continued Next she gives him a bowl full of canned dog food, which he begins to scarf. Using a lifelike rubber hand and arm -- about the size of a seven-year-old's -- Young grabs the bowl and pulls it away from the eating dog. This particular part of the test angers Starkovsky and other opponents to the test. "You give nice food to a dog who may have been eating out of garbage cans," she says, "or who may be sick, or may be old and have never tasted such good food, then you yank it away from him. How would you expect it to respond?"
Our Dalmatian, despite clearly enjoying the food, doesn't react to its removal in the slightest. "That is something we like to see," Young explains. "I don't care if he eats a little faster. I don't care if he eats in dog gulps, which is a little bit of defensive learning, but it is so minor that it isn't even worth talking about. If, when I reached in, he would freeze, and he might even reach up to bite the hand, we need to know that. Because dogs are in situations all the time where they get ahold of something off the counter, or they have grabbed something that the kids have left on the table, and you reach for it, and if the dog has learning problems..."
Young continues the evaluation, first yelling suddenly, "HEY!" The dog snaps to attention and looks toward her but nothing more. Next, Jenny leaves the room and, after a pause, knocks on the door and then enters. The Dalmatian curiously wags his tail and stares at Jenny, who is talking in a high sugary voice to the dog. Suddenly, Jenny turns and bolts out the door. The sudden movement arouses the dog, but he doesn't give chase.
Next, Young sits in a chair cradling a lifelike baby doll. The dog comes over, sniffs, and returns to his lying position on the floor. Then Marlena puts a realistic mechanical cat on the floor. The cat walks and makes slightly phony-sounding cat noises. The dog looks but doesn't move toward the cat.
Though she will not give the Dalmatian a final score until he's had a dog-to-dog test -- meaning, he will be put in the company of another dog (or dogs) to see how he behaves -- Young gives him a tentative score of two on a one-to-four scale, one being perfect, four being probably not adoptable.
A small minority of the dogs that come through the county shelters receive the temperament test. "Probably 5 percent of them get temperament tested," Young explains. "We are talking about 30,000 dogs that come through these three shelters. I'm training some of the employees, but right now I am the only one [who is qualified to perform the test]. And it takes two people to do it -- an observer and a handler -- so that takes two people away from their work if they are going to be doing this. Our resources are very limited in terms of which animals we can test. So we do have a preliminary behavior grade. Every day, a supervising animal-care attendant and a lieutenant walk through the kennels and look at animals that have just completed their hold period -- when they come in stray, they have to be held for four business days. We have a sort of in-kennel review test that we do for these animals, and we assign them a grade. It is either A, B, C, or D. They do very specific things, such as stand at the front of the kennel and offer a hand and see what the dog does and things like that. And they're looking for very specific reactions. The A grade would be a dog that is very friendly: comes up to the front of the kennel, ears back, eyes kind of squinty, tail low, maybe stepping a little bit, wagging his tail. And the average public recognizes those things. They are in and out of here so quick that I never see them. The grade B dogs may be at first suspicious, or apprehensive, or maybe even a little fearful, and then when you soften your body position, they react, they recover, and they come up real soft. They melt. Those dogs go out quickly. It is the ones that grade C that we concern ourselves with. They are standing; usually their body is a little taller and stiffer; their tail is usually high; they may make direct eye contact with you; they may lean forward a little bit. You offer a hand, and they jump over it, and they kind of look at you, but they are not interacting with you. Even when you soften your body position, it is still the same with them. They probably just want out. Those dogs, while they are not mean, and they are not showing us aggression in the kennel, we know there may be some issues in there. So those are the dogs that we concentrate on looking at, the ones that grade C in the kennel. The D dogs are the ones that have no recovery, that are either showing us aggression with threats -- like growling or snarling or snapping -- or, they are hidden in the back of the kennel, and when we begin to approach them, then they begin to threaten us. So they are unsafe to test."
Grade D dogs will, in all likelihood, be euthanized. That's a fact that angers Starkovsky. "Any dog who is trembling in the least, they don't even test it; it is just labeled passive-aggressive and it is killed. But all of us in the rescue business, we removed those kinds of dogs regularly, no problem at all. As soon as the dog is out and in a private home, it calms down. All it needs is a quiet environment and some affection."
Other operators of animal-rescue groups contacted for this story expressed concern over Young's system but refused to comment for the record, some for fear of being banned from the county shelters. "Rescue people are really angry," Starkovsky says, "because sometimes you will go in and try to rescue the animal, and they will say, 'Oh no, you can't have it; it has been graded level 4. We are going to euthanize it; that is it.' If you beg and plead enough, maybe you will get the dog, but then maybe you won't. I went to bat for a couple of dogs, and they just said, 'No, absolutely not, we are going to kill it.' It's almost like genocide."