February 2, 2016
Categories: Animal Behavior

Even the best canine behavior evaluation systems are not reliable when assessing shelter dogs, suggests a recent Australian study.

Psychologist Dr. Zazie Todd’s influential blog Companion Animal Psychology took on the challenges of canine behavior evaluations in animal shelters last month. Todd examined at recent study by Monash University’s Kate Mornement, evaluating the Behavioural Assessment for Rehoming K9s (B.A.R.K.) test, a two-part test with 12 sub-parts developed by a group of experts to assess shelter dogs for qualities including fear, friendliness, anxiety, activity level, and compliance.

The study looked at 48 adult shelter dogs of 23 breeds or mixes who were allowed a minimum of three days to adjust to being in the shelter before evaluation with the B.A.R.K. protocol.  These dogs were evaluated for safety, and were considered to be “adoptable” and safe to work with before the test.

Todds singled out three indicators of reliablity as being particularly important:

  • Are test results similar when conducted by different people?
  • Are the results similar when the test is given more than once?
  • Does the in-shelter assessment match up with the behavior observed by the dogs’ new owners after adoption?

The test results were fairly consistent between testers, particularly for anxiety, compliance and fear. However, the results varied far more when the same dog was tested on subsequent days.

Most troubling, when the researchers followed up with the dogs’ new families several months after adoption, they found the accuracy of the test to predict behavior post-adoption was “quite weak,” particularly for anxiety, activity level and compliance.

From Dr. Todd’s post:

“I think the results mean that we need to be really careful about how we interpret the results of behaviour assessments conducted in shelters,” says Dr. Mornement, “especially if these are only done once and the results are used to inform adoption/euthanasia decisions. Our study showed that results can vary over a 24 hour period. In addition, research tells us that the shelter environment is stressful for dogs. This means the results of in-shelter assessments may not be indicative of behaviour in the home environment.”

Read more in “Finding out if shelter dogs are friendly: testing the B.A.R.K. protocol.”

Also of interest:

Study: Dogs who guarded food bowls in shelter did not continue behavior in homes

How stress is sabotaging your dog adoption efforts

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