Temperamental Temperament Testers

There seems to be a continuing issue with "temperament tests" at our local SPCAs and Animal Control facilities.  Being as heavily involved in rescue as I am, I see a lot of pigeon-holing and biased interpretations based on NORMAL dog behavior in abnormal conditions. 

Let's clear something up here - living in a shelter cage is NOT a normal housing situation for a dog.  Any dog living behind chain link fencing and on cement flooring is going to have some behavioral fallout just from the environment around him or her.  Imagine being subjected to deafening barks, overwhelming smells, and barriers to block sight and contact from other dogs and humans.  How would you act?  Like a "loon", as Ian Dunbar likes to say.  The mere stress of the situation would crush some of us, while social facilitation would cause the rest of us to bark and act crazy with frustration until we were hoarse and running in circles.

The problem with temperament testing is that it doesn't give us an accurate portrait of a dog's personality/behavior.  It is a flash in the pan.  If you caught me prior to coffee, with little sleep, you'd probably label me a "witch" or even "aggressive".  After some coffee and maybe a nap I might be the nicest person you've met in a long time.  I won't rule out that some clues may be present, such as being wary of handling by strangers, while other things like resource guarding are the product of displaced stress.  Each situation needs to be addressed separately and, hopefully, worked on.  When I worked as an adoption manager at an SPCA I found that most of the in-kennel behaviors present in the adopted dog almost vanished completely at home.  Dogs who resource guarded bowls didn't present any of that with their new families.  Dogs who lunged and barked at dogs on leash were calm and going to dog parks without issue.  On the other side of it, dogs with "no" issues in the shelter were resource guarding or having trouble with the resident dog they moved in with. 

My rant is directed towards those who do these temperament tests that depict their findings as law.  Those that condemn rude, jumpy, mouthy dogs to death because they are "red zone" and unadoptable for normal dog behaviors.  Even more so, those with a bias against certain breeds who find guarding or "dog aggression" and say "Well it doesn't surprise me".  It SHOULD surprise us - dogs are supposed to be social creatures.  We need to use some more deductive reasoning and not write these animals off.  I won't even get into the qualifications most of these testers lack(ie experience in rehabilitating shelter dogs, factual knowledge of dog behavior that they didn't learn on TV, etc).

One week ago I was emailed a plea to pull a dog for the pit bull rescue I am affiliated with out of an SPCA in New York state.  It was for a 14 week old, red brindle pit bull female.  The shelter staff was 'uncomfortable' adopting her out due to the behaviors she was presenting while there.  The staff was alpha rolling her for puppy biting, which only escalated her response.  They were also giving her leash corrections and physical "corrections" by hand.  She'd only been there a week at that point.  My level-headed friend who volunteers there, who is also a dog trainer, was asked by the staff to find her a rescue - by their Director, in fact.  A 'drivey' pit bull puppy is NOT a rarity - it blows my mind how a shelter would NOT adopt out a dog at this age with this sort of normal behavior happening without realizing their location and actions were exacerbating the problem.

Needless to say, I welcomed her into my house last night for fostering.  She was a little rough around the edges meeting my crew here initially, but I would be too if I had been deprived of dog contact for at least two weeks, possibly more depending on her situation before this SPCA.  Today they are all passed out spooning on the couch.  This puppy should have never been subjected to the THOUGHT of life in a cage at a no-kill, or even death at a kill shelter, due to her NORMAL dog behavior.

So, please be careful, shelter staff and volunteers.  Instead of pointing your finger at these dogs for behavior issues, curl it around your clicker and fix it instead.  It is energy better spent.