Study questions dog behavior tests’ ability to predict aggression

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – A researcher is putting into question the decades-old behavior test for dogs that help determine if it’s eligible for adoption.

Simba, at the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter, demonstrated for ABC27 News.

“We pat, we pat, we pat,” Jen Vanderau, the employee testing Simba, said. “And we kind of pull on her ear.”

Simba received an A+.

“We have a food bowl that he would like to eat from,” Vanderau said, demonstrating the most emblematic part of the universal test, which uses a fake human hand on a stick. “We pull it away from them.”

“We would call in a stranger, somebody comes banging on the door, and see his response to that.”

The test decides whether or not Simba is aggressive or friendly.

“If these dogs do not pass the test when they are in isolation, which is when this happens, they don’t ever go to adoption,” Vanderau said.

The dog behavior test used at shelters across the country has been around for decades, which made it even more controversial when a veterinary professor from Tufts published a study last summer. It says the test predicts animal aggression no better than a coin toss.

“Once he gets into a home, and has a family, and feels like there is something to protect, there is something he loves, doesn’t want to lose anymore, a home is an absolutely different environment than a shelter or kennel,” Vanderau said.

She says the test is a guide, not a guarantee.

“By no means, we do not take this as any kind of blanket, this is how it’s going to be,” Vanderau said.

In Pennsylvania, dogs must stay in a shelter for 48 hours before adoption, which Vanderau says is basically a two-day-long behavior test. Even then, only about a handful of dogs are denied adoption and even fewer are sent away.

“There are moments when particularly aggressive animals are euthanized.”

“The only bad thing about adopting is you don’t know what their background is,” April French, at the Cumberland Valley Animal Shelter on Tuesday with her family, said.

And yet, the French family knows there is far more good in giving the dog a home.

Volunteers say if you do feel unsafe with your pet, bring it back to the shelter.

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