New Study: We’re Making Bad Assumptions About Shelter Dogs’ Behavior and It’s Hurting Them

Listen to our interview with Janis Bradley about her new research challenging the assumption that dogs are given up for bad behavior, and what that means for shelters, adoptions, dogs, and families.

Arin Greenwood: Hi, this is Arin Greenwood. I’m a writer with HASS. Here I had the pleasure of speaking with Janis Bradley of the National Canine Research Council about her important new paper taking a critical look at our assumptions about shelter dogs’ behavior, and how those assumptions harm dogs and families. The paper is Saving Normal: A new look at behavioral incompatibilities and dog relinquishment to shelters. It was recently published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior. We’ll link to it in the notes. Here’s my interview with Janis Bradley. Thanks for listening.

Arin Greenwood: Hi Janis! Thank you so much for being interviewed today. I’m so delighted to be speaking with you about this incredibly important paper that you’ve just published.

Janis Bradley: Hi Arin! I’m delighted to be here. I’m so glad you called and asked.

Arin Greenwood: So you were looking in this paper at the assumption that many people have, including people who work in shelters, that one of the big reasons dogs are given up is because of behavioral problems. You were taking a critical eye to that. Can you tell me why you were interested in this and what you found?

Janis Bradley: It was a bit of a journey because this paper, we think, my main co-author and I, Dr. Gary Patronek, we think of it as the third in a trilogy. The three papers could be put together in some kind of little book. 

These are the three papers:

And they all started out with the question of why people in sheltering in particular seem to be compelled to do battery tests. You know, the kinds of tests that are usually done as behavior evaluations. And some of my interest came out of talking with Dr. Amy Marder over a period of many years who, even though she had devoted a great deal of her career to the development of instruments like this, and to matchmaking instruments and such, had become increasingly skeptical and the data that she had was not supporting the validity of this. Which is by the way, on her part, a hallmark of rather extraordinary academic ethics. Not very many academics will say that something that they’ve spent decades of their life working on doesn’t seem to be panning out. So that tells you what kind of academic she is.  

But anyways, we talked about this over the years and we also knew that the studies had been done that had been overviews, meta-analyses of the papers that had been written on the validity and reliability of behavior evaluations, had quite consistently concluded that there wasn’t much out there that could be called very valid or reliable. So our question was why do people keep doing this? And how do we talk about this? 

So the first paper that we embarked on was a product of one of Gary’s back of the envelope calculations where we said OK, so even if we had a really good, a valid, a reliable, a very robust instrument…How good would it be at telling us whether an individual dog was safe to put in a home? And we focused on that because the focus of most behavior evaluations is on behaviors that are labeled as aggressive. That’s where most of the interest goes.  

And we found that even if you had something that was as good as is expected in an instrument in human diagnostic testing, that your, the results that you got, would be no better than flipping the coin, it wasn’t going to tell you very much. So we put out that paper and it had, it had got quite a response. But we still kept hearing people talking about this instrument is valid, and this instrument is valid, and so on and so forth. And, and so we thought, okay, maybe it’s time to look at all the research, all the validity testing that’s been done on behavior evaluations over the years. So that was the second, we actually did, you know, a re-analysis of all of them and found indeed, what the previous writers had found was that there wasn’t much out there that could claim much validity based on the kinds of standards that are used to evaluate diagnostic tests. 

And that is a very robust field that has been done for many, many years and doing testing, so people know how to do this. But and that again, you know, got a quite lively response. But still, we didn’t see you know, people in droves, abandoning battery tests of, of, of dogs in shelters. And so we went back to our kind of, you know, toddler mode and said, OK, you ask, why about one question, and you get an answer. And then you ask, why about that answer? And we were asking, OK, so why do people do this in the first place? Why do people, you know, feel that it’s important to do this, and one of the major things that we came up with, and it was something that Gary had a great deal of expertise about, he’d been, you know, looking at this for for for decades, was this idea that’s quite pervasive, I think, among dog people of all stripes. 

I’m a, you know, former professional dog trainer. So it was one of the one of the kind of axioms of that profession was that you help people who come to you with issues with their dogs, so that their dogs won’t get surrendered, so that the relationship won’t be broken. 

And with it the implication, that unacceptable behavior, or incompatibility of the dog’s behavior with the person’s expectations was a very major cause of people breaking those relationships and relinquishing their dogs. 

So we decided to look at that question, and see whether or not the research supported that was true. And the result is this paper. It doesn’t support it. And, it doesn’t support it in a quite dramatic fashion. 

The research that there is on relinquishment, most of what most of the kind of research that you would need to support a claim like that simply doesn’t exist. It’s not been done, except in two studies that we found. And even if even if it did exist, there are so many flaws and variations in the kind of methodology that’s been used, it wouldn’t tell us much anyway. 

Arin Greenwood: I mean, this is really a very profound finding. It really reshapes how I think we should think about and also be very careful talking about shelter pets, because even though so many of us who love animals and work in animal welfare, you know, are always saying there’s you know, there’s nothing wrong with shelter pets, there’s nothing different about shelter pets this way. 

I thought this is a very profound finding in your, in your paper, that this way that we talk about shelter pets is having, you know, that assuming the narrative that many of them had been given up because they did something wrong in a house that their owner didn’t like that it still others them, and it still considers them as being different from the pets who are still in homes. And I think it’s a very important sort of tool, both for thinking about shelter pets, and also talking about shelter pets. And is that one of the things that you’re hoping to get across with this?

Janis Bradley: Yes. That really is the message I think that Amy Marder again, described shelter dogs, you know, with the best capsule description that I’ve yet heard, I’ve not been able to do better. She said a shelter dog is just a dog, who doesn’t have a human to stand beside him at the moment. Mm hmm. It’s just, you know, there’s no such thing as a shelter dog. There’s just dogs that happen to be living in shelters.

Arin Greenwood: Well, so. So reading all of these things together, behavioral evaluations don’t work. Also we haven’t even talked about this yet but that the term “behavioral” is even far too broad and sort of covers everything from the most minor kind of little behavioral quirks to actual aggression. All of these papers together, so what is the right way to approach looking at evaluating dogs who are in shelters and trying to place them in the right homes, and trying to consider the safety of your community on top of the life of every pet who’s in your shelter?

Janis Bradley: Well, I think, lumping all behaviors together as a way to study them, is part of the reason that we got into this confusion in the first place. Because we tend not to do that with other reasons for relinquishment. For example, we’ll separate out landlord problems from unemployment, rather than lumping those together as economic. But with behavior, we have traditionally looked at everything that a dog might do, and stuck it together as if it were one thing. 

And as you point out, there’s a very wide variety. Now, nobody would reasonably claim that there are no dogs, and some of them are, some of them, I imagine are in shelters, who really cannot live safely with human beings. You know, who have, who have so much fear and, and resulting hostility toward human beings, that it’s extremely difficult for them to live with people, or who are, who are so you know, dreadfully fearful of everything in the world, that they can’t cope. And you know, deal with that, just just by exposure, you know, that, that needs some kind of special, you know, help. 

But there’s no evidence at all, that the very extreme end of the behavior scale is anything like the norm. So, lumping all of these, lumping everything, together, like that leads to this, you know, distorted belief that we have that, that shelter dogs are somehow broken, and that that’s how they got there. 

The evidence just doesn’t support that. The research that’s been done just just doesn’t support that. But if there’s, it’s certainly not a bad thing to get to know the dogs in your care. When they’re when when they’re in the shelter. It’s just that bad battery exams. And what do you understand what I mean by battery exams? Is that,

Arin Greenwood: Yeah, where you take the dog into the room and shove a plastic hand in there, exactly how to take away the food.

Janis Bradley: Yeah, which is, many steps removed from anything like real life, so a much more efficient way to get to know the dogs in your care is to is to interact with them in as normal, a way as you possibly can, and to observe their responses. And it’s not that difficult to tell the things that they avoid, to tell the things that they’re worried about, to tell the things you know, that, that that upset them, or that they don’t know how to do. 

I’ve had greyhounds for quite a long time now. And most of them came quite directly out of rescue. And there wasn’t I, I almost always had to teach them how to walk up stairs. You know, so that was a good thing to know about them that they didn’t know how to do. And, and somebody somebody had to teach them, you know, where they would, they would, you know, crash and burn or just not be able to get in the house, when confronted with stairs. So it’s good to get to know the dogs in your care. 

And people working in shelters can learn to do that in their daily interactions with dogs, especially when they have enough in the world and they’re taking walks and they’re playing with them. They’re doing normal kinds of interactions with the dogs that people would do. You know, if you want to predict future behavior, the best way to predict that is by past behavior, but it needs to be in the same context. Otherwise it doesn’t tell you very much. So people can certainly do that. 

But unless there’s some extremely obvious issue, you know, that precludes a dog being able to live safely or happily in a home right away. None of this should be allowed to delay placing the dogs. Because that’s what happens now, because people are worried and have the best intentions about something that probably doesn’t exist all that much.

Arin Greenwood: Because we don’t expect the dogs who live with us to be perfect. I mean, I think this is one of these things that we all know. And yet it’s so helpful to see it written out and, and said out loud that we all you know, I’m not perfect and my husband lives with me, I don’t expect my my dog to be perfect, even though he really is.

Janis Bradley: But exactly. 

Arin Greenwood: But this is, one of your big findings is that people live with imperfection. And we we love animals as they are and that, that treating shelter pets as if every little quirk of theirs is something that needs to be fixed before they can live with the home that it’s before they can go into a home or before they go to an adopter is really just delaying their chance to live a normal life. And I mean, it’s so what what are the lessons here for shelters? What would you like to see shelters doing differently? How should this be communicated to the public? And how should the public be thinking about it? So three very small questions for you.

Janis Bradley: In terms of the public, I think the message can be a very, very simple one, which is shelter dogs or just dogs, right? You know, I mean, that’s, that’s really all you need to know, there’s, there’s nothing broken, there’s nothing, you know, as a group, there’s nothing broken, there’s nothing defective, there’s nothing in you know, in particular different about them. And that, that most dogs in shelters are adults. And it’s easy, it’s much easier to get to know an adult dog quickly. And the people in the shelter, if they’re, you know, if if they’re, if they’re working at their, at their, you know, optimum level are going to know a lot about the dog. Whereas predicting the future behavior of a puppy is a total crapshoot. Nobody can do it.

Arin Greenwood: Puppies are a black box.

Janis Bradley: And I don’t think it’s even a question of, of setting a higher bar for dogs and shelters. It’s that we set an arbitrary bar, we imagine that we know, what people care about. And what might be, you know, what are what are the likely deal breakers in terms of a relationship between a dog and a human? And we don’t know, one of the biggest findings in the the earth the the first research that was that was done that, that really looked at how are the dogs in a home you know, based on based on their performance on a on a behavior evaluation was done with regard to resource guarding was done with regard to food guarding, Amy Marder was, again was one of the first people who did this. And she and her fellow researchers found that not only did the dogs who had been diagnosed as food guarders, they, and then and then placed in homes, maybe they guard food, maybe they weren’t very you know that the predictability was not good. 

But the big finding was, people who adopted the dogs didn’t care one way or the other. And this was an overwhelming finding. And even if you ask them, even if they adopted, you know, a dog that didn’t guard or hadn’t been diagnosed as guarding they and they were asked, Would you care if the dog you know, was growling around their food bowl? Overwhelmingly they said no. They were a bit like, like, like my mother when I was 12 and came to her tearfully, you know, saying my beloved golden retriever Tracy had growled at me at her food bowl. And my mother, you know, sensible woman that she was, looked at me and said, What are you doing bothering the dog when she’s eating? Stop that. 

So clearly, there are many people who are of that, of that persuasion. It’s we don’t even know what a high bar would be. And I, my experience, it tells me more and more and more and more. And that as as does the research, that it varies enormously from person to person. The biggest thing and this is it’s a very it’s a very casual way of putting it but all the research supports this all the cognition resource cognition and binding resource on dogs. The big thing that we have in common with dogs is that we are both love the one you’re with species. It’s what we do. I do it and we do it.

Arin Greenwood: And that’s why we’re all happy together. Right? Exactly.

Janis Bradley: It’s why they make us happy. I mean, that’s my dog’s job. His job is to make me happy. And he’s really good at

Arin Greenwood: Yeah, mine too. My job is to make him happy, though.

Janis Bradley: There’s that too? Yeah. I’m still.

Arin Greenwood: But how do you communicate this to the public? Because I feel like I mean, we. We’ve all been thinking about this for so many years now. And one of the reasons that shelters do these behavioral evaluations is not because they think it actually provides useful information for them. It’s because they think that this provides useful information for the public and that the public wants some guarantee that they’re getting a dog who has been tested in these ways, and that we have answers. 

And we know from your work and from other work, that these evaluations are arbitrary, and that they don’t actually tell you anything about the dog’s behavior. I mean, just like, just like guessing about what a dog’s breed is, you know, we, we, we guessed that this dog is a boxer Lab mix, because we think that people want some idea of what the dog might be, even if that information is completely arbitrary, and has no relationship with either the dog and what the dog is, like, or with any kind of reality. 

So how do we change the conversation with the public so that we can, we can let them know that we are giving them a great dog, and we haven’t tested them with the plastic hand and the food bowl, and yet, we still feel confident saying to them, you’re gonna, we think you’re going to be happy with this dog.

Janis Bradley: I mean, one of the one of the giveaways on that is if you show a regular person, not a dog person, be, you know, an example of what’s done in behavior evaluation, like, sticking the the plastic hand in the dog’s, you know, face are in his food bowl, they look at you like you had two heads. OK, so they say, really, it’s transparent to them, that that appears to be silly. I think that inside the dog world, whether it’s trainers are people in sheltering or whatever, we make assumptions about people about what the general peddling owning public expects, that we haven’t tested. 

We don’t know that people expect any of these things. We don’t know that people demand, you know, a breed background or demand some kind of good housekeeping seal. I don’t think they do. 

The reason I don’t think they do is that people rehome dogs outside of the sheltering system all the time. Probably more dogs are rehomed casually outside the shelter in the system, you know, from friends of friends from how however it all in all kinds of ways, than go through the shelter system, and there are no guarantees there, you know, nobody know they may know something about what the person who formerly had the dog, you know, perceived about the dog or they may not. I think we make this huge assumption that adopters are going to demand this and we make this assumption without evidence. And I think I think if you just have a normal you know, conversation with the people at the better at in in Britain’s Battersea animal, Battersea animal home, you know that the big organization [Battersea Dogs and Cats Home], they actually I’ve seen, I’ve seen examples and videos of their, of their adopter consultations. 

And they strike me as very good, because they’re talking to the adopters, as if they’re as if they’re real people who can understand and they simply talk about, you know, what they’ve seen of the dog’s personality. And they tend to frame it in terms of, well, he likes to do this, he’s not so interested in that, you know, and they, and they, they just, they, they, they talk they, they talk about the dog, you know, as an individual dog with a with a personality. And I think that kind of thing can go a long way. As in, in in addition to all the publicity anybody can think about doing, have dogs in shelters, interacting, you know, happily and normally with people, if that’s what what people need to see, not just how printed the dog is, you know, not just not just a portrait of the of the dog, but seeing seeing the dog doing stuff. With with people that are things that the person, you know, might imagine that they’d want to do with a dog,

Arin Greenwood: Right. So this is fitting in again, with this important idea that we should not be other in shelter dogs in any way that thinking that people will only want the perfect shelter dog is, is like a shelter dog is a dog. And you know, people want a good dog. And that’s it. And we need to just be able to think about how we’re communicating about the dogs who are in our shelters, as good dogs who we know as individuals.

Janis Bradley: The most exciting development I’ve seen has been really accelerated during COVID, one of the one of the very few silver linings of this, you know, gasp, like we’ve been going through for two years now. Which is it’s, it’s led to a big increase in the use of of fostering dogs rather than keeping them in the bricks and mortar places. And of having the foster parents become advocates for and facilitating the adoption of the dogs. That’s ideal. 

Because if what you want to know about a dog, is how he lives in a normal home and observe him in a home. That’s where you’re going to get you know, your best information. And it’s, it’s an extremely heartening development, and I hope it sticks. I hope it continues. 

Because there’s so many downsides for the dogs, for the use of resources, for everybody concerned of housing dogs in institutions, in effect about is, you know, it’s I mean, the analogy to you know, having parentless children in in orphanages as opposed to in loving foster homes is not a bad analogy.

Arin Greenwood: That’s so important. And also you just did my job for me of bringing up thank you very wonderful, you mentioned Human Animal Support Services at the end of your paper. As a positive advancement, we were of course, really thrilled to see that and I, I can you tell me how you think that the HASS  movement and the community-centered sheltering, animal services movement fits in with your other research and findings.

Janis Bradley: Um, I think that it’s, it would be well, for shelters to consider the resources that they’re using on testing and remediation that might be that might be better used on supporting foster programs for dogs who are in the system at the moment. And supporting owners who are who are considering relinquishment, and looking at the kinds of practical support services that they that they can use. 

And by this, I don’t necessarily mean behavioral support services at all. Sometimes it might be, but much more commonly, it’s very practical services like, like, access to veterinary care, and, and, and dog food and help with fencing and those kinds of things. 

And then on the other hand, on the other end, having support available for adopters, when they have questions, when they when they have questions and need either either assistance with resources, or have actual actual advice on on how to live with a dog, I think those are the places where, where the resources of all of these institutions can do the most good for dogs and for people.

Arin Greenwood: I love this. I mean, your your work is just so tremendously important and looking at actual data and how this should influence our practices and and our thinking so, you know, we don’t have enough data in animal welfare and animal sheltering, generally, I think, where do you see the big holes right now and what will you be looking into next?

Janis Bradley: We’ve been throwing around some ideas and they aren’t even coherent enough to share at this point, in terms of shelters collecting data, I mean, the, the old the old LOS. You know, the old length of stay metric is not a terrible metric by which to, you know, to look at, at shelter success. And people you know, if they’re there are sometimes concerns about that, but if you paired it with some kind of follow up, you know, to verify the you know, how well the adoptions stick and then to to continue some some research and other settings. 

That that Gary Patronek did with with some with with another researcher, oh, my mind has gone blank in, in Arizona, they looked at they looked at at a couple of 1,000 records of adoptions and adoption returns. And and discovered that adoption returns were not a disaster for the dog, the dog, the dogs, almost all of them went out again, successfully and quickly, more quickly than them then the first month. 

So we don’t need to be, I don’t think we need to be terribly hand wringing about oh, gosh, is this adoption gonna stick? If it doesn’t stick, it was a foster, you know, and the dog and the dog got out of the shelter for a while. And maybe we know, you know, a little bit more about them. 

But I think I think, you know, shelters need to know about, about, follow up about how well dogs are doing in homes, once they’re in the homes, if they want to make decisions about how to, you know, enhance that.

Arin Greenwood: So you’d like to see more work, more more individual shelters, and then more researchers looking at follow up data for adoptions? Yeah,

Janis Bradley: Yeah, I’d like to see a lot more on, you know, alternative rehoming. There’s, they’re, they’re starting to be just a little bit done. And, and some, some sheltering organizations are now helping facilitate owner, you know, old owner to new owner direct transfers of dogs, I think that’s a very healthy development. They’d like to know something about, you know, some comparisons on that, on how that compares to, you know, traditional adoptions, and you know, how strongly institutions should be trying to move that way? It seems, as I said, it seems like a very healthy development. But we don’t we have almost the data.

Arin Greenwood: So, can we expect a paper from you in the next couple years?

Janis Bradley: If that’s where we’ll get, that’s where we’ll go next we, we’re, we’re still, you know, I mean, we’ve sent everything we can we can think of, we can think of to say about, about, you know, why it’s why it’s not helpful to dogs or their or their new owners to do to do battery tests, it may be that we spend quite a bit of our energy on trying to get that message out. 

Because I mean, nobody actually reads academic papers. You have to go out and talk about it. I mean, they’re tough reads. And all three of the ones that we’ve done on this are, are open access, so people can can go in, you know, can go to the journal and actually read them without paying for it. And we do summaries and analysis of the papers, you know, that are shorter and more accessible on the National Canine Research Council website. But still, you know, people need to talk about it, you know, and in everyday terms.

Arin Greenwood: Yeah. Because it’s very important, and it has real implications for how shelters work and for dogs’ lives. Was there anything else that we didn’t cover that you want to make sure that we talk about?

Janis Bradley: Um, I don’t I don’t think so. Except for the one kind of technical takeaway that I’d like people to, to, to to think about when if they start getting persuaded enough. Well, that by Oh, you know, this, many people said that this was the reason for for, for surrendering a dog a reason is not a risk factor. This is a this this is a, this is a big confusion. And you see them being used interchangeably. You can only say that something is a risk factor, if a bigger proportion of the dogs say that exhibit that behavior are surrendered than ones who are living successfully in homes and have that same behavior is a distinction that’s not commonly understood. And it’s crucial, as people talk go around talking about risk by only looking at one side of the equation, and it tells you nothing. It quite literally tells you unless you can compare it with the ones who aren’t surrendered. 

Arin Greenwood: This is so important. I’m so happy to talk to you. Janis, thank you so much for taking the time and thank you for your absolutely essential findings and research and work on this. It’s so important and I really appreciate it. 

Janis Bradley: Thank you so much for having me.

The audio from this piece was transcribed using an automated transcription service. Please excuse any typos or incorrect patterns of speech.

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