The End of Temperament Testing

It’s time to throw out the fake hand, the doll, the food bowl takeaway, and the loud knock on the door. The debate as to whether temperament testing in a shelter is effective, flawed, needs modification, or should be discarded is over.

In a recent feature, the New York Times highlights some of the challenges as “Shelters Struggle With Live-or-Die Tests.” They shouldn’t be struggling because they shouldn’t do them at all.
Temperament testing in a shelter is notoriously unreliable. A recent study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior concluded that temperament evaluations in shelters are no better than a coin toss. In fact, a coin toss may be better: “a positive test would at best be not much better than flipping a coin, and often be much worse, because many of the dogs who test positive will be false positives.”

Doug Rae, who runs the Humane Society of Fremont County in Colorado, says that he would “never, not ever, employ a mindless mechanism like using a ‘fake hand’… Moreover, we never push a dog to a place where the dog will display the slightest bit of aggression (and that’s exactly what using a fake hand does with dogs). Shoving a fake hand in a dog’s face is not only unfair to the dog, it is a cruel shelter practice designed to specifically grant a shelter employee the misguided right kill shelter animals.” He’s right.

Not only are the tests themselves flawed, but dogs in shelters are stressed and have experienced a recent trauma (including separation from their families) skewing any results. As a result, dogs can appear to be “wildly aggressive” in a shelter, but blossom outside of one. A recent case study, for example, highlighted a Great Dane in a shelter scheduled to be killed because “the sight of another dog had her barking, lunging and snarling as she tried to attack. If unable to bite the object of her fury, she would spin and bite herself. Truly a disturbing sight.” A rescuer pulled her, trained her, and found her a home: “She’s a beautiful example of how a dog with a lack of social skills may just need some time in finishing school rather than euthanasia. Katie was adopted after more than a month in foster care and her new family adores about her. She’s affectionate and fun and has a bright future.”

So what should shelters be doing?

If a dog comes into the shelter with no bite history and no observed “aggression” in the shelter, there’s no reason to do any further testing.

If a dog does come in after causing harm requiring immediate medical care, there are good protocols that do not rely on meaningless in-shelter evaluations. (The No Kill Advocacy Center will release a recommended protocol shortly.)

Would this put people at risk? No.

The Journal of Veterinary Behavior notes that, “Nothing in the prevalence estimates we reviewed suggest that overall, dogs who come to spend time in a shelter (and are not screened out based on history or behavior at intake or shortly thereafter) are dramatically more or less inclined toward problematic warning or biting behavior than are pet dogs in general.” In fact, looking at bite rates that require hospitalization, only 0.001% of dogs (or roughly 1 in 10,000) bite with enough force to cause an injury.

These studies mirror the findings of the most progressive and successful municipal shelters (and those running “open admission” shelters under contract) in the country. Once again, Doug Rae is instructive: “Over the years, I have rarely seen a truly ‘aggressive’ dog. The vast majority are simply scared: In my experience, the percentage of truly aggressive dogs I have seen in small to very large shelters is well under one quarter of 1%.” Year-to-date, his shelter has a 100% live release rate for dogs. And no one has been attacked.

And yet, shelters continue to test and kill dogs based on the worthless results of in shelter temperament testing. They continue to kill dogs for reasons that should never be a death sentence, using excuses like dog growled or lunged, hackles, fear, social shyness, food guarding, on-leash reactivity, barrier reactivity, undersocialization, anxiousness, nervousness, whale eye, desirability/adoptability, poor manners, strong and overly energetic, and more, giving them the ability to claim dogs are “unadoptable,” “aggressive,” and a “threat to public safety,” none of which is fair and none of which is honest.

A shelter director who achieved a live release rate for dogs of 99%, asks us to consider it this way: “how many of you, if you took your own pet dog, locked [her] in a shelter kennel for five days, had a stranger bring [her] out and subject [her] to a standardized behavior assessment, can say with certainty your dog would ‘pass’ and make it out alive… It’s a sobering thought – those of us who know these assessments wouldn’t use them on our own dogs.”

And since the goal of the No Kill movement is for shelters to make the same kinds of decisions we would make for our own animals, the conclusion becomes inescapable: Honesty, fairness, and sober reflection demand an end to “temperament testing.”


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