The Sydney Morning Herald

Nicole Hasham

The RSPCA faces criticism for its animal assessments.

Adam Farrugia, Sydney Shelter manager at the RSPCA Yagoona pictured with Hera the Kelpie who has just undergone a behavioural assessment test in preparation for adoptionsmh newsphotos Ben Rushton
Happy ending … Adam Farrugia, manager at the RSPCA’s Yagoona shelter, with Hera the kelpie who was rehabilitated after a behavioural test. Photo: Ben Rushton

Lucky the dog softly wags his tail and sniffs the muscular mastiff looming over him. He doesn’t realise it, but his next move could help determine if he lives or dies.

Barking or backing away attracts penalty points. Growling or biting on approach is an immediate fail.

The floppy-eared beagle spreads his front legs and lowers his chest, a form of universal dog diplomacy that indicates he wants to play.

”That’s a really good sign. He seems quite social with other dogs,” says Adam Farrugia, manager of the RSPCA’s Yagoona shelter. ”I can see from this assessment … that he is interacting very well. His playfulness is something we can market to people in re-homing him.”

Each year, about 2000 behavioural assessments or ”temperament tests”, are carried out on unwanted, stray and once neglected dogs at the shelter, helping staff decide if they should be re-homed or destroyed.

The 10-page test, obtained by the Herald, has been criticised by animal welfare advocates who say dogs are unfairly failed, driving up kill rates and denying animals the right to life.

RSPCA NSW stridently rejects the allegations, but its chief executive, Steve Coleman, says the organisation is not above detraction.

”We are not perfect … the RSPCA has been on a path of continuous improvement for years,” he says.

The constant flow of animals is a challenge for the respected charity, but questions over its commitment to keeping them alive are ”disgraceful”, he says.

”We could stop destroying dogs tomorrow if we shut our doors to the public. If the minority few continue to think the RSPCA is somehow apathetic, or enjoys putting animals to sleep, that is just an absolute nonsense.”

The Yagoona shelter, a sprawling mix of run-down and refurbished kennels, presently holds 150 dogs.

Staff assess eight dogs a day, rating their behaviour on a leash, during play and eating, and reaction to loud noise, cats and other dogs.

Behaviour such as jumping, trembling and barking is penalised and dogs that score 100 points or more are deemed ”unsuitable for adoption”.

Other animal welfare organisations, such as the Sydney Dogs and Cats Home, use similar tests. The RSPCA says factors such as prospects for rehabilitation and foster care are taken into account before a dog with behaviour issues is destroyed.

But critics, including the Principal of Lawyers for Companion Animals, Anne Greenaway, claim dogs that are ”terrified” are penalised for displaying aggressive behaviour.

A staff member at a regional RSPCA shelter, who did not wish to be named, says understaffing meant dogs could wait more than a month to be tested, which skewed their results.

”There is supposed to be a person allocated to do behavioural assessments every day. In the shelter where I work it’s happening maybe once a week. Some breeds that are not used to being locked in a little kennel, lose it,” the worker says.

Monash University research casts further doubt on the integrity of temperament testing, finding almost one-quarter of shelter staff who conducted the assessments received no formal training in them, and only 56 per cent believed they were given enough time to assess behaviour.

The study, published in 2010, involved 11 shelters and pounds in several states, including NSW.

It concluded that although most shelters did their best with limited resources, staff could be deciding the fate of dogs based on ”inadequate training, potentially invalid assessment protocols and subjective interpretations of behaviour in which they have limited confidence”. It called for a stronger scientific and regulatory approach.

Study participants were anonymous, and RSPCA NSW does not know if any of its shelters took part. It says workers are well trained to test dogs, but staff restrictions can limit the number of tests conducted.

It says its tests are based on science and are constantly evaluated to ensure they meet national and international standards.

Farrugia says dogs were given at least three days to settle in before being tested. He conceded a ”big influx” of dogs meant some waited longer, but says dogs were monitored, and their tests brought forward if necessary.

The RSPCA put down more than 4800 dogs in NSW last financial year – about 40 per cent of dogs brought in. More than 60 per cent of those were destroyed due to ”behavioural” problems.

It says less than 2 per cent were put down due to space limitations, however critics claim that figure is much higher, and accuse the organisation of refusing to work with animal rescue groups that adhere to a ”no-kill” policy. Many council pounds that release dogs to such groups boast far lower euthanasia rates.

Greenaway described the RSPCA approach to animal management and re-homing as ”lazy and apathetic compared to other groups”, pointing to low numbers of animals advertised for adoption on its website.

”Rather than put in the monumental effort that rescue groups do, the RSPCA appears to find it easier to kill [them],” she says.

Coleman says the RSPCA liaises with ”a number of community-based rescue groups”, and its policy supports placing animals deemed suitable for adoption with any approved group. It was unable to provide a list of the groups it works with, or the number of dogs released to them, before deadline.

It was also unable to provide figures on the proportion of dogs that failed temperament tests and were rehabilitated, rather than destroyed.

Nathan Barnes, a Hunter-based animal behaviour expert and former RSPCA employee, says volunteer networks should be established to improve re-homing rates and enable more dogs such as Hera, pictured, to be rehabilitated.

”By not working with every available group or organisation, you are limiting your resources,” he says.

Andrew Cornwell, the Charlestown MP and veterinarian leading a NSW government overhaul of companion animal laws, backed the RSPCA’s right to choose who it co-operates with.

But critics say the attitude is financially motivated – a bid to monopolise scarce funding and public donations. They point to the organisation’s healthy balance sheet, a $10 million surplus in 2010-11.

”It appears … RSPCA NSW is more concerned with making money than animal welfare,” Greenaway says.

“The bottom line is it is more cost effective to kill them.”

But Coleman defended the figures.

”We’d consider it responsible business practice to have money in reserves so animals in our care wouldn’t go without,” he says. The money would allow the group to operate for two years in the absence of other funding.

At Yagoona, Lucky passed the test and will likely go up for adoption.

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