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Book Review
Great Dog Adoptions, by Sue Sternberg
Review by: Kate Connick, March 2005

Few names seem to provoke as much emotion and controversy among those who work with homeless dogs as that of Sue Sternberg. Painted as either a dedicated visionary or a heartless Kevorkian, her ultimate brilliance perhaps lies in the ability to ignite thought and debate. No one has done more for shelter dogs, in that respect, than she.

Great Dog Adoptions: A Guide for Shelters outlines her philosophy, ethical concerns, and practical suggestions for improving the success of shelter dog adoptions. Shamelessly overpriced, this 55-page paperback is nonetheless a worthwhile read for its potent content. I'd consider this a must-read for anyone who works or volunteers in an animal shelter.

First, Sternberg guides the reader through simple steps one can take to assess and improve the animal shelter milieu, with the overriding goal being to maintain or improve the animals' mental health and behavior. She identifies basic needs so often neglected in a shelter situation; these include daily human contact and access to toys.

One of her more creative proposals is the availability of a home-like room where dogs can escape daily stress and maintain fluency in a household environment. Insightful comments emphasize the importance of kennel layout and appropriate location of dogs relative to their character. Simple exercises reinforce such crucial qualities as calmness and acceptance of handling.

Sternberg then presents her controversial temperament test, which may be used both to match dogs with new homes and to weed out aggressive dogs from the pool of potentially adoptable animals.

Achieving a balance between placing dogs into new homes and safeguarding adopters from foreseeable harm is no easy task, and Sternberg readily admits that her high standards are weighted in favor of safety. This responsible and sensible stance has made her a target of criticism, but she points out bravely and rationally:

In our business our laboratory is the general public. We learn our lessons from successful adoptions and from those that end up in bites, injuries, and returns. As a result, I choose to euthanize dogs I predict will bite someone, rather than to have to euthanize them after they have been adopted and adored, then bitten and returned... I cannot justify letting the public "try out" iffy dogs because I cannot bring myself to euthanize them.

Sternberg doesn't pretend that her temperament assessment is scientifically proven to be completely reliable, nor that her opinion is inviolable. In this book, she shares her vast experience, and even those who disagree with her in principle can stand to learn something if they retain an open mind.

Sternberg's well known temperament test emphasizes safety and includes such things as passively observing a dog's desire to solicit social interaction, determining how tolerant the animal is of more active and intrusive handling, assessing how possessive the dog is with food and toys, etc. She expects those dogs available for adoption to be congenial and non-aggressive, and she offers no breed-related exceptions or excuses.

She astutely insists that the handler must, "handle each dog as if you were an inexperienced, first-time dog owner," a dauntingly difficult yet crucial task for the experienced handler. Never does Sternberg lose sight of the fact that these animals will largely end up in homes with inexperienced people who are unequipped to deal with serious behavior problems.

Critics may nitpick the test, and perhaps they can develop their own variations that better suit their needs. Nonetheless, it is a good starting point in performing much-needed triage, and many shelters do use it as their central temperament assessment tool.

Simple, yet invaluable training exercises are presented to help dogs manage stress, appeal to prospective owners, and be easier to manage once adopted. These include sits, sit-stays at doorways and food bowls, downs on a hand signal, and crate acceptance. All are designed to be integrated into the daily shelter (and ultimately, household) routine and thus not exhaust manpower resources at the shelter.

The art of matchmaking highlights owner expectations and lifestyle, and an appendix includes commentary about no-kill animal shelters, quality of life assessments, and follow-ups for adoptive homes with children. A few reproducible handouts to give to adoptive homes are included, as well.

This brief book is easily read in one sitting and should be required reading for those involved in sheltering homeless dogs. The author's commitment to the quality of life of both shelter dogs and potential adopters is laudable. Her philosophy is presented concisely and simply, yet with deceptive eloquence. In addition to being a good book for your own bookshelf, this would be an excellent gift to send to your local animal shelter.


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Great Dog Adoptions by Sue Sternberg.
Published by the Latham Foundation, 2002. ISBN: 0967533015

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