’s assessment is setting dogs up to fail. And her comment about “Once a behavior is pointed out to someone, he or she will see it everywhere” is similar to what happens when you buy a new car – you start to see the new model everywhere. In other words, you find what you are looking for, but that doesn’t imply significance.

    I really do wish shelter staff were all qualified to assess each dog, but they can’t – under funded, under trained, over worked, and simply not qualified, in many cases. This “two minute” assessment is NOT going to help, except in the way that, through euthanasia, it will clear out the shelters of nice, adoptable dogs simply because they held their tail too high, showed their throat while looking up and sniffed for more than 3 seconds.

    Oh, crap. My dog just play bowed to me with his tail held straight up. Someone call the authorities…

    • Ok, so I have a lab. Got him when he was 9 weeks old. Sometimes he can sniff a spot for 10 minutes (especially in the kitchen where people drop stuff – like yummy food). He regularly sits his “disgusting anus” on my foot for some belly rubs. And he has completely destroyed the assessahand that my friend had bought to train her GSD, although I can grab food out of his bowl while he’s eating, I guess I could even sit my “disgusting anus” in his food bowl while he’s eating, and he wouldn’t care. So basically this “dog expert” is telling me that for the past 8 years I have been living with a killer dog. Now I am scared. Very, very scared. Because my dog is smarter than people who decide which dog gets euthanized or not! SCARY!

  2. I can appreciate SS’s wanting to create an idiot-proof system that would guarantee, if it worked, that no dangerous dogs were ever adopted out. And I think that having it be very strictly “These behaviors are dangerous!” may help some shelter workers feel better when they euthanize dogs for space.

    But most of this is just… POO.
    I think it’s utterly bizarre to classify ‘shoulder rubbing’ as an unsociable behavior- I can’t think of a single dog I’ve ever evaluated that did this that was NOT trying to interact with a person, knew you didn’t do it with teeth, but couldn’t figure out a better way in that situation- same with ‘anus rubbing’- it’s a “I really, really, really want to be close to you and I’m too excited to stand still!” type of behavior, and I see it most in dogs who are slightly to the submissive end of the spectrum and not confident of exactly where you fit into the order of things, especially dogs that are ont socially mature. (Interestingly enough, her correlation of this behavior with the early s/n DOES parallel my own- I see this behavior MOST in puppies and juveniles, and I wonder if it’s a puppy behavior that mature dogs grow out of? Has anyone studied behavioral effects of early S/N as far as increased time to reach social maturity?)

    I find her “Dogs who sniff are likely to be dog aggressive” bizarre as well. Dogs are sniffy creatures. This is NORMAL- especially in a shelter situation, where they’re stressed. (Especially, especially in light of Turid Ragaas’s work on sniffing as a stress dissipation gesture.) And the leash grabbing/assess-a-hand failures? To me, I don’t see that as a correlation of resource guarding- I see it as a dog that uses his mouth more readily than not, which may or may not actually BE resource guarding. (I suspect thta any dog dumb enough to think that the assess-a-hand is a real hand is probably too dumb to keep breathing and eating at the same time anyway- so why WOULDN’T he/she react to it just like the leash- something unfamiliar, not a person, and annoying?)

    So basically, the only dog that is allowed to live in shelters using this system is one that is so shut down that he reacts to nothing, has squinty eyes with no visible haw, and interacts with people only at arms’ length?

  3. It’s an interesting and descriptive list of behaviors. But wow. Reading through the descriptions she just sounds so PARANOID about what everything means to the dog. And my thought at the end of her statement that “Once a behavior is pointed out to someone, he or she will see it everywhere” applies to her most of all, I think…once she tried to identify normal dog behaviors that also exist in aggressive dogs, suddenly she sees aggression or possession behavior everywhere.

    Excuse me, I have to go put my dogs down now.

  4. Wow, there are going to be some seriously devastated children around here … and very shocked adults. My Shep/lab just won’t pass. Sure, he spends an hour at the local park each day while my big kids are taking swim lessons hanging out with the little siblings of their classmates (mostly 2-3 year olds) being inexpertly patted and loves every minute of it. After that he moves over to the playground where he stands or sits right by my side while kids run and shriek near us. He stays in an (imperfect and untrained) heel by my side as we move to keep my autistic three year old from getting in to trouble. We get asked by the people that don’t know us if he’s a therapy dog regularly, eventually we’ll test so we can say yes. He considers it his job to go to the park, put on his best behavior and be fawned over. He’s a great dog at home, but he’s amazing when he’s at the park.

    Before we make it out the door to the park, as soon as he knows we’re going I will sometimes get a face dive or a flying shoulder rub of excitement and joy, followed by his butt squarely hitting my shoe in an effort to plant himself as close as possible so I can put the leash on him. Then he will put his chin high and expose his throat in an effort to look at me and expose his collar for better leash attachment. The sight of a tennis ball will make him bow with his tail above his back…. I’m sure he’s come between an affectionate adult and a child regularly. I’m sure he’s come between an affectionate child and a standing adult, too – does that mean he might cut off and bring down, and consume adults too? Oh noes! We’re all doomed!

    Seriously, this is a dog that is so calm my relatives have teasingly accused me of drugging him. It would take a lot to provoke him to aggression – a big thunderstorm (his fear) and pain might do it, maybe… We still read his cues, don’t leave him alone with kids and keep him out of situations that concern us. You know, the things people should do with dogs. This chick is nuts, though. She would put him down because he acts like a dog and is large. I can kind of understand her paranoia – dogs are powerful, some people are stupid… and bad things happen. Dog behavior is so subtle ( I loved Brenda Aloff’s Book!) and the behaviors she has listed are so broad that I don’t see the assessment meaning much.

  5. She’s well respected enough that thousands upon thousands of dogs have died for failing these tests.

    The overwhelming impression I got, both in reading this list and in the book, is that this is a woman who is deeply afraid of dogs. Genuinely terrified of them. And she is MOST afraid of big dogs, so she has singled out the behaviors that are part and parcel of being a big dog – the shoulder lean alone (defined as an unsocial behavior! Unbelievable!) would get virtually all extra-large dogs killed.

    I’ve never owned a dog who would have passed this assessment. NEVER. The adopted ones wouldn’t even pass them now, as adults, certainly not as new rescues.

    I’m going to leave a few more hours for comments and then go through the site systematically and put up a big post.

  6. It seems just.. ignorant to me. Dogs have teeny brains, but they still have complex communication and personalities. How can you make a life-or-death decision in two minutes with an uneasy dog you’ve never seen before?

    I wonder just how many dogs actually get re-homed when they end up in this shelter? Personally I believe nearly every dog that comes into a shelter is capable of being re-homed – it just needs to be the right home. There is no reason for every dog to be idiot-proof. People want different things from their dogs.. If I wanted a dog who didn’t react to anything, I’d get one. However I prefer a little spice.

    I have a 13-year-old Tibetan Terrier, 9-year-old Shepard mix, 1-year-old Cocker/Poodle – they’ve been with me 13 years, 5 years and 4 months respectively. They have every ‘bad’ behavior between them.

    My TT is pretty perfect except for her tendency to put her anus on everyone, LOL. The Cockapoo is young, untrained and ridiculously overexcited – so far I haven’t been able to control his jumping, pawing, and licking. Both are supremely gentle dogs who have never so much as looked cross-eyed at a human. The Shepard is uneasy with strangers, but gentle and submissive in normal social situations. However he has stared down and growled at people several times, and roared and lunged once – every situation was when we were alone with a man I felt threatened by. Living near a city with a high crime rate I am thankful he is ‘aggressive’ enough to act when he picks up on my fear.

  7. SS would have killed all my dogs. No second thoughts. All of them. Luce and Mushroom would have scared her to death. Even Harv, my most gentle old man that the shelter here fortunately worked very hard to save, even though he was a poor prospect for adoption, being an old black pit bull.

    I am somewhat disappointed that there was no photo illustrating the penis poke.

    I can’t wait to see your big post.

  8. I admit I didn’t click her links. She fell off my pedestal a few years ago with the documentary about shelter dogs where she pretty much goaded a dog into bitting an access a hand then euthanised it.

    I agree we shouldn’t adopt out dangerous dogs but I think she overdoes it in a big way.

    My local shelter uses the SAFER test by Emily Weiss and is also not a fan of SS.

  9. her “most dangerous dog profile” was distressing. I wonder what she would say about Austin’s (and his mother’s, incidentally) tendency to forcefully rub his head in my lap, and to force his way between my knees when I’m standing up? He and his mom both do this when they haven’t seen me in a while, and his mom will often push herself all the way through my knees. Austin’s too tall to do that, but I bet he would if he could.

    Every ridgeback I’ve ever met fits her “most dangerous dog profile”.

  10. Well, my four year old standard poodle who is qualified as a therapy dog, who regularly ends up in public doing agility shows and afterwards ends up with five or six kids and adults fawning all over him…. he’d fail completely.

    * He sits with his anus on my foot all the time. It has to do with how his tail sits and the fact that he is a very tactile dog, and I’ve encouraged him to sit between my legs or on my foot so that he can stay close in crowded situations.

    * Leash grabbing = resource guarding. Well, let’s see. I have one dog who is Very Big On Things (something we’ve worked on for a long time), and one dog who loves to grab the leash and do the full blown tugging working his way up the leash to mouth the hand. Guess what? Two different dogs.

    The most dangerous dog part is the part that makes me cry the most. Two of my three dogs would be dead as a doornail, because they are heavily tactile, and thus do a lot of touching of people. They’re also high energy, large, and one of them is muscular and of a Scary Breed.

    This woman depresses me.

  11. So much of that behaviour list is flat-out buh-zarre. All three of my dogs would be dead by now according to her “logic”.

    Shoulder stance? Pardon me? How about, big, friendly, affectionate lean?

    They’re not allowed to SNIFF for crying out loud???? Has she never taken a dog on a walk before???

    Leash grabbing = dangerous dog? Right, my ultra-submissive GSD who drops like a wet sack at the slightest indication of dominant or corrective behaviour from another dog or person, who is a “nanny dog” with anyone under 4 feet tall, who is the sweetest, gentlest soul alive…she’s DANGEROUS because she likes to “walks herself” ON A LOOSE LEASH with the leash in her mouth?????????

    My question mark usage is getting out of control, so I’m going to stop but…

    of for…wide panting?????????????

    I’m gonna lose it.

    What a dooche.

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