Problem behaviors are a common reason owners cite for surrendering dogs to shelters. Moreover, the shelter environment is stressful and it may exacerbate or even induce problematic behaviors in sheltered dogs. An accurate and reliable understanding of behavioral tendencies and personality is important in determining a dog's suitability for rehoming, need for behavioral treatment and intervention while in the shelter, and best placement when rehomed. This is why the Center for Shelter Dogs chose to focus much of our research on shelter dog behavioral assessments. In particular, we worked to validate the Match-Up II Behavior Evaluation, part of the Match-Up II Shelter Dog Rehoming Program, through an investigation of its ability to identify common canine personality traits, the reliability of its behavioral coding (consistency of measurement over time, place, and evaluator), and the predictive validity of its results (the accuracy in predicting behavior in the home). In addition, we also conducted other research related to behavior evaluations, such as the use of a fake dog during a behavior evaluation instead of a live dog.
Behavioral Traits detected in shelter dogs
Animal shelters and other organizations caring for and placing dogs regularly use behavioral test batteries to evaluate dogs' behavioral tendencies in order to make safe and appropriate placements. Behavioral tendencies, or behavioral traits, are driven in part by personality. Therefore, test batteries should be able to identify patterns of behaviors which reflect elements of canine personality. This study investigated the ability of one behavioral test battery currently in use at a shelter by examining the results from 668 behavior evaluations of shelter dogs. The test was composed of 19 subtests, one of which was excluded because it did not use the same coding scheme as the others. The 18 subtests included in the analysis used the same coding scheme where 38 behaviors were coded dichotomously (observed/not observed). Scores reflecting the number of subtests in which each behavior was observed were calculated and subjected to a principal components analysis with Varimax rotation. Analysis yielded a four factor solution which accounted for 45.3% of the total variance and included 26 of the behaviors. Three of the components -- fearfulness (accounting for 12.3% of the variance), friendliness (11.7%), and aggressiveness (10.7%) -- were readily interpretable and consistent with other research. The fourth component, interest (10.5%), was unique and seemed to reflect a neutral or anticipatory state, perhaps related to the testing situation. Results provide evidence that this test battery does indeed detect elements of canine personality, which may enable identification of stable behavioral tendencies and so facilitate placement decisions. Read the full study here.
Using a fake dog in behavior evaluations
The Center for Shelter Dogs receives many questions from shelters using the Match-Up II Behavior Evaluation if using a fake dog instead of a real dog during canine behavior evaluations. Since there is little research indicating if a fake dog can be reliably substituted, the Center for Shelter Dogs decided to evaluate the consistency of shelter dogs' reaction toward a fake and a real dog during the dog-to-dog subtest. Forty-five shelter dogs were evaluated using two different stimulus conditions. In one condition the dog was confronted with a fake plush dog and in the other with a real dog. We found that the fake dog is a useful device to evaluate friendly behavior toward other canines. The high degree of agreement was reached for the friendly trait. However, the fake dog should be used with caution when identifying fear toward conspecifics and should not be used when identifying aggression. Since the aggressive trait can be accompanied by friendly behavior at the same time (e.g., tail wagging before a lunge), friendliness to a fake dog does not guarantee that a dog won't show aggression toward another real dog. Thus, using a fake dog will not accelerate the evaluation process in terms of time savings. Considering the limited utility of the results, the fake dog should not be used as a proxy for a live dog. This study is currently in the process of submission; please follow our newsletter for more information.
Reliability and Validity Assessments
Reliability is the first part of validation (after standardization), even before validity. Validity cannot exist without reliability. Therefore, the Center for Shelter Dogs examined the reliability of the behavioral coding of the Match-Up II Behavior Evaluation first, examining the consistency of ratings between raters and over time. Overall, most behaviors showed adequate to strong reliability. Results were used to make improvements in the behavior definitions and training offered to our shelter partners in order to increase standardization and reliability. This study is currently in the process of submission; please follow our newsletter for more information. Studies investigating the predictive validity of the Match-Up II Behavior Evaluation results are planned for the future.