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Man's Best Friend?

The Early Show resident veterinarian Debbye Turner has said it countless times: Shelters are a great place to find a pet. But there are times when a family dog from the local shelter turns into a nightmare.

To decrease the number of unpleasant matches — and sometimes even tragic outcomes – some shelters are trying a controversial evaluation called Temperament Testing.

While many shelter adoptions turn out well, there have been cases where they led to tragedy. Last fall, Turner reported on Valerie Deswart, who was killed when a Doberman she adopted turned on her. Deswart didn't know that the dog had a history of violence.

So how do you know if those adorable eyes and floppy ears are attached to a safe pet for your family? Do you like a big watchdog? How about a cute little guy? Or maybe you go for the shy type. Whichever you choose, it's important to remember dogs are animals, and they don't come with safety guarantees.

The fact is it's almost impossible to predict for sure. But many shelters are putting their dogs through an evaluation -- sort of a personality test -- to determine which pooches are prepared to be adopted.

Sue Sternberg is considered a pioneer in dog behavior evaluation. She says, "We want every dog to find the perfect owner and we want every owner to find the perfect dog."

She developed a test called Assess-A-Pet, which puts dogs through a series of scenarios and notes their responses. Turner watched Sternberg evaluate a puppy.

About the puppy, Sternberg says, "She was very, very sociable, was interacting with everyone in the room. And that's what you are looking for in particular with a family dog; you really want to encourage people to look for a dog that's highly sociable."

Next up is an adult dog. Steinberg concludes, "The adult Rottweiler was showing early threat behaviors. She showed dominance behaviors such as frontal body, direct eye contact, wide eyes. The Rottweiller, well let's look at it, we saw growling over the pig's ear, we saw growling over the food, and would she just growl and never bite?

"And so the question is what type of a home is best for her? We won't place her; we would euthanize her," Seinberg says.

These decisions to euthanize dogs that fail her test make Sternberg a very controversial figure.

Animal activist Livi French says, "When you're killing healthy animals, it is not euthanasia." French says too many shelters are using behavior tests as a way to find dogs "unadoptable."

She says, "It's sort of carte blanche for shelters to kill and not feel terrible about it. To be able to claim they're lowering their euthanasia rate."

And she questions whether the test can really predict a dog's future behavior.

French says, "So, you can Assess-A-Pet test a dog and it will pass it, and it will bite. Or you can Assess-A-Pet test a dog and fail it, and get it away from Ms. Sternberg into a home."

Pam Reid, chief behavioralist for the ASPCA says, "Every dog that comes into our shelter is evaluated."

She says the organization's behavior evaluation helps determine how to prepare a dog to be a good, adoptable pet. The big difference between Sternberg's technique and Reid's is the ASPCA doesn't euthanize a dog based on the way it performs on a behavior test. She says it all comes down to resources.

Reid says, "Based on the results of the test you have to make some decisions. If you have the resources, if you have the people who can work with the dogs, then that test can be used to help those dogs become adoptable. If you don't have the resources, then it becomes a more difficult situation."

Reid also adds that most people looking for a new pet need a little professional advice.

She notes, "I think it's critical. If people are going to come to a shelter and select a dog, they need help; they need guidance. It's much more important to choose a dog on its behavior than on its looks."

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