The Animal Services Commission will consider whether to overturn a nearly decade-old policy banning animal behavioral assessments for pets. The tests are
The Animal Services Commission will consider whether to overturn a nearly decade-old policy banning animal behavioral assessments for pets. The tests are developed by the ASPCA. (David Crane/Staff Photographer)

For a decade, Los Angeles has banned testing its shelter animals for potential aggression lest it condemn adoptable pets to death.

Now Animal Services once again wants to assess the behavior of its dogs and cats, while overturning a department policy against so-called temperament testing.

The Animal Services Commission is slated to consider the controversial proposal Dec. 11 during a special meeting at East Valley shelter in Van Nuys.

"We need animal temperament testing, because the shelters need to develop a way of predicting behavior if that animal leaves the shelter," said Phyllis Daugherty, of Animal Issues Movement, who supports the assessment proposal. "The city of L.A.

IF YOU GO
A special Board of Animal Services Commission meeting to discuss the SAFER/Meet Your Match proposal will take place on Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. at the East Valley shelter, 14409 Vanowen St., Van Nuys.

must have a behavior standard to protect the residents and protect the animals from any dangerous behavior.

"Any dogs with immediate aggressive behavior should not be adopted out."

Such support is rare in a city that has spurned three proposals since 2003 to systematically test its shelter dogs and cats.

Proponents of animal behavior assessments say they have helped boost adoptions by up to 60 percent at more than 150 humane societies and city shelters coast to coast.

Assessed animals' traits are better known, they say, making for better family pets that are returned less often as unsuitable.

Critics, who dub it temperament testing, say it's not scientific, not fair to frightened kennel dogs and cats, and not suitable for big city shelters whose resources have been strained by budget cuts.

They add such tests help target otherwise friendly pets for euthanasia - then let managers at shelters with no-kill mandates like Los Angeles cook their books by dubbing such animals "unadoptable."

In Los Angeles nearly half the shelter dogs are pit bulls, known for their aggression. The city took in 57,000 dogs and cats in 2011-12, and euthanized nearly 22,000. The city does not, however, keep separate records for euthanized animals deemed unadoptable.

"My dogs and cats couldn't survive that program," said Michael Bell, an animal welfare activist in Encino, who doesn't support temperament testing. "They will not accurately reflect the dogs' personality. It just won't happen."

At the center of the current controversy lies a proposal by Animal Services General Manager Brenda Barnette to set up a pilot animal behavior assessment program at one of six city animal shelters.

The assessments - after which cats and dogs get labeled with such traits as "couch potato" or "busy bee" - are part of a matchmaking service linking pets with potential adopters.

The two programs, created by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, would be offered at no cost to the city.

The Animal Services Commission will consider whether to overturn a nearly decade-old policy banning animal behavioral assessments for pets. The tests are
The Animal Services Commission will consider whether to overturn a nearly decade-old policy banning animal behavioral assessments for pets. The tests are developed by the ASPCA. (David Crane/Staff Photographer)

Barnette urged city officials and L.A.'s strident animal welfare community to keep an open mind about what could significantly help shelter animals and residents.

"We have the opportunity now," Barnette said of the ASPCA programs. "We have made real strides to get animals out into homes. ... I think we need this in one of our shelters, to see what we can learn.

"The assessment does certain things: Is it a real active, or slow dog? Is it forceful, or mouthy? If so, they just need more training."

The SAFER program, twice rejected by the Animal Services Commission as part of broader rescue proposals, evaluates potential future aggression in dogs.

A shelter animal technician would be paired with a trained volunteer to perform a videotaped behavior assessment. Each dog is measured on how well it reacts to people, touch, sound, toys, food and other dogs.

The procedure takes 10 minutes, according to the ASPCA, though one county shelter reported it took twice that.

Its founders say SAFER doesn't test temperament, but assesses observed behavior in dogs in relation to an animal's known history. Though established to assess aggression, there is no category for "vicious dog."

Instead, there is a "canine-" or "feline-ality" assessment, which categorized pets based on playfulness, energy, motivation and drive. A shelter dog, say, may be listed as "life of a party," and get its own color tag.

A second ASPCA Meet Your Match program asks potential adopters 19 questions about their home, lifestyle and expectations.

The Animal Services Commission will consider whether to overturn a nearly decade-old policy banning animal behavioral assessments for pets. The tests are
The Animal Services Commission will consider whether to overturn a nearly decade-old policy banning animal behavioral assessments for pets. The tests are developed by the ASPCA. (David Crane/Staff Photographer)
 

Shelter dogs are then matched with prospective families.

"The shelters are full. Dogs in L.A. are being killed every day. It's unfortunate," said Emily Weiss, vice president of research and development for the New York-based ASPACA, who founded the SAFER and Meet Your Match programs. "The goal is to get (them) out of the shelter."

Critics say the program, which depends on city workers and trained volunteers, won't work in a large shelter system like Los Angeles. That said, it's currently used in municipal shelters in New York, Spokane, Wash., and Sonoma County, Calif.

Riverside County, whose three shelters take in 50,000 animals a year, loved the SAFER program, but let it go after it was forced to lay off half its staff.

At its peak, it employed a behavior assessment team of up to seven full-time workers taking up to 20 minutes to measure each dog.

"It was successful," John Welsh, spokesman for Riverside County Animal Services. "We were able to assess whether some dogs were adoptable, with a little social motivation.

"The SAFER assessment could also clearly define a dog we see as too vicious, too aggressive, to adopt. A dog like that would be a candidate for euthanasia, based on the assessment."

Laura Beth Heisen, a former Animal Services commissioner, said she was fired after she led a successful campaign to oppose temperament testing in Los Angeles. Her criticism: the validity and reliability of the assessments and the potential cost to Animal Services.

She cited a 2006 Cornell University study that found 41 percent of dogs that passed a temperament test later exhibited signs of lunging, growling, snapping or biting after they were adopted.

She also estimated the SAFER/Meet Your Match program, if adopted citywide, could cost $1 million a year in shelter staff time.

"The public can see what animal is adoptable or not," Heisen said. "If they see a snarling pit bull, they'll move on. The public isn't stupid."

Bobby Dorafshar, a longtime animal rescuer who owns two dog hotels, said he doesn't believe crowded animal shelters are the right environment to assess behavior.

"I'm absolutely against it," Dorafshar, of New Leash on Life in Woodland Hills, said of the proposal. "They don't have the quality people, and not enough time to test the dogs."

Consumers, however, were eager to see a program that would help them match their canine desires with a dog they could take home.

Elio Bernal went to the West Valley shelter recently to look for a golden or Labrador retriever.

Amid the Chatsworth shelter were rows of more than 200 barking dogs, with little information on their cages other than a name, breed, and whether it was spayed or neutered.

When asked about a potential SAFER and Meet Your Match, he said it sounded great.

"I think it would be helpful to people," said Bernal, 18, of Panorama City, who had his eye on one pooch prospect. "We don't know how the dogs act.

"More information: it's better for people to pick a dog."

dana.bartholomew@dailynews.com

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