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Until Pigs Fly...

Here are 8 simple rules for placing an aggressive dog:

RULE NO.1: Don’t do it!
RULE NO.2: Please, please don’t do it!
RULE NO.3: For the love of Pete, don’t do it!
RULE NO.4: If you value our work, don’t do it!
RULE NO.5: Pretty please with sugar on top, don’t do it!
RULE NO.6: Don’t do it on any day when the earth is round!
RULE NO.7: Don’t do it unless you see a pig flying by!
RULE NO.8: If you do it, be prepared to deal with the consequences.

The recent case of an animal shelter in the Northeast that placed a dog with a known history of biting—who then went on to kill his new caregiver ten days after his adoption—should explain why these rules are so important.

The incident has brought to light the urgent need for all animal shelters, breed placement groups, and adoption partners to review their policies and procedures for temperament evaluations and ensure that they are implemented for all animals who may be placed up for adoption. A well-managed temperament evaluation program is a necessity in shelters, as are operating guidelines that ensure the judgment of a shelter trainer or evaluator isn’t undercut by staff unqualified to gauge the personality of an enigmatic dog.

The recent tragedy should also help explain the need for behavior assessments to those critics who think “temperament testing will just enable the shelter to kill more animals.” (Yep, folks, that’s an actual quote from the website of an animal activist group.)

Temperament evaluation is never a guarantee, but it can help guide adoption counselors in their matchmaking decisions, keeping the shelter’s focus on the quality of adoptions rather than the quantity.

Lowering euthanasia rates is a fine goal if carried out responsibly, but pressure from external groups and board members leads some shelters to go too far, abandoning temperament evaluation in order to just “move ’em out the door” and silence their critics.

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We can debate the merits of certain adoption requirements: Is it OK to place a puppy or kitten in a family with three toddlers? Or to adopt a cat to someone who wants to have her declawed? But there should be no disagreement whatsoever over what to do with the aggressive, biting dog: Don’t pass “Go,” don’t collect $200. Just humanely and cautiously euthanize him.

And if you aren’t lucky enough to know a dog’s history, a temperament evaluation can work wonders in bringing potential behavior problems to light before a tragedy occurs. Or it can do the opposite, bringing out the shining qualities of “diamonds in the rough.” The shelters featured in this issue have developed quality programs designed to do both; by assessing the hidden personalities of their animals, organizations can make better and more lasting placements.

When an animal shelter adopts out a dog with a known history of aggression, everyone loses. The dog loses because he is now in another new environment in which he will probably bite again—and possibly be hurt when a person tries to defend himself. The adopter loses because it’s probably only a matter of time before his new buddy will bite again, causing both physical and emotional pain to the humans who care for him. The shelter loses because its reputation for making good lifelong matches between animals and new families is sullied—and its solvency is threatened by the possibility of a lawsuit.

Aggression in dogs can sometimes be traced to a human failure—the animal might have been trained to fight, or abused, or just never properly socialized. And sometimes some animals are just unable, for whatever reason, to meld comfortably into human society; we are asking a lot of their species when we bring them into our homes, so it’s no surprise that they don’t all respond the way we’d like them to. Euthanizing an aggressive dog is always going to feel unfair: Often the dog, through no fault of his own, has never been given the opportunity to become a good pet—or simply isn’t capable of censoring his canine ways.

But placing such an animal to compensate for his hard luck is almost always a bad choice. While the numbers of animals adopted from animal shelters has risen in recent years, the myth that shelter animals are all sick, old, injured, or aggressive is still pervasive. News reports of shelter dogs that have been adopted and then gone on to bite someone reinforce that belief immeasurably—and thereby cost countless other sweet-tempered, healthy, loving shelter dogs their chance for a good home.

Martha C. Armstrong is the former HSUS Senior Vice President for Companion Animals and Equine Protection.

 

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