Once again, a post on a Facebook page inspired me to write this post. The poster and commenters were outraged by a video of a woman performing a temperament test (behavior assessment) of a dog in a shelter. I am not going to get into specifics about this circumstance but, based on the critical judgments of the poster and commenters, it was obvious that none of them had ever performed a temperament test, knew how to perform a temperament test or knows what it’s like to do temperament testing in animal shelters. Their comments were highly critical of the tester who is a well-regarded expert in the veterinary behavior field.

First, for those who are not familiar with temperament testing, it is a sequence of activities systematically performed with dogs who come into shelters to determine their adoptability. The tests are designed to uncover behavior problems such as food aggression, possession aggression (also called resource guarding), and aggression to people or children, as well as learning more about the dog’s general temperament – not just aggression. Done properly, temperament testing is a great way to determine a dog’s personality and a way to better match dogs with adopters.

Why is temperament testing done in shelters? Okay, this is where the person who has never worked in a shelter needs to listen and learn! Shelters get dogs of all kinds with a spectrum of behaviors from completely perfect and adoptable to the stereotypical Cujo-like killer. Some dogs are obviously aggressive – they will try to attack when you come near them; others may seem angelic – until you try to take a toy away or when you approach their food. Sorry, folks, you just cannot judge a dog’s entire behavior based on “he’s friendly and his tail is wagging!” Shelters must have a method for uncovering a dog’s true behavior in various situations.

Shelters must do some type of behavior evaluations to do their best to keep adopters safe and to preserve the reputation of the shelter. After all, we’re trying to convince the public to adopt, not buy. If people take the chance and adopt a dog who then shows aggression when it comes home, these people are more likely not to adopt again. And, of course, the shelter is blamed and gets bad-mouthed.

It isn’t easy to do temperament testing in shelters, nor is it always completely fair to the dogs. They are stressed, and the staff is stressed too because of the demands of their jobs. And they know that the results of the temperament tests can mean life or death for the dogs. It’s dangerous work too because you’re dealing with strange dogs, many of whom you have no idea about their backgrounds. In my years of testing dogs, I’ve had to leap over gates and protect myself from getting bitten while performing the tests. I’ll always remember a real sweetheart of a Golden Retriever, a complete mush….until you approached his food bowl. Wow. He became one of the most violently aggressive dogs I had ever met.

Sadly, temperament testing is also used in crowded shelters to determine the dogs who must be killed due to lack of space. Any dogs who are aggressive to people, other dogs or who are food aggressive are the first to go. The poorly funded, overcrowded shelters lack the space, time, and expertise to be able to rehabilitate these dogs.  See my post from February 9 entitled What It’s Like to Work in an Animal Shelter.

A huge issue with temperament testing concerns the training, or lack of training, that staff receives to qualify them to do these tests. Some shelters do not provide training and rely on the staff’s experience with handling dogs. This tactic can be disastrous and unfair to the dogs. Without proper training and knowledge of dog behavior, tests are often performed incorrectly and body language interpreted wrong – dogs may be labeled as aggressive when they really are not.

As an example, I’ve seen shelter staff test dogs for aggression to other dogs by walking the dog down a crowded, noisy, narrow hallway. Another dog approaches head-on in the hallway. Anyone who knows about dog behavior understands that head-on approaches are threatening to dogs, and an enclosed, noisy space increases anxiety. What the staff might be interpreting as aggression could be excitement or simply anxiety from the environment.

And many times, shelter workers play favorites and will try to save dogs who have exhibited aggression just because they have fallen in love with them. Temperament testing procedures eliminate this favoritism.

On the flip side, I’ve seen shelters where the staff has been trained in temperament testing and they took it to the extreme and killed dogs for exhibiting the slightest perceived infraction. Either way, the dogs lose.

Temperament testing is a very controversial topic. Shelter workers must employ some type of temperament testing to determine dogs’ behaviors and to decide their fates. The more training that staff receives in proper testing processes and in reading dog body language, the better they will be in assessing the dogs.

Anyone who has not worked in a shelter should never judge the people who work there. I hope that some of the people who posted comments on Facebook will read this and learn, and not judge.

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