While my new dog Atlas was in transit to Chicago from North Carolina, I was coincidentally attending a weekend Sue Sternberg seminar.

Sue Sternberg heads an upstate NY animal shelter, and has authored books including Successful Dog Adoption and Out and About with Your Dog: Dog to Dog Interactions. She is a controversial figure within the shelter community due to both her Assess-A-Pet system for shelter dog evaluation, and her unapologetic prioritization of ensuring successful adoptions over maximizing adoptions (i.e. minimizing euthanasias), a model that stands in stark contrast with the No-Kill ethic.

People that know me know I am nothing if not a tough audience. And I’m definitely not a seminar junky (if I were capable of sitting in a chair for hours on end, I could hold down a real job). So, I was duly prepared to be underwhelmed by Sue Sternberg’s three-day seminar and workshop on canine group dynamics and aggression.

The seminar led with an introduction to the Assess-A-Pet system, designed to enable standardized evaluation of shelter dogs for sociability and adoptability. It has its critics, and its weaknesses in my opinion. But I appreciate its seriousness of purpose and support its underlying focus on ensuring successful adoptions. The effort to develop a robust method for practically delegating the limited resources available to shelter dogs is an important one.

Sternberg is also a very skilled and entertaining presenter, and all three days were packed with truly compelling material, including maybe a hundred video clips shot at shelters and dog parks all across the country and even overseas.

Of course, as a trainer, it is difficult for me to watch a dog that could likely be trained or socialized successfully with some amount of work, be set up for failure, no matter the obvious practicality of such a system. But the fact is a shelter assessment serves a very different purpose from a client behavior evaluation.

In Atlas’ case, I had enough information to believe he had good potential for being successfully socialized, despite his lack of canine interaction while at the North Carolina shelter where he’d lived most of his life.

Every trainer has a different method, ideally multiple, for assessing canine sociability. The trick in my opinion is to be clear as to the scope and purpose of whatever method one uses.

The following footage, which features Atlas interacting with an adolescent female bully mix during his first week at my kennel, illustrates one way to assess baseline sociability in a dog whose attitude is not well known. I welcome any comments.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.

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