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Animal Shelter Tries Temperament Testing

August 29, 2002

Contrary to popular belief, the animal shelter does not like to kill animals, as stated by Robert Montgomery at the Aug. 21 Animal Advisory Committee meeting.

“I don’t like any euthanizations, but we are faced with situations where the temperament and behavior” of dogs coming into the shelter is such, the animals are not good for placement in homes, said the director of the Loudoun County Department of Animal Care and Control.

The Loudoun County Animal Shelter implemented temperament testing in May 2002 as a tool to enhance the shelter’s adoption program. The testing aims to identify whether a dog is adoptable and to select out dogs less suitable for adoption, so the shelter can keep one to two cages available for incoming animals.

State law mandates the county keep stray and lost dogs sheltered for a minimum of 10 business days before euthanizing them, giving the shelter a chance to find the dogs’ owners. After 10 days, the dogs become property of the shelter.

"Our primary mission is to get the animals that should be adopted into good homes," Montgomery said. "The problem is being able to tell the good animals from the bad animals."

THE SHELTER combines different testing methodologies in an eight- to 10-step process, focusing on the Susan Sternberg model of temperament evaluations and behavior assessments. “Temperament” refers to an animal’s aggression, while “behavior” includes the activities that a trainer can modify, such as chewing things and climbing fences.

Staff members use the temperament tests to assess the dog's body language, taking into consideration the animal's age and heath. Staff members evaluate the dog's temperament, behavior and reactions to certain situations, such as ringing a doorbell or an unknown person walking into a house.

Staff members wait until the dogs are stress-free, typically three days after the animals arrive, to conduct the tests. They evaluate the dogs for another three days using several new forms, including those for dog evaluations, dog profiles and temperament tests. Dogs showing immediate aggression and attempting to bite are not tested.

“The vast majority of animal shelters in advanced areas are using temperament testing,” Montgomery said. "We use it throughout the year."

SINCE THE TESTING was implemented, the shelter has not had any dogs returned for temperament problems, said Kim Miller, operations manager, at a previous committee meeting. She said the average person adopting an animal is inexperienced and may not be prepared to deal with a troubled animal. Since the 1990s, the shelter has not adopted out of the shelter any pit bull terriers for this reason.

The shelter identified 486 dogs unsuitable for adoption in FY ‘02 and 312 dogs in FY ‘01. Montgomery said the increase was not caused by the test procedure, since the euthanasia rate for May and June of both years was nearly the same. The shelter euthanized 1,277 animals in FY ‘02 and 952 animals the previous year. The shelter received 3,075 animals in FY ‘02 and 2,765 animals in 2001.

Of those, 53 animals were euthanized for lack of cage space in 2002, compared with 121 animals the year before.

"The problem people are having is what we do with the results. If a dog fails one part of this evaluation, ... are there alternatives," Montgomery said.

Adding a dog trainer to the staff would allow the shelter to train dogs out of their aggressive behaviors. The Humane Society and rescue shelters could provide an alternative location for the animals, he said.

IN OTHER BUSINESS, the committee will recommend to the Board of Supervisors an increase to shelter fees, including adding $20 to the spay and neuter fee of $5 for cats and $10 for dogs.

"The reason we're increasing them is to help the veterinarians who helped us with the spay and neuter program," Montgomery said, adding that the veterinarians agreed to take a payment loss by accepting the lower fees. "That's why we have so few animals in our shelters. ... Puppies here are rare. That means there aren't that many stray dogs running around and breeding."

Animal shelters in other counties the size of Loudoun take in 8,000 to 10,000 animals a year, compared with Loudoun's animal shelter, which takes in 3,000 animals annually, Montgomery said.

The animal shelter also seeks an increase to the adoption fees, which currently are $32 for a male cat, $37 for a female cat, $53 for a male dog and $58 for a female dog.

The Board of Supervisors will discuss the fee increase proposals at the Sept. 3 meeting and forward the matter to the public hearing scheduled on Oct. 8.