Yokie’s life took a turn for the worse a few months ago when the owners of the 6-year-old American bull terrier moved and decided not to take their dog.
Yokie was dropped off at the Anti-Cruelty Society, one of Chicago’s largest shelters for animals. There, the dog’s future as a potential adoptee was determined in a series of personality evaluations done by Avril Brown, one of the shelter’s animal behavior specialists.
In one session, the dog was petted and handled, then distracted with a white plastic hand on a stick while she attempted to eat. In another, she was introduced to a series of dogs to address Yokie’s potential for aggressiveness.
Unfortunately, Yokie didn’t fare well. “She would do a rather extreme aggressive display, growling and lunging at the dogs she was introduced to,” Brown wrote. “She also demonstrated an extreme level of stress … and (was) unable to settle herself when left alone.”
And so, in late October, Yokie was deemed unsuitable for an adoption and put to death, in a decision that saddened her evaluators.
“We thought Yokie was very sweet, loving and people-centric, but she’s also a full-grown pit bull who decided that she didn’t like dogs,” Brown said. “We’re working to change the perspective on pit bulls, and Yokie wasn’t a good ambassador for her breed.
“It’s the hardest and worst part about the job.“
Such is the life for an animal behavior specialist at open-admission shelters nationwide. These specialists decide the fate of many dogs and cats awaiting adoption.
They run animals through a series of behavioral tests, and those who pass can move on to adoption, while those who fail may be euthanized, joining the 7,400 dogs and 11,000 cats put to death at Chicago shelters annually.
It’s a demanding, controversial and sometimes emotionally draining job, but an essential one, according to the Anti-Cruelty Society’s animal behavior specialists.
“The reason we’re here is because we love and respect animals, and we understand the stress that they’re under coming to a shelter environment, so they need to have some sort of advocacy,” said Karen Okura, founder and manager of the Anti-Cruelty Society’s animal behavior and training department. “So it is difficult when there’s an animal that we work with extensively who just won’t come around.
“But if we believe that the animal is a danger to staff, staff can’t handle it safely without using extreme measures, or we believe that this animal is a danger to another animal, then we will consider euthanasia,” Okura said. “We don’t think that’s fair to the public to say, ‘Please adopt this animal and just make sure he doesn’t kill anything.’ ”
Out of the nearly 7,300 animals that come through the Anti-Cruelty Society each year, about 1,500 dogs and 1,000 cats are evaluated by an animal behavior specialist. These assessments — pioneered by upstate New York shelter owner Sue Sternberg in the early 1990s and called the “Assess-A-Pet” method — were adopted by the Anti-Cruelty Society and other shelters in the U.S. within the last 10 to 15 years.
The evaluations are not universally praised. Critics say the tests are unreliable, incomplete and sometimes lead to potentially adoptable pets being euthanized.
“What was once a tool to flush out aggression in a potentially dangerous dog is now a weapon that condemns the average dog,” wrote Nancy Skluth, a former employee of Sternberg’s at the Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption shelter in Accord, N.Y., in a denunciation of the method in 2002.
Jean Davidson, former director of animal behavior and training at the San Francisco SPCA, said the tests are based too much on subjective decisions by an evaluator. “And the tests aren’t science-based, so there are reliability issues.”
Okura says her staff uses Sternberg’s evaluation method as a foundation but has modified it, eliminating a grading system that Sternberg used for portions of the test, in order to make the tests more objective. Shelters like the Anti-Cruelty Society defend the basic Sternberg approach, saying such evaluations are an invaluable part of the adoption process for animals.
“These evaluations are an ideal and important part of a successful adoption,” says Janice Brown, a founder of the Chicago Animal Shelter Alliance. “Because there’s nothing more heartbreaking than taking a dog home and then finding out that there’s something incompatible between you and your dog, and then you have to return the pet to the shelter.”