An article today in The New York Times takes aim at temperament testing in animal shelters hopefully this article will get the attention it deserves from the shelter community. The effectiveness of these kinds of tests, that can result in a dog being swiftly killed if she doesn’t score a passing grade, has long been under examination by humane advocates. Back in 2003, our article, Dog Is In the Details, by Barbara Robertson, looked at this very issue. And more recently Jessica Hekman, DVM, wrote an indepth piece about more recent studies that, “could be interpreted to mean that the two most widely used behavioral assessments in the United States are not doing even a passable job of predicting aggression, and that shelters are not doing much more than flipping a coin when they use an assessment to decide whether a dog will be put on the adoption floor or, potentially, euthanized.”
All these articles noted that testing an animal in a shelter setting is fraught with problems. Even the most modern of shelters can be a place for many dogs, as Dr. Sara Bennett, a vet behaviorist, detailed in the Times piece:
“Dogs thrive on routine and social interaction. The transition to a shelter can be traumatizing, with its cacophony of howls and barking, smells and isolating steel cages. A dog afflicted with kennel stress can swiftly deteriorate: spinning; pacing; jumping like a pogo stick; drooling; and showing a loss of appetite. It may charge barriers, appearing aggressive.”
But there are more and more studies, such as the one done co-authored by Dr. Gary Patronek, adjunct professor at the veterinary medicine school at Tufts, and Janis Bradley of the National Canine Research Council suggesting that shelters should instead devote limited resources to “to spent the time in maximizing opportunities to interact with dogs in normal and enjoyable ways that mirror what they are expected to do once adopted (e.g., walking, socializing with people, playgroups with other dogs, games, training).”
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“The tests are artificial and contrived,” said Patronek, who roiled the shelter world last summer when he published an analysis concluding that the tests have no more positive predictive value for aggression than a coin toss.
“During the most stressful time of a dog’s life, you’re exposing it to deliberate attempts to provoke a reaction,” he said. “And then the dog does something it wouldn’t do in a family situation. So you euthanize it?”
Plus in many of the overcrowded shelters, the assessments are left up to staff members, who aren’t well trained, and who certainly aren’t behaviorists, to make the final say. “Interpreting dogs, with their diverse dialects and complex body language — wiggling butts, lip-licking, semaphoric ears and tails — often becomes subjective.” As Dr. Hekman noted, she had “observed a behavioral assessment in which a dog was repeatedly harassed with a fake hand because the shelter staff had a suspicion that he would bite. As the tester continued to provoke him long after this sub-test would normally have ended, the dog froze, then growled, then finally bit the hand, but not hard enough to damage it. Despite his restraint in the face of persistent harassment, he was labeled as aggressive by the shelter staff and was euthanized.”
So when space is such a limiting factor, as it is in many shelters, those dogs that attack a fake hand, just make space available for another dog.
The Times pointed out that one of the tests that is most disputed is the one involving the food test. Research has shown that shelter dogs who guard their food bowls, do not necessarily do so at home. And even Emily Weiss, the A.S.P.C.A. researcher whose SAFER behavior assessment is one of the best-known has stepped away from food-bowl tests, saying that 2016 research showed that programs that omit them “do not experience an increase in bites in the shelter or in adoptive homes.” And is study of this study, showed a stunning revelation: of 96 dogs who had tested positive for food aggression in the shelter, only six displayed it in their new homes. This raised more interesting questions: Is it possible that dogs are showing food aggression in the shelter due to stress? Is food-aggression testing completely useless?
Tests that try to assess dog-on-dog aggression using a “fake” dog also have been shown to be less that ideal, a 2015 study showed that shelter dogs responded more aggressively to a fake dog than a real one.
Good news is that the A.S.P.C.A is reporting that annual adoption rates have risen nearly 20 percent since 2011. Euthanasia rates are down, although they still say 670,000 dogs are put to death each year. Some veterinary schools, like the University of California, Davis, Tufts University and Cornell University (that was the first one to offer such a program) are offering shelter-medicine specializations. And more and more shelters are employing more humane, and effective methods such as programs like Aimee Sadler’s Dogs Playing for Life that matches dogs for outside playgroups.
As Natalie DiGiacomo, shelter director of the HSUS has noted: “There is a reform movement underway to improve the quality of life for animals in shelters, and playgroups are pivotal to this effort. Play enriches dogs’ lives and reduces stress so their true personalities show.”
What is important is to get the word out to your local shelters about the unreliability of behavior testing, it is surprising how many still employ them, including the Sue Sternberg’s “assess-a-pet” and the food bowl test. And while the Times piece is valuable because of the large audience it will receive, it did feature a behaviorist who used the fake-hand and food bowl test, but at least accompanied by a more thoughtful examination about the overall behavior of the dog. That dog was saved, but many who fail that test, in most other situations, without the benefit of expert opinion, would not have been. This is a complex situation that no one approach can truly fix. But it is important to heed the findings from Patronek, "Nothing in the prevalence estimates we reviewed suggest that overall, dogs who come to spend time in a shelter (and are not screened out based on history or behavior at intake or shortly thereafter) are dramatically more or less inclined toward problematic warning or biting behavior than are pet dogs in general."