Sue Sternberg is a relic from another age; an unaccredited “trainer” who is nonetheless looked to by some – including major, national groups – as a behavior expert. Sternberg is the creator of the Assess-A-Pet temperament test and the infamous Assess-A-Hand, the rubber hand on a stick that is used by shelters nationwide – sometimes inappropriately, to harass dogs into a response.
Sternberg believes that efforts should be focused on dogs who are “pet quality”, and those of lesser caliber – including those who fail her temperament test – are likely better off dead. Even for the “pet quality” dogs, she believes that a shelter stay of more than two weeks may damage them so much psychologically that death may be preferable. My own experience is radically different, having adopted dogs that have lived in awful, isolating conditions for extremely long periods of time – even a decade or more – and watching them adapt wonderfully to life as a cherished pet. I consider “kennel crazy” one of the most destructive shelter dog myths of our time – though kennel stress is very much real, long-term damage is overstated (and frequently easily reversible) and relatively easily avoided.
Sternberg is currently promoting a “Train to Adopt” program, which is pretty odd since historically she’s always been on the side of adopting out the easy and the perfect and killing the rest.
Recently she gave a presentation at the Petfinder conference where she had a bit of a public meltdown that I thought was worth sharing. These observations come from a trusted source who wishes to remain anonymous.
Last week I was at a Petfinder “Adoptions Options” seminar in the Nashville, TN, area. There were around 150 of us there from shelters and rescue groups within a few hours of the location. One of the presenters did something so horrible I needed to share it with people, but can’t do it officially because I was asked not to by my organization, to avoid embarrassment and because the events are free and mostly very valuable.
A dog trainer named Sue Sternberg was the last presenter of the day. This was how it was described in the agenda:
Animal welfare professionals have a responsibility to provide true quality of life for each dog in their program. This workshop covers the importance of achieving and maintaining quality of life for dogs in shelters. Training, behavior modification programs, and mental, behavioral and emotional stimulation for dogs will be covered. We will explore some fun and easy ways to train adoptable dogs so they can put their best paw forward. Shelter dogs will be used for demonstration.
Sue seemed like a funny and polished presenter, and at first I was interested. I thought her making fun of vegans was a little rude, but when she started mocking the dogs by calling them “Lab/Boxer mixes” with an eye roll, I thought it was more than rude, it was inappropriate. We know how unreliable visual ID of a breed is, and given the existence of BSL and the damage breed stereotypes do all over the world, treating that like it’s funny rubbed me the wrong way. I just wish that was all that had rubbed me the wrong way.
She would use hot dogs to get the dogs to sit and lie down, and all while she was working with them in a very non-focused way, she would offer and withhold treats from them. Either someone I couldn’t hear asked her if this wasn’t frustrating them a lot, or she just responded because she gets this question all the time, but she said yes, it was frustrating, but dogs get frustrated in ‘real life” all the time.
One of the dogs she interacted with got very frustrated and started mouthing her. I don’t know how hard it was. She got very “serious” and informed the audience this dog “isn’t a pet” and needed to be “euthanized” or put in a sanctuary with a long list of requirements that I don’t actually disagree with, but had no real context and certainly were out of reach for any shelter.
This was bad enough, as she’d just condemned a dog to death in front of more than a hundred people who were seeing her as an expert, with the Petfinder seal of approval, based on a distracted five-minute interaction with a dog who not only was in an unfamiliar setting but may have been hungry and had been made to wait for around an hour back next to the loaded food tables, on a short leash with a bunch of other dogs around. Great, now all these people think THIS is a valid way to evaluate a shelter dog! Ten minutes and a hotdog and anyone can do it! Who needs scientifically proven behavior assessments, who needs veterinary behaviorist input, who needs reproducible results?
And what about the behavior modification we were promised in the agenda? No mention of the work being done at places like the Center for Shelter Dogs in Boston or research from the ASPCA or anywhere else. Just boom, dog’s “not a pet” and should be put down.
But then, it got worse. She said not only was he “not a pet,” he “wasn’t bred to be a pet,” and his “mother and father weren’t bred to be a pet.” Now she was “evaluating” dogs she’d never even seen and knew nothing about.
And then she went into this long, self-pitying rant about the evils of the no-kill movement, and how dangerous dogs are flooding our communities because shelters want to improve their live release rates, and how the rate of dog attacks has gone up, and on and on, without any evidence or data of any kind to back up what she said. I mean, the shelter vet who presented, and all three of the marketing and social media presenters, had data. Her opinions can KILL DOGS — so where was hers? And why didn’t anyone ask her for any (including me?).
Then she got all martyred, saying how “no one else” wants to talk about these hard truths, like she’s some misunderstood prophet and not like just about half the shelters in the country or more aren’t already judging and condemning these dogs every day. She’s so BRAVE, right? Even though… cue the tears … she gets death threats and there’s a pile of police reports in her local PD from all the people who want to “euthanize her” — her words — and again and again with how she’s the ONLY ONE saying these tough realities. And that she knew someone would “put this on Facebook” and she’d start getting the death threats.
Then she slammed the San Francisco SPCA, which I didn’t understand exactly, except she said they could adopt out these dogs more safely because people in San Francisco don’t have families. Like it’s okay for dogs to bite adults? I don’t know. It made no sense.
Then she wrapped it all up with a pitch to buy things from her table — she was the ONLY presenter who had a table and was selling anything. It was all so inappropriate, and I’m really shocked Petfinder would let her do it. But she’s on their schedule over and over again, and not only that, but she wrote something in the booklet she handed out, so they obviously think she’s just fine.
Thank you for anything you can do to stop this irresponsible presentation of what it means to evaluate a dog from being put in front of trusting animal welfare community members who are only trying to do right by our animals, and might believe what she’s teaching is backed up by research or in step with behavior experts when it’s not.
Relics such as this are best left behind, and I do hope Petfinder will reconsider giving Sternberg a forum.
I’d love to hear from others who witnessed this presentation.