Kids & Pets
August 16, 2017
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Temperament testing for dogs is a complex topic

By: Mickey Zeldes
August 11, 2017

Last week the Press Democrat published a long article on the merits of the temperament tests that shelters do with the dogs. They brought up a lot of good points and examples but as usual painted the issue as black and white.  It’s a very complex topic and really has 50 shades of grey!

There was a time when Sonoma County shelters, including ours, were so crowded that euthanasia was necessary just to make room for incoming animals. Fortunately, through aggressive free and low-cost spay/neuter programs and changing to a managed intake system, that is no longer the situation. As stated in the paper “With overcrowding a severe problem and euthanasia the starkest solution, shelter workers saw testing as an objective way to make heartbreaking decisions.” Otherwise it was completely subjective and arbitrary. So whether scientifically valid or not, it gave shelters a solid reason they could point to for the decisions they had to make.

But the question not asked in the article is, is there a place for testing in helping you find appropriate placements for your dogs? In other words is the information gathered helpful at all?  The article gave an example of a yellow lab named Bacon that “failed” the temp test when it bit aggressively at a fake hand trying to pull his food dish away – a typical test used to assess food guarding. Now some of you will automatically defend the dog saying that he’s in an extremely stressful environment having been given up by his family or lost and put into a noisy, unfamiliar shelter and now he’s having a strange looking hand in his food dish trying to take it away. Any dog would bite in that situation!  

But in fact, having watched thousands of dogs being tested this way over the years, I can assure you that most do not! In fact there is a range of reactions that are possible from meekly giving up the food dish, freezing and giving a hard stare at the hand, growling a warning, air snapping to finally actually biting. Really very few dogs immediately bite aggressively when their dish is approached. So what was learned is that Bacon has a very uninhibited bite. Isn’t that something you would want to know before you took him home with your three young children?  The rescue group that took on Bacon made the decision to make him available but to a home without children to hopefully prevent a bite from occurring. Since labs are considered the ultimate family dog, without this test a bad situation could have occurred.  

So the question isn’t should shelters do temperament tests, but rather what should shelters do with the information gathered, how much should be disclosed to the adopters and what kind of liability should a shelter have if, in fact, their assessment is inaccurate and an injury occurs.  There are shelters that have such high volume of animals that they simply don’t have the time to do any kind of assessment and adopters take on an animal “as is.” The dog-to-dog test happens when the adopted dog meets your dog at home. Same for the child safety test. So you are really taking your chances. It would be interesting to study if those shelters have a higher rate of returns and bites than the shelters that try to predict future behaviors based on these tests.

I think there is a value in doing these tests as long as it’s not the only tool used in making life or death decisions. It is just one piece of the information used if, in fact, a decision to euthanize is made. We mostly do these temperament assessments in the hope of doing better matchmaking.  We note behaviors that we think could be a problem with children and how the dogs react to other dogs and our mascot cat. Information that could help you decide if a particular dog is right for your family!


Upcoming Events:

“Get Them Back Home” Campaign – Every lost pet should have a way to get back home.  FREE pet ID tag and a back-up microchip are available to all residents of Rohnert Park and Cotati. No appointment necessary, just come by the shelter during our regular open hours: Wednesday 1-6:30 p.m.; Thursday-Friday-Saturday, 1-5:30 p.m.; and Sunday1-4:30 p.m.


Fix-it Clinics – Free spay and neuters for cats; and $60 dog surgeries (up to 80 lbs) for low-income Rohnert Park and Cotati residents. Call 588-3531 for an appointment.


Mickey Zeldes is the supervisor at the Rohnert Park Animal Shelter. She can be contacted at