After the following article appeared on Petfinder, some animal welfare / animal shelter people objected to parts of it for a variety of reasons, mostly because of the controversy of Sue Sternberg's methods and beliefs.
Mike Fry, Founder and Director of Animal Ark, the largest no-kill shelter in Minnesota, offers an objective and compelling argument against some of the points of this article. Be sure to read Mike's letter to Petfinder here.
IMHO, the issue of whether or not to euthanize those dogs that are not well socialized and those with severe medical issues is what divides the animal welfare/shelter world.
How to Pick a Winner
Ask trainer Sue Sternberg where you should get a dog and, without hesitation, she'll tell you to go to an animal shelter. She should know – as a nationally recognized dog trainer and owner of Rondout Valley Kennels, a boarding kennel, training and behavior center, and private shelter in Accord, New York, she regularly works with shelters across the country, and counsels families who have adopted from them.
In addition, Sternberg has produced several booklets and videotapes about issues specific to shelter dogs and shelter dog adoption. The booklets include Temperament Testing for Dogs in Shelters and A Guide to Choosing your Next Dog from the Shelter; the videos include The Controversial Pit Bull about temperament testing Pit Bulls in shelters, and Training Your Shelter Dog. She also is a frequent and popular speaker at all sorts of dog-related venues.
Setting aside all of the arguments for buying a puppy from a breeder, Sternberg emphatically pronounces that you should adopt a dog from a shelter because, as she says, 'it's the right thing to do. Because there are great dogs in animal shelters, and because dogs in shelters need homes. There is no need to get a puppy from a breeder in order to raise it right – getting your dog at an early age is no guarantee of how he will turn out. Plus, you can find all the great qualities you could ever want in a shelter mixed-breed dog or puppy, or in one of the thousands of purebreds waiting in shelters on any given day.”
Of course, there are plenty of canine train wrecks desperately seeking homes in animal shelters as well – dogs who will cause heartache and trauma for the average dog owner. Sternberg offers tips to help prospective adopters find the diamonds in the rough world of animal sheltering.
Before you visit a shelter
The shelter visit
Stand firm on this behavior criteria as you progress through Sternberg's 12-step program for adoption success:
Pit Bulls: How to Separate the Time Bombs from the Tender Buddies
Twenty-five years ago, Pit Bulls were an unusual sight in animal shelters. They exploded onto the scene in the 1980s, and today it's a rare shelter that doesn't include one or more of these distinctive and powerful dogs in its kennel population at any given time. Their history as fighting dogs, their recent record as one of the breeds most responsible for human dog-bite fatalities (surpassed only recently by Rottweilers), and their potential for mayhem has landed them in the middle of an intense debate about the breed's suitability as a companion animal.
At one time, shelters almost universally euthanized all Pit Bulls that were in their custody. Over time, that position has softened, and while some shelters still refuse to place Pit Bulls for adoption, others routinely do, with screening protocols that vary in rigor.
Sue Sternberg has had extensive experience with surrendered and stray Pit Bulls and Pit Bull mixes and has strong opinions about the dogs. This isn't unusual; join any debate about Pit Bulls, and you will encounter devotees who swear that they would trust their Pit Bulls to baby-sit their firstborn heir, and at the opposite extreme, parents who turn deathly pale and snatch up their children at the sight of any dog that even remotely resembles a Pit. Sternberg has seen many dogs that deserve the former reaction – sweet, devoted, tolerant dogs – as well as dogs that deserve the latter reaction – aloof, dominant, and aggressive animals.
'There are many appropriate and lovely Pit Bulls and Pit mixes,” she says. 'But because they are so strong and have such potential to do damage, however, you need to be more careful when adopting one. These are very athletic and physical dogs, far more capable than the average Beagle or Cocker Spaniel of doing serious damage, if and when they do choose to bite.”
Last year, Sternberg produced an 80-minute videotape, 'The Controversial Pit Bull,” that explores the differences between Pits and Pit-mixes and most non-Pit shelter dogs. The video puts special emphasis on observing and temperament testing Pit Bulls in order to weed out potentially dangerous dogs from the candidates for placement in homes. This is especially important with Pit Bulls, because, Sternberg explains, 'At first glance, there may not be any discernible differences between a good Pit and a scary one; the average owner will think that both dogs are just being effusively friendly. Most Pit Bulls will greet you by wriggling all over and wagging their tails exuberantly, their tongues hanging out with big grins. A temperament problem is more evident in most other dogs; in Pit Bulls, it's very hard for the average person to appreciate – until it's too late.”
Fortunately, there are some subtle but important differences in the behavior of Pit Bulls with latent aggressive tendencies, and Sternberg often presents lectures to shelter and training professionals on recognizing those differences. To name just a few, some of the behaviors that Sternberg regards as signs of a potentially aggressive dog include:
Sternberg recommends that anyone adopting a Pit Bull – or, for that matter, any of the 'big, macho breeds” – confer with a professional trainer/behavior consultant. 'My rule of thumb is that if you are selecting a dog that is heavier or stronger than any of your family members, talk to a pro first,” she advises.
If you choose to own a Pit Bull, your already significant responsibilities as a dog owner are magnified, both by the dog's potential as well as by the eye of public scrutiny. When it comes to Pit Bulls, many people will leap to condemn a behavior that might be overlooked in a different breed of dog. And, face it: A mistake in judgment with even small dogs can have serious consequences. A judgment lapse with a Pit Bull can prove deadly.
But What About the Others?
Some people who are familiar with Sternberg's shelter dog selection criteria and temperament testing procedure regard her methods as overcautious and too restrictive. If everyone followed Sternberg's guidelines, some say, an awful lot of shelter dogs would get passed over and be euthanized.
Sternberg admits that her guidelines are designed for the least common denominator; the average adopter from a shelter is a family with children, perhaps with another dog already, perhaps with a cat in the household, whose parents are relatively inexperienced in handling and training dogs. If followed to a T, her guidelines will identify the dogs who have the greatest potential for success in any household – a friendly, confident dog who really likes people, and does not have any blatant tendencies toward resource guarding or aggression. She also recognizes that some of the dogs that would be cast aside by her evaluation would make great canine companions in the right (experienced, perhaps dog-, cat-, and kid-free) hands and homes. But these homes are in short supply.
And, in fact, an awful lot of shelter dogs do get euthanized. The current estimate is that 3 to 4 million dogs are put to death in shelters in this country every year. Many are euthanized after being returned to a shelter several times in succession, after not adjusting well to several homes, after breaking the hearts of several families in the process, and stressing the dog repeatedly.
If dogs must be euthanized until this country's pet overpopulation problem is solved, it is by far the lesser of two evils that the best dogs be adopted to lifelong loving homes, rather than dogs with serious behavior problems who are recycled through numerous homes, with rare success.
Besides, some of the dogs with more challenging behaviors will be adopted by experienced owners who are prepared to direct high energy and assertive personalities into appropriate channels. Others will be adopted by well-intentioned and kindhearted folks who resign themselves to managing difficult behaviors for the rest of their dogs' lives.
When you find yourself feeling sorry for the poor, unsocialized dog huddling in the back of her kennel, or tempted by the challenge of the dog who avoids your advances, stop and think about it. You and your family are making a commitment to this dog for the next 10 to 15 years of your lives. You can look forward to 10 to 15 years of joy, sharing a bond with your dog that is based on mutual trust and respect, or you can face the prospect of a decade or more of headache and heartache while you manage difficult behaviors. You decide which is the right thing to do.
Pat Miller is a freelance author and a professional dog trainer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. For information about her training classes, contact Pat at Peaceable Paws Dog & Puppy Training, phone (423) 326-0444.