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The Art of Assessing Shelter Bites: A Leader's Perspective on Fairness

animalwelfare leadership Jun 23, 2023

Euthanasia. Of the tens of thousands of decisions the collective leadership of an Animal Welfare organization makes in a week, euthanasia is the most difficult. I often equate it with playing God, deciding if an animal lives or dies. Coupling this responsibility with the protest of well-intentioned staff and volunteers, the burden becomes overwhelming. My time signing Euthanasia paperwork is over, however, I am often consulted to assess or provide guidance on the adoptability of a particular dog. It’s opened my eyes to how few Organizations have a legitimate decision making process in place. If this sounds familiar, I encourage you to get a Standard Operating Procedure in place as soon as possible, with this article as your guidepost. 


The 5 Step "Fair Bite" Assessment

While the core of what we do is saving homeless pets, this can feel like a facade concealing the unfortunate reality that we, the animal lovers, are inherently tasked with the responsibility of keeping the general public safe. Bites will happen, and every dog has the propensity to bite, like The Scorpion and the Frog, it truly is the nature of the beast. A leader worth their salt must know how to dissect the situation with an objective lens, and narrow in on if the dog’s response was appropriate and proportionate. Every organization’s risk tolerance is unique and fluid, the following assessment strategy is not intended to produce the answer for you, but to guide you and your team throughout this difficult process. 

I firmly believe in implementing Decentralized Command, particularly when making decisions about animal adoptability and potential euthanasia. Leaving such decisions in the hands of one person can disrupt the organizational culture. Imagine being the sole decision-maker for euthanasia in your organization – that's an enormous weight to bear, and burnout becomes an inevitability.

Frontline staff often approach these situations with a narrow focus, directing their attention primarily towards the dog in question. However, as leaders, we must not only maintain a broader perspective but also demonstrate compassion for our team. By engaging in coaching and fostering transparent conversations, we can help our staff and volunteers expand their viewpoint and gain a more comprehensive understanding of the circumstances surrounding adoptability. 

Form a panel comprising leaders from each department involved in hands-on work with animals. This panel will convene and make decisions regarding adoptability and euthanasia within your organization. These leaders should also be responsible for communicating with their staff and collecting feedback from frontline employees. Think of them as representatives of their departments, bringing valuable insights and information from the lower ranks while filtering out unnecessary noise. These leaders should ensure that their teams feel heard and understand that they have a voice in this process.


Step 1- Antecedents

“She never acts like this”, my team pleaded with me. It was the 5th of July and after a night of “bombs bursting in air”, a Shepherd named Bella was primed and ready to fight or flight. Not the best day to meet a new volunteer. 

Antecedents refer to the events, conditions, or stimuli that occur prior to the dog bite. They can include environmental factors, such as the presence of other animals, unfamiliar surroundings, or in Bella’s case, fireworks. Additionally, antecedents may involve human behavior, such as approaching the dog abruptly, invading its personal space, or mishandling. Take into consideration the dog's perceived level of stress or fear.

By identifying and analyzing the antecedents, we can uncover potential triggers, stacking triggers or warning signs that contributed to the bite. This information is crucial for not only fairly evaluating the dog in question, but in developing effective strategies to prevent future incidents and ensure the safety of both dogs and humans.

To thoroughly evaluate the antecedents, it is important to gather comprehensive information from witnesses, owners, and any available records. Documenting the circumstances leading up to the bite, including the time, location, individuals involved, and any notable events, will aid in determining the context and potential contributing factors. Available records can be anything from a recent notation in the medical log about that particular dog, to surveillance footage of the incident. Dogs seldom bite for no reason so leave no stone unturned.


Step 2 - Predictability

One of the most important factors when evaluating a dog’s adoptability is the consistency and reliability of their actions and responses. An unpredictable dog is a dangerous dog, this is one of the only absolutes. 

Consider the degree to which their behavior can be anticipated based on previous observations, known triggers, and established patterns. Consider key factors such as the dog's history, temperament, previous training methods, and environment. If available, reference their intake notes and behavior assessment to gather information about the dog's past behavior, any history of aggression or biting, and their response to specific triggers or stimuli. Go to the source; your staff and volunteers. The people who work with that dog day in and day out can provide the most insight into that dog's Modus Operandi.

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Step 3 - Severity

Every organization should have a method of objectively evaluating a dog bite wound to assess the physical damage of the bite. Whenever possible, photographic evidence of the bite should be obtained so that all involved with the decision making process can evaluate the severity.

Dr. Ian Dunbar’s Dog Bite Scale is the industry standard for evaluating the severity of a dog bite Dr. Dunbar’s scale consists of six levels, ranging from Level 1 (least severe) to Level 6 (most severe). As mentioned before, each organization has its own risk tolerance. My recommendation is to not place a dog with anything over a Level 4 Bite up for adoption. Higher level bite indicates little to no bite inhibition. Here's an explanation of each level:

Level 1: a nip or a quick, inhibited bite where there is no breaking of the skin. It may be more of a warning or a display of discomfort rather than an aggressive or injurious act.
Level 2: skin contact with light puncture marks or slight scratches. The bite may leave minor bruising or abrasions, but the injuries are typically not deep or extensive.
Level 3: one to four puncture wounds, typically deeper than those in Level 2. The bites may be accompanied by bruising. Lacerations in a single direction from the victim pulling away.
Level 4: multiple deep puncture wounds with tearing and significant tissue damage from head shaking. These bites often require medical attention and may result in moderate to severe bleeding or infection.
Level 5: multiple bites with deep puncture wounds and extensive tissue damage. The severity of the injuries can be life-threatening, resulting in severe bleeding, infection, or the potential for permanent damage.
Level 6: a bite resulting in the death of the victim. This level represents the most severe and tragic outcome.

Download a copy of the official authorized version here. 


Step 4 - Public Safety

We have all heard the saying, "Little dogs could get away with murder." Well, there is some truth to it. Assessing a dog's risk to public safety objectively can be challenging. Without being overly critical, you and your team should identify any exceptional circumstances that may pose a higher-than-usual risk to the public. Unfortunately, this may involve evaluating factors such as the dog's size, strength, ability to escape confinement, or whether its warning signals, such as barking or growling, have been trained out. Determine if there are any characteristics unique to this dog that make it a higher risk to public safety compared to a similar dog exhibiting the same behavior.

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Step 5 - The Debrief

After a decision has been reached, it is crucial for the respective leaders to return to their departments and conduct a debrief with their teams regarding the decision. This debriefing serves as an opportunity for team members to ask questions, gain insight into the decision-making process, and understand the difficulty and complexity involved.

By providing an open forum for discussion and inquiry, leaders foster transparency helping to align everyone's perspectives and ensure that the rationale behind the decision is well understood.  During the debrief, leaders should encourage active participation from team members and create a safe space for dialogue.

Our industry has long struggled with high turnover rates among frontline staff. Compassion fatigue resulting from exposure to the suffering, trauma, and challenges faced by the animals they care for takes its toll over time. Involving your team at all levels in the euthanasia process empowers them to make informed decisions, recognize patterns, and develop a personal responsibility to protect the animals in their care. This inclusive approach elevates leadership from positional authority ("You have to listen to me because I'm the boss") to a level of trust and permission. Cultivating such a culture enables your organization to effectively navigate complex challenges and drive positive change as a team, mitigating turnover, and providing an extra layer of protection against burnout.