Monday, March 21, 2011

Kill Shelter Fail, Enabled by its Supporters

In December of 2010, Hannah Saunders found a stray puppy and took him in. Now, by any reasonable standards, her efforts at saving the dog ended there and no one should have judged her poorly for turning the dog over to a shelter. After all, an animal shelter is supposed to be a safe haven in which displaced animals can be rehomed. But despite her apartment's strict no-dog policy Saunders took the dog to a vet, checked for a microchip, put up fliers and ads in craigslist, and called the shelters and rescues she could find. After weeks of no luck, she relinquished the stray dog to Indianapolis Animal Care and Control.

Saunders kept in touch with the shelter, offering to take the 8-mos-old puppy back if he was not adopted or about to be killed. She was told the dog had gone to a foster home and would be available in three months. Saunders was excited because she had found a home for Roger, the puppy, and arrived at the shelter to take him.

But alas, Roger was killed. Not recently, either. January 12th, 2011 Roger was killed because he apparently bit at a leash.

This story brings up a lot of issues from temperament tests to shelter response to negative publicity to what we expect of shelters and the public.

The Animal Shelter Response

The shelter had the following response to a comment left at their facebook page:

Problem solved, amirite? Am I being sarcastic? Yes. What bearing do testicles have on the discussion of Roger? Why would an invitation to volunteer be a solution to the problem of killing Roger? Hey, can I report Indianapolis Animal Care & Control's animal cruelty for killing a healthy, treatable pet? Or does that just apply to The Misinformed Masses?

Indianapolis Animal Care and Control "Aggression" Test
"As for their four-step aggression test, Rodriguez said the method is widely used and widely accepted across the nation, and that ACC employees are well trained before administering the tests."

Indianapolis Animal Care and Control uses the Assess-a-Pet temperament test. The shelter believes Roger's story is their chance to explain this widely used and sort-of-wildly (more like blindly) accepted pass/fail temperament test...TOTALLY distracting us from the fact they killed a perfectly  healthy dog less than a year old. Widely accepted does not mean good for the dogs. Training does not mean they are experts.

Read that. Read it thoroughly. Advice Time: Hey, Indianapolis Animal Care and Control - I got a way for you to increase adoptions immediately! STOP USING THIS TEST AS PASS OR DEATH.

Step One: See how dog acts in kennel. If he is stiff, growls, shows teeth, lunges or bites - death sentence.

There is so much wrong with this first step and its finality, I don't know where to start.
  • Dogs communicate differently than we do. We should understand that, not condemn dogs to death because of it. A stiff dog is not a man-eating dog. 
  • A growl is a great warning. Sometimes it results in an air snap, a bite, and sometimes nothing. I like a dog who growls way more than one who does not. Growling is normal canine behavior. It should never be a death sentence. A dog who shows teeth is giving a warning. Sometimes it is a submissive gesture. Showing teeth is normal canine behavior.
  • A dog who uses teeth on skin is also giving a warning, a very severe one - depending on the dog's bite inhibition. It too is normal behavior, albeit potentially dangerous to humans and nonhumans. Biting should be taken in context, judged based on bite inhibition and bite strength, arousal, and dedication to the bite. If a dog is resource guarding their territory, that should be taken into consideration as well. 
  • A dog who exhibits any of these behaviors should undergo thorough behavioral evaluations by two to three professionals. An animal control officer is not a professional dog trainer or behaviorist. 
  • If a dog is considered too much a liability because they exhibit this behavior, they should be signed over to a reputable rescue or an individual qualified to handle such a dog (and who signs liability waivers).
  • I am honestly not averse to killing an otherwise healthy dog who poses a significant threat to people. But I think very few dogs fit that description.
 Step Two: Manhandle the dog.

I've seen the Assess-a-Pet temperament test in action. I've seen hundreds of dogs fail and get killed (exceptions include small dogs and socially acceptable breeds). It is, in my opinion, one of the most deeply flawed tests, because it is widely accepted as a pass/fail. I would find it less reprehensible if it was a scaling system that ended with a game plan for the dog in lieu of a death sentence.
  • Hugging a dog can be perceived as socially rude, especially to a dog who does not know you.
  • Dogs can be in pain for a variety of reasons. IACC probably does not do thorough medical tests. A dog may have an abscess, arthritis, bruising, muscle pain, sprains, etc. that would make them reactive to touch. For example, Celeste had ehrlichiosis, a tick-born disease that left her legs painful to the touch. She would have failed this test because of a disease that is treatable with a 10-day dose of cheap antibiotics.
  • The Assess-A-Pet test relies on manhandling the dog, not gently touching the dog within her comfort zone. The handling is rough, at best, violent at worst. 
  • Dogs who are touch sensitive, recoil at touch, or react aggressively to touch should have a gameplan established for them. A complete physical exam with blood tests and x-rays/sonograms/whatever necessary. Corral your best volunteers and implement a socialization and desensitization program for dogs who are touch sensitive (obviously safety rules must be drafted for aggro dogs). Call your rescues. Find a good foster home.
Step Three: Expect the Unreasonable Around Food
  • The Assess-a-Pet test deems all dogs with any resource guarding issues as unadoptable and thus kill-able. This includes resource guarding around people and other animals. The former is more of a liability and more dangerous to the public, while the latter can be easily managed.
  • Resource guarding is difficult to modify, easier to manage. 
  • Dogs who resource guard around nonhumans should either be placed in single-animal homes (with a clear explanation of the dog's issues and how to manage them) or managed by an experienced/comfortable dog guardian. It's not rocket science - Mina and Celeste resource guard their food and high-value raw bones. Magical solution - they are fed separately! MIRACLE!! 
  • Dogs who resource guard around humans require a lot more work and their management is best undertaken in an experienced foster home with access to experienced trainers. 
  • I recognize a dog with resource guarding issues around human beings is a liability. I have seen the results of severe bites from resource guarders. When it is severe, it should be taken very seriously. I admit I would not keep nor would I probably foster long-term a dog with severe resource guarding issues (i.e. one who will not barter). But there are people who can and will. 
Step Four: Dog Must Like Other Dogs
  • The Assess-A-Pet test expects A LOT of dogs. It expect every dog tested to be the Mother Theresa of all dogs, to love and respect and adore all other dogs. 
  • Dogs are not robots. Dogs like some dogs. Dogs dislike some dogs. The nicest Golden Retriever on earth deemed Mina a hellhound and tried to eat her head. She probably stared at him funny and she probably deserved the reprimand, but in his ten years in existence, this dog had loved every dog he met. I never expect my dogs to like all dogs or other dogs to like them.
  • Dogs who are leash-reactive should not be expected to act like they would off-leash. The Assess-A-Pet tests I've seen done all rely on leashes, which sets dogs up for failure. Not saying let the dogs off leash but it is important to discern whether the reaction seen is because of barrier/leash frustration or animal aggression.
  • A dog with reactivity around other dogs should have a game plan. It should ascertain the degree of their reactivity, how easy it is to redirect them to other things (like eye contact with you or a toy or a game or the other direction), and a crew of volunteers to make this possible. So long as the dog does not redirect onto a person, a dog with dog-animal aggression is most assuredly adoptable. There are tens of millions of these dogs living in the country RIGHT THIS MINUTE. Chaos has yet to ensue.
The Assess-A-Pet test makes it VERY easy to kill a dog. Very easy. I've seen too many dogs killed because of this test. It's the very test Mina failed (not for any signs of aggro behavior, but for her sensitivity). It is nothing to be proud of and, if it is true that IACC killed Roger because he bit a leash, then they have a severe problem with how they manage the "results" of this test. Biting a leash should never be a death sentence.

The Enabling and Misinformed Supporter Response

Last time I checked, an animal shelter employee gets paid to enforce the law and assist in the rehoming of animals. Hannah Saunders does not. The public does not. Large shelters have access to a larger array of resources. Hannah Saunders and the public does not. One part of animal control's JOB - as in what they were created to do - is to take in unwanted animals and theoretically find them permanent placement. It is not Hannah Saunders or the public's job to do so (it's why our tax dollars are paying them!) If we are animal lovers or feel it is just and right to help dogs and cats, then it is reasonable to be asked to participate through volunteering, donation, policy change, legislation, education, adoption, outreach, fostering, rescue, and the like. But if Hannah Saunders had been allergic to dogs but found it cruel to leave Roger abandoned, Indianapolis Animal Care and Control is supposed to be the safe haven she could have brought the dog to to either reunite the dog with his guardian or rehome the dog.

Killing a health, treatable pet is not an option.

Indianapolis Animal Care & Control screwed up. I want to see shelters own up to these mistakes and make it possible that they don't happen again. I hate seeing shelters blame the Hannah Saunders' of the world - people like you and me who go that small extra foot for a dog - for not only doing their job but doing it better by not just killing the dog when they found him. I hate seeing shelters act like a magician and redirect people's attention to testicles, cruelty calls, volunteering and the big, bad, stupid public. I hate seeing shelters defend a policy of "temperament testing" that sentences a leash-biting dog to death. And I absolutely loathe seeing people defend these shelters. Step up, admit you were wrong, and make it better for the animals.

People should WANT to bring unwanted animals to the shelter. People who find a stray puppy on the side of the road should have their shelter on speed dial, because they know it's a good place. A community that embraces the philosophy and principles of no-kill will ensure that its shelter system does too. We are a nation of dog lovers, and it's time for our shelter system to reflect that compassion and kindness.

Roger did not deserve to die. He is remembered by Hannah Saunders and others. I will remember him too. He is yet one more victim to die in the name of "widely accepted"; that is, a shelter system that facilitates the needless death of thousands of healthy, treatable dogs and cats and treats it as normal. Shelter workers are not my enemies, and I wholly respect those who are stuck in this vicious system, doing the best they can with what they have. But the system needs to change, the paradigm needs to shift. And it can be done - it is too late for Roger, but it needn't be too late for the thousands of other dogs entering Indianapolis Animal Care and Control. All they need to do is make a few changes. Lives saved will be the heart-pleasing result.

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