In a gathering storm centered on the policies of animal shelters, temperament testing has become a lightning rod. Some resource- and space-starved shelters—which might have once chosen dogs for adoption based on such specious criteria as color, size, age, breed or length of time in the shelter—now use a series of tests that purport to evaluate a dog’s behavior and predict whether the dog will be a good companion for an adopter. Shelters using such tests make several claims for doing so: The dogs they put up for adoption are safer; dogs are selected based on whether they would be good family pets without regard to age or appearance; data gleaned from the tests help shelters find better adoption matches and provide useful information to adopters; and as a result, more people in the community are adopting shelter dogs.
So what’s prompting the firestorm? Several issues. No one advocates putting vicious dogs up for adoption, but many people think good dogs are being declared unadoptable because the tests are unfair and the people administering the tests are not qualified. A common refrain is, “My dog wouldn’t have passed the test.” Further, opponents of temperament testing claim shelters use these tests to hide the truth—that they show low euthanasia rates and high adoption rates by counting only “adoptable” dogs (those that passed the test). This, they believe, deludes a community into believing that there’s no pet over-population problem, and encourages people to drop off an inconvenient dog at a shelter. Detractors also claim that testing tempts shelters to focus on quick resolution rather than spending in-house resources on prevention and utilizing outside resources such as rescue groups.
Central to all these important and intense issues, though, is the fundamental question: Are temperament tests valid? That is, can testing a dog in a stressful shelter environment predict later behavior of the dog?
Most people advocating tests agree that “temperament” tests, in fact, are not valid because a dog’s “temperament” is subjective. Instead, they prefer calling the tests “behavior evaluations,” because behavior can be seen and described objectively. Two such behavior evaluations, Sue Sternberg’s Assess-a-Pet and Dr. Emily Weiss’ SAFER/Meet Your Match, are the ones most likely to be used by shelters because information about these tests is readily available through workshops, seminars, books, and videos as well as from such organizations as the American Humane Association and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
Assess-a-Pet, a step-by-step behavior evaluation that takes about 15 minutes, was developed by Sue Sternberg. Sternberg based the test on her 23 years of dog behavior experience, and has refined it over the past 11 years at the nonprofit shelter she founded in upstate New York, Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption.
“The purpose of the test is to find the gems that don’t often come in gemlike packages,” Sternberg says. “I wanted to develop a test that would reveal what the dog would be like with the average adopter, not with a professional dog trainer.” It begins with hands-off observation in which the tester looks for sociable or nonsociable responses, and progresses to evaluations for play, arousal, resource guarding, behavior with cats and mental sensitivity. The test uses the infamous Assess-a-Hand, an artificial hand on a stick that allows someone testing for resource guarding to safely approach, pet and then try to pull a food dish or chew toy away from a dog. Among other recommendations, Sternberg advises shelters to wait two to four days before testing and have two trained people perform the test.
Assess-a-Pet is not a simple pass/fail test; in most parts of the evaluation, the tester selects among a range of responses and also adds observations. For example, the four responses to a test during which the tester strokes the back of the dog are: moves toward tester in at least two out of three strokes, stays in same spot, moves away from tester, or freezes and becomes more aroused. Although some dogs have extreme responses, most responses land in a gray area.