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An Adopter's Guide to Temperament Testing Animals

It’s easy to lose your heart at an animal shelter. There are so many adorable animals vying for your attention that you may find yourself wanting to take them all home. Of course, all the animals deserve good homes, but how do you find that special companion animal that fits the best?

“As a potential adopter, your role is to create the best living situation for the dog or cat you are bringing into your life,” says American Humane Association’s Humane Education Director Michael Kaufmann. “And, the best situation is one that is compatible to both parties. Knowing what qualities you want in a companion animal and how to search for those qualities can prevent you from adopting an animal impulsively or from responding to pressure from well-meaning friends and family.”


Before Visiting the Shelter

To ensure emotion doesn’t override reason, make some decisions before walking through those shelter doors. Begin by examining your living space, lifestyle, and budget. If you are at home all day, you may have time to feed a puppy the required four times a day; if you work away from home, perhaps a cat would be the best companion for you.

“Always consider the qualities and personality you want, before size and appearance,” says Sue Sternberg, an animal behaviorist who operates Rondout Valley Kennels and the Rondout Valley Animals for Adoption Shelter in New York. “For example, a large shepherd-mix might do better in an apartment than a smaller, more energetic, terrier. Before going to a shelter, you should know everything you want in a pet except for what the animal will look like. Very often the pet with the qualities you are looking for will come in an unexpected package.”

Next, discuss the needs, concerns, fears, and medical history (including allergies) of every one in the family. It is also important to find out how much time you can spend with the animal, and the amount of responsibility each person in the family will take. “Be realistic,” says Kaufman. “Promises made by children are likely to fade after the initial excitement of having a pet wears off. Adults in the family should be prepared to provide most of the animal’s care.


Screening Animals for Adoption

While you are deciding on your family’s pet criteria, shelters are screening animals for certain qualities too. In addition to a health exam, some shelters perform a basic temperament screening to find animals who are friendly and sociable, both with people and other animals.“If we’re not getting a good read on an animal, or if a red flag goes up, then the animal is referred to our behavior department for further tests, says Trish King, manager of behavior and training at the Marin Humane Society in California. “That’s when we test for arousal, possession, dog-to-dog aggression, and separation anxiety. But the most important test is for tolerance. I’m talking about finding a dog you can actually hold, and that seeks attention from people. That’s what most people want in a companion animal.”

While some shelters conduct basic temperament testing, only larger shelters with animal behaviorists on staff can offer in-depth screening services like those mentioned above. Therefore, we compiled temperament testing tips for you to take with you to the shelter and better select a companion animal. “This is not a test that animals must pass, but they are guidelines to help adopters find an animal that fits their specific criteria,” says Kaufmann. “These suggestions can help adopters identify certain qualities in an animal, such as friendliness and attentiveness. But it can also help pinpoint traits that might require additional time and attention. Knowing these things ahead of time can make for better adoptions.”


Temperament Testing Tips for Dogs

  1. Check out all the Dogs. “You may be tempted to stop looking after seeing only a few dogs, but if there are 200 dogs at the shelter, you owe it to them and yourself to see them all,” says Sternberg. Some shelters put their most adoptable dogs further in the back in the kennels to give the less adoptable ones a better chance at being seen.

  2. Find out how long a dog has been at the shelter. Dogs need two to three days to adjust to their new environment. New arrivals will probably be looking for their previous owners. If the dog has been there a week and still seems distracted, then the dog may be a bit unfocused and may require more time to train.

  3. Find out who is friendly. “The best buffer against aggression is a very social dog,” says Sternberg. To find a very friendly and sociable canine, use the “hand and talk” test used by animal behaviorists. First, put your hand out to see if the dog will sniff or lick your hand. Then talk to the dog. Social dogs will respond quickly by coming to and even rubbing their bodies up against you. What you want is a dog that seeks out people and wants contact with you.

  4. Meet with the dog in a quiet indoor environment. When you find a dog you would like to get to know better, ask the staff where you can visit quietly with the animal. To see if the dog is interested in people, spend a few minutes ignoring him or her. “A very social dog will solicit your attention in about a minute’s time,” says Sternberg.

  5. Test the dog’s touch tolerance. Pet the dog about 15 times. Does the animal want you to continue or has he/she pulled away by now? “This tells you a little about how much physical contact the dog is willing to tolerate,” says King.

  6. Test the dog’s arousal. Jump around and make squeaking noises for about 15 seconds. See how excited the dog gets and how long it takes for him or her to calm down. “Some dogs have trouble with their on and off switches and may require extra effort and patience on your part to quiet,” says King.

  7. Test the dog for separation anxiety. Walk out of the room and leave the dog alone for a few minutes. When you re-enter the room, check his reaction. Does he seem stressed or out of breath? Very often these signs indicate the dog may suffer from separation anxiety.

  8. Walk the dog (if the shelter allows it). At this point, the dog will be more interested in the smells and sights of the great outdoors than you. The dog will also pull on the leash, but that has no bearing on its future training. What you want to know is how the dog reacts to noise and traffic, and if the dog prone to chasing moving objects, like cars or feet.

  9. Test the dog’s motivation. An animal motivated by a ball or a treat is much easier to train. “If the dog does not react to a treat (keep in mind it may have just eaten) or a tossed ball and appears aloof, the animal may not be properly motivated for obedience training,” says King.

  10. Determine if the dog is child friendly. It’s always a good sign when the dog goes to children first. “In homes with children under seven, it’s really important that the dog prefer the children to the adults,” says Sternberg. “No matter how great the kids are, eventually they will do too much to the dog. If the dog has no tolerance buffer to begin with, the dog will immediately react.”


Temperament Testing Tips for Cats

Unlike dogs, cats are far more affected by their environment and are usually more difficult to temperament test in a shelter. They are easily stressed at the sight and smell of other felines, and the noise from dogs can keep a wonderful cat from showing her best qualities. “Cats are not naturally social, either,” says King. “Most of their socialization occurs between six and 12 weeks of age, so kittens don’t usually appear that socialized.”

With that in mind, here are a few suggestions from the animal behaviorists on how to temperament test older felines in a shelter.

  1. Find out who is friendly. When you talk to them, many cats will greet you by rubbing against the cage door and purring.

  2. Meet the cat in a quiet indoor environment. Hold your fingers out and scratch their neck and head area. If they continue to respond in a positive manner, then the cat probably was well socialized in his/her last home.

  3. Determine a cat’s tolerance for touch. Try to hold the cat. “If the cat immediately struggles away, it might not like human contact,” says Sternberg. Try a few more times, but keep in mind, since the cat can be stressed, he/she might need a few minutes to calm down.

  4. Test the cat for affection/aggression. After petting a cat a few times, does he or she nail you with their claws? “This cat is really not happy with this kind of thing,” says King. “Something to consider if you are looking for a lap cat.”

  5. One last tip. Cats are very sensitive to the scent of other cats, so wash your hands thoroughly and consider bringing in different shirts to change into to start fresh with each cat you visit.


The Adoption Process

When you finally find the perfect pet, be prepared to be screened yourself. Adoption counselors at the shelter will want to determine your commitment and ability to care for an animal. Be prepared to answer questions ranging from your home and lifestyle to your expectations and concerns about pet ownership. Here’s where all your preparation will really pay off: Adoption counselors are always impressed with people who have thought about what they want in a pet before being asked.

A final piece of advice from King: “Don’t think you have to adopt an animal on your very first visit to the shelter. If you are going to be living with this animal for 14 years, then take your time now in finding the right dog or cat. That may take many visits to the shelters.”


By Cathy Rosenthal, American Humane Association