One of the great pleasures of dog adoption is having a dog that enjoys contact with and is trustworthy around people and other dogs. Every dog, no matter its origin, is at risk of displaying anti-social behavior without proper training and socialization — but the foundation from which we start does matter. Outlined below are a few reasons shelters and rescue organizations may find it useful to perform a temperament test or behavior evaluation of the dogs in its care.
Disclaimer: The following is not intended as legal advice. If you have any questions about shelter or rescue group liability and adoptions, consult your attorney.
Make the best possible match. Homeless dogs, whether in shelters or foster care, deserve the best chance possible at successful integration into family life. Temperament tests can provide valuable information about how a dog responds to restraint, a dog’s tendency to guard resources, or to display fearful, anxious or aggressive behavior post-adoption.¹,²,³ In addition, a good testing process will work in a hierarchical fashion, allowing aggressive tendencies that might put the evaluator at risk to show themselves early in the process, so the test can be stopped before a bite occurs. How you respond to the resulting information remains up to you and your organization’s policies. Decisions about aggressive or “iffy” behavior can be made on a case-by-case basis, according to the resources available. For highly adoptable dogs, having more information for potential adopters helps everyone decide whether this is the right dog for a potential home.
Stop problems before they start. Shelters and rescue groups have a great responsibility to ensure the animals it places are, to the best of its knowledge and ability, unlikely to injure a person or another pet. Noticing asocial behavior or subtle aggressive behavior in a dog before he or she is placed can go a long way in preventing post-adoption trauma, for both dogs and families. Gathering an idea of how the dog might react under everyday pressure can ensure that dog gets any extra attention, training, behavior modification or extra care in placement he or she needs. In cases where worrisome behavior is not severe enough to prevent adoption, a note can be made that longer-term follow-up or training is necessary. In a study of temperament testing, a good percentage of the dogs who had passed the test still exhibited some type of aggressive behavior (including barking) within 13 months post-adoption — but the percentage of dogs who displayed “serious” aggressive behavior (such as biting) and passed the test was less than 7 percent.⁴
Boost the PR factor for homeless dogs. Like it or not, your shelter or rescue group is the gateway through which adoption and rescue becomes a fantastic option for the dog-loving public. While even a well-intentioned breeder can produce animals with horrific behavior problems, and the adopting public has long way to go in learning to be dog-savvy, the animals your organization adopts out speak not only for your reputation, but for that of all homeless dogs. Placing a dog you suspect will kill the neighbor’s cat, or one who “snaps at toddlers” is not the best advertisement for the next parent, neighbor or friend to adopt a homeless dog.
Legal concerns. Knowingly placing a dog who has displayed aggressive tendencies while in your care can be bad news for liability reasons. In a worst-case scenario, if a dog bites or otherwise injures a person after adoption and your shelter’s procedures are questioned, you can consult the records and note the appearance of pro-social behavior on the animal’s part and absence of negligence in your testing and behavioral follow-up program. If in doubt about your organization’s current procedures, consult your organization’s attorney.
We’re doing it anyway. Every interaction a shelter worker, volunteer or trainer has with a dog at the shelter contributes to the determination of that dog’s fate. Where there are tough decisions to be made, someone is responsible for making them. So why not let the process be as informed as possible? Behaviorally healthy animals who are allowed to deteriorate mentally or emotionally while the push is made to place an unsuitable dog, or dogs who are euthanized for space or time reasons only, are not being given the best possible chance at life. Acknowledging that we are making informed choices based on a dog’s behavior can be difficult for shelter volunteers and staff, but it is better than a random draw to see which animals will stay on the floor another day, and which will be euthanized.
1. Poulsen, A. H., Lisle, A. T., & Phillips, C. C. (2010). An Evaluation of a Behaviour Assessment to Determine the Suitability of Shelter Dogs for Rehoming. Veterinary Medicine International, 1-9. doi:10.4061/2010/523781
2. Dowling-Guyer, S., Marder, A., & D’Arpino, S. (2011). Behavioral traits detected in shelter dogs by a behavior evaluation. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 130(3/4), 107-114. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2010.12.004
3. Bollen, K. S., , & Horowitz, J. (2008). Behavioral evaluation and demographic information in the assessment of aggressiveness in shelter dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 112(1-2), 120-135. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2007.07.007
4. Christensen, E., Scarlett, J., Campagna, M., & Houpt, K. (2007). Aggressive behavior in adopted dogs that passed a temperament test. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 106(1-3), 85-95. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2006.07.002