I received a request from a shelter reform advocate for studies and information to stop their local pound from using temperament tests to claim dogs are “unadoptable” and kill them, as well as information for what shelters should do instead. The fact is that it is the shelter’s own socialization, training, and care policies that determine whether dogs live or die, not arcane notions of “adoptability” based on flawed temperament tests.
Since I put the information together for them (and provided a note about cats and “behavior”), I wanted to share the information more widely:
Findings: There is “no evidence that any canine behavior evaluation has come close to meeting accepted standards for reliability and validity.” Some of the tests were wrong as much as 84% of the time (a combination of poor tests and poor testing practices by pound workers). While shocking, it should not be surprising since the tests are built on a “fatally flawed” premise: “that the provocations used at a single time during a dog’s stressful experience in a shelter will predict future behavior at a different time and place.”
Findings: Shelters are very stressful places for dogs, causing them to fail behavior evaluations. “Even in well-managed and funded facilities, dogs are likely to encounter an array of stressors including noise, unpredictability, loss of control… disruption of routines…” and unfamiliar people and surroundings. A small amount of enrichment — being spoken to softly, given treats, petted, and played with — can result in dogs passing temperament tests. After just five days of being treated kindly, “nearly all” fearful dogs passed the test. This is true even for dogs deemed “potentially quite dangerous” at the beginning of the study. Without enrichment, eight out of 10 failed and were killed.
Findings: While 15% of dogs were classified as guarding their food, many of them “do not guard food in their adoptive homes, and, even when dogs continue to display food guarding in the home, adopters do not consider it to be a major problem.” In cases where the initial adopters did return the dog, the dogs were readopted and tended to stay in the home. As such, shelters should opt for “adoption rather than euthanasia for most dogs identified as resource guarders during behavioral evaluations in shelters.” If the dog is returned, they should be readopted (and can be adopted) without incident.
Findings: There is no compelling evidence “for the notion that the general population of relinquished dogs in shelters are there because of relationship-breaking behavioral incompatibilities in their prior home.” In fact, the vast majority of those dogs labeled “behavior” are normal as “surrenders often say more about the people doing the surrendering – about ‘owner-related factors, needs, and expectations’ – than the dogs being surrendered.” As such, shelters should stop thinking of dogs as having “behavior problems” and instead refer to them as “behavior incompatibilities” with the specific person they were living with before being surrendered.
Findings: “[T]he welfare consequences of adolescence-phase behavior could be lasting because this corresponds with the peak age at which dogs are relinquished to shelters.” In other words, it is often just a rebellious phase and with reward-based training, these behaviors can be modified.
Findings: Letting dogs see people and dogs in shelters by removing visual barriers that block such access reduces stress in shelter dogs. Stressed dogs are likely to fail their behavior evaluations.
Findings: Poor behavior in shelter dogs is often a sign of frustration. Specifically, dogs can see people and other dogs, but can’t interact with them. Over time, they associate people and other dogs with frustration. It found that giving dogs treats counter-conditioned them. It doesn’t matter if dogs are given treats when they weren’t barking, even if they were barking, or by conditioning dogs to identify a sound – such as a door chime – with treats until the door chime alone got them to stop barking. All three had the same results – dog behavior improved.
Findings: Group housing dogs reduced frustration since dogs had access to other dogs. Over one-third of dogs housed alone suffered some behavior problem and 10% engaged in repetitive behavior (like endless barking). As such, dogs who are in shelters more than two weeks should always be pair or group-housed if they get along with other dogs. Fears about aggression and fighting in pair housed kennels tend to be overblown with fights being rare to nonexistent, so long as staff was thoughtful about pairing.
Findings: Conventional wisdom says the longer an animal is in the shelter, the more likely he or she is to become “kennel crazy” and thus “less adoptable.” This is false as “dogs adapt to the kennel environment over time” and “environmental enrichment helps animals to cope with their environments.” In other words, newly admitted dogs tend to be stressed. Dogs who only get the basics: food, water, and shelter are stressed. But dogs who are given enrichment are not stressed and the longer they are in the shelter, the less stressed they become.
Findings: “During the initial physiological adaptive response, novel environment, manipulation, change in social structure, and different cages can represent sources of stress for dogs entering a shelter” but, for dogs housed with other dogs, the result is “a decrease of stress after long term stay in the shelter.” In other words, dogs should be able to see and interact with other dogs and people in order to “reduce frustrated attempts to see what is going on beyond their kennel.”
Other resources/what shelters should do instead from The No Kill Advocacy Center:
Based on four recent studies, the pioneering work of behaviorists, and the results of some of the most successful and progressive shelters in the country, a placement rate of even 99% for dogs is not high enough. Thankfully, the path to ending their killing for “behavior” altogether is now clear.
The Matrix includes medical and behavior protocols, diagnostic tools, end of life protocols, with forms and checklists to increase accountability and improve performance, and more. These protocols were developed in collaboration with some of the most successful shelter directors in the country; directors running municipal and animal control-contracted shelters with placement rates of 99%.
Giving traumatized dogs safe harbor and time — time to abandon fear, to forget a haunted past, and most important of all, to learn that humans can be trusted after all. With the right amount of love, kindness, compassion, positive conditioning, and, when necessary, veterinary intervention, psychologically wounded animals, like humans, have a remarkable capacity for resilience.
For those wondering about cats:
Killing a cat for “behavior,” “aggression,” or being considered “feral” should never occur. There isn’t even a need to delay finding homes for these cats. They can be sterilized and returned to their habitats if they are not social with humans and are used to living outdoors or they can be adopted out immediately if they are. Simply put, people will adopt cats with “cattitude.”
This is not to say that cats who experience behavior issues in the shelter do not warrant changes in shelter housing, shelter treatment, and behavior intervention to address those needs. They do. My point here is only that they can be adopted out despite those issues because resolution of behavior challenges is almost always done by getting them out of the shelter. Moreover, for those who do need further treatment, treatment in the home will be more effective and focused, as it is for many dogs.
As the director of an open-admission animal control shelter,, I eliminated any “behavior category” for cats and thus any killing of cats for “behavior,” “aggression,” or being “feral.”