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Assessing Shelter Dogs and Temperament Testing


Contents:
Introduction
Assessing Dogs at Shelters and Rescues
What Testing Involves
Questionable Temperaments - Adapting to New Homes
Young Puppy Temperament Assessment
Resources

Introduction

Temperament is the general attitude a dog displays towards people and other animals; it is the combined inherited and acquired physical and mental traits that influence the dog's behavior. Temperament testing evaluates an individual dog's temperament through a series of tests that measure traits including stability, confidence, shyness, friendliness, aggressiveness, protectiveness, prey instincts, play drive, and self-defense instincts, and ability to distinguish between threatening and nonthreatening situations.

Some trainers, behaviorists, owners, breeders and shelters use temperament testing as a way to assess the temperament of an individual dog as a candidate for adoption, therapy or assistance animal work, search and rescue, or other purposes. Many adopters and rescue volunteers benefit from engaging a canine behavior specialist or trainer who has substantial, direct experience with assessing shelter dogs. Temperament tests can gauge attitudes and serve as a predictive tool for getting an idea of how the dog might act and react in various situations and in response to various stimuli.

While much of temperament is hereditary, it is also influenced and modified by the individual dog's environment -- which includes the actions of the owner in shaping the dog's behavior. This is why a puppy with dominant tendencies can mature into either a friendly, confident adult dog ... or a bossy dog who dominates other animals ... or a dog who uses aggression to get his way with humans and other dogs.

So while temperament testing can be extremely valuable, it is important to remember that while we may not be able to change an individual dog's genetic history, we can still help shape his attitude towards people, animals, things and places that he will encounter in life, in addition to managing the dog's behavior.

Assessing Dogs at Shelters and Rescues

Many dogs that are given up to animal shelters have never received training or guidance. Some never had the opportunity of a caring owner. Or the owner cared, but was ignorant about proper training and care of dogs, or had received misguided information. In any case, a multitude of given-up dogs are dismissed as 'problem animals' ... when in reality, the problems can be corrected and avoided by applying current knowledge about canine care and management.

In addition, the stressful environment of a shelter can aggravate and magnify behavior problems, adding to the possibility that a pup or dog might be returned after being adopted.

Some shelter workers and rescue volunteers use various assessment approaches to learn more about individual dogs. This effort can result in:

* Identifying problems.

* Addressing problems through behavior modification and training sessions. This doesn't happen at all facilities, but it is becoming more prevalent.

* Information that helps shelter and rescue folks make better matches between dogs and potential adopters.

* Knowledge that can be shared with adopters so they can plan to address and avoid problems, increasing the chance of a successful adoption.

Remember, however, that the stress of being in a kennel, losing his former family, and/or possibly enduring recent cruelty, trauma or neglect can negatively influence the outcome of a dog's temperament test. It helps to delay conducting tests until the dog has acclimated to the shelter, which takes at least three days. Depending on the environment of the shelter/kennel, it can take much longer ... and some dogs who could recover normalcy in a calm home just do not adapt to shelter life.

Another caveat: dogs of some breeds and backgrounds are reserved by nature. Temperament tests put substantial emphasis on dogs more willing and able to positively respond sooner to unknown people. So a downside is that a temperament test could weed out dogs who would make fine pets but who are currently a little shy or shelter-stressed at the time of the test.

Also, a temperament characteristic that may be undesirable for many adopters might be fully acceptable to others. For example, a dog who shows exceptional tolerance to people grabbing at him or making sudden movements would be ideal for homes with youngsters or for visiting hospitals as a therapy animal. But that does not mean that a less tolerant dog is abnormal or less adoptable, since his other qualities may be appealing to other prospective adopters.

There is controversy about how much weight temperament evaluation should be given; for example, trauma-influenced behavior can often be remedied with patient training or even just basic care.

Indeed, many rescue volunteers do not rely solely on temperament tests, and prefer instead to take the dog home for a few days (even weeks) to enable more of a real-world assessment. An individual dog may display more outgoing, friendly traits in a home environment; by the same token, a seemingly docile dog in a shelter may show more defensive or aggressive traits when in another environment.

FYI, many experienced rescue volunteers caution not to take any dog with a bite history (particularly human bites) or repeated aggression towards humans ... or who frequently displays erratic behavior even in nonthreatening situations, without a medical basis to the behavior (ie, in pain from being beaten or shot) ... or who tries to attack the temperament evaluator and other people.

Keep in mind the sayings that one size does not fit all and nobody's perfect. All living beings have some of what can be construed as behavior problems. All prospective dog owners should be advised that education and patience will be required on their part, no matter which pup or dog they choose. At the same time, shelters and rescues should attempt to gather as much information as possible on each dog, and provide it with potential adopters. Temperament assessment is a valuable tool, but adoption decisions should be based on other factors as well.

What Testing Involves

Some guidelines for temperament testing follow, but be sure to see the links listed below for complete, essential information.

* Information should be gathered prior to testing, such as age, breed/breed mix, sex, sexual status (puppy or sexually mature), reproductive status (intact or neuter/spay), and behavioral traits such as how friendly the dog acts to people, how the dog reacts to other dogs, whether the dog previously had any obedience training, how the dog reportedly behaved towards kids and adults in his prior home, is the dog on any medications, is the dog ill in any way, etc.

* Know whether the dog has exhibited aggression, and what kinds of aggression, so you can plan accordingly.

* The dog should wear a sturdy collar/leash during the testing so that the testers have a means of control.

* You'll be taking some items for testing in addition to collar and leash; for example, toys, ball, food bowl. Disinfect the test items between use, since there could be illness somewhere in the kennel.

* Have two people present at the test for safety's sake as well as for objective observation.

* Ideally, the tester should be a canine behavior specialist trained in temperament testing. And he or she should not be someone familiar to the dog. Strive to act confident (but not overbearing) and neutral. Be aware that getting a totally objective evaluation is extremely difficult, since a dog's reactions will vary to some degree depending on the physical and personality traits of the evaluator. For example, a dog typically senses quickly whether a person is take-charge leader or a more submissive, deferential type. Dogs usually can also assess whether a person seems friendly and approachable, as opposed to threatening or aloof. This affects the responsiveness of the dog.

* Find a controlled, calm environment for the exercises. This is not something to do in the middle of a crowd. Make sure you can use the room without interruption, disruption or distractions (ie, no loudspeaker announcements, cell phone ringing).

* If the dog shows signs of having not yet adjusted to shelter life, delay testing.

* Record observations about responses immediately after each test exercise.

* A wide variety of testing exercises are conducted. Exercises can include: how long it takes for the dog to pay attention to the evaluator (one test of sociability) ... reaction to being called by the evaluator ... reaction to being approached by the evaluator (friendly? tentative? fearful? neutral?) ... reaction to eye contact, and then being stared at by the evaluator ... responses to being petted in various places of the body (does the dog move closer, pull away, stand still, wag, relax, stiffen) ... reaction to sudden movements (curious? submissive? defensive? aggressive?) ... reaction to certain objects (such as an umbrella or cane ... does the dog panic, does he eventually recover, does he tentatively investigate) ... reaction to a sudden noise ... reaction to unusual tactile stimulation (such as walking on wire) ... reaction to having mouth touched and eventually examined ... reaction to an attempted hug ... reaction to having paws touched (per previous cautions, remember that a shelter dog might have endured injury, and a dog in pain may react defensively -- this is natural and needs to be taken into account) ... reaction to being led on leash ... reaction to being presented a toy and the degree to which the dog attempts to guard the toy ... response to food and any signs of food-guarding ... reaction to being coaxed into a lying-down position (accepting? willing? fearful? struggling?) ... reaction to the evaluator turning away and/or leaving.

Personality traits are also observed and recorded, such as whether the dog is confident or shy ... active, hyperactive or calm ... dependent or independent ... interested in people, things or the environment (some dogs are more interested in things than in people, which is a trait to note) ... tolerant or reactive. Is the dog accepting of physical restraint ... interested in playing (and what kinds of playing; does the dog try to catch, pounce, grab ... his willingness to release objects and interact with the person playing with him) ... given to chase moving targets (object, jogging person ... to gauge prey instinct). This is just an overview; see the links below for details.

* Note: it is good to test a dog's level of arousal to cats, since a dog prone to chasing a cat in play or due to prey drive should not be placed in a home with cats or other small animals. However, do not subject a cat to possible injury or even fear. Some people test the dog by gauging his reaction to a cat in a carrier some distance away.

* Problem reactions would include unprovoked and unwarranted aggression, extreme resource-guarding behavior, difficulty to recover after panicking, and strong avoidance, fear or aggressive tendencies towards things that would be common to everyday environments.

* Realize that time must be allowed for each exercise. For example, even a friendly dog may not approach the evaluator immediately. It may well take 5 or 10 minutes for a friendly dog to feel comfortable in the testing environment before approaching a person.

Questionable Temperaments - Adapting to New Homes

How much can a dog's attitude and sociability change after getting adopted into a caring home?

If the dog's underlying temperament is good, he will start attaching to his new family within two or three weeks. The new owner can speed things up by making a concerted effort new day to bond with the dog, giving lots of quality time, playing ball, going on walks, and teaching basic behaviors such as 'look at me', 'sit' etc.

Some factors that can lead to delays: long or traumatic confinement in a shelter/rescue kennel. The overwhelming noise and activities, and being so close to other dogs (particularly those who are not neutered/spayed) can lead to anxiety and depression.

Also, a dog who was taken away from his or her littermates and mother at too early an age, before 8 to 12 weeks, may have trouble bonding and/or getting socialized.

Wilson suggests how you can help the dog while he is still in the shelter. Visit him several times. Bring healthy, some food rewards (make sure the shelter folks OK giving treats to dogs). Bring a safe toy. See if he starts warming up to you. Ask the shelter staff if the dog has begun bonding with anyone there.

Young Puppy Temperament Assessment

Much more important than puppy temperament testing is the socialization, education and environment that the owner should provide. However, some folks recommend assessing a puppy's sensitivity to various stimuli, using techniques such as those that follow, to get a general idea of a puppy's temperament.

* Clap your hands: does the puppy look at you? Does he approach readily, in a friendly manner? These are good signs of sociability.

* Make eye contact: does the puppy engage in eye contact? This is a good indicator of a confidence pup. In contrast, be concerned about a pup who will not look at you. This could reflect a temperament problem or a vision disability.

* Call to the puppy: a puppy who ignores attempts to get his attention may have a hearing or temperament problem. Disinterest in interacting with people can indicate a disease as well.

* Praise the dog: it's good if the puppy responds to verbal praise with some welcoming behavior, such as wagging his tail.

* Follow me: after playing with the pup for awhile, walk or jog away. If he tries to follow, that's a positive sign. Not following indicates the pup has an independent personality.

* Pet the pup: does he respond in a friendly or accepting manner? Or does he try to dominate you by nipping, growling or jumping at you? Does he reflect independence by trying to escape?

* Play with a toy: roll a safe dog toy, such as a ball, or a crumpled paper ball near the pup. But don't toss the toy at the pup. See if the dog will follow it. Encourage the pup to fetch the toy and to bring it back to you. A dominant-natured pup will fetch the ball, take it away, and resist letting you take it. An independent pup may show no interest in the toy; however, this could also indicate an ill puppy. A submissive pup may be a little fearful of the toy. A highly social pup will bring the toy back to you on his own. Normal behavior would involve the pup getting the toy, chewing on it, but allowing you to take it away. Willingness to retrieve can be an indicator of a dog's interest in training exercises.

* Rollover test: gently take the puppy and roll him onto his back. Gently hold him in place with one hand on his chest for 15 seconds. A dominant or independent pup will tend to resist the whole time. He might yip or try to nip you. A submissive pup does not struggle at all, and may try to lick you in deference. Most puppies will resist for a few seconds and then contentedly accept your handling.

Note: this rollover test is not an alpha roll. Never perform an alpha roll on any dog of any age. It's an old technique told to prove dominion, but eventually found to hamper the human/canine bond in addition to leading to many bite cases.

* Picking up the puppy: lift gently by interlacing your fingers palms up beneath his tummy. Hold him in this elevated position for 30 seconds. Does he struggle actively for release, for a prolonged period, signaling dominance or independence? Or does he quickly acquiesce? How quickly he accepts and relaxes can indicate whether he's relatively submissive or closer to a typical pup. A submissive pup will attempt to lick in deference to your control.

* Touch a paw, then press between the pads gently. The responses you get and how quickly you get them can reflect a pup's tendency towards submission, dominance, independence, or a more normal temperament.

* Noise test: make a sudden noise. See if the pup responds with curious interest, fear, barking, aggression, or ignores it.

* For a detailed puppy evaluation program see the Volhard Puppy Aptitude Test link below. This approach assesses social attraction and social dominance, retrieving, following, restraint, elevation (being lifted), touch sensitivity, sound sensitivity and stability, and ranks pups in degrees as socially attracted, adaptive, submissive, dominant and independent.

Notes about puppy handling and evaluation:

* Make sure nothing fearful or negative happens during any puppy evaluation or handling sessions.

* Responsiveness indicates that the puppy is probably pretty adaptive and has great ability to bond. A pup who seems very nervous or fearful may not be a good choice for a home with children or with a lot of activity. However, he may respond very well to gentle and consistent training suited to his personality. A dog who tends to be aloof even when faced with stimuli may be of an independent temperament, and might be stubborn when it comes time for training, but that's not always the case. Again, keep in mind that these are generalizations, and puppy adopter will be in the key position to shape the pup's behavior.

* Many behavior experts do not place great emphasis on testing of young puppies; however, some agree that highly aggressive pups often turn out to be dominant and aggressive adults. If you're checking out dogs in a litter, you may want to engage the help of a canine behaviorist.

* It is important to handle puppies frequently and every day. Always handle them gently and speak in a calm, happy manner. Your goals are to teach them to accept being handled, that no harm will come from handling, that it's OK to be examined (this paves the way for acceptance of everything from grooming to vet visits), and to trust you as a benevolent leader. Puppy kindergarten classes are also highly recommended to help provide essential socialization opportunities.

Resources

Assessing a Shelter Dog
by Jean M. Fogle
http://ebook-download.cba.pl/ebook/assessing-a-shelter-dog-by-jean-m-fogle.html

Evaluating Temperament in a Potential Rescue Dog
by M. Shirley Chong
http://www.shibaweb.com/rtemp.htm

Puppy Aptitude Test
by Wendy and Joachim Volhard
http://www.workingdogs.com/testing_volhard.htm

Fostering a Rescue Dog
http://www.shibaweb.com/rfst.htm

Choosing and Getting a Dog
http://www.paw-rescue.org/PAW/PETTIPS/DogTip_ChoosingAndGettingAPet.php
Adding a Dog to Your Family: How to Prepare for Success

Mixed Breeds
http://www.paw-rescue.org/PAW/PETTIPS/DogTip_MixedBreeds.php

Book List - includes excellent books about evaluating puppies and secondhand dogs
http://www.paw-rescue.org/PAW/PETTIPS/DogTip_Books.php

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Last Updated: August 17, 2014 (LET) PawSupport