How mean is too mean to be allowed to live?
For a dog in a kennel at the Lucas County Dog Warden, the answer can involve many shades of gray and lead to second-guessing long after it's too late.
Take the experiences last week of four apparently healthy but "mean" dogs that were among the nine killed Friday by Acting Dog Warden Bonnie Mitchell.
All four had been found running at large. Although one of the dogs - a male rottweiler - was put down after having failed the department's own temperament test, the other three were euthanized for exhibiting various kinds of unsocial behavior - growling, bite attempts, disobedience.
As Lucas County prepares to fill the permanent top post vacated by former Dog Warden Tom Skeldon, the fate of so-called "mean" dogs underscores the role that a leader's policies and protocols can have on determining which dogs are fit for adoption and which are dangerous to the public and better off dead.
It is common for modern, government-run dog shelters to use standardized assessments to gauge temperament and adoptability. One of the more popular methods is the SAFER test, or the Safety Assessment for Evaluating Rehoming, which evaluates a dog for aggression in six to seven areas such as sensitivity to touch and reaction to a pulled-away food bowl.
The Toledo Area Humane Society gives the SAFER test to every healthy dog it takes in when determining adoptability, Executive Director John Dinon said.
"That is the gold standard in the industry, and that is what we do here at the Humane Society," he said yesterday.
However, the county dog warden's department does not follow the SAFER test methodology. And dogs are often euthanized at the county pound for reasons outside the scope of its own test.
For example, warden staff saw how a male boxer mix who was put down Friday was unruly to the extent of requiring a catch pole to be readied for veterinary examination. "Very fearful and will bite," the staff-written report said. "Pound manager witnessed attempts and notes behavior."
Ms. Mitchell declined to answer questions yesterday about the temperament-testing protocol.
Mr. Dinon said he has invited dog warden staff to a planned training seminar with a SAFER expert later this year.
"I don't know exactly what their procedures are, but we would like to see them use the SAFER test because it is so well tested and really proves to be a good predictor of aggressive behavior," Mr. Dinon said.
Yet Mr. Dinon acknowledged that the test is not a perfect predictor. He said that some dogs who fail the food dish test because they were too defensive of their dinner can be trained to calm down. A good strategy for doing this is to put a massive amount of dog food in the animal's kennel so that it sees it's not in danger of going without, he said.
"Sometimes you'll go into the [Humane Society] kennels and you'll see a dog that has basically a cat litter pan filled with kibbles, and that's a dog that's being modified for food aggression," Mr. Dinon said.
The leading candidate to replace Mr. Skeldon received a guided tour of the dog warden facility yesterday with Ms. Mitchell and Lucas County Commissioner Pete Gerken. The finalist, Julie Lyle of Ishpeming, Mich., also sat for several interviews.
County Commissioner Ben Konop said he questioned Ms. Lyle on how she determines dogs for adoptability. He said he learned from her that temperament tests are just "one tool in the toolbox." Before ordering a dog be killed, the candidate would prefer to observe the animal's behavior in various settings on different days, so as to avoid factors such as temporary illness or hunger after arriving from a bad home, according to Mr. Konop.
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