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City tightens policy on dog adoptions

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City animal welfare volunteer Deborah Ridgeway was bitten by a dog at the Westside Shelter in October and said she lost about 3/8 of an inch of her middle finger. (Courtesy Of Deborah Ridgeway)

FOR THE RECORD: The Journal in a photo caption on this story reported that city animal welfare volunteer Deborah Ridgeway was bitten by a dog at the East Side shelter. The bite occurred at the West Side shelter, 11800 Sunset Gardens SW. Ridgeway lost part of her finger, not the entire finger, as was reported in animal welfare records and in a March 27 complaint to the city’s Inspector General.

The city Animal Welfare Department’s recent moratorium to review whether dangerous dogs were being adopted out of city shelters has resulted in the euthanization of 24 dogs, with another 35 cleared for adoption.

The review was triggered by a complaint filed last month with the city’s Inspector General’s office by two top-ranking department officials.

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This pit bull that was up for adoption at the Albuquerque Eastside animal shelter was euthanized April 3 after he bit a customer who reached into his kennel to pet him. Weeks before, the dog failed a behavior test for aggression.

While the IG inquiry into the complaint is ongoing, department director Barbara Bruin told the Journal the city’s shelters have already tightened up their policies to make euthanasia choices “earlier versus holding any dog longer than necessary. We’re making tougher choices sooner.”

In an effort to reassure the public that shelter dogs are safe and adoptable, Bruin’s staff re-evaluated 64 shelter dogs that hadn’t passed a behavior test that predicts future aggression.

Of those reviewed during the 24-hour moratorium several weeks ago, four additional animals were transferred out of the shelter and one was reclaimed by its owner.

The complaint that the city was allowing aggressive, dangerous dogs to be adopted came from Jim Ludwick, the department’s No. 2 in command and its behavior specialist, Carolyn Hidalgo, who resigned April 2 .

The allegations prompted city Chief Administrator Officer Rob Perry to ask a city performance team to review animal welfare policies and procedures.

The team is also contacting the owners of 98 of 100 dogs identified in the IG complaint as having been adopted over the past year despite failing a nationally standardized behavior test that predicts future aggression.

Two of the adopted dogs listed in the complaint have since died, city officials said.

In addition, Perry said the private investigative firm of Robert Caswell Investigations has been retained to look into administrative issues.

“We’re on it, and I think at the end of the day we’re going to be better for it, which is a good thing,” Perry told the Journal . “I wish we had gotten better without having the ruckus and the problems.”

Perry said there’s no interest in going back to the days of “kill shelters.”

“But you do have to have a program with the utmost credibility in its decision-making about which dogs they put up for adoption,” he added.

Just days after the moratorium was announced, a customer reached into an Eastside shelter kennel to pet a pit bull named Duke and was bitten on the right index finger.

Bruin said the customer wasn’t seriously injured.

But the April 2 incident was a death knell for two-year-old Duke, who was euthanized the next day. It ended Duke’s six-week stay at the shelter and put to rest the staff’s idea that Duke could be adopted into a family that didn’t have young children or other dogs.

Shelter records show Duke had earlier failed the behavior test that predicts aggression.

SAFER

The city uses the SAFER behavior test, which is owned by the ASPCA, as one of the ways to assess whether a dog is safe to be put up for adoption.

Also considered is past behavior, which is often unknown because many of the dogs are strays; observations by shelter staff; and any history of bites or attacks on humans or other animals, Bruin said.

The complaint filed by Ludwick and Hidalgo profiled the cases of 16 dogs that were in city custody after having killed or injured dogs or family cats or bitten or attacked shelter staff or other people. The dogs were nevertheless adopted or given to rescue groups.

Their complaint contends the department allowed the adoption or transfer to rescue groups a total of 132 dogs in 2014 that failed the SAFER behavior test, which reveals dangerous tendencies. Of those, about 32 were transferred to shelters or dog rescue groups.

In the SAFER test, dogs are graded according to their reactions and body language when put through seven routines, such as how they react with toys, other dogs, and to being touched.

The higher the number of the points, the more potential for aggression.

Under department policy, dogs receive a “Pass” if they show no signs of aggression toward humans or other dogs, don’t exhibit possessive behavior with food or toys and if they allow the assessor to perform the SAFER test without displaying any of the requirements for behavior modification.

City policy states that dogs receive a “Fail” when they display aggression toward humans or other dogs.

Bruin acknowledged the dogs cited in the complaint to the IG had been categorized by staff as “Fail.” But she told the Journal that failing the test doesn’t necessarily mean that the dogs were dangerous.

Department policy states, “SAFER assessments are not the only tool used by (Animal Welfare Department) to determine which dogs can be adopted into a community, nor is it the sole criterion in making a decision regarding euthanasia of a particular dog.”

Sometimes, Bruin said, dogs assessed as “Fail” are candidates for behavior modification and are re-tested in 30 days.

Under city policy, dogs are to receive a “Fail” regardless of exhibited behavior during the SAFER test if they have killed, attacked or severely injured another animal prior to arriving at the shelter or if they have severely and aggressively bitten a human, department policy states.

The city policy also has a category of “Special” for dogs that are fearful when approached or touched but allow the contact; are possessive but not aggressive of food and toys and don’t growl or try to bite; or those that show dominance towards other dogs but not aggression.

Bruin said her department is clarifying its policy that sets out the criteria for euthanasia.

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