Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Temperament evaluations

Ever since rescuing Fozzie, I have thought more deeply than ever about the evaluation system--commonly Sue Sternberg's Assess-A-Pet system--used to decide whether shelter animals get to live or die. 

Having assisted in performing these evaluations for a rescue group, I can see their utility in providing information about an animal, its personality, the kind of environment it needs to thrive, and areas in which it might need special attention. 

Daisy is available from
The evaluator gives the dog a bowl of food, then drags the bowl away using a plastic hand.  Does the dog growl or attack the hand? Time to work on some resource guarding exercises! Exercises that should be done with the help of a professional, but that have a very good prognosis for success in changing a dog's emotions and behavior around food and toys. 

The evaluator also tests for the dog's level of excitability, by getting him riled up with excited play and seeing how quickly--or if--the dog can calm down. Great opportunity to see if you need to get some volunteers to work on impulse control with the dog. 

But too many shelters use evaluations as the first, last, and only criterion used in deciding whether an animal is "adoptable." Which is unfair for so many reasons. 
First, these evaluations are being conducted in a shelter environment. What dog in the shelter is not overly excited due to lack of exercise, boredom, and stress? How many dogs have just come in off the street or from neglectful situations where they didn't know where their next meal was coming from, and so are understandably protective of resources once they finally are given something to eat? 

Says Jean Donaldson, author of "Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs," 

“...we need tests that are scientifically proven to be reliable and valid. We couldn’t get Sue [Sternberg]’s test past the reliability issue, and four of her five unadoptable dogs did fine. We adopted out three and did behavior modification on one.”

Fozzie failed his evaluation with flying colors and was on death row when I rescued him. I didn't get all the details, but I am certain it had to do with his excitability. Invite Fozzie to play, and he wants to PLAY! 

It took a little work, but it was fun work, and now he controls his impulses much more. 

Meet Jackson at
OK, not everyone wants a dog who requires work...maybe we should do like in Switzerland, where everyone who adopts a dog is required to enroll in a training class. But that might be a deterrent to adopting. Fortunately, progressive shelters know to reach out to their foster networks and hopefully more and more foster people are learning a bit about positive training.

These common behavioral problems are ones that can be worked with, not ones that should result in a death sentence. 
Granted, many shelters are using evaluations the way they should be used--as information-gathering sessions to inform a progressive training and rehabilitation program. Too many, however, use assessments as a way to ensure that their facility is seen as having a high percentage of "successful" adoptions, because all the animals who might need some work are summarily executed.

A more detailed discussion of behavioral evaluations is here. Anyone concerned about the practice can help by learning some basic reward-based training exercises and volunteering at a shelter, so even those who don't come in with perfect manners can have a better chance of getting out alive.


  1. Thanks for posting this, Kirsten! I definitely want to learn more about behavioral evaluations. Great resources!

  2. Excellent points ... I've often thought that about the hand/food test for resource guarding. If you tied me to a tree for months and didn't feed me and then gave me food and stuck a big plastic hand in my face while I was trying to eat it, I'd growl too!

  3. Wouldn't it stand to say that if dogs are almost doomed to fail these "evaluation test" it would give the shelter a higher kill rate than adoptable rate and thus demise the shelter's reputation?

    I am very impressed with your thoughts on the matter and the insight that you have given, that I am beginning to understand the need and reason for fostering. And how valuable it is. Honestly, I have struggle with my own negative views, probably because the system feels so hopeless. I have just had a hard time seeing past that and I want to thank you for sharing your heart and being part of many who do what you do. Thank you for opening my heart.

  4. Agree with everything you say in this post. Wonderfully said.

  5. The thing is, that kill rates very rarely get publicized! I don't know all the rules and what information is made public in different locales, but from what I understand, kill rates are a dirty secret no one knows unless they really dig for it. Adoption rates and the rate at which adopted animals are returned to the shelter are more readily available.

    Thanks so much for the feedback you guys. It is very hard not to feel hopeless--but having around at least one little reminder that lives can be saved--in the person of my ridiculous, adorable foster dog--makes it feel better somehow.

  6. I've often thought that the evaluations should be done in several different situations to see how the dog reacts in each one. I think that would give a better view of what the dog's real potential is. A dog who has high resource guarding in a shelter might have little or none in someone's kitchen by itself, and eating outside might produce another different kind of reaction, too. I tend to think that this is one area where breed specific rescues do a lot better than shelters, but it's just my opinion!

  7. I think that's a great point--a few different situations would certainly make the process more instructive and fair. I am so grateful for breed rescues--they are real advocates who just want to keep dogs alive and rehabilitate them....and such a great alternative for adopters who want a specific breed.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.