After the Franklin County Dog Shelter and Adoption Center started testing pit bulls in 2013 for behavior instead of automatically labeling them as vicious, several shelter statistics rose.
The number of dogs failing the behavior test doubled. The number of dogs euthanized because of that failure rose by a third.
And 36 percent of dogs euthanized for failing the test were pit bulls — 232 of 644 dogs.
Reports that Dr. Vincent Morton, the shelter’s veterinarian, provoked aggression from dogs during the test, leading to an increase in the number of dogs failing, have prompted an investigation ordered by the Franklin County commissioners.
But some say that behavior testing of pit bulls, which came when a 2012 Ohio law removed the automatic label of “vicious” from pit bulls and made them eligible for adoption, also could explain why so many more dogs are failing the behavior test.
The test entails observing how a dog reacts to human contact, such as petting, an attempt to take away its food and other stimuli to see if it is suitable for adoption.
“Now that you’re testing (pit bulls), obviously there’s going to be an increase, because you weren’t testing them prior to that,” said Lisa Zimmerman, a pit-bull advocate who testified for the 2012 law.
Veterinarians and dog advocates agreed that pit bulls are not more prone to aggression toward humans. However, they are more likely than other breeds to be brought up in a violent situation, they said.
The increase in dogs failing that test is at least partly linked to the fact that a relatively large share of the dogs taken in by the shelter are pit bulls, said Susan Smith, the shelter’s spokeswoman. She did not provide numbers.
“Unfortunately, the breed is very popular with a segment of the population that doesn’t value them simply as pets,” Smith said. “A lot of the pit bulls that we see come into the facility are not prime candidates for adoption.”
The shelter does not keep data on how many pit bulls have been tested for behavior, Smith said.
Morton’s techniques during behavior tests have been questioned in incident reports filed by shelter employees.
One report says, “I’ve seen Dr. Morton approach frightened small dogs, leaning over them and staring at them, then marking the dog for euthanasia when the dog growls at him out of fear.”
Such actions as staring at or leaning over a dog can provoke aggression, but they also can be appropriate during a behavior test, said Dr. Meghan Herron, a behavioral specialist in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at Ohio State University.
“We do things in a behavior exam that are much more provocative than in a medical exam,” Herron said. “Within reason … we’re trying to act like an average person would with a dog.”
The goal of a behavior test is to simulate how a human adopter without veterinary training might act with a dog. That way, testers can see whether a dog should be put up for adoption, both Herron and Smith said.
Overall, 16 percent fewer dogs were euthanized in 2013 than in 2012, the year that Morton started at the clinic, and the number of dogs that failed the behavior test and then were sent to rescue groups or transferred to another shelter increased by 14 percent.
“They’re very interested in giving the dog every opportunity to succeed, and they’re not looking to fail the dog,” Smith said. “The folks that do the behavior test are hoping, obviously, for a good outcome.”