November 3, 2016
Categories: Research, Animal Behavior

Did a recent study really suggest animal shelters stop evaluating dogs for temperament and adoption? Not exactly.

The study, authored by Dr. Gary J. Patronek of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts and Janis Bradley of the National Canine Research Council, was published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior in August. Its central premise, that the behavior evaluations so beloved by most animal shelters really do no better at identifying problem behaviors that might persist in the home than a coin toss, set off something of an animal welfare firestorm.

The study’s provocative title is “No better than flipping a coin: Reconsidering canine behavior evaluations in animal shelters,” and in its abstract the authors wrote:

Use of behavior evaluations for shelter dogs has progressed despite their lack of scientific validation as reliable diagnostic tools. Yet results of these evaluations are often used to make life-and-death decisions. Despite acknowledging the significant limitations of evaluations, most authors suggest that the solution is to continue to attempt to remedy deficiencies. We take a contrary position and use existing data and principles of diagnostic test evaluation to demonstrate that reliably predicting problematic behaviors in future adoptive homes is vanishingly unlikely, even in theory, much less under the logistical constraints of real-world implementation of these evaluations in shelters.


Shelters already screen from adoption obviously dangerous dogs during the intake process. Subsequent provocative testing of the general population of shelter dogs is predicated on an assumption of risk that is far in excess of existing data and relies on assumptions about dog behavior that may not be supportable.

In other words, shelters are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to evaluating the behavior of shelter dogs not only using existing tests, but most likely using tests not yet conceived. What’s worse, they point out that testing dogs for problematic behaviors like biting is particularly likely to return many false positives, condemning dogs to death who would never behave that way in a home environment.

They’re not the first to sound this alarm. In a 2012 study published in the journal Animals , researchers found that dogs who guarded food bowls while in the shelter did not continue this behavior in their adoptive homes, even when their new owners didn’t comply with all elements of a rehabilitation plan. Additionally, these dogs had nearly half the return-to-shelter rate of shelter dogs in general. And in a presentation for the shelter medicine track at the NAVC Conference in Orlando a few years ago, Karen L. Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, CAAB, a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Behavior and the Animal Behavior Society (ABS), bluntly told the audience, “Bad tests are killing good dogs.” Those tests, she warned, have not only gone on to misidentify aggressive dogs who had no problems when in their new homes, but missed dogs who did go on to demonstrate aggression in the community (false negatives).

The problem seems to be in the shelter setting itself. “Perhaps with a different balance between enthusiasm and critical thinking,” wrote the study authors,” we would have recognized long ago how unlikely it was that it would be possible to accurately predict future behavior in a new and unknown environment with a test conducted in subjects whose behavior is likely influenced by the emotions associated with abandonment, stress, and fear in an unfamiliar environment.”

Nonetheless, said Dr. Sheila D’Arpino, a boarded veterinary behavior specialist and Maddie’s Fund® Director of Research, “The message of this study isn’t really that we need to stop doing any kind of behavior assessment of dogs in our adoption organizations. Instead, it suggests we can save lives by not misdirecting resources to test friendly dogs and instead move them to the adoption floor immediately. This in turn frees up our behavior foster homes and our rehabilitation resources for the benefit of dogs we’re not immediately confident of, or those who need our attention for other types of issues.”

Patronek and Bradley agreed, writing, “We are not suggesting that shelters should abandon efforts to make reasonable attempts to place only behaviorally sound dogs in the community…. So the question becomes, what exactly is necessary and responsible in a shelter, and how should scarce resources be spent?” They go on to point out that the incidence of aggression in pet dogs overall is very low, and there’s no evidence it’s any higher in dogs who enter shelters and aren’t immediately screened out with obvious behavior.

They additionally conclude, “Shelters across the United States have engaged in concerted efforts to remove barriers to adoption and decrease the number of dogs euthanized, and overall, there is no indication this has compromised public safety. It is also highly unlikely that the improvement in adoption rate has come about because of a marked improvement in the behavior profile of admitted dogs. That leaves us with the conclusion that many stated problematic behaviors during behavior evaluations may not be so problematic after all in the future home.”

So, where does all that leave animal shelters? Here’s what Patronek and Bradley recommend:

Instead of striving to bring out the worst in dogs in the stressful and temporary environment of a shelter, and devoting scarce resources to inherently flawed and unvalidated formal evaluations, how much more productive might it be to focus our energies on giving every dog the opportunity to be at his or her best?

It may be far better for dogs, shelters, and communities if effort was spent regularly interacting with every shelter dog in normal and even enjoyable ways involving activities in which they will be expected to engage (e.g., walking, socializing with people, playgroups with other dogs, games, and training) to enrich their experience and minimize the adverse effect of being relinquished and confined to an unfamiliar environment, rather than investing additional resources in what is likely a losing proposition for all concerned.

For shelter staff or advocates who want to encourage such an approach in their communities — something that can be difficult to convey to risk-averse municipal authorities — the best place to begin is with the Patronek and Bradley study itself. It can be read and downloaded in its entirety, free, at the link below.

Patronek, Gary J., Bradley, Janis; No better than flipping a coin: Reconsidering canine behavior evaluations in animal shelters. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 2016/10/26.