Objective Behavioral Observations


The words we use are important. Whether performing a behavior evaluation, training a dog, or reporting our experiences with a dog in the shelter, our words are valuable and have power.

Our experiences with pets and the observations that occur help us to gain more information about their behavior which helps us to choose a good match for a home.  The words we choose to use, directly influence the value of the information we provide.

‘Sweet dog’ is an overused term in the sheltering world – and what does it mean?? Does it mean that the dog demonstrates friendly body language toward the person who spent time with the dog, and the person really likes it and wants to find it a home? Is the person really attached to the dog so writes that on its observation log in an effort to help it find a home? Or did the dog demonstrate sociable, friendly (low wagging tail, ears forward, loose and wiggly body language) behavior to the five people that it encountered while the person spent time with him?

Using language that reduces the ability for multiple different interpretations allows us to more effectively communicate and more accurately understand what happened when we were not physically present. The rest of this blog includes some recommendations for best practices when communicating about behavior.

Behavioral Observation

What type of information to report

In the shelter, when you are training a dog, exposing the dog to something new (i.e., dog goes to dog playgroup for the first time), have an experience with a dog that is different than what is usual for that dog or experience a behavior that affects what type of home might be best for the dog, it is important that you record that information in shelter software or in the dog’s permanent record.

Even experiences that might shed the dog in a negative light will help the shelter to decide what type of home is best, and are important… and even when you love the dog dearly and don’t have any negative feelings about it. We must report what we observe.

How to record behavioral information

Because behavior can be interpreted differently by different people, it is VERY important to record behavioral observations objectively – in a non-judgmental and non-biased manner. This means recording the actual behavior that you see, and NOT your interpretation of the pet’s behavior. Interpreting behavior results in subjective information- information that is partly influenced by your biases and feelings. Subjective information is usually less valuable than objective information.

Examples of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ observations are included below.  Behavior observations should describe exactly what you see, and not what you interpret the dog’s behavior to mean.  By providing objective behavior evaluations and descriptions, it helps all of us to more thoroughly and accurately evaluate shelter pet behavior.


-Dr. Sheila D’Arpino, Veterinary Behaviorist, Center for Shelter Dogs