Sunday, November 24, 2013

Memphis Revisited-an overview one year out.

On September 6, 2012, I had the pleasure of meeting a dog named Memphis at the Bloomfield, New Jersey animal control facility.  Memphis was a solid, healthy looking Pit Bull Type dog that had been picked up by Animal Control as a stray a few months previously. Memphis was held past any required holding period and became the property of the Township of Bloomfield. He stayed in the shelter for a number of months, labeled by the staff there as a potential problem dog with aggression issues.

Before my entrance on the scene Memphis had been sent to live with local trainer Jeff Coltenback, under an agreed-upon training contract, to see if Jeff could improve Memphis to the point that Memphis could be adopted to a permanent home. The Township never adopted Memphis to the Coltenbacks-this was, at that time, a business transaction.

During the eight days that Memphis lived at the Coltenback kennel/residence Jeff watched Memphis and worked with him. Jeff, according to his own statements, did not observe any troubling behaviors. In fact, Jeff felt comfortable enough with Memphis that he posted photos of Memphis in close, controlled proximity to a few children.

The Bloomfield shelter staff saw these pictures as Jeff had posted them openly on Facebook. The shelter director was concerned by the photos showing the kids and Memphis together so soon. The Town of Bloomfield exercised a provision of the training contract with Jeff and took Memphis back into their custody.

This was where I entered the story. The Township and a group called Neighbor to Neighbor brought me in to evaluate Memphis as an outside, independent expert-and evaluate him I did.

For those who never read my evaluation, I am attaching it to the end of this post. Please read the report in full.

I appeared in a open meeting with residents of Bloomfield, the Bloomfield Health Department representative, and the shelter staff at the Bloomfield Town Hall. During that meeting I presented to all  my findings. That meeting was professionally recorded by the local Township television station and was, for a while, available online through the station website.

Since then Memphis has been moved to an undisclosed location for "retraining". I am not privy to the location, not have I seen him since September 6th. I have not spoken to the trainer, nor have I seen the facility.

During the past year I have had a number of people claiming that my "words were twisted" and that someone has been misrepresenting my report. That is why I am writing today, and attaching the report showing exactly what I did, and didn't, say. To repeat the statements that I made at the meeting, let me say this. I spent time with Memphis for a couple of hours on September 6th, 2012. My observations were made at the shelter, both in and out of his kennel. I had him out on leash, and was in the office (after the general public was excluded) with Memphis loose and freely interacting with me and Township staff. At that time, under those circumstances, in that environment I observed that Memphis was a good dog. He did have a few behavior issues that concerned me. I felt, and stated clearly, that although Memphis was not suitable for adoption to a general member of the public at that time, that I felt there was a good prognosis for Memphis to eventually be placed in a permanent home.

Time passed. I heard bits and pieces of rumors. Memphis had been sent away. Memphis was being trained. Memphis' training was taking too long. Memphis needed to "go home" to the Coltenbacks.

Before we get spun up any more here, let's look at the facts. Memphis was initially a stray. The Bloomfield shelter kept Memphis long past any legal holding period and at least appears to have wanted to make Memphis an adoptable success. They brought in Jeff, a well known trainer, under a contract to try and rehabilitate Memphis' few noted behavior issues. During the eight-day stay at the Coltenbacks, they fell in love with Memphis. The Township became concerned (justified or not) and exercised their rights under the agreed contract to take Memphis back. They brought me in, I met Memphis, and I gave my report explaining what I saw in a specific place (the Bloomfield shelter) at a specific time (September 6th). The Township then made a decision to send Memphis to another trainer.

Whether we agree or not, dogs inn our society are considered property. Under the law Memphis was the property of the Township. They did not transfer that ownership to Jeff, to me, or to any outside organization that I am aware of. Agree or not Memphis was theirs to dispose of as they saw fit. They made no promise to Jeff on paper that I have seen that guaranteed Jeff could adopt Memphis. Jeff and family generously offered a number of times to take Memphis, but that was not the contracted deal.

So where is Memphis' home? Well, first it was with some unknown person who was so irresponsible that they never came to find him after he was initially picked up. In too many places that would have been an instant death sentence-but fortunately for Memphis it wasn't. He then lived at the shelter for a number of months. Then he went to the Coltenback's for eight days. Then he was back at the shelter, until at some point he was sent away.

Where is home? By length of time one would say either at the Bloomfield shelter or at his current location. Those are the places he has lived the longest. Are either of those the best placement for Memphis? I personally do not think that long term residence at the shelter would be fair to Memphis. A shelter is a busy, chaotic place and any animal living in that environment, no matter how well they are treated, would in my view be better in a permanent home with less chaos and more opportunity to live a more normal life. IS his current placement better than being placed with Jeff and family? I don't know. I have never been to Jeff's home, and likewise have never been to Memphis' current residence. I did clearly tell everyone at the Township hearing that I was not going to make a determination of where Memphis should go or who Memphis should live with. That was not my purpose, and I still will not make that determination. Memphis belongs to the Township of Bloomfield, or whatever legal entity the shelter operates under, and it is legally their decision as to the disposition of Memphis. Should we send Memphis "home"? He may well be there now.

I feel that Memphis was, and is, a good dog. I stand by my statements that Memphis was not ready to be adopted at the time (September 6th), based on my observations that day in that environment , to a regular pet home. Whether his behavior in another environment would have been different I cannot say. Whether he would have progressed or developed other problem behaviors in another setting I also can't guess at. I can say that in my career I have had dogs, in training, live with me for months on end. I had accepted these dogs under contract to train for specific tasks. Many of these dogs I fell in love with-they were wonderful dogs by and large, even those with behavior issues. Yet they were never "mine". I was not "home" even though they had been with me for months. And in talking to the owners of these dogs some of them behaved as I trained them-and some did not. Owner input and action has a lot to do with a dog's long term behavior, and once out of my sight they were no longer under my control. I also had a few that showed problem behaviors with me, over time, that had not been seen by the owners in their environment. Did I cause them? No: it was simply a behavior that they exhibited in a different environment.

So what should happen to Memphis? He should wind up living out his life in the best place he can. Where is up to his owners.

Here, once again, is the full report to the Township regarding Memphis.


Karen Lore
Township of Bloomfield, New Jersey
1 Municipal Plaza
Bloomfield, New Jersey, 07003

Dear Ms. Lore:

On September 6, 2012, I traveled to the Bloomfield/Bukowski Animal Shelter facility to evaluate a dog there.  The dog is known as Memphis.

On my arrival I observed Memphis closely.  Memphis appeared healthy, in very good physical condition, and using the Tufts Animal Care and Condition body scale (TACC) would all score in the Ideal (1) range. 

To evaluate dogs I use a combination of the SAFER testing protocol, the AKC Canine Good Citizen examination, and elements of the American Temperament Testing Society process, tests that are generally accepted in the canine behavior community.  These tests are adapted and I may not follow them exactly for safety concerns: I initially observe the dog within their kennel to determine if the dog is safe to remove from secure containment for evaluation and handling purposes.  Progressing through the full range of tasks may be interrupted due to specific responses in earlier portions of the test: for instance, if a dog is reacting with open aggression to safe control, I will not place my face up to the dog.

Further, I do not consider these tests to be “pass/fail”.  If a dog shows a negative behavior, or if in my judgment a dog is not safe to conduct a particular test, the dog does not “fail”.  A negative reaction to a particular stimulus is an indicator of a need for training/treatment and may assist in evaluation of the appropriateness of placement in a particular environment.  Such “failure” may also indicate, in the case of a post-bite evaluation, a potential trigger for the dangerous incident under investigation. Results from a temperament/behavior evaluation are also not necessarily predictive of success or failure in another environment; they are indicative of the reactions to specific stimuli in a particular environment on a particular day.  No guarantees are made or implied, as dogs are living creatures and are deeply affected by environment, training, and experience, both before and after any testing.

Specific indicators examined in a full evaluation include:

Dog greeting to strange person (evaluator).
Dog permitting non-threatening physical contact with dog (gentle petting)
Dog permitting leashing by evaluator.
Dog body posture and non-verbal signaling to evaluator.
Dog willingness to work with the evaluator.
Dog permitting full handling and manipulation of body (ears, tail, feet, muzzle, etc.).
Dog seeking or avoiding voluntary physical contact with evaluator.
Dog’s response to more intense physical manipulation, including “squeeze” and “scruffing”.
Dog acceptance of treats and/or kibble, and allowing or resisting the removal of high value treats. 
Dog response to sudden startle-inducing noise and recovery to startle.
Dog response to a neutral stranger (not evaluator).
Dog response to, and recovery from, sudden approach of “threatening stranger”.
Dog response to direct visual contact/frontal body posture of stranger, neutral and/or “threatening”.
Dog response to proximity of both non-reactive and reactive dogs brought within the testing area by a neutral handler.
Dog response to the actions of other dogs in close proximity not controlled by neutral handler (other kennel dogs acting/reacting from within their enclosures).
Dog response to evaluator’s body language, including appeasement gestures, dominance-type posturing, apparent threatening posture (including direct frontal stare and stare with restraint of dog’s face at close range).
Dog’s response to verbal cues.
Dog’s response to leash application and moderate leash correction, response to strong verbal correction.
Dog’s ability to exhibit appropriate play behavior with evaluator.
Dog’s willingness to initiate, on and off leash, voluntary human contact.
Dog’s response to presenting/removing food bowl, possibly permitting presence of hand in food bowl without guarding response.
Dog’s response to a simulated infant (baby doll).

Other controlled interactions may also occur to expand and clarify any observed behaviors.

My specific behavioral observations for Memphis are as follows:

Memphis.  Male, neutered, Pit Bull type dog, approximately 2 years old.  Reddish-tan, solidly built .  Posture and position on initial observation-alert and calm. When I approached and turned my back Memphis stayed at the front of the kennel and observed calmly.  When I approached with a treat Memphis immediately accepted the offered treat with tail wagging and gently took the treat.  When I stared directly at Memphis he barked once but quickly (less than 2 seconds) averted his eyes to defuse the challenge, tail wagging and showing several appeasement lip licks.  When I did not respond by averting my gaze Memphis faced off and barked briefly, but then re-averted his gaze to defuse the contact, wagging his tail.  Memphis also gave several appeasement licks.  When I banged the kennel door he briefly barked and faced me, but immediately again sent appeasement signals.  When I stood up Memphis voluntarily sat and gently accepted treats.  I again approached closely, staring directly at him and rattled his kennel door.  Memphis jumped up and barked, but quickly regained a stable stance and accepted treats.  Memphis’ posture continued to be frontal but relaxed, with tail wagging.  I turned my back to Memphis, then suddenly turned back around and jumped towards him making full eye contact.  Memphis did respond by barking and jumping up on the kennel door, but calmed within approximately ten (10) seconds.  Memphis’ reaction was consistent with a normal dog being suddenly challenged and showed good recovery skills.

I entered Memphis’ kennel and he was immediately accepting, walking with me towards the back of the kennel.  He voluntarily sat and then came back to the front of the kennel when called.  He accepted treats gently and sat quietly when I placed the leash on him.  Just outside the kennel Memphis readily complied with both Sit and Down commands while remaining attentive to me and my actions.  Memphis walked easily on the leash into the building and up the stairs to the testing area.

On entering the testing area I released Memphis to roam free.  Memphis began to check out the room but readily came to me when called.  I then sat quietly and gave no instructions.  Memphis began to check out the room but voluntarily returned to make contact with me within 15 seconds.  He then spent some time (1 minute 32 seconds) checking the entire perimeter of the room, but then returned to me without command. At that time I took him back under leash control and began the handling tests.

I was able to fully handle, pet, stroke and manipulate Memphis with no reluctance.  I forced Memphis into a down position and restrained him with mild resistance but no aggressive or challenging behavior on his part.  He allowed full manipulation, pulling of his tail, squeeze test, and responded calmly to a sudden scruffing and verbal “no” command.  He tolerated all physical handling without sensitivity or resistance.

The next test was reaction to the sudden object (opening umbrella).  Memphis briefly startled, was alert and cautious, barked twice, and retreated behind me.  Recovery time from this exercise was fourteen (14) seconds.  I then conducted the loud noise test.  Memphis briefly startled but recovered within two (2) seconds with one small lip lick. 

I tested Memphis for food guarding.  In preparation for the test he had not been fed yet this day. I presented him a bowl of soft dog food and allowed him to start eating.  While he was eating he let me pet him on the head and face with no guarding behavior.  I placed my gloved hand directly in the bowl as he was eating and he was tolerant and willing to let me take morsels of food directly from his mouth.  I gave him, and removed, his food several times and he never showed any aggression or protective behavior.  He gently accepted food directly from my hand.

I then retested him with bare hands.  He accepted full handling, squeeze, manipulation of his mouth, and overall handling with no sensitivity or aggressive response toward my bare hand.

Memphis was then exposed to the “stranger” tests.  The first encounter was with a passive stranger wearing a raincoat.  To prepare for this I held Memphis’ leash, but gave him no direction or correction, regardless of his response.  I only restrained him by passive holding of the leash.  The passive stranger was instructed not to make direct eye contact with Memphis. 

When the passive stranger entered and walked across the room Memphis did take notice and approached to smell the stranger, but made no aggressive moves, instead wagging his tail.  When the passive stranger walked out Memphis looked to follow him, but still with positive body language.  In the next test the stranger approached me directly and then ran away after expressing surprise (“Ah! It’s a dog!”).  During this test Memphis did strain towards the stranger and barked several times, pulling against the leash.  Memphis then quickly (11 seconds) backed off and looked to me for guidance.  He briefly renewed his forward motion and barking (18 seconds) and then returned his attention to me.  He was still somewhat tense and watchful.  He then sat on his own, watching the stranger prepare to reenter with a hoodie over his head.  When the stranger approached Memphis began to bark, pulling on the leash, out in front of me and oriented in a frontal posture to the stranger.  Barking/pulling was for a period of about 8 seconds. 

Next the stranger was instructed to reapproach, but this time to look Memphis directly in the eyes in full challenge posture.  Memphis responded with a full lunge, barking and growling, mouth partially open with partial exposure of teeth to the stranger.  This behavior continued for 20 seconds, at which time Memphis looked back to me for guidance.  When given no instruction Memphis sat for 9 seconds without barking, although tense and breathing quickly.  The stranger was then told to avert his eyes, and when he did Memphis looked back at me for guidance again, still in a voluntary sit.  I then instructed Memphis to “leave it” and walked sideways, away from the stranger.  Memphis readily complied, disengaging with the stranger and reverting his attention back to me.

After we walked around the chair one time I tested Memphis for any learned aggressive commands.  I told Memphis “Get Him! Several times and pointed towards the stranger.  Memphis gave n o reaction that would indicate any training or previous behavior shaping of aggression towards a specific target (person) on command.  I also tried Spanish commands and got the same lack of aggressive response.  During the attempt to have Memphis respond aggressively on command he instead kept his attention on me, with receptive and positive body posture.

The stranger departed and I allowed Memphis to voluntarily take a small break.  He lay at my feet, relaxed.  I then had a female (Karen Lore) who Memphis had previously met approach our position, walking and facing directly towards us.  I told her to look Memphis directly in the eye.  Memphis averted his gaze within approximately three seconds and remained lying on the floor, despite the female trying to maintain direct eye contact.  I had the female approach two more steps toward his position, maintaining frontal position with eye contact and Memphis did respond, leaping up and barking and lunging towards the female.  She quickly backed up several steps, still maintaining frontal position, and Memphis continued barking at her for 9 seconds.  I then had the female subject run away screaming in a high pitched voice, leaving Memphis’ view.  Memphis did respond by barking and lunging, but discontinued the behavior is less than 7 seconds, returning to my side as the female target left his sight.  Memphis immediately thereafter complied with my command to “down”, and then accepted me grabbing him by the face and directly challenging him at close range with no negative response.  During these tests Memphis never redirected at the camera person present in the room. 

I then had two dogs brought into the testing area, one at a time.  First was a non-reactive dog, then a more reactive dog.  During this test I sat quietly in the chair, holding Memphis’ leash, but otherwise giving no direction.  Memphis did give a high pitched bark in response to the many barking dogs in the kennel while we were waiting for the test dogs.

The first test dog was a small, white, poodle-type dog.  Despite the quick motions of the dog back and forth in front of Memphis he sat by my side with no commands on a loose leash, showing no aggressive behavior or pursuit of the smaller dog.  While waiting for the second dog Memphis sat, loose leash, although he was very focused on the doorway where the dog (and the strangers) had left the room.  He appeared tense and expectant.

The second dog was larger.  Memphis initially observed the dog’s entrance while laying down, but then as the dog approached Memphis he jumped up and began barking and lunging at the approaching dog.  The reactive dog was likewise pulling towards Memphis.  When the dog left Memphis sight he stopped barking and stood focused on the doorway.  At +20 seconds he diverted his attention briefly towards the side and by +1 minute he was relaxing and easily redirected back to me, allowing petting and seeking positive contact.

I then exited the testing area and took Memphis downstairs to the kennels.  I walked him past the front of a row of kennels filled with dog, most of which were barking and giving visible aggressive displays towards Memphis.  I gave him no verbal instructions and let him engage as he wished, only holding him back by the leash.  Memphis, on our first pass by the dogs, directly responded to the clear challenges of the barking, lunging dogs with similar behavior.  He did not ever redirect back towards me.  As we went back the way we came I was able to get Memphis to respond to my direction and sit, looking at me, despite a dog barking and lunging at him within less than six feet.  Memphis held his quiet sit until I released him (10 seconds).  I had Memphis sit a second time, directly facing a kennel with a barking, lunging dog, and he broke the sit after 8 seconds to respond to the other dog.  I was able to have Memphis sit a third time, facing a different dog, barking and lunging at Memphis, and he held the sit facing that dog for 15 seconds before I quietly walked him away.

I took Memphis for a brief break in the yard area outside the kennel.  We approached a cat that was sitting in the brush, and although Memphis was alert to the cat, he never lunged or tried to chase the cat.

I then took Memphis back through the same row of dogs, this time with treats and direction, to ascertain his response to positive redirection.  In this pass, each time we came in front of a kennel with a responding dog I had Memphis sit quietly and then reinforced the quiet sit.  He responded as before to the first two dogs, but he also took redirection to the sit.  After the second dog we repeated that exposure and Memphis sat without engaging the dog first.  The next dog we passed Memphis gave to response to, instead sitting and looking for his treat.  On the last two dogs Memphis was alert, but did not respond to either of the dogs, turning his back on them and keeping his attention toward me instead.  He in fact turned his back on the other barking, lunging dogs.  Even when I tried to guide him physically back towards the other dogs he maintained his focus on me.  When we walked back down the row of dogs he remained focused on me and did not respond to a single dog.


Memphis is a healthy male dog that does present a few behavior issues.  Specifically, Memphis is sensitive to the approach of strangers, particularly those who exhibit direct challenge behavior.  Memphis’ response is lunging and barking.  Memphis did not redirect that behavior to me or others in the immediate area he was already accustomed to, such as the camera person and observers in the testing room.  Memphis recovered rapidly from the presentation of the challenging stranger after the stranger withdrew without specific direction such as a “Leave it” command.  When given such a command Memphis accepted the redirection of his actions and recovered even more quickly.  His reaction to the active stranger is troublesome at this time, but he showed the ability to readily accept redirection and acceptable replacement behavior.  Memphis did not show any response to my attempts to have him “get” the stranger, and thus there was no indication that human focused aggressive display has been reinforced or trained.  I saw no evidence that Memphis has received any protection, guarding, or other aggression training.  Prognosis for retraining on his stranger sensitivity is very good.

Memphis also currently shows sensitivity to other dogs, particularly those his size or larger that show direct challenge behavior (barking, lunging, frontal confrontation).  Memphis strained at his leash and returned the behavior, but readily accepted my redirection.  Memphis responded quickly when presented with positive reinforcement for alternative behavior (sitting, ignoring the challenging dog), successfully sitting with his back to the challenging dogs and paying full attention to me.  In just a few repetitions Memphis began to generalize the alternative, calm behavior.  Memphis never redirected towards me, even when I physically reached to his head and moved his face to look at me while he was barking and lunging at the challenging dog.  Memphis’ receptivity to positive redirection of his behavior with relatively few repetitions gives a good prognosis for retraining.

At the time of the test, due to the above described issues, Memphis was NOT appropriate for adoption into a regular pet home.  With retraining and continuance of positive behavior reinforcement I believe that Memphis has a very good prognosis for eventual adoption and placement.  My recommendation for a permanent home would be to a physically capable owner who is experienced with bigger dogs and who is committed to continuing to reinforce Memphis’ good responses with regular training.


James W. Crosby CBCC-KA