Temperament Testing in Animal Shelters

I have been doing a lot of research lately about animal shelters’ use of behavioral evaluations for dogs in their care.   These tools are frequently employed to help the shelter staff handle the dogs, from both a personal safety and animal welfare standpoint, as to aid in the placement of these dogs in suitable homes.  However, although these “personality tests” have been used extensively for multiple purposes, their validity and reliability in shelter environments has never been established and is widely debated – if not disparaged.  Although I have posted on methods that I have implemented in modifying shelter dogs’ behaviors (September, 2022 | The Animal Nerd), the process of evaluating dogs as adoptable or as part of their welfare and handling is much complicated.

There is a fundamental problem with testing dogs in a shelter.  The majority of tests were developed for the purpose of determining if certain dogs were suitable for work, such as assistance, police work or hunting.[i]  This not only limited the environment in which the dogs were tested to one in which they were familiar and comfortable, with people they knew, it limited the testing to certain breeds and ages.  However, shelters are a completely foreign and highly stressful environment, full of strange humans and dogs.    Some research has concluded that in-shelter tests only determine how the dog is reacting to its current unfamiliar and possibly frightening situation,[ii] and cannot predict how they will act under normal conditions in a home.[iii] Although, additional research has indicated that testing may predict how dogs will react to conditions in the shelter – which may be useful for shelter staff.[iv]  However, the high rate of inaccurate results found in in-shelter testing is leading to dogs being incorrectly assessed as aggressive, which is an impediment to their adoption and can lead to unnecessary euthanasia; or it can lead to highly reactive dogs being placed in adoptive homes.[v]

In addition, there is very little scientific rigor associated with the work that has been done on temperament testing.  The majority of tests have very little follow-up, and the few that do have a high level of disagreement between the in-shelter testing and the reporting from adoptive owners. Also, there is no standardization among the tests being performed,[vi] to the point that there is often no correlation or agreement as to what traits are being tested.[vii]  It is extremely difficult to assess whether any of the temperament testing methods used by shelters are of any value, simply because there is no standardization of test conditions, terminology and, most of all, the meaning of the behaviors being observed.[viii]

The ASPCA has determined that there is no conclusive evidence that temperament testing is useful in assessing dogs’ behavioral traits or in helping to move dogs from a shelter into a compatible home and may erroneously identify aggressive tendencies in tested dogs.  Their position is that testing should be just one of many tools used to aid shelters in handling dogs and determine the dogs’ eligibility for adoption.[ix]  This position is borne out by the available research, which has generally recommended against reliance on in-shelter testing.

There is some consensus among researchers that the best indicator of post-adoption behavior is to obtain a detailed history from the persons surrendering their dog[x].  However, some researchers caution against taking this history in a face-to-face interview, as this places pressure on the surrendering owners to be less than candid, either due to perceived social pressure or to try and improve their dogs’ chances of adoption.  The recommended method of taking a history is through a detailed questionnaire, two of which have been assessed as having a high degree of reliability:  A modified version of the C-BARQ personality assessment[xi] and the Match-Up II test developed by the Animal Rescue League of Boston.[xii]

When the surrendering person is unwilling to provide a history; or if the dog is taken to the shelter by animal control or transferred from another shelter without much accompanying information, the most accurate means of determining the dogs’ in-shelter behavior is to have multiple persons perform an assessment at various stages of intake, to include the Animal Control Officer, the shelter veterinarian and qualified shelter staff.  These assessments should use a consistent process and criteria.[xiii]  Although this methodology does little to predict dogs’ behavior in adoptive homes, it does aid in their handling and welfare while housed in the shelter.

Testing a dog for food guarding, using a fake human hand. (The Science Dog (2013)

Although the research on behavioral testing is generally inconclusive, there are indications that shelters can eliminate or modify certain commonly-tested items.   Researchers have found that food-guarding in shelters does not indicate that it will occur in adoptive homes,[xiv] or that an absence of food-guarding in a shelter means that the dog will not develop that behavior after adoption.[xv]  One study determined that discontinuing testing for food-guarding had no impact on the safety of shelter personnel and did not increase the rate of dogs returned to the shelter.[xvi]

Observing a dog’s reaction to other dogs under controlled conditions, is a more effective method of assessing their sociability with other dogs than the use of a training dummy.

Additionally, it seems that the use of dummies and dolls to simulate human children and other dogs, is of very limited value in assessing a shelter dog’s propensity for aggression.  Dogs are generally not fooled into thinking that dolls are real dogs or children and may simply react to them as plush toys.  And dummy dogs do not provide the body language and feedback that is an essential component of in-species communication.[xvii]  However, even though the use of dolls and dummy dogs is not useful in detecting aggressive behavior, it may aid in assessing dogs for anxiety or fear of novel and unfamiliar objects.[xviii]

Lastly, a recent study of dogs’ behavioral characteristics vis-à-vis their genetic makeup indicates that a dogs’ breed, or perceived breed, is not a factor in whether a dog is prone to aggressive or fearful behaviors.[xix]  This would indicate that dogs should not be considered to be more prone to bite, or ineligible for adoption, based on their breed.[xx]

Summing it up:  Behavioral evaluations are one tool among many in determining whether a dog is a good candidate for adoption and in helping shelter personnel care for them.  However, the shelter environment is not a good environment for performing these tests, which leads to highly inaccurate results.  In many cases, the tests consist of trying to provoke a highly stressed dog into displaying some kind of aggressive behavior.  The best way to assess a dog’s propensity for fearful, guarding or otherwise aggressive behavior is to take a detailed history on intake.   If this information cannot be obtained, then shelters should implement a standard assessment form for use by multiple persons during intake, veterinary exam and subsequent handling by shelter staff.  Lastly, current research indicates that certain items that have been included in behavioral assessments (the use of dummies to simulate children and other dogs, and tests for food-guarding) have been highly inaccurate and should be discontinued.

[i] Taylor, K. T. & Mills, D. S. (2006). The Development and Assessment of Temperament Tests for Adult Companion Dogs.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 1 (3).  94-108.  doi: 10.1016/j.jveb.2006.09.002

[ii] Kawczynska, C. (September 1, 2020). Should Shelter Dogs Be Subjected to Behavioral Tests?  The Wildest.  Retrieved from Just How Accurate Are Canine Behavioral Assessments? · The Wildest

[iii] Patronek, G. & Bradley, J. (2016).  No Better Than Flipping a Coin:  Reconsidering Canine Behavior Evalations  in Animal Shelters.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 15 (2016).  66-77. doi:  10.1016/j.jveb.2016.08.001

[iv] Haverbeke, A., Pluijmakers, J. & Diederich, C. (2014). Behavioral Evaluations of Shelter Dogs:  Literature Review, Perspectives and Follow-up with European Member States’ Legislation with Emphasis on the Belgian Situation.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 10 (2015). 5-11.  doi:  10.1016/j.jveb.2014.007.004

[v] Christensen, E., Scarlett, J., Campagna, M. & Houpt, K. A. (2006).  Aggressive Behavior in Adopted Dogs that Passed a Temperament Test.  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 106 (2007), 85-95. doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2006.07.002

[vi] Diederich, C. and Giffroy, J. (2006). Behavioural Testing in Dogs:  A Review of Methodology in Search of Standardization,  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 97 (2006), 51-72.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2005.11.018

[vii] Patronek, G. J., Bradley, J. & Arps, E. (2019). What is the Evidence for Reliability and Validity of Behavior Evaluations for Shelter Dogs?  A Prequel to “No Better than Flipping a Coin”. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 31 (2019).  43-58.  doi:  10.1016/j.jveb.2019.003.001

[viii] Diederich, C. and Giffroy, J. (2006). Behavioural Testing in Dogs:  A Review of Methodology in Search of Standardization,  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 97 (2006), 51-72.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2005.11.018

[ix] ASPCA (nd). Position Statement on Shelter Dog Behavior Assessments.  Retrieved from www.aspca.org/about-us/aspca-policy-and-position-statements/position-statement-shelter-dog-behavior-assessments

[x] Segurson, S. A., Serpell, J. A., & Hart, B. L. (2005),  Evaluation of a behavioral assessment questionnaire for use in the characterization of behavioral problems of dogs relinquished to animal shelters.  Journal of the American Veterinary Association 227 (11).  doi:  10.2460.javma.2005.227.1755

[xi] Duffy, D. L., Kruger, K. A. & Serpell, J. A. (2014).  Evaluation of a Behavioral Assessment Tool for Dogs Relinquished to Shelters.  Preventive Veterinary Medicine 117 (2014).  601-609.  doi:  10.1016/j.prevetmed.2014.10.003

[xii] Dowling-Guyer, S., Marder, A. & D’Arpino, S. (2010).  Behavioral Traits Detected in Shelter Dogs by a Behavior Evaluation.   Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 130 (2011), 107-114.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2010.12.004

[xiii] Menchetti, L., Righi, C., Geulfi, G., Enas, C., Moscati, L., Mancini, S. & Diverio, S. (2019). Multi-Operator Qualitative Behavioural Assessment for Dogs Entering the Shelter.  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 213 (2019).  107-116.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.02.008

[xiv] McGuire, B.  (2019).  Characteristics and Adoption Success of Shelter Dogs Assessed as Resource Guarders.  Animals 2019 9 (82). doi:10.3390/ani9110982

[xv] Marder, A. R., Shabelansku, A., Patronek, G. J., Dowling-Guyer, S. & D’Arpino S. S. (2013).  Food-Related Aggression in Shelter Dogs:  A Comparison of Behavior Identified by a Behavior Evaluation in the Shelter and Owner Reports After Adoption.  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 148 (2103).  150-156.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2013.07.007

[xvi] Mohan-Gibbons, H., Dolan, E. D., Reid, P., Slater, M. R., Mulligan, H. & Weiss, E.  (2017).  The Impact of Excluding Food Guarding from a Standardized Behavioral Canine Assessment in Animal Shelters.  Animals 8 (27).  doi:  10.3390/ani8020027

[xvii] Shabelansky, A., Dowling-Guyer, S., Quist, H., D’Arpino, S. S. & McCobb, E. (2014).  Consistency of Shelter Dog’s Behavior Toward a Fake Versus Real Stimulus Dog During a Behavior Evaluation.  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 63 (2015).  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2014.12.001

[xviii] Barnard, S., Siracusa, C., Reisner, I., Valsecchi, P. & Serpell, J. (2012).  Validity of Model Devices used to Access Canine Temperament in Behavioral Tests.  Journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science 138 (2012).  79-87.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2012.02.017

[xix] Morrill, K. et al (2022).  Ancestry-Inclusive Genomics Challenges Popular Breed Stereotypes.  Science 376 (6592).  doi:  10.1126/science/abk0639

[xx] Bollen, K. S. & Horowitz, J. (2007).  Behavioural Evaluation and Demographic Information in the Assessment of Aggressiveness in Shelter Dogs.  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 112 (2008), 120-135.  doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2007.07.007


Shelter Dogs: Handling New Arrivals

The dog can be overwhelmed in a shelter and experienced “learned helplessness”, leading him to completely shut down

When a dog arrives in a shelter, he is going through an incredibly frightening and stress-filled experience.  Depending on what is known about them, these dogs can spend time isolated in quarantine, interacting with a minimum of shelter personnel until they are vaccinated and checked for communicable diseases or medical conditions.  Behavior evaluations are also done during these periods, generally for the benefit of shelter staff and to determine any safety issues in handling the dogs.  But these intake evaluations can be very misleading[i].

In any case, the dogs have been removed from their familiar surroundings; from their homes, from the street, or from another shelter, and are now in a new and highly stressful place.  They are surrounded by unfamiliar noises, other animals, unknown people, new smells, etc.  If they are considered to be quiet and friendly, in all likelihood its because they are overwhelmed and helpless, and have completely shut down[ii] .

Regardless of how dog-friendly and stress-free we try to make a shelter, it will be a terrible place to be a dog.  They are bombarded with stimuli in a foreign environment and often have great difficulty in coping.  The question becomes, how can the people who work in the shelters help them de-stress and adapt to their surroundings, thereby increasing their chances of being adopted by a suitable person or family?  A few months ago I wrote about dogs that arrive in the shelter with severe anxieties and a fear of new people and places[iii].  This trend has continued as we get dogs that were isolated and unsocialized during the pandemic.

I cannot overstate the need for slow and positive first meetings with new shelter dogs, and slow steps in increasing the interactions with shelter personnel.  The shelter staff and volunteers are the people who will set the tone for that dog’s interactions with all visitors and potential adopters.  It is absolutely vital for them to set the dog up for success by making all human interactions as fear-free as possible.

All too often we conflate positive interaction with providing excitement or stimulus, when those things can be counterproductive for a dog that is already coping with stress.  A dog that is new to a shelter does not need to be entertained, he needs to be calm and allowed to relax. A 2018 study documented the beneficial effect of shelter volunteers simply sitting with, and petting, a shelter dog for only 15 minutes[iv].   When I train new volunteers, I encourage them to incorporate this practice into their daily activities with our dogs.  Whenever they are outside of their runs, either to meet new adopters or for a routine walk, I ask them to incorporate some time just sitting outside with them in quiet location so the dogs can get used to the environment and learn to relax.

I am currently working with a dog that has an extreme fear of new people, particularly men. By implementing a slow and low-key approach in meeting and handling her, and was able to get her to trust and accept me.  I’ve attached a copy of the treatment plan that I developed for the shelter staff to use in handling this girl:

Treatment Plan:  Subject Dog

Problem:  (subject) is extremely stressed by being in the shelter and is fearful of strangers, particularly men.  She is reactive in her kennel and shows clear signs of fear and anxiety when people approach:  Warning barks, teeth bared, back arched, low and rapid tail wags.   (subject) is not food-motivated, but does want human contact.  The key to providing this is to get her to accept people on her own terms.


Our objective is to help (subject) become accustomed to being in the shelter and to become more accepting of unfamiliar people.  She should meet new people in a low stress, positive manner.

First visit:  When approaching her kennel for the first time, do not enter it.  And do not stand facing her.  Sit down outside the kennel, facing sideways to her.  This is a good time to do some texting or read an article on your phone.  Gauge her reactions:  If she is showing any of the stress signs mentioned in the problem statement, then just ignore her and continue quietly sitting for about ten minutes.  You might try doing a couple of fake yawns or a full body shake (these are dog body language, telling the excited dog that you are not a threat and she can calm down).

If she stops reacting to your presence, you can put a hand near the treat hole in her kennel.  This may provoke another reaction from her.  Don’t worry about that, just let her calm herself down.  After a while, get up, leave and come back later. 

Second visit:  When you approach her kennel, you might find that she has less of a fearful reaction.  If not, repeat the steps you used on the first meeting.  But if her reaction is less fearful, you can enter.

When you enter the kennel, do not try to touch her right away.  Do not be overly friendly or use a high happy voice.  Look away from her and kneel or sit comfortably, making yourself smaller.  Let her approach you.  She might keep her distance at first.  If so, just relax and read your phone.  You can watch her, just do not lock eyes with her.

At some point, she will approach you and sniff your hands or clothes.  When she does that, you can touch and pet her under the chin or on her chest with your hand open and palm-up.  See what she does when you stop.  If she moves her nose towards you or towards your hand, that is a sign that she would like you to continue (a consent sign).  You can keep on petting her – she likes to be gently rubbed on her face – and talk to her quietly in a normal friendly voice.  Once she accepts you, she will increase the amount of contact that she wants with you.  When she does, you can try to put on her harness.  Do this from the side without leaning or reaching over her.  Keep in mind that she is just beginning to trust you.  If she tenses up, then stop and go back to what you were doing before.  You can try the harness for the next visit.

Walking:  Once you’ve got the harness on her, you can take her for a walk.  While doing so, watch her body language.  She may show signs of being frightened (ears back, tail low or tucked).  If so, keep the walk short and stop after she’s relieved herself.  You can try to sit down with her in a quiet spot and let her try to settle down.  This may not work the first couple of times.  You can increase the length of the walks as she continues to get used to the shelter and to the staff and volunteers.   When you get back to her kennel, spend some time inside with her.  Let her relax with you for a while, until her breathing and heartrate slow down a little.

Summing it up:  The goal is to help these dogs to be less anxious in the shelter, and to accept new people without undue fear.  We can best accomplish this by taking things slow and allowing them to become habituated to the shelter environment and in being handled by unfamiliar people.  Once that’s done, we can add in play and other forms of enrichment without overwhelming them.


[i] Patronek, G. J. and Bradley, J. (2016).  No Better Than Flipping a Coin:  Reconsidering Canine Behavior Evaluations in Animal Shelters.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 15 (Sep – Oct 2016).  66 – 77.  Doi 10.1016/j.veb 2016.08.001

[ii] www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/learned-helplessness

[iii] February, 2022 | The Animal Nerd

[iv] McGowan, R. T. S., Bolte, C., Barnett, H. R., Perez-Camargo, G. and Martin, F. (2018).  Can You Spare 15 Min?  The Measurable Positive Impact of a 15-min Petting Session on Shelter Dog Wellbeing.  Applied Animal Behavior Science 203 (June 2018) 42 – 54.  Retrieved from Can you spare 15 min? The measurable positive impact of a 15-min petting session on shelter dog well-being – ScienceDirect

Behavior Modification for Shelter Dogs

As a Canine Behavior Consultant, I encounter a lot of obstacles in developing and implementing behavior modification plans for dogs that are housed in shelters and rescues.  When I’m working with an individual in a home environment, I can develop a detailed plan with a schedule, incremental steps, instructions for consistently tracking the problem behavior(s), etc., all of which contribute to tracking the dog’s (and the owners’) progress.  However, a shelter is a completely different environment with a combination of busy staff and volunteers:  The dogs are under constant noise and stress, the staff generally works in shifts, the volunteers are dedicated, but are on sight inconsistently and have varying levels of expertise.  All of these factors combine to make it extremely difficult to implement a consistent plan or track results.

In the past, I’ve posted articles about the shelter dogs that I’ve worked with on an individual basis[i], and how I have involved shelter personnel in these treatments[ii], but these single cases are far outnumbered by the dogs with mild-to-moderate behavioral problems that we routinely encounter.  I’ve been looking for a way to have more people involved in helping dogs by reducing their anxiety or reduce the issues that are getting in the way of adoption.

A few months ago, I found an article in the IAABC Journal describing a program that the Singapore SPCA had implemented to help volunteers train and rehabilitate shelter dogs.[iii]    This program is very impressive; it provides volunteers with training and forms them into teams to work with individual dogs by targeting specific behaviors with low level training and games.  Although my shelter lacks the resources to put together a program as comprehensive as the one described in the article (like every other shelter, we are emerging from the pandemic with a reduced volunteer cadre and are working hard to rebuild this vital component of shelter operations) it seemed to me that we could implement something on a smaller scale for our “problem” dogs.

Recognizing that there was no way I could implement a formal behavior modification program, I began experimenting with ways to draft plans that:

  • Identify dogs with specific behavior problems that interfere with successful adoption.
  • List specific games or training steps intended to address those behaviors.
  • Provide detailed instructions on how to implement those games or training elements.
  • Provide some form of feedback on the effectiveness of these steps.

Teaching a correct “heal” as a means to encourage the dog to stop pulling when on leash

My goal is to include relatively inexperienced people with a set of consistent steps towards resolving our dogs’ behavior issues, that can be easily implemented.  In the case of our shelter, this is aided by having a formal training program for volunteers and having the volunteers organized in grades according to their level of experience and training.  The dogs are also placed in corresponding groups, according to their assessed difficulty of handling (volunteers are not allowed to handle dogs with bite histories or indications of aggression).  This assessment is based on their behavior during quarantine and upon the histories that are provided during intake into the shelter.  The challenge is to identify helpful activities that an inexperienced person can implement during a walk or play session. 

 The program we’ve established follows these steps:

  • An individual dog’s behavior issues are identified, along with the events that trigger the behavior(s) (antecedents) and the events that typically follow it (cons
  • equences).  This is typically anecdotal reporting from shelter staff and volunteers.
  • The shelter behavior team performs an assessment of the dog’s behavior, verifying and baselining those reports. Once the behavior is baselined for severity and its triggering events are identified, the behavior team confers and develops a set of games or training activities for the staff and volunteers to use when handling the dog.
  • The behavior staff also drafts clear instructions on implementing these treatments, the use of reinforcers, etc., for staff and volunteers to follow during walks, play time or other opportunities to implement the treatment plans.
  • These activities and instructions are published in an online chat forum used by shelter personnel. Paper copies are posted in the cubby holes used to store the individual dogs’ leash and harness.
  • Staff and volunteers provide feedback via the chat forum.
  • The behavior team performs reassessments on a regular basis.

Formal metrics are not being kept at this time, due to the varied personnel who are implementing the behavior management activities and our current inability to regularly schedule treatment sessions.  Hopefully, as more volunteers go through the shelter’s onboarding and training process, we will be able to migrate to a more formal behavior modification program for dogs with serious issues.

I’d appreciate feedback from any other shelters that have implemented low-level behavior modification programs using volunteers.  It would be great to compare notes.


[i] Shelter dogs with extreme anxieties | The Animal Nerd

[ii] Toby | The Animal Nerd

[iii] One Dog at a Time: Enriching the Emotional Lives of Shelter Dogs | The IAABC JOURNAL

Important Skills to Teach Your Dog – Stay

In an earlier post,Dog training – the most important things to teach them. | The Animal Nerd, I discussed the need for owners to teach their dogs certain critical skills needed for them to live safely in our homes.  One of these is to “stay”; meaning to remain in one spot when told to do so. This is a skill that can keep your dog form darting into traffic or other dangerous places, chasing animals or misbehaving around strangers.  It is one of the most important things you can teach your dog, if only as a safety measure.  “Stay” is also one of the easiest skills to teach.  Most of the dogs I work with get the concept in the first few minutes of training, after which it becomes a matter of practice and reinforcement.

First off, I always start training a new skill with a hand sign as opposed to a spoken command or prompt – once the dog understands the visual prompt, I then add the verbal one.  Dogs communicate non-verbally, and I have always found that they learn body or sign language much faster than verbal commands.  And I try to pick a hand signal that I would use more or less automatically.  In the case of “stay”, I use a raised hand, palm outward towards the stop (the universal command for “Halt”).[i]  Secondly, I find that a clicker is very useful in training this particular skill.  It not only signals that the dog has successfully done the behavior, it also signals when the he can stop “staying” in one place.

The best way to start is to pick a time when your dog is laying down or simply staying in one place, and show him the hand prompt.  Then, after a couple of seconds, click, praise a

Start with a hand signal, adding a verbal prompt once the dog learns the skill

nd give him a tasty treat.  Repeat this a few times.  This will start him associating the hand sign with remaining in one spot.

In the next session, stand in front of him and show him the hand sign.  If he remains in place, click, praise and treat.  If he moves, then break contact with him for a minute and try again.  Repeat a few times and reward his successes.

Next, give him the hand sign and, while he’s remaining in place, move one of your feet a half-step to the side then bring it back.  If he doesn’t move, click, praise and treat.  Once he masters staying in place while you move a little, you can begin increasing the distance that you move around.  Over time, you should be able to move several steps in any direction, and walk around him, while he’s holding a stay.  It doesn’t matter if he sits, lays down or stands up while you are doing this, as long as he remains in the same place.  If he moves from that place, don’t correct him.  Simply start over with a shorter time and less movement on your part.

At this point, you can add the verbal “stay” command when you give the hand prompt.  Say it only once each time that you give the hand sign.  You can also begin to give a verbal release command – I use “Okay” – along with the click. (After all, you won’t be carrying a clicker when you’re out walking with him).

When you begin to take steps away from him after giving him the “stay” prompt, you should always return to your starting point before giving the release prompt.  This encourages him to remain in one spot until you return to him.

Key points:

Start with a hand signal and add the verbal prompt once he knows the skill.

Use a clicker and high-value treats.

Start by prompting him to stay while he is already sitting or lying down.

Add a release prompt to the clicker signal.

Gradually increase the time that he is staying, and the amount of moving around that you are doing while he is staying in place.

Always use positive reinforcement.  If he doesn’t hold a stay, then just fall back to the distance and time in which he was successful, and start over.

[i] puppyintraining.com/dog-training-hand-signals/

Critical Skills Dogs Need: Coming when called

As discussed in an earlier post[i], there are several skills that dogs and owners must learn in order to live safely in our cities and towns.  The first key survival skill to teach a dog is to come when called.  This is needed when your dog is off leash and is getting himself into some sort of trouble, when you need him to come inside the house, when he’s annoying the neighbors, when you’re ready to leave the dog park, when someone leaves the gate open, etc.  It will help you to avoid emergency trips to the veterinarian, wildlife encounters or visits from your local animal control officers.

Ideally, the dog should know his or her name.  This is an important component of all training, simply because its an attention getter.  Calling a dog by his name lets him know that he should stop what he is doing and pay attention to you.[ii]  Unfortunately, this isn’t something that can be effectively taught in a shelter environment, where I work with most of my canine friends, simply because we don’t have the dogs long enough and because most owners will change their pets’ names upon adoption.  So, we have to concentrate on teaching “come”.

The first step is to have the dog in a controlled area, such as a fenced yard or large room, that is large enough for him to have some distance from you without being out of sight or earshot.  You can put a long line on him to keep him from going too far away, if needed.

The next step is to make the dog want to approach you.  There are a lot of things you can do, depending on the dogs’ preferences.  Remember, the key thing is to have him enjoy being with you.  The most important aspect of this is to never, ever, punish your dog after calling him to you.  Never do anything to make him associate “come”, or being called to you, with any negative action on your part[iii].  This must be all positive training.  So do something that makes him run up to you:  bounce his favorite ball, show him a high value treat, get all excited and goofy, or run away so he’ll chase you.  It really doesn’t matter what you do, as long as the dog happily runs up to you.  While he’s doing so, clearly say “Come”.  And then reward him when he gets to you, with a treat, toy or whatever you used as an incentive.

He’ll learn fairly quickly that “come” means good things happen when you call him to join you.  Once he’s gotten that message, you can gradually reduce the stimulus that you’d been using, and gradually change the reward to simple praise and a show of affection.  You can also add begin to add distractions, such as changing the environment that is used for training, scattering toys around, having other dogs nearby, etc.

Keep the training sessions short, just a few minutes at a time several times each day.  This will keep him interested and provide all the reinforcement that he needs to develop and retain this skill.

Summing it up:

  1. Never ever use a punisher for coming. Do not call him to you when you are angry or feel that you need to correct his behavior.  The training must always have a positive reinforcer.
  2. Figure out what he would value (treats, play, chasing you) and use that as the reinforcement for coming. Offer that to him as a reward.
  3. Once he reliably comes when called, you can reduce the reinforcer and substitute praise and affection.
  4. When he reliably comes to you when you call him, you can add in distractions such as other locations, or the presence of other people and dogs.

Although it isn’t a survival skill, it may help to add a “sit” command when he comes to you, to avoid having him jump up excitedly or do some other undesirable behavior.  Adding a “sit” enables you to keep him under control while leashing him up for a walk, for taking him home from the park, etc.  More on that later.


[i] Dog training – the most important things to teach them. | The Animal Nerd

[ii] Meyers, H.  (April 13, 2021) How to Teach Your Dog Their Name.  AKC.  Retrieved from www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/how-to-teach-dog-name/

[iii] Miller, P.  (2008) The Power of Positive Dog Training.  Indianapolis, IN.  Wiley

Guest Post: 8 Essential Steps to Bringing a New Dog into the Home

Bringing a new puppy home can be both exciting and scary, not only for you but also for your new fur baby. Whether you’re adopting a pet for the first time or you’re a veteran pet parent,  it is essential to establish a healthy bond with your new pup.  So, what should you do when you bring a puppy home from the breeder? Usually, breeders allow pet parents to take the new puppies home once they’re 8-weeks old.  An 8-week old puppy is an itty bitty animal that needs to be handled with extreme care and love. Here we will discuss the 8 essential steps you should take when you bring a new puppy into your home.

1.      Clean Your Pup

First things first, you should give your puppy a bath. Although reliable breeders do groom their puppies, it’s best to clean your puppy yourself after bringing it home.   The AKC expert advice blog has some steps that you might want to reference.

Be warned! bathing a puppy is no small feat, if you are a first time owner follow this guide by the AKC. If you are still squeamish or unsure of your puppy-bathing abilities, take your puppy to professional  groomers. You can also ask a friend or family member who is well-versed in bathing puppies and dogs to help you out.   Once you have learned to bathe your pup, maintain a consistent bathing schedule. Although it may vary from puppy to puppy, giving your puppy a bath once a month is ideal. Although your puppy may act up a little initially, it will get used to bath time and may even enjoy it if you stick to a regular schedule. Here are a few ways to help your dog enjoy bath time:

  • Create positive associations with bathtime; if they are afraid of the bath, have short sessions with the dog in the dry bath tub. Just with the dog in the bathtub and give it treats, cuddle, or play a game they like. Once they are not afraid of the tub any more, they won’t mind a bath!
  • Use treats to bribe your dog during bath time; smear peanut butter on a suction cup and put it on the side of the bath. Your dog will be busy licking the peanut butter while you give it a bath

When your dog is at least three months old, it is time to start applying shampoo and conditioner to keep the coat free of oil and grime. You have probably experienced matting if you have a furry buddy with a long or naturally curly coat. These irritating tiny lumps or masses of fur look quite unpleasant, so use dog shampoo for matted hair  to avoid matted hair.

2.     Ensure That The Dog Has Been Vaccinated

You must check that a dog is up to date on immunizations before bringing it home. Reliable breeders (and rescues) will provide you a vaccination certificate and the dog’s medical examination record. Make sure to ask for these documents while adopting your new pet.  AKC has provided a list of first-year puppy shots, it is a very handy resource for a new pet parent. We also recommend that you take your puppy for a head-to-tail wellness examination immediately after you bring them home.  When you purchase a puppy from a reliable breeder, they often provide health guarantees and warranties. If your puppy is unhealthy, i.e., they have a congenital disease as diagnosed by a licensed veterinarian, the breeder will replace the puppy or give you a refund.

Apart from that, get a wellness check from your own veterinarian as soon as possible to make sure your new puppy is safe and healthy.

3.     Introduce Your Family

You will not be present at home at all times, so it is critical to introduce the new pet to your family members. Therefore, once you know that your pup is healthy and up-to-date on its vaccination, it’s time to introduce it to your family.  But how should you introduce your family to your puppy?

  1. Introduce each family member one by one: It’s important that you don’t overwhelm the new pup
  2. Call each family member by name: While introducing your dog to your family members, make sure to call their names and encourage them to pet the dog
  3. Let the puppy approach the individual: it’s best to not force the puppy into someone’s lap. Let the puppy sniff out the person and approach them in its own time
  4. Avoid using food to get the puppy to do a desired action
  5. Keep calm and don’t rush the process
  6. If the dog looks stressed, then stop the meet & greet and pick it up another time

If you already have a pet at home, it’s best to avoid putting them in the same room initially. Keep your existing pet’s possessions and accessories in a space far away from the new pup, as they may consider it a breach of their territory.  The best way to introduce them to each other is to put a screen wall between them. You can put both pets on either side of the screen wall, so they cannot hurt each other but can still become familiar with each other’s scent.  Taking them on leashed walks together will also help to socialize them with each other.

You can also take help from experts. Reliable dog blogs such as Victoria Stilwell’a Positively and Pat Miller’s Whole Dog Journal explain many tried and tested methods to introduce new dogs and puppies to existing house pets.  Let’s look into some of the methods they suggest:

  • Manage the environment: As mentioned earlier, use crates, screens, gates, and whatever else you can to create a barrier between the new and resident pets.
  • Don’t be angry at the resident pet: Is your resident pet growling at the new one? Don’t be angry at them, it’s only natural! Let the pet get used to the new addition in their own time. It will only hinder their relationship if you keep being angry at the older pet.
  • Treat them together: One way to foster friendship between new and old pets is to give them treats together. You will make them enjoy something that they both like together, creating a sense of camaraderie.
  • Exercise the dogs before the interaction: You know who is less likely to fight? two exhausted pets! Take your pets for a walk before you introduce them, and they are less likely to hurt each other.

There are many methods to introduce new pets to older ones, but you should choose the one that suits your pets and needs.

4.     Make a Dog Bed

A comfortable dog bed is essential for a dog to understand that this is the area where it will sleep. Otherwise, your pup might appear out of nowhere to sleep on your bed. Sure, it is cute once in a while, but if it happens regularly, it will cause you problems.  So purchase a comfy dog bed and begin training your dog to sleep in it right away. Just as you would with a new baby, gradually placing it on its bed, giving it its favorite blanket, and that is all.

Most breeders provide crate training to their puppies and so you can utilize that training to limit the puppy to its crate or dog bed. Place your puppy’s favorite toy and a blanket with their mother’s or littermates’ scent in the dog bed or crate to make them feel safe and comfortable.  Moreover, you can also use baby gates and playpens to keep your puppy from jumping in the bed with you.

5.     Make a Schedule

Create a routine for your dog once everything is in place. Make a feeding, playing, exercising, bathing, and walking schedule. You can talk to your vet about feeding and sleeping to make sure it is right for your dog. Getting time to play with your dog is essential.  According to statistics, 78 percent of dog owners believe their pets should be walked twice daily. Only 30-70 percent of dog owners, however, walk their pets. It is compulsory to keep a balance between training, rest, and play to avoid developing health concerns for both you and your dog. Over-rested dogs are prone to obesity and have a short lifespan. The best training depends on the dog’s breed and age but a stroll is a terrific place to start.

6.     Casual walks

Puppies have boundless energy. If you don’t exercise your puppy, it may start developing destructive behavior. One of the greatest ways is to take your puppy for a walk every day, during which the puppy will be exposed to new stimuli, learn new commands, correct behavior, and meet new people and canines.

You most likely know that a dog’s most favorite game is playing fetch. Another very important thing to remember is that you must spend time with your dog. You may take them to swim or to the park and let them mingle with other pets in a safe environment.  Exercise and socialization is good for physical and mental health. Exercising your puppy is a lengthy discussion; there are myriad of ways to keep your puppy physically active, such as long leash walking  suggested by The Happy Puppy Site or the enrichment activities recommended by The Bark.

You must start small and gradually add more complex and stimulating physical activities to build your dog’s stamina, foster your bond with your pet, and keep them healthy.


7.     Reward for Positive Behavior

In the early days, the puppy may appear to be more mischievous than obedient. Even yet, it is critical to commend him whenever he does something nice. This will assist the dog in comprehending what is expected of it and will hasten the learning process. Also, avoid attracting your dog with inappropriate behavior.  The most straightforward approach to training your dog is to use positive reinforcement. This strategy involves rewarding the dog for a task properly done or just to be well maintained. Realizing which prize your dog prefers can make reward-based training more enjoyable for both of you.

8.   Stay Calm

You must stay calm if you want to form a good and long-lasting bond with your dog. Dogs are extremely sensitive to the energies that people around them emit. Keep in mind that you are the one who must remain calm and peaceful in a new connection with a dog. The dog may be terrified and agitated; now is the moment for you to step in and assist the dog in remaining calm.  Your tone can worsen your dog’s uneasiness if it sounds eager or harsh. This might lead to undesired behaviors in your new pet on its first day. Remember that you don’t know everything about a new dog’s likes and dislikes when you bring it home. Eventually, it would be beneficial if you took the time to learn more about it and form a proper connection with your dog and teach it to be well-behaved.


Keep in mind that your new pet requires attention, care, stability, and a routine. Create a mundane that can be followed on a regular schedule in addition to the above suggestions. This will help the puppy to become accustomed to your household’s environment and adjust correctly.

Author:  Arslan Hassan (arslanhassan174@gmail.com)


Dog training – the most important things to teach them.

Working with shelter dogs, my primary concern is to help make them adoptable.  This means addressing three areas of concern:  First, to reduce the stress and anxiety they feel just by being in the shelter environment.   Second, to address any behavioral issues they have that are obstacles to a successful adoption.  And, third, to teach them the skills they need to live in our urban or suburban world.  This post is about that third aspect.

Although it is vitally important for dogs to know, and respond to, their individual names; In my limited view there is no point in teaching shelter dogs their names.  We have the dog for limited periods of time and many adoptive owners decide to give their dogs a different name than the one they were assigned in the shelter.  When working with the pups, I concentrate on using positive interactions and responses, to reinforce positive interactions with shelter staff and volunteers.  This is a two-way street:  The more the dog enjoys being with shelter personnel, the more they’ll enjoy being with him, and more readily he will accept potential adopters.

When getting a dog ready for adoption, I concentrate on four life skills that dogs will need:  Come when called, Stay, Drop it and Leave it.  These are the things that can save the dog’s life.

Come when called:  This is the basic tool that owners need to get their dogs out of dangerous situations.  If a dog is investigating an animal that is in the backyard, getting too close to a lawnmower are power tools, getting too close to a pot on a hot stovetop or simply annoying the neighbors, a solid “come” command will get him out of that situation and back to the owner’s side.  It doesn’t need to be pretty or polished like we see in an obedience contest, but the owner must reliably be able to make the dog return to his personal control.

Stay:  This tool will help the owner to keep the dog from chasing animals or darting into a busy street.  Dogs need to know when to put on the brakes and freeze, and to remain in that same spot until they’re told to move.

Drop it:  Owners need to be able to tell their dogs to drop dangerous objects, and let go of inappropriate toys and other animals.  This will keep them from harming themselves, poisoning themselves, or harming other creatures.

Leave it:  Dog owners need to be able to tell their dogs to not grab, eat or pick up any particular item.  This will prevent them from injuring themselves or other animals they encounter.

In following posts, I’ll discuss techniques for teaching these skills.

EM® Flea and Tick Collars

I was recently asked for an opinion on the effectiveness of EM® flea and tick collars.  I couldn’t be of any help, because I had never heard of them.  However, I was interested in the discussion and decided to do some research into what they are and the theory behind them.  I’d like to share what I found out after going down that particular rabbit hole.

Initially, I assumed that EM stood for “electro-magnetic”, and that the collars were battery-powered and emitted some sort of low magnetic field that would supposedly discourage insects (fleas) and arachnids (ticks).  This assumption turned out to be incorrect.  These collars turned out to be a whole new type of pseudoscience.

What is EM®?

EM® stands for Effective Microorganisms.  This is a product that was developed in 1982 by Professor Teruo Higa, and consists of various organisms, including yeasts, lactic acid bacteria and phototropic bacteria[i].  It is used as an additive in soil and composting, and aids in fermenting and breaking down organic material, thereby enriching the soil for farming and gardening.   This produce is also used in aquaculture and water purification, but the manufacturer has never claimed that it is effective at repelling fleas, ticks or any other insects or arachnids.[ii]

What are EM® flea and tick collars, and how do they work?

According to the internet sites that sell these collars, the collars consist of strings of tube-shaped beads, including ceramic beads in which Effective microorganisms are embedded.  In these beads, an EM® product is mixed with the clay or silicon material, formed into tubes, and baked at high temperatures, resulting in a ceramic product.  These are marketed as safe, effective and “natural”, with one vendor claiming that the Effective Microorganisms are “the only active ingredient in these collars”[iii].   At this point, I should point out that these beads are baked at high temperatures, up to 1200C[iv], and that yeasts and bacteria are killed at 60C.  They cannot possibly be “active ingredients, as any live cultures that survived being mixed with the ceramic materials would be killed during the baking process.

Marketing claims include statements that the beads emit a “bio resonance” at a frequency that is unpleasant to ticks and insects[v].  The majority of marketers also claim that these beads emit Far Infra-Red waves that are said to repel harmful insects.

What is Far Infrared (FIR)?

Infrared (IR) radiation is essentially radiated heat, nothing more.  FIR is a subset of the electromagnetic spectrum waveband at the lower end of the IR waveband.  Putting it simply, FIR is radiated heat that you can feel on your skin.  It is used therapeutically as a heat treatment for certain medical conditions.[vi]

There are certain ceramics that function as FIR emitters, by absorb the heat radiated by animals and other heat sources, and re-radiating it.  Nanoparticles of these ceramic have been embedded in fabrics and used as wraps and clothing to generate heat and provide thermal treatment for injuries or other heath benefits.  The efficiency of the ceramic material in emitting FIR depends on its chemical composition.

Does FIR repel ticks and fleas?

In a word:  No.  In fact, research has shown that both fleas and ticks are attracted to light and heat [vii] [viii].  They are drawn to the heat radiated by animals, as their food sources.   If FIR repelled ticks and fleas, then your pets would naturally repel them simply by being warm blooded and having body heat.

Summing it all up:

These things are a gimmick that cannot possibly protect your pet from fleas and ticks.  Not only is there absolutely no research or evidence to back up marketers’ claims of effectiveness, their claims are basically self-contradictory.  These are nothing more than necklaces made of inert ceramic beads.    They won’t harm your pet, but they will provide no protection.  In that regard, they are no better than homeopathic “remedies” Alternative Veterinary Medicine – Homeopathy | The Animal Nerd.

From my own experience, I can tell you that tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever  are extremely dangerous to your pets, and I strongly recommend that your dogs and outdoor cats be protected against ticks, fleas and mosquito-borne illnesses.  The best way you can do that is to have your vet prescribe oral or topical treatments appropriate for your pets’ size and breed, obtain them from reputable sources and administer them as directed.

[i] What is EM (no date). EMRO.  Retrieved from WHAT is EM? | EMRO (emrojapan.com)

[ii] How EM Works (no date).  Retrieved from How EM works | EMRO (emrojapan.com)

[iii] About EM® Technology (no date). Retrieved from All About EM Collars (homeopawthic.com)

[iv] How do EM Collars Work?  (no date). Retrieved from How do EM Collars Work? – THE LAKELAND DOG WEAR CO

[v] The EM® Ceramic Anti Tick Collar – How it works and why we love them! (2021).  Retrieved from The EM®Ceramic Anti Tick Collar – How it works and why we love them! – The Woof Club

[vi] Vatansever, F. and Hamblin, M. R. (2013). Far Infrared Radiation (FIR):  Its Biological Effects and Medical Applications.  Photonics Laser Med 4 (1). 255-266

[vii] Mitchell, R. D. III, Zhu, J., Carr, A. L.., Dhammi, A., Cave, G., Sonenshine, D. E. & Roe, R. M., Infrared Light Detection by the Haller’s Organ of Adult American Dog Ticks, Dermacentor variabilis. (2017).  Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases 8 (5), 763-771

[viii] What Attracts Fleas? (no date). Retrieved from What attracts fleas? | FleaScience


As many of you may have heard, Ruby, the police search-and-rescue dog whose story was told in the movie Rescued by Ruby (www.netflix.com/title/81107362) recently died after being stricken by a sudden, untreatable illness.  https://www.providencejournal.com/story/news/local/2022/05/15/rhode-island-police-dog-k-9-ruby-euthanized/9785721002/  

She was an exceptional dog who had an inspiring life.  She had been adopted from, and returned to, the Rhode Island SPCA five times; and was considered unadoptable before being given a last chance with the Rhode Island State Police.  She flourished there and had a long and illustrious career, in which she was elected American Humane Hero Dog Search and Rescue Dog of the Year in 2018 . I was lucky enough to meet her and her partner, Corporal Dan O’Neil a couple of times at charitable events for area animal shelters, where they often gave of their time and energy to help other shelter animals.

Ruby was very much of a celebrity here in Rhode Island, and she will be greatly missed.

Mouthy Shelter Dog

I’ve been working with a pit mix named Sonny who likes to use his mouth too much.  He’s a large young mail dog, who was intact when he was transported in from another shelter.  He’s a handsome boy, with a cinnamon-colored coat and a big head, with a few scars on it – apparently bite marks from other dogs.  When he arrived, the shelter staff and volunteers noted that he had a habit of putting his mouth around peoples’ hands and arms and gently holding them without applying pressure.  A lot of people considered this to be endearing and a sign of affection.

However, in recent weeks, this behavior has escalated.  Now, when people enter Sonny’s run, he actively grabs at their hands and clothes.  No one has been bitten yet, but he is progressively applying more bite pressure and, the fact is, he has a mouth like a hippo.  I am a big guy, and he can wrap his mouth completely around my forearm.   In recent visits with him, I found that he becomes very excited and mouthy when I take him out of his run, to the point that it is very difficult to harness him and attach the leash – he grabs any hand that comes near him.  Naturally, this is an impediment to getting him adopted – and he is an otherwise friendly and gentle boy.

I theorized that there are two factors contributing to this behavior:  First off, the shelter personnel are bribing him with treats whenever he gets grabby, just to do their essential care-taking jobs of cleaning, feeding and socializing him.  This has the effect of reinforcing his mouthiness.  Secondly, he becomes very excited when being handled, and responds to that with him mouth.  I also noticed that he ramps up his excitement level very quickly in response to minimum stimulus.  His grabbing behavior can be triggered simply by a human handler reaching out towards him.  So, he has a pre-existing tendency to use his mouth when interacting with humans which has been reinforced by shelter personnel rewarding that behavior.  This problem behavior becomes more pronounced when he is in a state of excitement.

Although we try to make the shelter as positive and pleasant as possible for our animals, it is still a very stressful place to be a dog.  They are bombarded by unfamiliar sounds, scents, excited dogs, strange humans who stand and stare at them, and a constant stream of other stimuli that keep them on edge.  Sonny is no exception.  He seems to be in a constant state of tension and arousal, which puts him over his behavioral threshold whenever he is being visited or handled by shelter staff – and which seems to be eroding his bite inhibition.

In an earlier post, I discussed Aggie, another pit-mix with a mouthiness problem.  We addressed her issue by providing her with safe objects to grab and mouth, with no human interaction – thereby removing the reinforcement of that behavior.  After just a few days, the problem behavior lessened dramatically Excited Biting / Arousal Biting | The Animal Nerd.  In Sonny’s case, this treatment wasn’t an option.  He wasn’t seeking an outlet for stress, he was seeking human contact by an inappropriate means – his mouth.  Sonny was attempting to reach out and touch people, but his over-excited state was getting in the way.  He had no inclination to grab anything but people.

I tried a two-fold approach with Sonny:  First, I instituted a tug-o-war game to his exercise.  I got him a stiff, knotted rope toy, and enticed him to grab and hold it, while I tugged on the other end.  He caught on quickly and began playing.  I began offering him the tug toy and playing with him when first entering his run and harnessing him up.

He was content to calmly watch other dogs and people.

I also added a gentle voice correction and a negative reinforcement when he tried to grab my hands.  I responded to his attempts with a sharp “Eh!”, stopped interacting with him and put my hands behind my back.  If he persisted, I would stand, cross my arms and turn my back for a few moments.  This, coupled with offering him an alternative (the tug toy) allowed me to put on his harness and leash.  (Note:  In general, I do not encourage people to correct shelter dogs’ problem behaviors.  Not only can this have the wrong effect on fearful dogs, it can also add to the overall stress they feel just by being in a shelter.   However, after getting to know Sonny, I felt that he was not fearful of people and would accept a correction, if it was followed with positive reinforcement of the appropriate behavior – in this case, redirecting to a tug toy.)

Secondly, I drastically reduced the excitement level of our time together.  Instead of taking him to a play area full of toys, I took him on a walk and let him set the pace and destinations.  I let him sniff anything that he wanted to, examine anything that was safe, and let him decide what was interesting to him.  Then I found a quiet, shady spot and sat down with a paperback book, keeping a good hold on his leash but otherwise ignoring him.

After a few minutes, I felt him lay down on my feet.  He was relaxed, soft-eyed, and simply taking in the sights, sounds and smells around us.  After a few minutes, I reached down and touched him on the side of his face, and his only reaction was to lean in for a pet.  After a while, other people and other dogs came into view, and his only reaction was to be interested in watching them.  When I brought him back to his run after an hour, he was calm and relaxed.  He became somewhat aroused and mouthy when I was removing his harness, however I attribute that to the treats that his handlers had been bribing him with during this process.   In the picture, there are several people and dogs out of frame, but he was maintaining a calm and interested demeanor, well within his ability to control his reactions.

All in all, I’m pretty sure that Sonny doesn’t need any formal desensitization to reduce his biting behavior.  Instead, he needs to have his overall stress level reduced and have calmer interactions with people.   Coupled with differential reinforcement – in this case, encouraging him to interact with people by playing tug with an approved toy, we should be able to reduce his problematic mouthiness.  I recommended that his handlers reduce the number of treats offered while handling him, reduce his playtime for a while, and concentrate on quiet walks and quiet sessions outdoors.    We need to help him find his “off switch” so that he can calmly interact with potential adopters and cope with the stressors he encounters.