The ASPCA recommends that shelters gather as much information as possible to determine the behavioral profile of any dog in their facility that is being considered for adoption. However, this quest for information should not come at the cost of holding these dogs in the shelter for longer than necessary. A shelter’s overarching goal should be to identify dogs eligible for adoption and move them into homes or into a relocation program as quickly as possible.
The ASPCA acknowledges that (a) it is still unknown whether any particular source of information is more predictive of future behavior in a home than any other and (b) current scientific thinking on the usefulness of behavior assessments in predicting aggressive behavior is inconclusive. Behavior assessments have not proven highly accurate or precise when used to predict aggression after adoption. It has been suggested that a significant number of dogs exhibiting aggression on an assessment do not do so in a home. For these reasons, the ASPCA maintains that euthanasia decisions should not be based solely on a dog’s behavior during an assessment or in any other single situation unless the aggression is egregious*. If a dog shows behavior that might warrant euthanasia, we recommend that organizations only make such a decision when the behavior has been reported by multiple sources.
Shelters need to consider their individual situations and resources when deciding how to behaviorally assess dogs, using their best judgement to determine how they can expediently gather as much information as possible. In order to aid shelters in making educated decisions about how to focus their information-gathering efforts and weigh the information they receive, we explore the benefits and limitations of various information sources below.
- Information from previous owner: It is a common assumption that owners won’t be honest about the behavior of the dog they are relinquishing to the shelter, but research indicates that owners do disclose information that is valuable for making disposition and placement decisions. The thinking is that owners may be more honest in a standardized questionnaire, such as the shortened version of the Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), than in a face-to-face interview, where they might feel pressure to give more desirable responses. However, research also shows that adopter reports only correspond to owner responses on the C-BARQ questionnaire for aggression toward unfamiliar people, urination when left alone and destructive chewing. These limitations should be kept in mind.
- Information from someone who found the dog: People who have found a dog may have helpful information to share, despite their limited experience with the dog. They may have brought the dog to their home for a period of time or at least have captured and handled the dog if he was a stray. The value a shelter places on this information should reflect the amount of time the person spent with the dog and the circumstances under which the information was gathered.
- Medical intake examination: Every dog coming into a shelter should undergo a medical intake exam, and this is an efficient, occasionally useful source of information. However, it is crucial to be aware that any dog’s behavior during an exam may not be very reflective of his normal behavior. How he behaves may be influenced by his discomfort with the procedures being performed during the exam and his past experience with medical procedures. Some dogs that are tolerant of people in every other situation may become defensively aggressive or extremely fearful when handled by medical personnel, especially if they are in pain. In addition, this medical exam often occurs shortly after the dog’s arrival at the shelter, when his stress levels are generally highest.
- Daily care staff and volunteer observations: Daily care staff and volunteers often have more direct contact with a dog than anyone else in the shelter. These interactions are also probably one of the more natural forms of interaction that the dog will experience in the shelter. However, research suggests that people are often reluctant to disclose problems with a dog because they don’t want to get a dog “in trouble.” Therefore, this source of information tends to be biased toward positive feedback. In addition, staff and volunteers that are untrained in animal behavior may misinterpret behaviors or be unable to recognize more subtle instances of aggressive behavior.
- Socialization sessions: One-on-one interactions with staff, volunteers or adopters are important forms of enrichment for shelter dogs and provide useful information about how a dog interacts with people, including unfamiliar people. These sessions can occur in the dog’s kennel or in another area. When gathering information, ask questions to facilitate good adopter matches. Is the dog motivated to interact with people? Does the dog enjoy petting? Does he enjoy playing with people? Is he content just to hang out with a person? Does he respond to common verbal instructions, such as “Sit,” “Down,” and “Come?” Is he eager to perform behaviors to earn treats? However, consider that information garnered from socialization sessions may be biased by people’s behavioral expertise and by a desire to paint the dog in a positive light.
- Walks: A walk can reveal much about a dog’s behavior: his enthusiasm for getting out of his kennel, his comfort with having his collar held and a leash applied, how he reacts to other dogs as he walks down the shelter aisle, his interest in interacting with the handler versus checking out the environment, his confidence in novel and outdoor environments, his inclination to pull on the leash and his willingness to return to the kennel (a place that some dogs perceive as unpleasant). Depending upon where the walk takes place, the handler can also observe the dog’s reactions to passersby, children, joggers, cyclists and/or other novel stimuli.
- Playgroups: A dog’s participation in playgroups is not only an excellent form of enrichment for dog-friendly dogs, it also provides a wealth of information about how a dog responds to people and other dogs when off-leash in an enclosed area. How playful and energetic is he? How much does he interact with people or dogs instead of exploring the environment? How does the dog respond to corrections from other dogs and how appropriately does he deliver corrections to other dogs? His behavior toward other dogs while in a playgroup is particularly valuable because it is not affected by leash-induced frustration or barrier-related aggression. Depending on the situation, the dog may also reveal how he responds to people intervening in his interactions with other dogs (verbal corrections, physical restraint, etc.) and to punishers, should their use be necessary for the purposes of interrupting inappropriate behavior or a dogfight (water spray, shake can, compressed air, etc.). The biggest drawback of playgroup observations is that a dog’s motivation to play with other dogs may completely overwhelm his desire to interact with people. In addition, some dogs’ anxiety in playgroup situations may inhibit their behavior in general.
- Foster home stay: A stay in a foster home may be the most accurate reflection of how the dog will behave in an adoptive home. Research confirms that even a one or two-night stay improves a shelter dog’s quality of life while away from the shelter. A stay with an experienced fosterer can be invaluable for determining if a behaviorally challenging dog is safe or can experience an acceptable quality of life in a home. However, this option can be resource and time-intensive and should be considered carefully if placement in a foster home means limiting the dogs’ access to potential adopters. Dogs displaying undesirable behavior in the kennel or those with long lengths of stay may benefit the most from time away from the shelter to reduce stress and increase the chance of adoption.
- Behavior assessment: A standardized behavior assessment is unique in that it is designed to gather information about a dog in a fairly short period of time. The dog is exposed to a series of stimuli designed to simulate experiences commonly encountered by a pet dog. Some of the experiences are potentially provocative, such as unpleasant handling, and possibly frightening. Unfortunately, even trained personnel may administer the assessment and interpret the dog’s behavior inconsistently. Research studies have confirmed that incidents of food aggression on an assessment are not predictive of a shelter dog’s behavior in the adoptive home. Another study established that using a fake dog as a substitute for a real dog to assess dog aggression in shelter dogs is not a valid indicator. Yet another study determined that a dog’s behavior toward a lifelike doll may not be reflective of how the dog would behave toward a child. A mathematical analysis by Patronek & Bradley (2016) revealed that behavior assessments are likely to result in a disproportionate number of false positives—dogs that are aggressive during an assessment but not in a home. For these reasons, the ASPCA recommends that, unless aggressive behavior during an assessment is egregious*, shelters should consider it valid only if corroborated in another environment.
If a shelter opts to use a standardized behavior assessment, there are a number of choices available, including SAFER, Match-Up II and Assess-a-Pet. Shelters should adopt an evaluation that best addresses the needs of their community. For example, if the shelter is located in a community dominated by families, adopters will likely want to know how the dog behaves around children. If the shelter is situated in a large metropolitan area, adopters will want to know how the dog reacts to strangers and heavy traffic. If the shelter is in a neighborhood with multiple dog parks, adopters may well be concerned with a dog’s sociability with other dogs. Recognizing the needs and desires of its clientele is a crucial step for a shelter in choosing how best to assess and market their dogs.
A dog’s personality is formed by a complex interplay between his genetic predispositions, his developmental circumstances and his life experiences. While behavior as a whole is a reflection of personality, a dog’s behavior at any given time is heavily influenced by his emotional state, his stress level and the specific environment. Thus, any single source of information should be considered a piece of the puzzle. The more pieces you have, the more complete the puzzle.
*”Egregious” aggression should be defined by the individual shelter, but some defining characteristics could be (a) a bite that requires medical treatment, (b) an injurious bite that the dog could have avoided inflicting but opted to bite rather than retreat, (c) an injurious bite delivered without obvious warning, or (d) an attack in which repeated injurious bites are delivered.
Here is a selection of relevant references:
Barnard S., Siracusa C., Reisner I., Valsecchi P. & Serpell J.A. (2012). Validity of model devices used to assess canine temperament in behavioral tests. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 138, 79-87.
Bennett S.L., Litster A., Weng H-Y., Walker S.L. Luescher A. U. (2012). Investigating behavior assessment instruments to predict aggression in dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 141, 139–148.
Christensen E., Scarlett J., Campagna M. & Houpt K.A. (2007). Aggressive behavior in adopted dogs that passed a temperament test. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 106, 85-95.
Duffy DL, Kruger KA & Serpell JA (2014). Evaluation of a behavioral assessment tool for dogs relinquished to shelters. Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 117, 601-609.
Kroll T.L., Houpt K.A. & Erb H.N. (2004). The use of novel stimuli as indicators of aggressive behavior in dogs. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, 40, 13-19.
Marder A.R., Shebelansky A., Patronek G.J., Dowling-Guyer S. & D’Arpino 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. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 148, 150-156.
Mohan-Gibbons H., Weiss E. & Slater M. (2012). Preliminary investigation of food guarding in shelter dogs in the United States. Animals, 2, 331-346.
Patronek G.J. & Bradley J. (2016). No better than flipping a coin: Reconsidering canine behavior evaluations in animal shelters. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 15, 66-77.
Shebelansky A., Dowling-Guyer S., Quist H., D’Arpino S.S. & McCobb E. (2015). Consistency of shelter dogs’ behavior toward a fake versus real stimulus dog during a behavior evaluation. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 163, 158-166.
Van der Borg J.A.M., Netto W. & Planta J.U. (1991). Behavioural testing of dogs in animal shelters to predict problem behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 32, 237-251.