Shelter Dog Behavior Assessments Don’t Work. Here’s What Does.

September 15th, 2021

What can we learn about the dogs in our shelters from "assessing" their behavior? If we complete a standardized behavioral assessment or temperament test, it turns out the answer is very little beyond witnessing the immediate stress (and distress) of the dog within the timeframe of the assessment.

In 2016, Dr. Gary Patronek and Dr. Janis Bradley published the groundbreaking article No better than flipping a coin: Reconsidering canine behavior evaluations in animal shelters, which showed definitively that the standardized behavior tests often used in animal shelters are unreliable predictors of future behavior in dogs, and should not be used as diagnostic tools.

Despite this, and other research and anecdotal evidence showing that behavior assessments simply do not work in animal shelters, these "tools" continue to be used to guide or make decisions about the animals in shelters' care, including which dogs live and which dogs die.

In fact dogs in many animal shelters are still being euthanized for behaviors identified when handlers do things like pinch their paws or skin, give them canned food and then attempt to take it away using a rubber hand on a stick, or approach them wearing strange hats or hoods, sometimes while carrying umbrellas.

Some shelters still even cull dogs because of how they react when presented with a life-sized stuffed animal.

There is a better way to get to know the dogs in your shelters.

1. Ask “What happened to you?”

I recently read Oprah Winfrey and Bruce Perry’s book, “What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing,” in which the authors argue we should begin asking ourselves, “What happened to me?” instead of “What’s wrong with me?”

If we begin our approach to shelter dogs with this same question, exploring whatever information we have about their life histories, previous living conditions, and the loss or hardship they’ve experienced, we can get to know the dog through a process of genuine curiosity, rather than attempting to get to an end goal of determining whether the dog will get a chance at a new home or head to the euthanasia room.

2. Recognize the role of trauma.

Dr. Sheila Segurson has begun examining how trauma, both previous and that caused by extreme confinement in the shelter, may affect the behavior of dogs and why it’s important to consider this when getting to know the dogs in your shelter.

In her talk Trauma, Stress, and Dog Behavior (above), presented earlier this year, Dr. Segurson emphasizes the importance of asking questions about how trauma may manifest itself in dogs as behaviors that can put dog’s lives at risk. For example, a dog who nearly died in a hot car may exhibit extreme anxiety when confined in a kennel but may be calm and relaxed outside of a confined space.

If we know this trauma history, that dog’s behavior may make more sense in context—and becomes something we can explain to potential adopters and foster caregivers.

3. Record how the dog responds to routine interactions.

How do they act when being vaccinated? Are they especially nervous when walking from outdoors to indoors? Do they cower or growl when small people or children walk by their kennel?

As the dog spends their first few days in the shelter, we can gain a lot of information just by paying attention. This is something volunteers are well suited for and with proper training, can enter notes on dog demeanor and behavior.

Caveat: These notes should be as objective as possible and observers should avoid making assumptions or judgments based on the behaviors they’re witnessing. This is the difference between, “Lala barked and jumped at the front of the kennel when caretaker Kyle walked by,” and “Lala is very reactive and barks and may not be good with men based on her kennel behavior.”

4. Bring almost every dog to playgroups, as soon as possible after their arrival at the shelter, and continue to bring them to playgroups as long as they’re there.

Aimee Sadler and her team at Dogs Playing for Life have dedicated their lives to bringing playgroups to every dog, every day, in shelters. Watching dogs in playgroup is a profoundly transformational experience. If you work in a shelter that doesn’t do playgroups, you’re missing out on your best opportunity to see the real dog in front of you.

Don't have a large playgroup program? You can also do smaller playgroups with just two or three dogs, which will give you an opportunity to see how the dog interacts with members of their own species.

When we subject shelter dogs to intolerable levels of solitary confinement in a high-stress environment, over days and weeks, we simply cannot tell anything meaningful about their behavior except how they may act under extreme duress. Playgroups are our best remedy for this.

5. Get dogs in foster homes faster.

By following the intake-to-placement protocols from Human Animal Support Services, you can get more big dogs into foster within hours or days, which will allow you to collect real-life information about their likes, dislikes, and potentially problematic behaviors.

Just getting a dog into foster care for two to three days will give you invaluable information that you can use to tell potential adopters about how that dog previously behaved in a home.

Learn how to build a safe, effective behavioral foster program here. If overnight foster is not accessible for every dog, start a foster field trip or foster overnight program to get dogs a break from the shelter. Make sure your foster caregivers enter notes on their experience with the dog!

6. For dogs who are at risk of euthanasia due to behavioral history, follow my protocol for saving at-risk dogs, detailed in this Maddie’s University talk on the subject.

In my career, I’ve had to sign off on the euthanasia of hundreds of healthy dogs for behavioral reasons. Each one has been painful, and some I deeply regret. You can’t change your mind once a dog is dead, and for this reason, behavioral euthanasia should involve input from and consent from all levels of the organization, including the director.

Don’t let behavioral euthanasia, especially for dogs who do not have a history of causing serious harm to a person, become routinized. No more than 2 to 5 percent of your dogs pose a threat to public safety, and if your behavioral euthanasia percentage is higher than that, you’re likely euthanizing dogs you could be safely rehoming.

In summary, we need to shift our thinking and language when it comes to knowing more about the dogs in our shelters. Each one has a story, and while there may be many gaps—since they can’t tell us in words—we can learn so much more about the dogs and make the best outcome decisions for them.

If we approach dogs with curiosity and a true desire to understand instead of subjecting them to arbitrary, non-predictive, non-scientifically-validated temperament tests, we can also change the culture of our organizations and build a generally more compassionate place for the dogs in our care.

Most of them, just like kids on the first day of school, are scared, insecure, and worried, and need us to give them the benefit of the doubt in all of our interactions.

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