For many years, shelters have been using behavioral assessments to determine which dogs can be adopted and which dogs get euthanized for being suspected of aggressive behavior. New research indicates that the two most popular tests are little better than chance at predicting which dogs will be aggressive once they’re out of the stressful shelter environment and into happy homes. Occasionally, this results in aggressive dogs finding their way into homes. More often, this leads to dogs who might be perfectly suited to home life being euthanized.
The two most common behavioral assessment tests are SAFER, which was developed by Emily Weiss, PhD, of the ASPCA, and Assess-a-Pet, which was developed by Sue Sternberg of Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption. Sara Bennett, DVM, decided to test these assessments to find out how accurate they were at predicting dog aggression.
Assess-a-Pet was 73% accurate in predicting which dogs were aggressive. That’s not bad. That would keep 3 out of 4 aggressive dogs out of homes. The problem is that Assess-a-Pet classified 41% of non-aggressive dogs as aggressive. That would mean that 4 out of 10 adoptable dogs are being euthanized on suspicion of being aggressive.
SAFER was an even worse predictor of dog behavior. SAFER only accurately predicted which dogs would be aggressive 60% of the time, and they only predicted which dogs would not be aggressive 50% of the time. Those are basically coin flip odds.
The most difficult part of developing behavioral assessment tests for shelter dogs is that they may react very differently in the stressful shelter environment than they would in a peaceful home environment. Aggressive dogs may be terrified into submission in a shelter, while friendly dogs may react aggressively out of stress.
The most controversial part of any behavioral test is the food aggression test. In 2012, researchers at the ASPCA tested the accuracy of this part of the assessment tests. This test uses a fake plastic hand to to touch a dog’s bowl while he’s eating and then to take the dog’s bowl away. Reactions ranging from a cold hard stare all the way to growling and biting will cause a dog to fail the test.
With the ASPCA test, 96 dogs that tested positive for food aggression were adopted out anyway. Up to 3 months after adoption, the adopters were contacted and asked about their dog’s food aggression. Out of the 96 dogs, only 6 reported any aggression over food, and that aggression wasn’t even consistent. Many of the adopters even touched their dogs while they were eating and the dogs offered no negative reaction whatsoever. These results would seem to indicate that dogs may be more inclined to resource guard in a shelter environment but relax once they’re in a secure home.
So what’s the answer? How can aggressive dogs be kept out of homes where they could bite somebody while non-aggressive dogs can escape euthanasia and have a better chance of finding a forever home?
One solution could be programs like Dogs Playing For Life, which allows shelter dogs the opportunity to get out of their kennels and play for a little bit of time every day. This is proving to reduce stress and give a better real-world indicator of how dogs will react in home environments. This approach is starting to be incorporated into shelters across the country, including large shelters in New York City, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.
Hopefully in time, better, more accurate tests will be developed to keep aggressive dogs out of homes and keep adoptable dogs from being euthanized. In the meantime, shelters are still deciding the best way to assess the behavior of the dogs in their care.
Should shelters use assessment tests on their dogs to try to predict which ones will do better in homes? Let us know in the comments!