Meet my foster dog, Fitz. He ended up at my house in suburban Atlanta after being dropped off as a stray at a North Georgia animal shelter. Although scrawny and covered in flea dirt, Fitz quickly became a staff favorite because of his sweet personality. They deemed him easily adoptable and reached out to rescue groups to find him a home. That's how the speckled pup ended up sleeping on my office floor, while we find him the perfect new family.
Not all shelter dogs are so lucky. When they show up either as strays or as owner surrenders, they have to be quickly evaluated to see if they'll make good pets. Some of the things shelter employees look for are aggressive behavior when eating or when confronted by other dogs.
Often shelters will have protocols in place. Some will use a fake hand on a stick that they will poke into a dog's food bowl while he's eating. If the dog chomps on the hand, he's deemed food aggressive. Others will parade another dog close by to see if the dog lunges, barks or growls. Some will present the dog with a large doll representing a child to see how the animal responds.
These behavior evaluations started cropping up in a widespread way in the mid-1990s, says Janis Bradley, director of communications and publications for the National Canine Research Council. In some cases, they are life-or-death tests. Dogs that fail may end up being euthanized.
"They were casual ideas from people who worked in shelters who were making up stuff that they thought might simulate things that would happen in a home that dogs might object to, in order to see what dogs might do," Bradley tells MNN.
There was no science behind the testing and weeding out aggression was the top priority, Bradley says.
"The emphasis was, 'Is the dog safe?' which is probably not a realistic worry to begin with. The vast majority of the dogs in any population are safe or we wouldn’t have 84 million of them in this country."
And yet, we euthanize so many of them. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) told the New York Times that about 670,000 dogs are put to death each year.
A better way to evaluate dogs
Bradley teamed up with Dr. Gary J. Patronek, an adjunct professor at Tufts veterinary medicine school for an analysis that found these behavioral tests were about as good at predicting aggression as a coin toss. Their report was published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior.
Patronek says they're not advocating to do away with shelter assessments. Dogs still need to be screened prior to adoption.
"Our point was that truly dangerous dogs will be screened out long before they reach the stage of a behavior evaluation, so the evaluated population is already skewed towards normal," he says. "If a shelter worker can't safely handle a dog in normal situations, or there is a history of problem behavior, then you have your answer about potential suitability for adoption."
Patronek and Bradley instead suggest using common sense to observe dogs in normal interactions, rather than in strict, high-stress situations where they're often set up to fail.
Take them for a walk. Feed them treats. Watch them in play groups with other dogs, they suggest.
Those are some of the things evaluators do for South Carolina-based Phoenix Rising Border Collie Rescue, says volunteer coordinator Marianna Thompson. (Full disclosure: That's where Fitz is from.)
"We look to see if they are people-friendly and dog-friendly. When you get the dog out, does it run to the gate or is it really shy, and how shy are they? Do they growl or try to fence fight when they walk past the runs?" she says. "We try to get them outside and see how their personality changes and hopefully they get enough time outside to decompress a little bit."
Volunteers will see if dogs will take treats and how they react when a happy-go-lucky dog is brought out to see them. The evaluator will touch the dog all over to see if the dog will tolerate it, and sometimes even see how they'll react if there's a resident cat that can be seen from a safe distance.
Evaluators, like shelter workers, know that how a dog acts in the stressful environment of a shelter likely won't be how it will act in the relative calm of a home. But they'll know if there are signs to watch for.
Changing thoughts on food-guarding tests
Certified animal behaviorist Emily Weiss of the ASPCA developed SAFER in the '90s as a behavior assessment tool for shelters. You can watch a video explaining the process above. The method assesses a dog's comfort with things like being touched and restrained, as well as how it reacts to movement and sound, how it behaves around food and other dogs, and how likely it is to bite in certain situations.
Recently, however, Weiss has recommended that shelters discount how a dog reacts around its food, finding that food-guarding behavior is easy to change.
"Further, we have found that many factors in the shelter environment can artificially raise the value of a food resource — increasing the likelihood for false positives," Weiss says. "These factors paired with a potential for false negatives led us to recommend that shelters remove the food-guarding assessment and instead counsel all adopters around food-guarding behavior, which is a normal canine behavior (and a human for that matter … just try to get a piece of that gooey chocolate cake in front of me!)"
Tammy Queen, rescue coordinator at Etowah Valley Humane Society in Cartersville, Georgia, agrees that food tests in shelter aren't good behavior assessment tools.
"A lot of time if they're acting out, it's just because they're really hungry," she says.
She carries treats with her and offers them to the dogs when they come up to her in the runs. She eventually sits in the run with them, offering them treats and watches how they interact with her and interact with their run mates, considering that a good assessment of personality.
"If they're not acting out in that kind of environment, I'm pretty confident they're not going to act out in a home."
The shelter environment, after all, is a difficult one for dogs. Dogs barking everywhere, strange humans coming and going, concrete-and-steel cages. It makes for a scary, stressful place.
The odds are in your favor
The good news, say the experts, is that shelters are teeming with good dogs.
"The other point that gets missed sometimes is that the notion that shelter dogs are somehow universally damaged goods that need all kinds of red flags is not supported by the data," Patronek says. "For the most part, shelter dogs are simply owned dogs in between homes."
If you walk into an animal shelter and fall in love with a set of soulful puppy dog eyes, chances are good than you will have a pretty happy, safe relationship. (OK, maybe a shredded shoe or damp carpet, here or there, but basically a good life.) So feel comfortable in adopting without a qualm.
"For tens of thousands of years, people have been acquiring dogs in the most casual ways imaginable — literally, adopting the dog that followed them home — and it's rare that it comes to grief," says Bradley. "Nobody thought about testing to see if the dog was appropriate. Just by being a dog, by being a member of that species, the odds are overwhelming that they're going to like people."