Assess-A-Pet animal behaviors, cont.

PLEASE NOTE: Because I am using screen captures of a website that is not my own, and also because even having this stuff on here skeeves me out, this post will stay up for 24-48 hours and be made private.


Because this was so striking to me, I wanted to show the Internets what I am seeing in the Assess-A-Pet behavior “identifications” and why they disturb me so much.

It is VERY VERY obvious to me that Sue Sternberg is afraid of dogs. Specifically, big or muscular dogs. I am not sure if she’s actually afraid of the dog per se or if she’s got a sort of PTSD after the many and inevitable failures that the testing has produced (because it’s absolutely ridiculous and impossible to say that a dog will not bite in any adoptive home) and all she sees is the possibilities for this dog to rip someone’s face off. Either way, the body posture and the wording of the descriptions is incredibly evocative.

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Thanks to my handy-dandy screen grab, you can see what I don’t think she even knows herself (these are all Sue Sternberg in the pictures).

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In this illustration we learn that “whale eye,” which every normal behaviorist in the world knows is a sign of uncertainty and tension, is in fact the dog CONTINUING TO LOOK AT YOU EVEN WHEN HE’S TURNING HIS HEAD AWAY. Wow, this dog REALLY wants to eat her, doesn’t he (or she)?

It makes no difference to her that the white in this dog’s eye is on the completely wrong side of the eye for him to be looking at her, which I guess means he wants to eat the camera person.

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OK, first, the tapetum is what make a dog’s eyes glow in certain angles of light. It’s across the whole back of the eye, so unless the dog’s eye is completely closed you can see it if you’re at the right angle. But it’s a scary word and it sure sounds scientific-y and reliable, doesn’t it?

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Such a rich subtext in this one. See how many words you can find – the dog is “denying access” (which is very different from “avoiding touch” or “is unsure how to react” or “attempts to initiate play,” any of which could be substituted if you’re talking about a dog grabbing a leash).

The shelter dog is immediately identified as NOT a pet dog. That is a clear signal, so pay attention. Shelter dogs can be destroyed without guilt because they are not pet dogs.

There’s a whole cluster of fear words, not just fear words but interpretive fear words, in the next line. See how the dog, who is a SHELTER dog and has just denied access to himself, is now climbing up the leash toward the tester’s innocent hands? Of course it’s “unsafe,” because the leash is “the only point of control” over this dangerous animal.

Looking at the hand position and leash tension in all these photos, it’s super clear that she does really believe that the leash is the only thing saving her.

At this point she seems to send the red and white dog off to be put down (I guarantee you that pretty dog up there was dead within hours of the photos being taken – look how many poor behaviors he or she illustrates), and (the next day? She’s changed clothes, so either it’s the next day or the red and white dog touched her with his anus too many times and she got “disgusted”) brings in a little fawn pit or pit mix.

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Poor little boy pit is scared to death, but his actions are being interpreted as a possessive mating attempt, especially since they’re combined with (gasp!) whale eye!

I could go through the whole site, and could take screen grabs of her book as well, and illustrate this fifty or sixty or a hundred times, but it’s all the same. Every single behavior that is not incredibly soft, submissive, and (this is key) performed by a small, non-working breed, is labeled something to be scared of and a reason to be put down.

She really has devised and written (and teaches in person) a series of tests that you can use to fail any dog you choose. She even does this herself, according to testimony from her workers – if a dog doesn’t object to having its mouth grabbed and pulled open, and she thinks the dog is dangerous, she will repeat the mouth grab as many times as it takes for the dog to object. (I just tried this with Clue, by the way, who has been trained to show her bite since she was barely weeks old – the magic number for her is six times before she starts to whine in confusion and when I let her go she buried her head in my leg. Aggressive! Denying access to herself!)

As you may be able to tell by now, I find this method, this effort, and this woman not only profoundly disturbing but the fate of dogs being put through this unsympathetic and paranoid testing just heartbreaking.


18 thoughts on “Assess-A-Pet animal behaviors, cont.

  1. It scares me to death that she’s such a big name in her field. And breaks my heart. Those two dogs in this post are just a tiny example of all the innocent dogs she’s killed out of ignorance and fear. I just want to take that little pit mix and sit with him and protect him.

    Steve shocked himself on an electric livestock fence last night and he ran to me and climbed me and I imagine he looked very much the same as that little pittie. He wasn’t dominating me; he was terrified. Good thing for all of us that I could recognize that and respond accordingly.

  2. I find it unfathomable that anyone with a slight ability at reading dogs (or who has had dogs in their lives) would look at that first dog and read Danger!Danger! or at the second and see SEX, PLEASE!

    I have never liked Sternberg’s methods because, at their very core, they set up dogs for utter and complete failure. That is, in my view, a telltale sign of the ineffectiveness of an assessment method. It’s one thing to try to understand a dog’s boundaries and thresholds, it’s another to put a dog in a situation where even the most tolerant would crack.

  3. I find the hard eye and leash grabbing parts the worst. All of my dogs look at me with exactly that expression. I have been stared down and challenged by a dog, and that hard eye is really unmistakeable. This sweet dog is just being friendly.

    And anyone who says that the leash is the only way of controlling a dog really doesn’t know dogs. I have driven off a really truly aggressive dog who was trying to attack me and my dog using nothing but my voice and my body language.

  4. What outrages me, is that there are probably dozens of shelters that kill dogs based on this BS ‘assessment’ and then turn around and blame the ‘irresponsible community (and breeders) for their high ‘euthanasia’ rate.

    I swear, the shelter system in SO many states need to be privatized or completely rehauled. There isn’t enough accountability for most of them.

  5. I just saw this and thought of you, I thought it would make you smile as it did us.

    … and not completely off-topic, since this dog was being given away by its original owner, and would likely have been a mess in a shelter setting. Thank God for both Rory and his owner that they found one another!!!

  6. i don’t know why she works with dogs if she goes in with fear and assumes aggression from them, that’s a terrible way to meet a dog. if she can’t get over it she should just get another job.

    chuck bit me in the face a few months ago, it was my own stupid fault because DOGS IS NOT BABIES.

    but neither are they wolves. threre is a middle way. and all animals respond to calm energy. monks in thailand interact with tigers – because they can.

  7. Good grief. What a horrible, blatantly slanted misreading of dogspeak. THAT’S a hard stare?????? That’s my dog saying “oh mummy, I’m just having the most wonderful time working with you, what are we going to do next?” Holy toledo.

  8. Wow. Interesting. I took in a Pembroke rehome that this woman would have put down within 2 seconds of meeting her! She was a fluffy and was badly matted. After she settled in at my house, I decided to try and get some of the mats off her. The comb barely made contact and she turned and snapped at me, growling and showing a lot of teeth!

    Long story short, I did manage to make contact with the breeder who placed this dog and she helped me with asserting myself humanely and authoritatively and that dog became my best buddy! She adored me and to show how well she evolved, two years later we had to do a needle biopsy on a mass on her back (after she had been diagnosed with an inoperable spinal tumor) and I held her by myself while the vet took two aspirations and she never once struggled or offered her teeth. I could groom her, do her nails, anything, with no resistance, in fact, she grew to love being groomed.

    There is no doubt in my mind that this dog, had she not had cancer, would have gone on to great things. Her illness derailed those plans. I miss her to this day.

    • She sounds like a wonderful dog.

      I have never taken a dog out of a shelter environment and not had them react badly to some kinds of handling. It’s probably one of the issues that gets them dumped in the first place. Knowing that it’s NORMAL for dogs to hate having their tails touched or feet messed with or skin pulled helps you begin to address it. And, you’re right, the healing continues for many months. When I think about Ginny, for example, within a month she was tolerating having her tail and ears combed. But it took months and months to work her through the foot and nails issues. A year and a half later (how can it possibly be that long?!) you can grab one foot and swirl her around the couch and she doesn’t mind a bit. Nails are still difficult, but she never growls or bites anymore. She can let me know that she’s overwhelmed and we take a break, but even if I push it to get that last nail done, she wouldn’t use her mouth.

  9. I hate looking at that first dog’s photos- her (?) body language reminds me SO much of Kaylee’s and Wings’- very typical collie type stuff.

    So sad.

  10. Winograd has a video up at his blog ( of Sue saying pitbulls and dogs that look like them are dangerous because of their ‘swishing tails’!

    Scroll to the bottom of the entry for the clip. You can’t make this stuff up! The woman truly is paranoid around dogs. It’s a tragedy that so many dogs have died because of her irrational fear.

  11. I somehow find it very hard to imagine nearly anyone who actually works in a shelter taking this woman seriously. Anyone who has spent more than five minutes around dogs can tell those pictures are bullshit.

    Of course, those are never the people you have to convince, right?

  12. Thanks to this woman – my new “wonderful” Black Lab – Failed at the Shelter test – they used her test- Luckily he was able to be released to me – on the condition that there were no young children and he received Mandatory Obedience training. Laughs on her – I have three kids and two previous rescues (standard poodles). He is wonderful with my children , submissive to my poodles and Yes he is an absolute joy to have around – except for his Lab like chewing tendency (oh well) – He absolutely failed at the shelter though because he ate too fast (food guarding) and shoulder rubs – funny Labs are known for being PIGS and are nicknamed “velcro dogs” as they can’t get close enough to their people. I am just glad I was willing to spend the extra money as I knew he was worth it – he could have been one of the unlucky ones thanks to this QUACK.

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