Module 4: The Case of the Barking Dog

Physical and Behavioral Examination

If you were looking to adopt a dog or cat, you would no doubt want to learn as much as you possibly could about that pet. But, how could you do that? Would the way in which the animal behaved in the shelter be the same as how he or she would behave in your home? If you decided to bring a dog or cat from the shelter to your home, how long would it take you to “get to know” them? And, once that pet had settled into your home and established a positive relationship with you, do you think that he or she might behave differently (as opposed to when you first brought them home)? You bet they would! The truth is that even in the ideal setting of a proper home environment with an experienced pet owner, getting to know a pet takes knowledge, skill, effort, and a considerable amount of time. Furthermore, some animals will be much easier to “get to know” than others.


An orange adult cat sits on a shelf inside a large wire enclosure. He appears alert and neutral as he looks out of the enclosure towards the camera. Next to him is a decorative sign hanging on the outside of his enclosure that reads, “If you don’t like my catitude, call 1-800-get-a-dog.”
How this cat behaves in the shelter may be nothing at all like how he would behave in someone’s home. It is very difficult to predict behavior because it is greatly influenced by many factors including stress, the environment, and relationships with people and other animals.

Difficult questions that shelters must consider

  • How can a shelter predict how an animal is going to behave in a home? If an animal is stressed out, fearful, anxious, or frustrated in the shelter, how might this affect their behavior?
  • How can a shelter determine with any certainty that an animal is a suitable candidate to safely re-home?
  • If an animal is deemed “unsafe” for adoption, what happens to them?
  • If an animal is adopted out and bites or otherwise seriously injures someone, is the shelter liable?

Let’s explore some possible answers to such questions.

Behavioral examination

Every animal (that is deemed safe to handle) should receive a physical examination at or as close to the time of admission to the shelter as possible. In addition to physical examination, behavioral examination or observation should also begin upon admission.

Some shelters use a “formal behavior evaluation test” aimed at helping them get to know an animal as well as to determine whether or not that animal is suitable for adoption—and what sort of home might be best. Most of these tests have been designed for use in dogs, although some shelters have also utilized such tests for cats as well. Such “formal behavior evaluation tests” typically follow a structured format and include things the pet would likely encounter in a home such as:

  • Greeting and petting
  • Handling, including handling in ways that might be annoying (such as lightly pinching a toe or flank)
  • Engaging the pet in play
  • Evaluating how a pet responds to a stranger, to other animals, etc.
  • And, for dogs, evaluating how they respond to having their food bowl and chew bone taken away.

The tests are conducted by a person unfamiliar to the animal and all of the components are done one right after the next in a single session. As you can imagine, the tests themselves can be quite stressful for shelter animals and these evaluations are often very subjective. The most common of these tests are summarized on the ASPCA Pro website. Despite extensive research, such tests have not been scientifically validated. Attempts to standardize them have also not been successful and results and interpretations may vary substantially among those performing them. In addition, evidence demonstrating that these tests are useful for predicting future behavior in a home is sparse. In some instances, shelters hold animals in order to carry out these tests, creating back logs of animals waiting to be tested, and in turn affecting overall efficiency of care and increasing the average length of stay for each animal. For all of these reasons, the routine use of these “formal behavior tests” has been called into question by many experts and is no longer routinely recommended.

If there’s no reliable “test” to assess behavior and adoptability, what’s a shelter to do?

It is true that there is no “test” that can reliably predict future behavior in the home. Behavioral responses are profoundly influenced by stress and the environment, as well as the relationship an animal has with the handler. Nonetheless, it is crucial to observe and monitor behavior in order to recognize and mitigate stress and other negative emotional states that animals may be experiencing in the shelter, as well as to learn as much as possible about each individual to aid in optimizing shelter behavioral care, outcome assessment, and adoption matching and counseling, to the extent possible. Assessment of behavior should include history, as well as information gleaned from every interaction with the animal. When available, history of how the animal behaved in previous homes and situations is one of the best predictors of future behavior. Information gleaned from interacting with animals during routine intake and husbandry procedures as well as enrichment, play, and training activities can be used to guide care plans and provide for each individual animals’ emotional needs, ensure their welfare in the shelter, and make the best possible decisions with regard to safety, placement, and matching. Criteria to identify dangerous animals, such as history and/or displays of severe or injurious aggression, combined with risk assessment, should be defined to protect staff and public safety.

In some cases, formal testing may be used by well trained and skilled observers. Although the results may not predict future behavior, these tests can provide valuable information about how animals react in specific situations in the moment. Such tests should not be used as a single snapshot view of an animal to make a life or death (euthanasia) decision. Instead, assessment and outcome decisions should always be based on all available information. Ascertaining whether or not a particular animal poses a safety risk to humans or other animals is a serious and difficult responsibility.

According to the ASV Guidelines:

Current recommendations for behavior assessment are to combine objective information collected via behavioral history with objective behavior observations noted during a variety of interactions.1,44,45 An overall behavior assessment must collect and consider all the information about the animal, including history and behaviors observed during all shelter and foster interactions. These interactions, with an emphasis placed on those likely to occur in a home setting, include intake procedures, daily care, medical handling and treatment, enrichment, play, and training activities, as well as interactions with personnel, visitors, adopters, and animals of the same species.”



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Integrating Veterinary Medicine with Shelter Systems Copyright © 2020 by University of Florida is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.