These Types of Dogs Should Not be Placed into Our Communities
Webinar: Shelter Dog Behavior Review with Sue Sternberg and Gia Savocchi - Fall 2020.
Oyster Bay, NY - In a rare appearance on YouTube, we are able to bring to you the expertise of animal behaviorist Sue Sternberg, who has been crafting the Assess-A-Pet Protocol test for shelter dogs since the 1990s. While professionals and the public can always access paid webinars of Sternberg, it is an atypical occasion to witness and learn from her in a two hour YouTube video, where she reviews worst-case shelter dog scenarios with behavior specialist Gia Savocchi.
Savocchi is currently the contracting behavior specialist at the Oyster Bay Animal Shelter. On the day this video posted, Savocchi was in the news after she posted a TikTok video in response to the harassment she receives from no-kill animal "advocates," who believe that no aggressive behavior -- including killing dogs and people -- is enough to warrant humane euthanasia. This also involves animal cruelty because keeping these dangerous dogs caged for years on end is cruel.
Savocchi was also a whistleblower in a two-part news investigation last year of the North Shore Animal League. The shelter had been hiding the dangerous histories of some dogs available for adoption. Savocchi and her colleague John Bishow-Semevolos said they were directed by their superiors to hide the biting history of dogs and use euphemisms instead. There was also a pattern of bullying by upper management that encouraged employees not to disclose these behaviors.
The Lay of the Land
There are no-kill shelters that habitually lie to adopters by failing to disclose aggression and biting histories of dogs. Only California and Virginia have passed mandatory bite disclosure laws making this illegal. Some shelters even drug dogs to mask aggression. Savocchi's honesty shows us that there are still excellent shelter behaviorists at work -- placing public safety above no-kill's single metric 90% "save rate" -- but they face harassment from misguided no-kill animal "advocates."
Now Savocchi and Sternberg come together -- in a dynamite duo -- to share the evaluations of worst-case shelter dogs, whose behaviors are so dangerous that there is no place for them to safely reside. These dogs are not rehabilitatable, even housing or transporting them is a huge risk. Years ago, our nonprofit began documenting the rise of dangerous dogs being warehoused in shelters and adopted to the public under the guise of "no-kill." Today, the situation is worse.
Background and Testing
Before watching this video, it is important to understand parts of the Assess-A-Pet Protocol. This video provides the basics. Essentially, it is built around the dogs' sociability. The lower the sociability, the greater risk of future aggression. For example, despite this dog appearing friendly, Sternberg states, "there is no social gestures, the domestic dog qualities are not in him." Once you understand sociability, you are on your way to understanding Sternberg's 4-part assessment test.
It is also important to understand that the Oyster Bay Animal Shelter, where Savocchi began working in early 2020, was under a one-year moratorium ceasing all euthanasia from March 2019 to June 2020, due to outcries by no-kill animal "advocates." The moratorium forced the shelter to keep some of these dogs, even "behavioral emergency" cases, as seen in the video, alive. The moratorium was lifted in June 2020, but the battle rages on. Savocchi inherited this mess.
- The moratorium on euthanasia resulted in a large population of aggressive dogs being "warehoused" at the shelter. When there is a high population of aggressive dogs, the aggression is a contagion; it affects the entire shelter population.
- Savocchi had to evaluate all of these dogs -- some had been there for two years -- to determine which ones were adoptable. She discusses the behavior of six dogs with Sternberg; most were euthanized for severe aggression or resource guarding.
- There is no place for these dogs to go when euthanasia is refused. Not even sanctuaries can handle these dogs. You will learn about "Ruby," a dog with no sociability and severe animal aggression that a rescue filled with cats wants to adopt.
- The role a shelter should play is to protect people and dogs by making wise euthanasia decisions. Keeping reactive dogs alive with a forever future of being caged, isolated and frustrated for the sake of a higher "save rate" is inhumane.
- Protests, petitions and outrage by no-kill animal "advocates" indicate they have a complete lack of knowledge of normal dog behavior and a complete lack of knowledge of the limitations of behavior modification and of dog training.
- Sternberg stresses that some shelters only see these types of extreme behaviors (they've never even seen a highly sociable dog), which normalizes these behaviors. Severe aggression cases should be abnormal, but today, they are more common.
- There is a 13 minute excerpt of this webinar - Excerpt of the Canine Behavior Review Webinar (Sternberg and Savocchi). Precious, a "behavioral emergency" case is featured, along with Sternberg's analysis that her behavior is not normal.
Breaking Down the Webinar
Ruby, female pit bull 5:15 - Dog has predatory behavior, killed a cat at the shelter and attacked a dog through a fence. Dog is under a legal proceeding; a trust was created to try to seize her from the animal shelter to place her into a rescue. The dog has been in legal limbo for two years. Dog can open up gates. The rescue that wants the dog is an indoor facility of about 2,000 square feet with cats and dogs, primarily cats -- about 110 to 150 animals in the space already. (See the environment Ruby, a cat killer, would be kept in.) Sternberg talks about the frustration a dog like this would experience in the "cacophony" of this type of environment. Sternberg also talks about the inherent problem with sanctuaries, which often fill up quick because the person running the sanctuary can't say "no" to new animals.
(18:53) Sociability test - "So far, no sociability," Sternberg remarks. Frontal reorientation, not so great red flags. Chair test - Lunge-a-ways, shoulder swiping, scent marking, zero sociability. Not good. (24:46 notice how you can hear the test in the background? This is to ensure objectivity and consistency). Teeth Exam test - That's a "really low threshold." Basically testing for annoyance, how does the dog handle it? Zero sociability and two very low thresholds so far. Toy test - Frontal reorientation, squared-off, a direct threat. She's not fearful, she has total confidence. Showing all signs of serious aggression risk.
(33:30) "I call her a (habituated) predator," Sternberg said. "She has none of the qualities of a pet dog, of a domesticated dog. In other words, there is no sociability. No deference to people. She doesn't look for clues. She doesn't check in with people. She's completely on her own and independent," Sternberg said. (37:25) "This is the kind of dog that can look like she can pass an assessment, particularly some of the other assessment procedures that are out there, especially if you are not looking at sociability or lack of sociability. But this is a really dangerous dog … Her aggression thresholds are so low, and high predation."
(39:00) Decoy Dog-to-Dog test - The dog aggression test with a stuffed dog. It's a classic attack; she immediately grabs it and does not let go. After the attack, the dog totally disengages, and "walks around and sniffs and pees," Savocchi said. "I see that and I've seen it in other dogs. It's so scary," Sternberg replies. "I don't know why that is more disturbing. I think there is a casualness to the aggression … She's a fighting stock pit. That level of ignite at the sight of another dog, grab, full mouth bite, head shake, not let go. That's not rehabilitatable," Sternberg said.
(44:00) Live Dog-to-Dog test - (Please do not try this at home!) "The only thing holding her back is a leash and leashes will fail. The only thing holding her back is a human and humans fail. Even just transporting her is a huge risk," Sternberg said. The live test shows why decoy dog tests are valid and also do not expose live dogs to potential harm. (46:10) "This isn't curable … This is hundreds of years of genetics in this dog." (Recall that a rescue filled with cats is trying to take ownership of Ruby.)
(46:44) "This is our responsibility as an animal shelter for the community. We cannot place dogs into the community that are going to hurt or kill dogs, that are going to hurt or kill children," Sternberg said. "This level of arousal and predation absolutely will transmit to children as well. She has no sociability. She has no off switch. She has no deference … there is no social gestures, social communication. She's on her own."
(50:45) Baby Doll test - Dog tries to eat the baby doll, but dog responds very differently to a toy ball (55:23), which elicits no arousal. Child Doll test - Extremely high arousal. Dog immediately grabs doll in jaws, lifts it off the ground and parades around the yard while gripping the doll around its waist (which reminds us of this 1897 image). "The combination of the resource guarding, so she stays away … Oh my God, this is so scary. I wish it were less common these days. But it's not," Sternberg said.
Precious, female pit bull, 1:03 - Shows the injuries after Precious and Ruby got into a fence fight. Precious has been in and out of shelters her whole life. Savocchi asks if it is valid for animal "advocates" to say, "Any dog will fight through a fence." And that Savocchi should not negatively score a dog for fence fighting.
(1:04) "No," Sternberg said. "This is what happens when people only see fighting stock guarding breeds and mixes in the shelters, who have such dog aggression and such arousal and frustration problems, that this becomes normal," she said. "This is not normal. This is not what dogs do … a normal dog will fence fight and there is no contact. It's all display" (posturing and noises). Referring to Ruby and Precious, due to their genetics, "there is no place where they are able to be with access to their instincts because they're not bred as dogs. There is no way to fulfill them. It's a cruelty to keep them alive. There is no way to provide the enrichment that they would really need in a safe way."
(1:07) Precious in her kennel with repetitious pacing. "This is a cruelty. This is a cruelty to animals. Crossed the line," Sternberg said. "I call this a behavioral emergency." The dog has lost quality of life. It is a response to an abnormal environment. "There is not a person who would go to a zoo and watch a gorilla doing this or a wolf, pacing and lunging and circling over and over again, and say, 'Oh, that's okay.' It's not okay. This is cruelty to animals in the highest form," Sternberg said.
(1:11) There was a protest after Precious was euthanized. Protesters said, "She's a good dog. She just needs to go to a house without other animals." After watching the Dog-to-Dog test, Sternberg goes into the concept of "game" and being "game bred." Precious was not playing with the stuffed dog -- play is reciprocal. "What she is showing, her motor patterns, all of her behaviors are to kill. She's not doing it out of anger." She added, "These dogs do not belong in our communities. When shelters place these dogs or send them to rescue and they get loose and hurt somebody else's dog or a person? The emotional and financial liability? It's so irresponsible. It's got to stop. This is all in the name of a complete lack of knowledge of normal dog behavior, and a complete lack of knowledge of the limitations of behavior modification and of dog training."
Male pit bull, 1:17 - Dog was confiscated from a squatter house. Broke one of his teeth while being captured with a catch pole. Took a week at the shelter before they could take him out of his kennel. Due to his behavior, Savocchi skipped the first test and went directly to the resource guarding test. Dog already had severe resource guarding of his bowl while in his kennel. The dog quickly acts out during the test. "The earlier in a sequence that a dog hits an aggression threshold, the more dangerous the dog," Sternberg said. "That was a grab, bite, head shake. These are damaging, hospitalizing bites."
"So is this a dog I should have tried to rehabilitate?" asks Savocchi.
"No," Sternberg answers. "You can't change these aggression thresholds. This isn't a food bowl issue. This is a resource guarding, a guarding issue. This is a guard dog. Here's the thing, you neuter him, his appetite goes up. Now, he is worse, if that is even possible. No, this level of resource guarding is so serious. That dog, no sociability to humans. These are really dangerous combinations. These are not pet dogs. So dangerous."
Male chocolate lab, 1:19 - Savocchi also skipped the first test and went directly to the resource guarding test. Savocchi believes dog may have never lived in a home before. He was found running loose by a police officer. The dog tears off the access-a-hand then starts to guard it. Savocchi believes the dog was transported to Long Island by a rescue transport then set loose by the transport or rescue when they realized he was a problem.
"So guarding edible and non-edible, like the access-a-hand is non-edible, is a predictor of much more serious resource guarding. It's predictive of absolutely not being able to manage the dog in a home situation. He will guard everything and his level is really serious, and he has no sociability to people," Sternberg said. Once the moratorium was lifted, the shelter was able to euthanize the worst cases, this dog being one of them. "He was clear cut not adoptable," Savocchi said.
Dexter, male pit bull-mix, 1:23 - Dog had been at the shelter for two years. Adopted to two different homes. 3-years old, neutered and a repetitive kennel spinner and kennel reactive. They put the dog on Prozac. Dog fails sociability test -- high tail, giant shoulder swipe, giant anal swipe. "He likes me clearly," Savocchi said. "Well, he likes you as his property. So far has shown you no respect or sociability," Sternberg replies.
(1:27) During the Stranger test, the shelter director was even afraid of the dog. "Your shelter director is uncomfortable with the dog, like, 'end of test,'" Sternberg said. "For good reason. This is a dog who, with hesitant communication, will show aggression. The world is filled with hesitant communication." Next, Savocchi tests with a female that is not a stranger. Dog still exhibits guarding behavior. Savocchi states the dog has never done anything to any of the "women" at the shelter (indicating the dog is man-aggressive), but he did try to redirect on her one time, when he went to take a lung at a man. "And that is resource guarding," Sternberg said. "That is when you get a redirect."
"So, he was going after a man?" Sternberg asks. Yes, Savocchi said. "End of test. End of evaluation. I mean, I hate to be flip about it, but what are we doing in the shelter world today, right? What are we putting out into our communities? He's not a beagle. He's a giant, muscular, athletic dog. Capable of great damage."
During the Chair test, the dog displays behavior, which predicts "aggression to strangers, territorial aggression in the home. If there is another dog in the home, it predicts dog-to-dog aggression because the dog is owner guarding," Sternberg said. "It's a guard dog, not a pet."
After the tests, we learn more about the history of the dog. This dog was adopted out to a home with a Maltese before I was around, Savocchi said. They returned him because he was too hyperactive in the home.
He was recently adopted out to a single adult man. That man pulled him off Prozac nearly completely (he was in the home for three weeks) then decided to take him to the dog park. During one occasion at the dog park, the dog attacked an adult female boxer (dog-to-dog aggression), requiring a $300 vet bill. Next he went after someone who was coming into the home (territorial aggression in the home). Bit him on the finger. No stitches needed. Later he was taken to an off-leash park when no other dogs were there, in a fenced-in area. A town employee went into the area to change the garbage can and the dog attacked the person (aggression to strangers and/or territorial aggression). No bite, but the dog had to be tackled and forcibly restrained.
Prior to being told the history of this dog, and only being shown a few short clips of the tests, Sternberg predicted these behaviors.
(1:34) "You should be able to take your dog to a dog park. Then [the adopter] said, 'Why not take him to a dog park when no one is there?' And a man shows up. What if he had killed the town employee? What if he had just knocked him down and he hit his head? These are life-changing events," Sternberg said.
The general public -- Level 1 dog owners -- do not understand what it means to own a dog like this. They may think they can handle a dog like Dexter, but have no basis or qualifications to make that assessment.
(1:35) "The only people really qualified to take a dog like that is someone who lived with a dog that had that level of aggression. And, anyone who has already lived with a dog with that level of aggression, will say 'No thanks' to their next dog having the same issues," Sternberg said. "That's the paradox. Once you realize that, you realize that all we are doing is duping someone into adopting a dog because they don't truly understand."
Teddy, male cane corso, 1:36 - Teddy was found running loose with a female dog. It took multiple animal control officers and police officers hours to capture the two. He was very aggressive. This dog was so dangerous, he was never let out of his cage -- not even one time -- until he was euthanized one year later. Due to the moratorium on euthanasia, he could not be euthanized sooner. No-kill animal "advocates" claimed this dog could be rehabilitated with up to three years of training.
Savocchi would not let him out of his kennel because the risk to shelter staff was too high. Teddy fixated on certain people. His behavior was so bad to certain people that Sternberg said, "That's abusive to the staff person."
Teddy has broken many of his teeth by biting the bars of the kennel. This dog found a way to get under the guillotine door too (1:40). Gasps and "Oh my God!" is heard while watching the guillotine door sequence.
(1:41) "Because what you have here is a predator beast. He's not a dog," Sternberg said. "Your kennels are set up to house dogs. He's no longer a dog. There is no one who could look at that video and think that is not abject cruelty to animals. That's to got stop." Sternberg also comments, rightly so, that Teddy could kill a shelter worker. "You can't get him out [of the kennel], he's too aggressive. He's going to kill one of your employees. If he can open the guillotine, somebody is going to go in there to clean, you're going to find them dead. It will be the most horrible death."
Finally, Sternberg discusses that no behaviorist would look at Teddy and say, "Yeah, we can train him." Only charlatans would, she said. The dog has "all of the hallmarks of a dog that can kill an adult human." Sternberg then refers to the Virginia case involving Blue, a rehomed pit bull that killed a woman immediately after his shock collar was removed. This type of charlatan "would put a shock collar on him and suppress him and the minute that shock collar came off … These dogs don't get rehabilitated. You can suppress them for a certain amount of time using methods that are considered cruel and inhumane," Sternberg said.
Dogs in Shelters Today
Sternberg used to classify adoptable dogs as Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3 -- Level 1 having the highest sociability, highest aggression thresholds and the easiest to live with successfully. There are almost no Level 1 dogs in shelters today. She has since dropped these categories, but has maintained the corresponding levels of adopters, Level 1, making up most dog owners, who need bombproof dogs. Level 2 adopters are more capable and Level 3 adopters are professional dog trainers, shelter workers or handlers. As she states in her book, "The biggest problem is that there are far fewer behaviorally adoptable dogs in shelters today, and far more aggressive ones than anyone -- public or within the shelter and rescue industry -- is prepared to deal with."
About Sue Sternberg
Sternberg has been working in shelters and as a dog trainer since 1981. Sue was the 2016 recipient of the APDT's Lifetime Achievement Award. She founded the shelter featured in the HBO documentary: Shelter Dogs. Her over 40 years of canine behavior experience includes as a dog control officer, behavior consultant at the ASPCA, shelter owner, successful competitor in a variety of dog sports (with Nose Work being her current wild favorite) and a teacher of dog trainers worldwide. She has published many books and DVDs on all aspects of dog behavior, training and assessments, available at Dogwise and TawzerDog. Her latest book is: Assessing Aggression Thresholds in Dogs. Using the Assess-A-Pet Protocol to Better Understand Aggression.
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