The Trend of Temperament Testing for Dogs in Shelters
More and more shelters are doing temperament tests on dogs (and cats) before putting them up for adoption. A good temperament test attempts to measure the dog’s reaction to certain situations which the dog is likely to encounter in a normal home environment. Dogs can certainly fail a temperament test; what happens to them after failing the test will depend on which part(s) of the test they failed and the individual shelter policy.
At this time, there doesn’t appear to be a reliable puppy temperament test, because so much of our behavior depends on our environment – especially when we’re young. However, there seems to be some anecdotal information to indicate that puppies from shelters often have similar temperaments to their mothers. Remember, though, that this behavior may be learned and may be easy to change in a young pup.
An average temperament test will look at the following situations: how long does it take a dog to interact with a human; what does the dog do when stared at eye-to-eye; how does the dog react to full-body petting and mild-to-medium-pressure foot pinches; how does the dog react to a human attempting to play/run; how does the dog react when food, rawhides and/or toys are taken away; and, how does the dog react to cats and other dogs. One area that is very important that shelters are not able to test is how a dog reacts to children. A dog that displays aggression in any of these situations is likely to fail the test; at the very least they should not be placed in a home with children or elderly adults. Aggressive dogs can be a potential liability for shelters.
Probably the biggest problem with temperament tests is a lack of consistency in the shelter’s test administrators – if all administrators do not use the same criteria, the test loses validity. Another problem with these tests is that the shelter environment is very stressful and dogs may react very differently in a home situation – either better or worse! However, on the whole, the advent of temperament tests is a good thing. Dogs that are overtly aggressive are being taken out of the adoption pool, as they should. Unsuspecting households should not be expected to take on an aggressive dog when they are expecting a loving family pet.
A few years ago, the Massachusetts SPCA presented their findings based on data collected from temperament tests over a three-year period. Without going into detail, the study shows that temperament tests are, indeed, a good predictor of problem behaviors in adopted dogs. The biggest problem with the study is that dogs that failed the test and were not put up for adoption were not able to be studied. However, there were several “borderline” dogs that were adopted, and these dogs had a significantly higher problem rate than the dogs that passed with no problems.
All in all, shelters are becoming much more sophisticated about what animals should and should not be put up for adoption. Temperament tests provide a logical, uniform system of measuring behavior and are a big step forward for both shelters and the animal-adopting public. If the shelter in your area is not temperament testing their dogs and cats prior to adoption, it’s probably because they do not have the resources to do so; perhaps this is an area where you can volunteer to help – talk to your local shelter about volunteering.
Raising Canine has a school for dog trainers which focuses on operant training for dogs, dog behavior, working with clients and addressing client compliance, and the science behind behavior modification.