I’m Sue Sternberg, and I wrote this page to introduce you to who I am and what I do, in my own words.
I was born loving dogs. I grew up in a household with dogs, and have never had fewer than two dogs since I was eight years old. At that age I decided that I was going to be a dog trainer when I grew up. Dogs are my life—not just my own, but all dogs. They’re not only my career, they are my greatest pleasure.
I have devoted my life to working with dogs, was introduced to the shelter world in 1981, and have worked in this field ever since.
In 1993 I bought a failing boarding kennel in upstate NY, revived it, and used the profits from boarding to start my own small dog shelter. I founded Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption, a small, open admission dog shelter which serves the local, upstate New York community. In conjunction with the shelter, I run national programs dedicated to helping shelters ensure safe and lasting dog adoptions through behavioral and temperament assessments, quality of life for dogs in shelters, and I encourage innovative and proactive community outreach programs.
Rumors and false claims about me posted on Facebook and circulating on the internet
Facebook is certainly a grand forum for a witch-hunt. Someone I have never met has posted an angry statement against me on his facebook page, describing me as “evil” and making bizarre and false claims about me. The violence and hatred emanating from the thousands of comments posted on his page is staggering to me.
While it is not surprising to me that my opinions and philosophies are controversial, I am constantly surprised by the cruelty expressed in the ‘humane’ world. It never ceases to amaze me how my words and personality can be so misconstrued, taken out of context, and morphed until unrecognizable, even by me.
Just one example of how a rumor gets started
I was at a conference once, and had my own four dogs set up in an ex-pen behind my table. One of the dogs was Carmen, a big, 70 lb, red mixed breed Doberman/Rhodesian I adopted after transferring her to my shelter from NYC animal control in 1995. Someone passed by and stopped, stared at my dogs, and then said to me he was surprised to see I had a large dog. “Why?” I asked. He told me he had heard I believed all dogs over 35 lbs should be killed.
That misconception came from a statement I made years before in response to being asked what I thought about breed-specific legislation. I answered at the time that I disagreed with BSL, and felt that perhaps a solution was to make owning a dog more like owning and driving a car—you had to have a permit, show a level of competency that wouldn’t cost a lot of money to get. And then I said perhaps all dogs over 35 lbs should be required to have a permit to own, since I thought that 35 lbs was likely the weight cut-off where over that, if aggressive, a dog could do serious harm to a human or other dog.
Whether or not anyone agreed with my idea (I’m not convinced it’s the best idea, either!), it was what I suggested at the time. As a result, the story is frequently repeated that I have publicly declared that I hate all dogs over 35 lbs and that they should be killed. It is absurd and untrue.
WHAT THE SHOUTING IS ABOUT
Here is a summary of the programs I have developed and that I promote, and the work I do which seems to have inspired so much misguided anger.
Assess-A-Pet is a temperament test designed to help shelters determine which dogs are safe and appropriate for adoption. The temperament of each dog, rather than the length of stay, breed, age or physical imperfections should guide decisions for placement.
- AAP allows trainers and shelter workers to interact more safely with dogs.
- AAP allows a shelter to describe the dog’s personality and temperament to prospective adopters to help them select a match based on something more than physical looks.
- AAP allows a trainer or staff at a shelter to tailor training to each dog’s strengths and weaknesses.
- AAP allows a shelter to assess where best to kennel/house each dog.
- AAP allows a shelter or trainer to counsel prospective adopters about potential behavior or training problems and ways to avert trouble.
- AAP allows a shelter to determine which dogs cannot safely be offered for adoption.
- AAP allows a shelter to provide whatever an adoptable dog needs to find a permanent, loving and appropriate home—whether it’s more time, further training, minor behavior modification or transfer to a rescue group or another shelter with more adopters.
Assess-A-Pet is designed to take into account the experiences particular to shelter dogs and to measure their responses. AAP recommends testing after the dog has had at least three days, ideally four, to settle into the shelter environment. Studies have shown that stress hormone levels drop after three days in a kennel environment. While AAP does not necessarily penalize a dog for being stressed or aroused, it is important to wait this minimum period as fearful and sensitive dogs may be overly traumatized by their experience arriving at the shelter, they may show behaviors that could fail them during testing (hiding, lethargy, etc.) Waiting the four days allows these dogs to acclimate.
2. Train to Adopt
A program that includes simple, effective, reward-based training techniques to improve the behavior and hence adoptability of shelter dogs, and Minimum Quality of Life Guidelines.
My Quality of Life Guidelines:
- A Name: Dogs are not numbers! Each dog deserves a name.
- Bedding: Old blankets or towels work well and are easy to get donated. Concern for possible clogged drains cannot eclipse the needs of the dogs.
- Toys: Toys are important to allow dogs to chew and play and have some stimulation. Toys can be rotated so they are kept interesting to the dog.
- Lights off at night
- To be clean and dry: no dog should have to endure urine burns on his feet and or elbows. And no kennel should ever be hosed down with the dog still in it.
- If kenneled indoors only, then outdoor time daily
- If kenneled outdoors only, then indoor time daily. Most dogs in shelters are there because they were unsuccessful house pets. If a dog is to become a successful house pet, then he must learn to relax in the presence of a human in an indoor, homelike environment. Kenneling, for any length of time, works against the house pet.
- 20 minutes of humane touch, affection and physical contact daily. A dog is a social companion animal. To deprive the dog of human contact is simply cruel. Taking a dog for a walk, while better than not doing it, is not enough. If a shelter has decided to hold so many dogs that 20 minutes of basic, human touch and affection for each dog is impossible to fit into the daily schedule, then the situation is one of over-crowding, inadequate care and, quite simply, neglect.
- Two minutes of reward based training daily. Reward-based training stimulates the dog’s mind and engages him in a shared, fun activity. Most shelter dogs deteriorate due to lack of mental stimulation, not lack of physical exercise. Luring, shaping, capturing are all humane and appropriate methods for training any dog.
- Playtime with a human or other dog(s) at least three times weekly: 2 studies done in Germany (by Dr. Petra Mertens) validated the benefits of and showed lowered stress levels in shelter dogs who had social contact with other dogs. Dogs awaiting adoption need to play—if they don’t get along with other dogs, than time spent playing fetch or tug or having fun with a human is vital to their mental health.
Why I think quality of life guidelines for dogs in shelters is so important:
With fewer dogs overall, and a higher percentage who are difficult to place, shelters are ending up holding dogs for longer periods of time than ever before.
Without objective procedures for shelters to use on how to assess and what to do if a dog has deteriorated, the over-crowding and often inhumane conditions for dogs in our shelters will only increase.
Any length of stay longer than 2 weeks is long-term sheltering, and the negative effects of the kennels can start taking their toll.
And what is it about kenneling that is so stressful and unhealthy for dogs? The original purpose of kennels was to house large numbers of dogs for short periods of time. Kennels were never invented to house any dog for long periods of time.
Even in the best of shelters, with the greatest staff and volunteers, kennel life is frustrating, confining, arousing, over-stimulating, loud, wet and scary for dogs.
There’s often constant noise. Some dogs are in a constant state of arousal. Most kennels offer no escape, safe place or privacy for the frightened dog.
Long term kenneling can rapidly deteriorate a dog and cause suffering.
The effects of long-term kenneling can include:
Stereotypies are persistent, repetitive, non-goal oriented movements and are considered abnormal behaviors, or behaviors indicative of an abnormal environment. It is seen as a sign of psychological distress in animals. Once these behaviors are established, they are sometimes impossible to eliminate due to alterations in the brain.
Common kennel stereotypies:
- Spinning or circling
- Pacing or Route Tracing
- Rebounding off kennel walls
- Licking of kennel walls or cage fronts or self
Dogs who don’t present well to the public are likely to have a longer length of stay, and hence are an increased risk of deterioration and suffering in the kennels.
3. Training Wheels
A community outreach program–because I believe the animal shelter should take responsibility for creating and maintaining a humane community, and that we should bring the resources of the shelter to the people before the people need to bring their pets to the shelter. We can prevent relinquishment by being proactive in the community. Training Wheels offers free behavior and training advice, basic care education, and assistance with spaying and neutering, or financial assistance during a veterinary crisis—so that more people keep their pets, and not surrender them.
Please read more about Training Wheels and Lug Nuts on my website: www.animalsforadoption.org.
4. RONDOUT VALLEY ANIMALS FOR ADOPTION—The Shelter
Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption is an open admission shelter. We are dedicated to serving our community, providing free boarding for local pet owners to help them through a financial or housing crisis. We also train shelters around the country to implement Training Wheels and other community outreach programs, to promote the proactive role of shelters in preventing animal surrenders before they occur.
RVAA was founded based on the premise that the behavioral needs of shelter dogs are as important as their physical needs. The programs I described grew out of that belief, and are in practice at the shelter. Our innovative room-like kennel-runs provide a comfortable and low-stress home-style environment, complete with soft beds, toys, music and social interaction. We are committed to facilitating lifelong relationships between people and pets by providing free dog training classes and free behavioral advice for life to our adopters.
The shelter makes every effort to ensure that a decision to euthanize a dog is based on a fair determination that the dog is aggressive, dangerous and unadoptable. Furthermore, dogs slated to be euthanized are kept in humane conditions, which include blankets, food, and an indoor/outdoor run.
5. MY WORK ON BEHALF ON HUMANE TREATMENT OF SHELTER DOGS IS OPEN TO THE PUBLIC
The work I do is open to public scrutiny. The shelter is available to the public as a model of the methods we practice. I constantly handle and evaluate dogs in front of the public, in front of shelter staff, visitors touring the shelter, volunteers and interns, in front of staff of other shelters, in front of pet owners, and before seminar audiences.
In addition, I was approached several years ago by a film maker who asked for permission to film the shelter. I offered her complete access to me, to the shelter and my staff, and she took me up on that offer. On many occasions over an 18-month period, she followed me and the shelter staff day and night, and filmed hundreds of hours of discussions about behavior and euthanasia, interviews with staff, temperament testing of dogs, interactions with the public, and other incidents behind-the-scene at the shelter. I reserved no veto power or editorial role whatsoever in how she chose to present me or the shelter through her film, “Shelter Dogs.” For almost a year after the filming, I would still reach onto the collar of my shirt to turn off a microphone before I used the bathroom.
I continue to share the programs I have developed with shelters around the country and overseas, and I receive constant feedback attesting to the ways those programs have improved the lives of shelter animals. Shelters that previously euthanized for time and space reasons have implemented these programs, and then reported a corresponding increase in adoption numbers, lowered length of stay for dogs, decreased barking and stress levels in the kennels. These results speak for themselves.