Do Dog Behavioral Evaluations Work?
Getting dogs out of the shelter system as quickly as possible is always a key goal for companion animal advocates. Once a dog enters a shelter, they often lose out on a full spectrum of socialization, may be more likely to catch a communicable disease, may experience a range of stress from various sources, and may otherwise languish for days, weeks, or years. What’s more, sometimes dogs who have been adopted out will be returned to the shelter, if they aren’t a fit with their new home. With 3.9 million dogs entering the shelter system in the U.S., the problem is a serious one.
One of the ways advocates have tried to shorten shelter stays and attempt to have more successful adoptions is through behavioral evaluations, which are broadly “used to attempt to predict the behavior of a dog residing in a shelter after he is placed in an adoptive home.” The idea is that, if you can determine what a dog’s personality profile is, you’ll be better able to find them a family that matches their disposition. This is, of course, assuming that their personality is fixed, and won’t change based on their environment.
In this literature review, the National Canine Research Council wanted to understand just how effective and statistically valid behavioral evaluations are, and they begin by noting that the task is difficult because there is little consistency across studies: they have been “conducted on various populations of dogs for various reasons.” Some studies have been done to gather data on dog demographics, some have been done on dogs already placed in homes, some have been done to determine the best dogs for breeding programs. In addition to the range of motivations, it’s also important to note that for most of these studies, the purpose has been to figure out efficient measure of behavior, not try to predict it. To simplify their study, they divided their analysis broadly into studies with shelter dogs, and studies with “owned” dogs.
Looking at various studies on “owned” dogs in homes, they found that “the presence or absence of a familiar person can significantly impact results.” In fact, they found that it impacted the evaluations so much, that they note emphatically that “the malleability of the behavior by this simple change indicates a lack of validity for such an assessment, and underscores the contextual nature” of dog behaviors. For in-home evaluations, the tests do not accurately measure what the researchers want to measure.
Turning to shelter dogs, they find that the timing of the evaluations may make the test results unreliable, and so they conclude that “test-retest reliability is necessary for a test to be valid.” In one case in particular, related to a study of aggressive behavior in and out of the shelter, that validity was shaky, they found that behavior evaluations would still be “no better than flipping a coin for determining whether a dog will exhibit threat or biting behavior problematic to the owner after adoption.”
As a conclusion, the authors note that “considering their severe consequences, behavior evaluations are too often unreliable and invalid, and even if they weren’t, the low prevalence of the behaviors of interest mean inevitably impractical results.” Further, they agree with other researchers that instead of evaluations, shelters should redirect those limited resources to “walks, baths, play, and training which will familiarize staff with individual dogs while improving the animals’ welfare and potentially their adoptability.”
For companion animal advocates, the study is sure to provoke much discussion, and potentially some controversy. However, rather than stop there, it could also be a positive push in a more standardized direction. The full report is available here, and is worth reading in full for the finer details of the review.