Los Angeles Shelter Examples - and Testimony









Shelter” is a misnomer when used to describe public (high-volume, high-kill animal-control) shelters; the majority of them are impoundment facilities designed to neither protect animals nor accommodate adoptions by the public, but rather to cage and kill surplus (over-populated) dogs and cats, away from public view, most often without the public’s awareness.


Stress” in shelter animals refers to psychological stress; “animals” are dogs and cats.


Euthanasia” is an industry term for the routine killing of surplus shelter animals. Killing is a basic function of public shelters.






1.  Most shelter animals are abandoned, or owner-relinquished, or brought in as strays. Many of them have been neglected or abused. All of them are stressed-out upon arrival at the shelter.


2.  Most private shelters (both no-kill and kill) and virtually all public shelters (high-kill impoundment facilities) are stressful environments where loud noises, strange new odors, unfamiliar humans and animals, plus the loss of its family and/or freedom, traumatize the animal and immediately intensify its internal stress.


3.  The longer an animal remains impounded in a shelter, the more stressed-out it becomes. Continued impoundment does not get less stressful for the animal; on the contrary, it worsens day by day. Beyond a certain length of time, most animals confined to a typically small-size shelter kennel or cage will deteriorate to the point of becoming psychologically unfit for adoption.






4.  Temperament tests are a useful tool in the hands of experienced behaviorists, breed-specific rescues and all-breed rescues knowledgeable in canine and breed-specific behaviors, provided the tests are administered in a stress-free environment.


5.  Temperament tests were not designed to be administered in shelters – least of all in public shelters where a negative pass/fail assessment is tantamount to a death sentence – because of the stress factors described above. Furthermore, the typical low-wage shelter worker (who likely is untrained in canine, let alone breed-specific, behaviors) doesn’t have the experience or skill to properly administer and evaluate a 5-, 10-, or 15-minute temperament test in any environment and is likely to mis-evaluate the animals being tested. Irony #1: Temperament tests have become a panacea for many kill-shelter workers – a tool for easing their own stress and the anguish that comes from the thankless job of having to select and euthanize perfectly nice dogs and cats. So now when animals fail a temperament test, killing them seems more okay . . . necessary for the public good . . . even, perhaps, a noble deed. Note: Nothing here speaks to the not-atypical abusive or sadistic shelter worker who enjoys the daily carnage.


6.  The (mis)use of in-shelter pass/fail temperament tests has increased dramatically in recent years. Not by chance, this increase, with its accompanying increase in the body count, parallels the growing trend of public and private shelters to announce, usually with great fanfare, that – Irony #2 – they are "going no-kill." Note: Sometimes the motivation for “going no-kill” is to assuage an awakened community’s demand to do something. And often
it is the lure of private funding available exclusively for no-kill initiatives. The fact that Maddie's Fund-type monies were never intended for and will never be granted to public shelters seems to be lost on a good many municipal politicians and shelter administrators, who compound their fuzzy thinking by shutting out the experienced rescues who are an essential component of the “going no-kill” equation. (Aggressive adoption promotion; spay/neuter and other population-control initiatives; and public education are also essential components for successfully building a no-kill community. See paragraph 15 below.)


7.  More recently, these quickie pass/fail shelter temperament tests have reached an absurd extreme, where the great majority (ca. 80%) of shelter dogs tested are virtually guaranteed to fail. Failure means "unadoptable," and "unadoptable" means death. Coincidentally, animal shelters’ standard reporting practice allows these huge numbers of "unadoptables" to go unreported – to be excluded from the shelters' data when their adoption and euthanasia statistics are compiled – increasingly higher adoption and lower euthanasia numbers being the criteria for a successful journey on the road to no-kill and the pot of no-kill gold. Note: We are not suggesting that Maddie’s Fund or any other private no-kill funding source is complicit in this deadly trend. We are saying that the lure of private funding appears to be the catalyst for at least some kill-shelters to “go no-kill” by administering extreme, high fail-rate temperament tests. This is beyond irony. It is scandalous, and it is a national disgrace.







8.  Sue Sternberg's Assess-a-Pet™ is the model for extreme temperament tests used in shelters. Irony #3: Ms. Sternberg admits that her own dogs couldn’t pass her own Assess-a-Pet™ test. (Which begs the question: If this self-described expert dog trainer and behaviorist cannot train her own dogs to behave, then what about the average dog-owner and his average dog? What chance does that dog have if she strays from home and is picked up and impounded in a shelter where Assess-a-Pet™ is used, and is temperament-tested before her owner has a reasonable chance to find her?) The odds of an average good dog failing the Assess-a-Pet™ test in a stress-filled shelter environment are roughly 4-to-1 against the dog. Notwithstanding Ms. Sternberg’s pronouncement that most shelter dogs are dangerous and unfit to be kept as pets, we and other more experienced canine specialists believe that the vast majority of shelter dogs are good dogs with great potential. (See paragraph 14 below.)


9.  Sue Sternberg has yet to disclose any scientific data that may have laid the foundation for her Assess-a-Pet™ methodology. We can only surmise then, after peeling away the layers of p.r. which surround Ms. Sternberg, that she devised her Assess-a-Pet™ test largely from personal observation and experience at her very small private shelter/kennel (Rondout Valley Kennels in Accord, N.Y.) whose maximum capacity, we understand, is only 30 dogs, and that she extrapolated her very limited data to “fit” all shelters, public as well as private, large as well as small. By keeping her research to herself, there can be no independent replication to prove or disprove the science behind her methodology. Until such disclosure and proof are forthcoming, Assess-a-Pet’s™ validity remains specious, as does Ms. Sternberg’s motivation for operating what many perceive as primarily a merchandising business.


10.  Facilitated by friends in high places (HSUS, the ASPCA, Petfinder.com), Sue Sternberg travels the country, going North and South, East Coast to West Coast, giving her Assess-a-Pet™ seminars to shelter workers, using "demo dogs" from the local pound . . . referring to herself as a doggy Hitler, expressing admiration for the tyrant Stalin . . . demanding that attendees not take written notes, and refusing to answer their questions . . . causing them anguish and nausea and tears when her test fails virtually all of the demo dogs, the attendees having to watch helplessly as the dogs are led away to be euthanized. [Read: Eyewitness accounts by attendees at Sternberg seminars.]  Note: We understand from attendees at her most recent seminars that, perhaps reacting to the negative spotlight she lately finds herself in, Ms. Sternberg has toned down her rhetoric considerably and her style somewhat.


11.  Former longtime employees at Sue Sternberg’s small shelter/kennel attest to a disturbed individual who in the last few years has undergone a radical personality shift, from a once decent and caring person into one who now, by her own admission, wants to eliminate no less than 75% of shelter dogs in the Northeast and has delusions of manipulating the gene pool of America's dogs until there are none left that weigh more than 35 pounds. [Read: Eyewitness accounts by former Sternberg employees.]






12.  We do not believe that temperament testing should be done in-shelter, period. Instead, shelters need to establish and maintain working relationships with accredited behaviorists and local rescue organizations (both breed-specific and all-breed). Shelters should rely on these trained intermediaries to make in-shelter determinations as to which shelter dogs (the great majority) are candidates for adoption. Those dogs should be removed immediately from the shelter and taken to stress-free foster or kennel facilities where they can be trained, or retrained, or rehabilitated and otherwise worked with until they are ready for permanent placement into responsible adoptive homes. Note: We’re not overlooking an important added benefit of removing temperament testing from shelters; namely, the elimination of shelter workers’ “conscience cushion,” which could force shelters to finally tackle the real issues – the underlying causes of the pet overpopulation crisis that results in the annual killing of an estimated six million shelter animals in the U.S. (See paragraph 15 below.)


13.  We also propose, effective immediately, that families and individuals wanting to adopt temperamentally sound pets should seek out, within their own community, reputable rescue groups which foster, do needs-assessment and any necessary retraining and which have the expertise to make a perfect match of the right pet with the right person.


14.  Despite, or perhaps because of, our unequivocal opposition to in-shelter temperament testing, we are exploring alternatives to that practice, particularly to the egregiously extreme method devised by Sue Sternberg (Assess-a-Pet™) and increasingly emulated by other self-styled, instant “experts” most often for the purpose of eliminating, via covert, off-the-record euthanasias, the majority of shelter dogs.

One possible alternative to the extreme-temperament-test juggernaut is the Walter Turken Training for Adoption Program created by pet-behavior specialist Brian Kilcommons. See: www.turkenfoundation.org.

Another possible alternative comes from the American Temperament Test Society. See: www.atts.org.

We are also looking at Sam Malatesta’s Puppy for Life training method. See: www.forgottenanimalshelter.org/pflinformation.htm.

Warren Eckstein’s highly regarded gentle assessment method is still another possibility. See: www.warreneckstein.comNote: Warren recently disclosed on his national radio program that his little dog Cisco – one of 236 chihuahuas confiscated last year from a southern California backyard breeder/collector – little Cisco would not have passed the temperament test administered by L.A. County animal control. The so-called “Baldwin Park Chihuahuas” case became a national cause celebre and was instrumental in exposing the perversity of in-shelter temperament testing.






15.  Whether it’s Assess-a-Pet™ or an Assess-a-Pet™ spawn, and regardless of how appealing its promise of a jump start for “going no-kill,” temperament-testing surplus shelter animals literally to death is an unacceptable tool of the inhumane status quo. It is not the way to create a progressive, enlightened no-kill community. True no-kill, which incorporates humane animal control, is achieved by building a working partnership between and among high-volume, high-kill impoundment facilities; private shelters and humane organizations; reputable breed-specific and all-breed rescue groups and individuals; breed clubs; accredited trainers; and volunteers from within the community, including veterinarians, retailers, elected officials, the media, communications professionals, schools, and dedicated foster-care families, all working together for the single shared goal of ending the killing of surplus dogs and cats by humanely ending the surplus. Aggressive adoption outreach; accessible, affordable spay/neuter services and breeding-control initiatives; creative ongoing public-education campaigns, and a collective will are all that it takes to build no-kill communities
across America.                                                                                                     


Prepared by Livi French, 10/28/03o