Shelter Behavioral Evaluations Are Inconsistent. Should They Be Used To Determine A Dog’s Fate?

Photo credit: Flickr/Terrah

Shelters often use behavioral tests to discover what a dog or cat’s personality is like. If that animal is good with kids and other dogs, if they will growl when food is taken away, if a dog reacts poorly when a plastic hand is shoved in their face.

And sometimes, depending on a shelter’s resources and commitment — like if there is a behaviorist on staff, or a robust foster program — these tests may determine if an animal gets the chance to be adopted, or if they are euthanized.

The use of temperament evaluations to make these life and death decisions is increasingly coming under scrutiny.

For example Kristen Auerbach, deputy chief animal services officer at Austin’s city shelter, the Austin Animal Center, has gotten a lot of attention this last year for her study showing that dogs who show behavioral problems at the shelter act much differently once they get into foster homes.

Now a new paper, published last month in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, makes no bones about the authors’ perspective, as you can tell from the title: No Better Than Flipping a Coin: Reconsidering Canine Behavior Evaluations in Animal Shelters.

The authors — veterinarian Gary J. Patronek and Janis Bradley, director of communications and publications for the National Canine Research Council — make the case shelter behavioral evaluations are arbitrary and unreliable, and are indeed “not much better than flipping a coin” when it comes to predicting a dog’s future behavior in a home.

These inaccurate prognostics not only produce unreliable information, which may be troubling for its own sake — but also lead to good dogs, who could make great pets, being killed in the name of a false safety.

Photo credit: Flickr/sally9258
Photo credit: Flickr/sally9258

How, then, should shelters make sure they aren’t sending dangerous dogs into the community — or even just making bad matches between pets and families? Shelter Me caught up with Bradley by email to find out this and more.

Shelter Me: Why is it important if shelter behavioral evaluations are accurate?

JB: Because they are used to determine whether it is safe to make a dog available for adoption. There are other uses, of course, but this is the one Dr. Patronek and I examined in this paper.  

If the test gives the wrong answer, either the dog is not made available and usually dies when he never would have hurt anyone, or a dog who is inclined to hurt someone is sent out into the community.  

The first of these unhappy outcomes is by far the most likely, as we know that only a very small percentage of dogs in general — less than 1% a year — ever hurt anyone, even to the point of a Band-Aid scratch.

Photo credit: Flickr/Neil Mullins
Photo credit: Flickr/Neil Mullins

Assuming that shelters are doing the best they can to make sure they aren’t adopting out dangerous dogs — how should they go about keeping their communities safe, if not by using behavioral evaluations?

By engaging the dogs in as many real life activities as possible — going for walks, playing with toys, playing with dogs, training games — then paying attention to and recording what the dogs actually do during their stay in the shelter, and by collecting careful behavior histories from the people surrendering the dog when this is possible.  

Of course, nobody wants to send dogs out into the community who then hurt someone if this could have been predicted. The difficulty is that there is no practical way to use a behavior evaluation to make this kind of prediction.

Photo credit: Flickr/ECraig4
Photo credit: Flickr/ECraig4

How did you figure out that these evaluations aren’t accurate — no better than flipping a coin, as you put it? What makes the tests so inaccurate?

We can’t even really establish how inaccurate they are. There have been few attempts to compare shelter evaluation results with real life behavior in a home and since even those have already excluded from adoption the dogs who “failed” the test, there isn’t any way to really validate them.  

What we can say is that if you want to predict normal behavior you have replicate normal situations and the artificial contrived context of a shelter behavior evaluation can never come close to this.

But even if there were a way to test the tests, and in the very unlikely event that a test could be shown to have a high level of validity — by the standards, say of human diagnostic tests — at the very least half the dogs who “failed” would actually be misdiagnosed and would not have shown problem behaviors in a home.  

This is simply a statistical reality any time you are screen for something — in this case problematic growling, snarling, snapping, and biting behavior — that only occurs in a small percentage of your population. It’s why we included links to easily accessible online calculators so people could run the numbers themselves.

I’ve seen a lot of people in animal welfare and sheltering talking very excitedly about your paper. It seems to confirm what a lot of folks already believed, or suspected. Do you think that it’ll lead to change — or help lead to change?

As someone who just co-authored a paper on the difficulty of predicting dog behavior, you can hardly expect me to go out on a limb predicting human behavior!

But seriously, of course when you write a paper, you hope it will lead to positive change or at least initiate a discussion about possible change. We certainly hope this paper will lead to a re-thinking of this practice and are very gratified that it appears to be resonating with many shelter folks.

Photo credit: Flickr/Mangusdog
Photo credit: Flickr/Mangusdog

A year from now, five years from now, do you think that shelters will no longer be doing behavioral evaluations like we see today?

I think I’ll stick to hopes rather than predictions. I hope that shelters will have developed procedures to refine their abilities to accurately observe interactions between the dogs in their care and the people who care for them and to structure that care in ways that facilitate positive interactions.  

And I certainly hope that obviously friendly outgoing dogs will no longer have to wait to be processed through an evaluation system before moving on to a more behaviorally healthy environment, i.e., a human home.  And that the ones who seem scared can begin to get reassuring treatment immediately, based on how they actually interact with people.

This whole discussion reminds me of something Dr. Amy Marder, one of our National Canine Research Council expert advisors once said. To paraphrase, she said that dogs in shelters are just dogs who don’t have an owner standing by their side.  

I think it’s worthwhile to keep this in mind if we find ourselves thinking that “shelter dogs,” require some sort of extraordinary scrutiny before they can move from one home to another.

This interview has been edited for space

Featured image via Flickr/Terrah, used under a Creative Commons license

Arin Greenwood

Arin Greenwood is an animal writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Previously, she was animal welfare editor at The Huffington Post. Arin is a former lawyer (J.D. from Columbia Law School, member of the New York Bar), life long animal lover, pit bull advocate, and devoted fan of cats and dogs who run for public office. Her first novel, Tropical Depression -- based on her five-odd, sometimes very odd, years living on a small island near Guam -- was published by teeny indie publisher Back Porch Books in 2011. Her second book, a comic young adult mystery called Save The Enemy, was published by Soho Teen in November 2013. Hello From Dog Island!, Arin's third book, will be published by Soho Teen in 2018. Know a shelter with a great, innovative program? Have another animal story to share? Get in touch at aringreenwood@gmail.com!

5 comments

  1. jan dykema says:

    i you want to see a horrific misuse of shelter “evaluation” watch this.. I cannot watch it again it is so so disgusting This poor bitch was about to have pups.. ( some of them died in the “care” of these “evaluators”) These poor animals have been abused in the hell hole for almost a year.
    .https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_GKX22daEw
    Help bring the Uptons dog home and get them out of the hands of these tormentors
    The link is safe but if you prefer you can find them on you tube.. just google Uptons dogs.. and while you are at it please give a few dollars . The trial has been postponed twice and no one knows where the dogs are except the one who was killed and the dead puppies

  2. Gallivan Burwell says:

    I’m always proud to be able to say that I had Janis Bradley as one of my teachers. I have become less and less convinced over the years that temp tests are especially foolproof. I’ve had it cut both ways: last year I temp-tested two dogs in a court case who for all intents and purposes passed the test, but were dogs who had attacked a man walking down the street and and seriously injured him (had he not been a big, strong, young guy he might not have survived after they took him to the ground).

    The problem here in Louisiana is that we are so overburdened in our shelters, and when shelters are upgraded it is often only to enable them to house more dogs to relieve the pressure to euthanize so many. I am still unclear on how we go about observing more dogs in normal environments where we can safely interact without having some quantifiable data that it is difficult to get unless the dog is being observed in a normal environment where we can safely interact. Catch 22.

  3. Dee Cappelli says:

    I don’t disagree with Donna Reynolds but I’d like to take this discussion a step further. I’d like to share my years of experience with shelters and temp tests. I’m a volunteer with a breed specific rescue, Two Dog Farms Jindo rescue, and this is one of the most important, life-or-death issues rescues face.

    There is as much, if not more, bias against Jindos as Pit Bulls in most shelters — especially the CA county shelters — where Jindos and several other breeds (Pit Bulls, Akitas, GSDs and more) cannot be adopted by the public or a rescue until the county conducts a temperament test. If the dog fails the test, the dog is not available for public adoption and the rescue must sign a waiver to accept all liability for the dog if the rescue “pulls” the dog from the shelter. Unfortunately, rescue volunteers are not allowed to interact with a dog who failed a temp test even if the dog failed because of food guarding (is that a valid reason to euthanize a dog?). A dog shut in a kennel does not behave the same as when he/she is allowed into a meet/greet area and allowed to walk around a bit and demonstrate its behavior. We volunteers need to evaluate the dogs ourselves in order to match the dog with the right foster family. We look for different points of behavior than a shelter staff member would. If we aren’t allowed to touch or be in an open arena with the dog, we can’t properly evaluate the dog. It’s a deadly catch 22 situation — deadly for the dogs.

    We’ve been told more than once by shelter workers that if it’s a Jindo, it’s a guaranteed temp test “fail”. This sensitive breed of dog is routinely kept in the chaos of a kennel for months waiting for a temp test because the county has so many dogs who need a temp test and not enough people qualified to test them. I’m sure all the other dogs waiting to be tested have to endure the same thing. Meanwhile, often the dogs waiting to be tested are never walked during their entire stay because they’ve been marked as aggressive. Lack of exercise is a mental and physical necessity for any dog. A dog can be labelled aggressive if, upon intake, he/she cringes, tucks tail, backs away or tries to hide from humans she/he doesn’t know; humans who grab, tug and roughly handle this sentient being. Often these dogs are in emotional shock, confused and disoriented about what’s happening to them and, out of fear, may growl or snarl (any dog’s form of communicating discomfort or fear). One dog we rescued was labeled aggressive when shelter staff noted he growled during intake. The dog was immediately marked “dangerous”. Fortunately, a staff attendant noticed the dog’s prong collar had been put on him backwards and was digging into and cutting his neck. Once the collar was removed and wounds treated, he became a sweet, laid back dog. Most importantly the vast majority of dogs in shelters are euthanized because the humans who should have been responsible for their dog’s training, sterilization, medical and daily care, were not. They then dumped the dog at a shelter, had it taken away by animal control or abandoned in the streets untrained, unsocialized and suddenly surrounded by unfamiliar smells and humans; shoved into a clangy kennel surrounded by an overload of scents from other dogs, barking, howling and slamming kennel doors. If that dog behaves in any kind of fearful, shy way, he/she will likely be euthanized before there’s a chance for a second chance.

    There are many Jindos Two Dog Farms Jindo rescued who failed their temp test. When placed in a foster home to decompress and with a consistent routine of feeding, walking/exercise/play and training become the great and eager canine companions they were born to be.

    This is the experience of someone who not only volunteers for a breed specific rescue but also volunteers at my local city shelter. These are the real life, unintended consequences of budgetary, liability-shy policy makers who are more likely attorneys or CPAs than experienced animal handlers/behaviorists.

    I know the shelters are overwhelmed with dogs and I know the hard working, dedicated staff want policies that will allow the dogs to find a successful forever home but these policies do not demonstrate any knowledge of dog behavior/canine body language so the dogs are doomed. This is why, so often, diligent and responsible rescues (especially breed-specific rescues) are much more successful than shelters at finding forever homes for the dogs they pull from shelters. Municipal shelters do not have the resources to make sure the adopted dogs are going to a home where they will be part of a dog savvy family who will give the dog what he/she needs to live safe and secure and be part of a pack (not just used as bait for a dog fighting ring or tied up in a back yard 24/7 like my rescued Jindo was).

    The policies and mindset for shelters need to change. Besides securing safe foster and forever families for the dogs we pull, our volunteers also provide outreach to shelters, educating shelter volunteers and staff about the breed. However, the people we really need to be in touch with are the policy makers and shelter managers/supervisors — who don’t seem to have time to hear what we can do to help them be successful.

  4. Marla says:

    Great Article

  5. Donna Reynolds says:

    I embrace the broader point of needing to be critical of shelter testing, but am not ready to jump on the ‘testing is unreliable’ bandwagon yet. Let’s not forget that shelter-based testing allowed a team to determine which of the Vick dogs could go right into homes with children and other animals, and which required longer term problem solving including sanctuary status. An extreme example, but those tests were pretty much spot on for offering solid info for the best placement success. These discussions need to be handled carefully so a newer generation of shelter staff is not left without necessary tools for keeping their volunteers and adopters safe from harm and bad experiences.

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