Behavior Evaluations

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C.A.R.E. now conducts the ASPCA Meet Your Match Canine-ality Program in addition to Assess A Pet and SAFER behavior evaluations of each dog before they are made available for adoption. These tools help us determine what kind of home is appropriate for each particular dog, resulting in better adoptions for you and for our dogs.

The following article about Sue Sternberg's techniques was written by Wendy DeCarlo, one of C.A.R.E.'s behavior evaluators. It appeared in the March 2000 issue of Chipawgo Magazine.

Behavior evaluation for dogs in shelters was developed by Sue Sternberg, a nationally known dog trainer and animal shelter owner/operator in New York. Behavior evaluation of a dog's temperament is performed through a series of sequential tests. The evaluations provide information to shelter personnel (and adoption counselors in particular) that aid in the placement of these dogs into appropriate homes.

The evaluations are performed by veterinarians, trainers and other pet professionals who have a background of experience in behavior, understand canine body language, and possess strong observation skills. The evaluators are people with whom the dog is not familiar. They remain neutral throughout the tests and are objective in their observations. All of the tests are based on examples of what people routinely do with their pets.

Ideally, dogs should have at least three days to acclimate to the shelter prior to evaluation. Forms are used to chart the progression of the tests and to compile an adoption profile. In the beginning, the evaluator spends time observing the dog. This initial period allows the evaluator to see whether the dog is sexually mature and intact, whether it is cautious, and whether it his showing any signs of friendliness. Does the dog acknowledge the tester and/or solicit attention? This information determines if you proceed further.

Once it has been determined that the tests should continue, the evaluator begins stroking the dog in a neutral/non-threatening area first, then progresses to stroking the back, patting the side, patting the head, and finally initiating more affectionate interaction. The dog is rated on all of his responses. Personality traits are then determined: is the dog confident/timid, calm/frenetic, independent/dependent, people oriented/environment oriented, unflappable/reactive, etc. All of these traits have varying degrees of interpretation, so careful assessment is important. Many dogs fall within a continuum of the personality descriptions, and this gives way to further explanation on their evaluation forms. Physical control and restraint responses are tested. This is similar to a veterinary examination: the dog experiences physical restraint and his teeth as well as the rest of his body are checked. Also, the play and prey response is checked. The evaluator attempts to engage the dog in physical play and takes notice of how quickly the play occurs, whether it escalates (i.e. does it become mouthing, grabbing, jumping). When the evaluator stops, he also takes notice of how long it takes before the dog calms down. Interest in toys is tested, too. Retrieving and tug games are applied to see what experience the dog has. A chase response is tested to determine whether the dog is aroused by quickly moving targets.

The evaluator looks at prior training: Does the dog have any? Without physical manipulation and without prompting with the leash or collar, verbal obedience cues and hand signals are given. Response to sit, down, shake/paw, come, etc. are tested. Rewards are given when the dog responds correctly. If no training is apparent, evaluators teach the "Sit!" command using a food lure. This is the beginning of the dog's in-shelter training. On-leash behavior is also observed. Food and object guarding are tested, as are the dog's reaction to visitors and strangers. Dogs are tested to determine compatibility with other dogs and cats.

This is a brief overview of the behavior evaluations administered at animal shelters. Shelters sometimes improvise by removing or adding additional tests to the routine. In reality, each test is performed in great depth. Each dog is evaluated as an individual and is not prejudged by breed or size. Care is taken when completing the written profile. This information is detailed and should reasonably suggest the type of home and environment preferred for each dog.

Properly administered behavior evaluations hold a lot of merit. Animal shelters that have implemented this type of program have enjoyed more appropriate adoption placements, increased adoptions through better information, and a much lower rate of return. Adopting a dog is an important decision, one that takes time and preparation and is a lifetime commitment. Evaluations are a valuable tool for the adoption process.