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Should Shelters Abandon Behavior Testing?

A recent New York Times article on behavior testing in animal shelters stirred up a heated debate that has been going on for years. Shelters and rescue organizations feel the public’s demand to perform behavior testing to determine if a dog is safe and suitable for adoption. There is a liability for the shelters and rescue organizations to adopt out a dog who may potentially cause injuries and, in the rare case, fatalities, whether to other dogs, animals, or humans.

The article cited a 2016 paper by Dr. Gary J. Patronek, an adjunct professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts, and Janis Bradley of the National Canine Research Council, that reviewed these behavior tests. Their analysis concluded that the tests were predictive of aggressive behavior about 52 percent of the time, hence the phrase “no better than flipping a coin.” 

There is a strong desire to adopt a dog who would prove to be a good companion and not exhibit aggressive behavior that would put family members, other people, and dogs at risk. Not many people want the burden of managing and working with a dog with aggressive behavior. Several behavioral tests have been developed to help guide shelter and rescue workers in determining which dogs would be better and safer choices to be adopted by the public. The reality is that a percentage of dogs will be euthanized upon admission based on a previous history of bites or aggressive behavior. The dogs who fail the tests may also be euthanized or placed with other organizations or sanctuaries.

Shelter Life Is Not Realistic

The article points out that some dogs would falsely test positive for aggressive tendencies due to the surrounding circumstances. Life in a shelter is not realistic. These dogs have been abandoned by their families and uprooted from everyone and everything they know. They are placed in a foreign environment with unfamiliar people and a large population of dogs. They are stressed, worried, and fearful. Sometimes that environment suppresses the dogs’ normal behavior or exacerbates certain characteristics.

Let’s put things into perspective. How would you feel and behave if you were taken to an institution by your family and left there? A behavior test may occur right upon your arrival or several hours or one to two days later. How would you feel about being placed in a holding cell and then poked and prodded before being placed back in your cell with no explanation given? 

Next, you are exposed to various situations that you may find scary and stressful, such as people holding strange objects or wearing scary outfits and hats. Strangers deliberately trying to take your food away from you by pulling it away or pushing you away. Then strangers approach you and ignore you or try to touch you. Then they introduce you to an unfamiliar dog. How much can you tolerate before your patience snaps and you react? Some people will react aggressively and some people retreat into themselves. Dogs react in similar fashion.

The Challenges of Predicting a Dog’s Behavior  

One of the key components of the behavior test is looking for aggressive behavior over food. Research has shown that dogs who exhibit aggressive behavior when tested at the shelter may not exhibit this behavior once they have been adopted out to a family. Even if the new owners reported that their adopted dog exhibited aggressive behavior over food, the intensity of the aggression is lower and not perceived to be a problem by the new owners. This indicates that this particular test is not a good predictor of the dog’s future behavior.

It is difficult to determine aggressive behavior in people, in a society where we can communicate to each other through spoken and written language. If we cannot develop a test that predicts a person’s behavior, should we expect to predict a dog’s? We need to understand that dogs have plasticity in behavior, which means that they can change their behavior based on different circumstances and due to learned experiences. As a veterinary behaviorist, I have seen some dogs with aggressive behavior rehomed to other owners who were aware of the dog’s issues. I have noted that some of these dogs never exhibit the problem behavior or if they do, the behavior is less intense and frequent. 

So does that mean I think we should toss behavior tests out the door? No. I think the shelters and rescue organizations need some way of evaluating the dogs entering the shelter. The behavior test, along with any history provided by the previous owners, will help highlight problem areas. Unless the dog has a history of unpredictable aggression or a severe bite history, I would not recommend euthanasia right away. In the ideal world, these dogs would be taken out of the shelter environment and placed in a less stressful environment, where they can run around, play, and explore their surroundings. When their stress level has decreased, the dogs should then be evaluated based on how they interact with people and other dogs and handle different environments and objects. Then you have both an objective and subjective view of the animal.

Dogs with certain issues can then be placed in programs that help address their problems before they are made available to the public. Unfortunately, shelters and rescue organizations do not have the funding to provide special accommodations for dogs who behave out of the norm. Shelters and rescue organizations are doing the best they can. They want to find homes for every animal, but resources are stretched thin. There is great pressure to save lives but also secure safety for everyone. 

Dr. Wailani Sung is a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and owner of All Creates Behavior Counseling in Kirkland, Washington. She is the co-author of “From Fearful to Fear Free: A Positive Program to Free Your Dog From Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias.”

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