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.
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]
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 https://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