Temperament Testing

What it Can't Do, What it Can Do and What it Should Be


By Dr. Linda Wolf
CARE Veterinary Consulting

To temperament test or not to temperament test, that is the question. Whether it is a noble endeavor or "¦


Well, for what it's worth, here is my bottom line on the subject: I believe that temperament tests should not be administered to give a pass/fail assessment as to whether an animal should be euthanized. But, I also truly believe that if used for the right reasons and in the right hands, behavioral or personality assessment evaluations are not only a useful tool, but a necessary tool and one that should be a part of any behavioral program.


You will note that I did not use the term "temperament testing," I dislike that term when it is used with regard to shelter behavioral evaluations. "Temperament" is based on genetics and is our way of responding to our environment. Character is based on our environment and experiences. Temperament and character produce personality, and it is the dog's personality that we should be assessing.


I would not expect someone to know my personality in a onetime meeting, nor would I expect to know a dog's personality based on a one-time test. My personality is different in different situations. It often varies day-to-day or, I hate to admit this, hour-to-hour or situation-tosituation. If I happen to be really tired or hungry I will guarantee you that my personality will be a lot grumpier than normal. How can we expect different from a dog? We need to assess them over a broad range of environments and experiences.


Behavioral assessments can give a picture of the socialization of a dog to people or to other dogs. They can show us what might stimulate different responses from a dog and a dog's ability to inhibit aggressive behavior. Behavior assessments should be used as a tool in identifying what areas of behavior need to be addressed, what type of behavior modification techniques should be employed, what safety measures should be made and what type owner would be best suited for the dog.


Behavioral assessments CANNOT be the only criteria used to make life/death decisions; they cannot and should not determine the total behavior status of an animal based on a one-time situation.


There are a great many different testing methods available.


The one that is the best known and often used in shelters is the Sue Sternberg: Assess-a-Pet. My dog would have definitely failed this test when she was first found and would probably fail a part of it even today. Even Sue Sternberg admits some of her dogs couldn't pass it.


Others behavior assessment tools include Emily Weiss' SAFER test, Patricia Simonet's SCRAPS, Warren Eckstein's gentle assessment method, Dr. James Serpell's C-BARQ, etc. Patricia Simonet's test is fairly broad and encompassing. It states right in her instructions for the test that "Finally, please use this tool as a way by which to better identify problems and fix them. Please do NOT use this tool as a way to identify animals for euthanasia. This is an inappropriate use of this tool." Way to go, Patricia Simonet.


There are a number of factors that make temperament testing unreliable in order to make a life/death decision.




The best scenario would be to test an animal in as close to a home situation as possible. But remember, nowhere in a shelter is a completely comfortable place for a dog, so even the most sheltered area can feel unsafe and create stress for the animal.


Stressed animal:


What makes up a shelter animal? Abandoned, ownerrelinquished, a stray; many have been neglected or abused; some have medical problems, some are old and some are starving, but I will guarantee you, all are stressed-out upon arrival.


A stressed animal does not necessarily exhibit its normal behavior. Some dogs behave more aggressively when stressed, some more fearfully, some will be quiet and inhibited. Let me tell you, if I were stressed and hungry and somebody pushed me and there was nowhere I could get away, I would push back strongly. And if I were hungry enough or had experienced food deprivation and somebody tried to take food away from me I would fight for that food.


Length of time prior to testing:


Often these temperament tests are done within a very short time of arrival. Accepting these results can lead to fatal errors.


Fearful and sensitive dogs may be overly traumatized by their experience arriving at the shelter and they may show behaviors that could fail them during testing. The other scenario is aggressive and dangerous dogs need time to settle in and get comfortable since they may not show their true behavior.


Length of time to test:


One test states it takes 12 to 15 minutes to perform, and if a dog fails part of the test, they don't continue, so it could take a lot less time"”I have never felt that time to be even close to adequate. How in the world can you gather all the information you need in such a short time?


Testing period:


Often the decisions are made after performing an assessment only once"”it is often strike one and you're out. How can doing the test once be a complete picture?


You need time to obtain a full picture; however, I believe that if a dog has had a history of unprovoked and unwarranted aggression or extreme resourceguarding behavior and/or has a history of serious bites there needs to be a more immediate decision-making process in place.

Experience and skill to properly administer and evaluat e the test:


Have the testers been trained to observe and interpret dog behavior? Do they have the knowledge or skill to accurately assess subtle cues and behaviors?


Assuming one size fits all:


One of the biggest problems with temperament tests is that they do not accommodate an adopter's preferences, commitment level and motivation to succeed with an animal or their skill and abilities to take on a less-than-perfect dog.


I hold that a great majority of shelter dogs tested using some of the test methods and test acceptable parameters are almost guaranteed to fail"”and for many facilities failure means "unadoptable," and "unadoptable" means death.


As I stated before, I believe behavioral assessments should be conducted, but they should never exist in a vacuum. A comprehensive behavioral assessment should include not only the actual testing but also collateral measurements. It should be a TEAM effort.


Intake/surrender behavior information, kennel behavior assessments, dog walker assessments, foster family assessments, repeat behavioral assessments and behavioral modification plans should all be used in conjunction with an initial behavior assessment.


All together these measurements will give some ability to predict a home situation, but it is never 100 percent accurate"” there are just too many variables.


Animals need to be given a real chance to show who they really are and to demonstrate that their initial behavior may be a reaction to a very stressful and scary environment or a reaction to a situation they have just been removed from (i.e. a starving dog).


Let's face it: no canine, or for that matter, no human is aggression-free. Given the right circumstances, the right stress and the inability to choose otherwise, any animal can become aggressive and bite. If you want a dog that's guaranteed not to be aggressive or fearful or guard their food or toys"”get a stuffed toy.


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