Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"Evaluations" and the tragedy of Lennox

Over the last few months I have watched the case of Lennox, a dog seized for having the “wrong” looks, as it has unfolded in Belfast, Ireland.  Lennox was seized, not for behavior, but because he has a particular physical structure.  He looks like what Ireland terms a ‘restricted breed’-a Pit Bull.  He is neutered, has obedience training, is properly vaccinated and was legally licensed-yet he was summarily seized and has been condemned to die.  As I have watched Lennox’s case, and his impending death sentence, several things have sparked my attention. Not only does the issue of destroying this animal solely based on his looks appall me, but I am particularly concerned by the "evaluation" of Lennox that the Council and Court is depending on to make a determination of his level of threat to society.

To begin, Lennox has been held for over a year in a shelter facility.  He has been deprived of his normal social contacts-his family, has had limited exercise and interaction outside his kennel, and has even been, according to some reports, medicated with amitriptyline.

Two dog behaviorists have evaluated the dog to date.  I understand both have weighed in that Lennox is not a dangerous dog.  The videos and evaluations have shown Lennox to have substantial control of his behavior, that he is a sociable and pleasant animal despite his long isolation and confinement away from his home, and that he showed clear restraint when one evaluator pushed him into a trapped area in a threatening manner.  At that crisis point Lennox did the only thing that makes sense to a dog; he lunged, with no contact, in order to communicate clearly that he was frightened and felt threatened when he had no where else to retreat.  He did the equivalent to a human raising their voice when other means of communication fail.

This speaks volumes for this individual dog.  Despite everything that has happened to him he still shows restraint in his behavior and a desire for human social contact.  He still displays clear bite inhibition.  He still responds appropriately to social cues.  This is also despite the conduct of these evaluations in a restricted shelter environment.

Yet these two evaluations are being ignored by the Court.  Instead, a third evaluation is being used as the litmus test for Lennox.  This third evaluation was conducted not by a behaviorist, but by a police dog handler.  As a retired police Lieutenant I have known a number of canine handlers-and the trainers that prepare the dogs before police get them.  I have participated in the testing and evaluation of police dogs before their training.  And I can say this-police canine handlers and trainers are special, valued and talented persons-but they are not behaviorists.

A police dog is a special animal.  Only about ten percent of the candidates are chosen.  They need terrific drive, huge levels of trainability, and a great desire to work in tandem with a human handler.  They must be brave enough to go in where no person or animal reasonably should, yet must be able to instantly disengage when ordered to, despite inertia and provocation.  They must not be aggressive, as anger would interfere with the ability to disengage at need.  They must also be able to use nearly human levels of discrimination to understand when they must self-deploy to protect their handler, yet must recognize the difference between a violent suspect and the approach of an innocent child.  We ask so much of them-and they give it all willingly, sometimes to the death.

Police dog handlers and trainers must be highly skilled to get this level or performance.  But that skill is limited to the task at hand.  Police handlers do not address behavior problems of other animals-they are focused on the training, maintenance and development of their special charges.  These handlers conduct obedience work with their dogs as part of the control mechanism, but do not diagnose or treat problems that range from house training to nuisance barking.  They do not treat, or particularly evaluate, aggression issues.  If a dog exhibits aggression in training it is eliminated as unsuitable.  An aggressive or "mean" dog is a risk to the Department, the handler, and the public.

Even Animal Control Officers may be deficient when evaluating what is a "dangerous" dog.  They encounter animals that are usually not at their best, often threatened or injured, and frankly do not get the behavioral training necessary to make the decision between treatment of repairable behavior and that which is clearly dangerous.  They can say whether a dog's behavior, in a specific incident, meets the legal definition of "dangerous" in their jurisdiction, but often fall far short of being able to diagnose whether this was truly dangerous aggression or was a storm brought about by a collection of predictable, reasonable animal behavior added to human failing.  In the case of Lennox the dog warden's job was in some ways too easy; did Lennox look like one of the "usual suspects"?  He did, so the case was closed, even though Lennox never had a chance to speak.

Assessing dog aggression, and evaluating whether a dog is "dangerous", even when presented with clear criteria (which do not exist in this case) is a job best left to those familiar with more than just whether a dog is physically able to bite.  Any dog can bite-they have teeth.  A competent evaluator must understand the psychological issues behind the multiple behaviors we lump together as aggression.  Is the dog territorial?  Is the dog a resource guarder? Is the dog fearful? Can the dog adapt to novel and potentially scary situation while maintaining an acceptable level of composure? Is the dog responsive to human signals, and is the dog able to signal its own intentions clearly?  Does the dog have the inter-species social skills needed to peacefully coexist in a multi-species social environment?  Those are the questions that need to be asked before determining if a dog's behavior is "dangerous".

Having a police dog handler evaluate Lennox for his suitability as a patrol or detection dog would be appropriate; it would be having a skilled technician and trainer choosing whether Lennox would make the cut as a working dog.  We would not ask the police trainer to evaluated Fire Department equipment, even though he might like the red suspenders.  To have the police handler evaluating Lennox as a behaviorist is a disservice to the dog-and the handler. 

And the worst part of this?  The case is no longer about Lennox.  It is about rules, it is about discrimination, and finally about egos.  Problem is, the bruised egos will heal-but when Lennox is dead, he is de

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