By: Mary R. Burch, PhD  Date: 01/8/2012 Category: | Animal Rights Extremism | Canine Issues | Shelter Issues |

Editor's note: Dr. Meloche is listed as an author on this paper because he was the director of the shelter at the time the work was done.  Dr. Mary Burch and many other volunteers left the TLCASC when they became extremely concerned with Meloche's management. Dr. Meloche is no longer with the Tallahassee shelter.

There is a growing emphasis in animal shelters on reducing the number of dogs euthanized and increasing the numbers of adoptions. While “adoptability” is a primary concern in shelters, shelter administrators find themselves trying to balance the goals of adopting as many animals as possible with making sure that the safety of citizens is not jeopardized by placing aggressive dogs in the community.

As a result, many shelters are beginning to use a formal, written screening process to assess canine behavior. Assessments range from simple one-page checklists to elaborate test protocols that may take as long as two hours to administer per dog. While the more time-consuming assessments may yield a great deal of information about each animal tested, many shelters do not have the time or the staff to conduct such a lengthy evaluation. Therefore, these more time-consuming assessments are most often used by private rescue groups and private shelter programs.

In shelters where a written assessment process is not yet in place, decisions regarding euthanasia (for aggression) are often based on staff statements such as “I just looked into his eyes,” “I have a gut feeling about this dog,” or “He put up a red flag.”

The decision of whether an animal will live or die should made in the most professional, ethical, and thorough manner possible. Further, in the event that staff members find themselves in court testifying on a dog-bite case, a well-constructed assessment will be easier to defend than the statement that one could simply “read the dog by looking at him.”

Problems With Current Assessments

Common shelter dog assessments include checklists and rating scales. In a checklist format, observers score responses they see. For example, on the assessment item “Dog responds to petting,” a checklist of possible observed responses may include items such as:

( ) Dog is relaxed,
( ) Dog pulls away or
( ) Dog growls at observer.

Rating scales often present behaviors in a traditional one-to-five format with the two ends of the continuum representing the extreme responses. A moderate response is in the middle. For example, on a rating scale format, observers would look at the behavior “tolerates petting” and would score five if the dog was “extremely confident,” the score would be three if the dog had a response that was “neutral” and the dog would be given a score of one, the least desirable response, if it was “extremely fearful.”

Most typically, rating scales describe behaviors in subjective, non-behavioral terms. Because terms such as “friendly,” “shy,” “threatening,” and “confident” can mean different things to different people, the ideal canine assessment includes definitions for behaviors that can be observed and counted. “Friendly” presented in a more behavioral way would include specific behaviors such as “approaches the front of the cage,” “licks the hand of the evaluator,” and so on.

Some assessments for shelter dogs are not reliable. Reliability is a research term that means two observers can agree on an observation at any point in time. According to standard research convention, for an assessment to be reliable, two observers watching a dog who is being tested should be able to agree on at least 80 percent of the items scored. If two observers are unable to get reliability at 80 percent or above, the assessment tool is unreliable. The solution to this problem may be modifying the assessment, clarifying the definitions, or providing additional training for the observers.

Development of the ADOPT

Early in 2001, the Advisory Board for the Tallahassee Leon Community Animal Service Center (our local shelter) recommended that an assessment process be implemented to ensure that no animals were euthanized who had the potential for adoption. A committee was formed to work on identifying or developing an assessment for the shelter’s animals, and it was decided that we would develop an assessment tool that met the needs of our shelter.

In developing the ADOPT, the following 10 steps were carried out over a period of about four months.

  1. Review the literature and a number of canine behavioral assessment tools.

  2. Try out some of the assessment tools and critique for the committee.

  3. Select a preferred format for an assessment (scale vs. lists of behaviors, etc) and choose categories of behavior.

  4. Prepare a draft assessment.

  5. Try the draft assessment on several dogs.

  6. Revise the assessment (we had to re-order test items).

  7. Try the revision on several more dogs.

  8. Final revision- clarify wording and modify protocol (where to test, etc).

  9. Try the final revision on several dogs.

  10. Reliability sessions conducted over several weeks (several observers).

Staff Training

Knowing that we would eventually want to teach all of the shelter staff to evaluate dogs, a training package was developed that included information on

  1. recognizing the signs of stress (some dogs behave differently while being tested)
  2. body postures,
  3. social behavior (including developmental information) and
  4. aggression.

About the ADOPT

The ADOPT includes 10 general categories of behavior that are:

  1. In-kennel behaviors

  2. Approach behaviors (animal approaches observer)

  3. Leash/collar behaviors

  4. Assessment area behaviors (out of run; in hallway or outside)

  5. On-leash behaviors

  6. Reactions to petting and handling

  7. Reactions to play

  8. Reaction to distractions

  9. Reaction to other animals (e.g., dogs, cats)

  10. Guarding of food or possessions

Within each of the 10 general categories of behavior, there are several specific test items. We started with 50 items on the ADOPT and most current version (6.2) has been pared down to 15 test items. Our research showed that some test items yield the same results. For example, if a dog’s reaction to a loud stimulus is tested by the dropping of a food pan, it is not also necessary to test the dog’s reaction to clapping hands.

The administration of the test takes approximately 10 minutes. If a dog does not pass the in-kennel and approach behaviors portion of the ADOPT (indicating that it is aggressive), the test is stopped. A minimum of two staff members are present for assessments. This is for the safety of the staff and to ensure reliability.
We developed our assessment and as a committee, we began to consider a suitable name for the test. We considered “Behavior Assessment for Dogs” until we realized that the acronym would be BAD. “Screening Assessment for Dogs” had a similar problem. Someone finally suggested that we needed a name to describe what the test did, which was Assess Dogs On Practical Tests. A-D-O-P-T. The name couldn’t have worked out any better!

Problem with assessing shelter dogs

The most obvious problem with implementing an assessment program for all dogs (with the exception of strays who will return home) in a shelter is the time it takes to assess dogs. When shelters are short-staffed, procedures such as conducting behavior assessments seem like luxuries. One possibility is to have a core of qualified volunteers (e.g., experienced dog trainers) who can be called to come in and assist staff with assessments during busy times.

Some rescue groups opposed behavioral assessments because they believe that:

  1. they are more qualified to evaluate their breed(s) than shelter staff or
  2. they feel that using behavior assessments will result in an increased number of euthanasias, particularly dogs who are identified on an assessment to be dangerous or aggressive.


At one shelter, a breed rescue person for several larger guard breeds told staff that the only acceptable assessment for her breeds was to go in the cage and “see if you can back the dogs down.” She felt that her breeds needed to be evaluated only by people who “understood” them and that it was not appropriate to judge all breeds by the same standard.

Some rescue groups advocate taking aggressive/dangerous dogs out of shelters and placing them in carefully selected homes. They believe that implementing an assessment that results in the euthanasias of all dogs who attempt to bite or show signs of aggression will have the undesirable result of increasing the number of dogs euthanized.

The ADOPT Results

The ADOPT was fully implemented at the TLC Animal Service Center in July 2002. In seven months, euthanasias of adoptable animals have dropped to a low of 10 percent while adoptions are up from the same time period in the previous year.

As a dramatically increasing number of shelters implement behavior assessments, it is estimated that within five years the behavioral assessment of dogs will be considered best practice in shelters across the country.

This article was adapted from an article previously published in the American Animal Trainers Magazine.

About The Author

Mary R. Burch, PhD's photo
Mary R. Burch, PhD -

All Authors Of This Article: | Mary R. Burch, PhD |
Like this article?
Don’t forget to share, like or follow us



blog comments powered by Disqus