To Respectfully Disagree

In favor of toning down critical rhetoric.


Last month, a reader or two chastised me about not giving props to New York shelter operator Sue Sternberg. We had run an article about minimum mental health guidelines for shelter dogs, and a few people felt it was unfair that Sue’s name had not been mentioned as an early and ardent contributor to that cause. I extended my apologies – Sternberg’s work in that area is well known – and added that I respected her work.

In doing so I apparently stepped on the third rail of the dog world!

The moment the September issue was put online (this generally occurs a week or two before the printed version appears in your mailboxes), I was receiving scathing letters about the other thing Sternberg is known for: the temperament tests she developed and promotes. These tests are intended to help shelter workers decide (in the common event of having more dogs than space, staff, and funding to care for them) which dogs are most likely to succeed in adoptive homes, and which should be euthanized as unadoptable or overly difficult to rehabilitate.

Judging from the letters I have received, some of you strongly believe that no dogs should be euthanized by shelters. Some of you believe that even if some dogs must be euthanized in shelters, they shouldn’t be selected using Sternberg’s criteria. Of course those opinions, and others, are perfectly valid.

However, the anger and hatred expressed in some of the letters I have received actually shocked me. One of the letters I received referred to “atrocities” and the “reign of terror that Sue Sternberg carries out…” My expression of respect for Sternberg was deemed “unconscionable and certainly out of character for your publication…” In fact, several people thought it warranted the immediate termination of their subscriptions!

Personally, I think it’s reasonable to have respect for someone even if I don’t agree with everything they espouse. (In fact, I can’t think of a single trainer or veterinarian with whom I agree about everything.) I also think it’s relatively rare to find a topic, person, or company that deserves unadulterated opprobrium.

Keep this in mind when you read about disasters in dog food manufacturing (in this month’s issue). There have been a few famous incidents in which improperly processed foods actually killed dogs – and probably many more that nobody ever knew about in which dogs were made very ill. (We published an article in the July 2000 issue about a dog who was made ill from food containing aflatoxin, a toxin excreted by mold that grows on grain. It doesn’t smell bad, nor will the food necessarily look moldy, so a dog will keep eating it – and getting sicker.)

My take-home point in this article is that owners need to be aware that it’s possible for a dog’s food to make him sick, so if he does get sick, they stop feeding him whatever they were feeding him, investigate, and make sure it’s safe before feeding the same type of food again.

Believe me; I’m not an industry apologist. But my point is certainly not to condemn the pet food industry, or put any company that has ever had a manufacturing accident out of business. I’m sure that the company executives, like Sue Sternberg, actually like dogs and would like to see as many of them as possible living long, happy, and healthy lives.


-Nancy Kerns