I work for the Society for the Improvement of Conditions of Stray Animals or SICSA, a private nonprofit shelter and adoption center located in Kettering, Ohio. Our animal population is composed of dogs and cats from owner surrenders and transfers. We transfer dogs in from most of our surrounding counties but have taken dogs from as far away as Georgia and South Carolina. In 2017, we adopted out 1,608 dogs and cats.
The high volume of animals moving through our shelter means that there’s a need to quickly identify which animals are likely to need more behavioral help, and which ones can be safely placed in new homes. All animals accepted into our program remain with us unless they are no longer adoptable because of medical or severe behavioral reasons. Our live release rate is above 99%.
I started volunteering at SICSA in November 2011 and was hired in August 2012. My title is now dog intake and enrichment specialist, and foster coordinator. I am responsible for transferring dogs and cats into our facility as well as placing those animals who cannot be in the building for medical or behavioral reasons into foster care. This means that I’m directly involved with deciding where dogs go when they get to our shelter, so I need the best possible information to help me do my job. It’s also important that I can identify which dogs have behavioral challenges and might need extra behavior modification and enrichment — I have started a behavior modification program since I began working at SICSA, but I need to know how best to use the resources I have.
Our two main opportunities to gather information on dogs are at intake and during transfer.
Our intake department fields calls from people who are looking to rehome their animals. Owner surrenders are done by appointment only as we are not an open-intake facility. During the surrender processes, we ask the owner to fill out an interview form to help us gather as much information as possible about the dog. We require each dog to go through a behavior evaluation while the owner fills out their form. We use the information gathered from both sources to determine if we feel the dog is adoptable through our program. We do not use a pass and fail system, because we can take special needs animals, but we do need to identify which animals have special needs so we can allocate them the appropriate resources.
Part of SICSA’s mission is finding homes for animals with special medical or behavioral needs. We plan for approximately 25% of our animal population to fall into this category. We give these animals tailored plans, called Path Plans, outlining the areas they need extra help with. Path Plans were modeled after individual education plans or IEPs used for special needs children in schools. Each week, our Path Plan Committee meets to discuss these animals and determine whether they’re on the best path and how to adjust it if necessary.
Behavior issues for animals on Path Plans can range from more manageable issues such as a need for better impulse control to problems requiring more comprehensive training and behavior modification.
The Path Plan team is made up of seven staff members. During our weekly meetings, we discuss each animal’s Path Plan to determine if any progress is being made or if the plan needs to be modified. Any member of the Path Plan team can bring an animal to this meeting for intake consideration.
SAFER (Safety Assessment for Evaluating Rehoming) is a set of tests that were designed by the ASPCA to assess a dog coming into a shelter for potential aggressive behavior. It comprises seven elements and is said to take about ten minutes to complete. The seven elements of SAFER are:
SAFER requires two people, a helper dog, food, toys, and a separate room to test in. It is scored using a point system on a worksheet like this one.
For almost nine years, SICSA used the SAFER assessment. When I inquired about why we started using it, there was no clear answer. The assumption is that it was the only industry-wide standard evaluation. I certainly don’t want to malign this or any other test, but I wasn’t sure if we were getting the most useful information for our shelter because we were already modifying the test in such a way that it all but invalidated the results. For example, item #7 (dog-dog behavior) was never tested since we do accept dog-aggressive dogs as long as they can be safely walked in their community. Another issue we were having with the SAFER was that it requires two people and we didn’t always have enough staff on hand to do this.
Because our shelter couldn’t, or didn’t need to, use parts of SAFER, I decided to develop our own evaluation protocol, tailored to the needs of our shelter. It consists of 10 subtests to assess the dog’s behavior. It can be completed by one person, and an assessor is usually able to complete the evaluation in less than 10 minutes.
The design process
The behavior evaluation was designed with the help of one of our adoption counselors, Michelle Misra, who came to us with a broad range of experience. It was important to get input from our Adoptions Department because they rely on information from evaluations and owner interviews on intake, as well as on behavior observed in the shelter and during playgroups.
The next step was to take a look at the tests that we had been using. We needed to decide which components we did like and which ones weren’t useful to us at SICSA. Using feedback from adoption counselors as well as my experience pulling dogs from other shelters, I wanted to essentially marry the tests together and make a test that was beneficial to SICSA. After looking at all of the data we had compiled, we chose ten criteria that we felt were essential. There are five possible responses by which we measure the dog’s reaction to each test.
The test itself
Each test item can garner a range of responses, for which a dog can be scored 1 through 5. The areas we tested were:
- Interest in people/reaction to strangers
- How the dog approaches the assessor
- Response to petting and touch
- Body examination
- Compulsory interaction/eye contact
- Toddler test (using a doll)
- Rough handling
- Run and freeze, engaging and suddenly disengaging with the dog
- Resource guarding
- Response to a fake, stuffed dog
The next step was to begin testing the test. We used a number of SICSA dogs as well as our own dogs, since most of their behavior was a known quantity. As we began to go over the results, it felt like simply assigning a number to each result was very black and white, when clearly there are more gray areas to observing behavior.
For example, in subtest #1, if a dog approaches the assessor, we assign a “5” for the approach. But that wouldn’t say anything about the way in which the dog approached the assessor. Instead of giving any dog who approaches a 5, we added three columns to each subtest so we could now say more about the approach. For subtest #1, we give an additional point for a friendly approach, a 5 for a neutral approach, and subtract a point for an unfriendly approach. At the end of the tests, the scores are added and placed in the appropriate category to help us make a decision about the animal.
While the purpose of this test is not to predict behavior, it is used to flag certain behaviors. If any troubling behavior is observed, we can make a more informed decision about the placement of the dog. We may end up not accepting a dog for fear that the dog would not do well in a shelter environment because of their anxiety level during the test. A dog’s behavior may not be poor enough to fail them, but it may suggest that close monitoring or further testing would be prudent. We are a limited intake facility, so these decisions do not result in euthanasia. If we cannot take a dog, we will counsel the owner to make them aware of all of their options.
Transferring dogs from a shelter, where they have gone through an intake process and have a history of interacting with staff and volunteers, usually means I can get good information about them. Not all shelters have the same intake process, however. I visit county shelters and humane agencies with very different budgets and capacities — some of the places I visit do a great job evaluating the dog on intake, getting information from the owner, and keeping notes, whereas others just aren’t able to.
The kennel workers are crucial, especially in shelters that aren’t able to give me detailed written information. They care for the dogs every day, they go in and out of their kennels when they are eating and sleeping, and they see how the dogs react to their surroundings and to the other dogs who walk by. They know what their charges’ behavior was like upon intake, so they can tell me if there has been any change. Establishing a relationship with kennel workers, as well as transfer and adoptions staff, allowed me access to more information. In some cases, they had done their own behavior evaluations and were willing to share the results with me.
An informal mini-evaluation for transfers
At each shelter, I ask for a quiet room in which do an informal behavior assessment. Since I need to test for heartworm, I do have to draw blood. At the same time I make sure to get a history of possible ringworm and parvovirus exposure or other conditions because these may impact a dog’s behavior as well as making it more challenging to find foster cares providers. I also check the dog’s eyes, ears, nose, and teeth. I look for hair loss and check their hips. In doing this quick “check-up,” I can see how the dog behaves when being handled and restrained. The dog is also allowed free roam of the room. During this time, I can determine how affiliative the dog is toward me, an unfamiliar human. I cannot spend an infinite amount of time with each dog while I am at another facility but this snapshot offers enough insight on adoptability for me to decide who to transfer.
All of this information makes the transfer process go faster. I am also able to give this information to our adoption counselor and to the kennel workers. They can make decisions about kennel placement right from the start, avoiding cage fighting and further escalation in the kennel.
Behavior evaluations are just part of the picture
I don’t want to overstate the importance of behavior evaluations; there are too many unanswered questions regarding their efficacy. I believe that dogs in a shelter environment will almost always act differently than those who have been living in a home with little to no stress. For example, dogs who display food aggression in a shelter don’t always go on to display food aggression in a home; displays of food aggression are often brought on by stress and the dog’s inability to control their environment; they can drastically decrease or disappear entirely after some time in a stable home environment.
SICSA uses the behavior evaluation I have developed as part of a thorough intake process. We also interview the animal’s owner and have them fill out a questionnaire. Our information-gathering about a dog does not stop at intake; we can learn more about a dog from how they behave during their stay. For example, we have a well-established humane education program, through which we are given information on dogs and their reaction to children. Our foster program helps us to learn more about how a dog might behave in a home environment. We also have a Paw Partner Social program where volunteers take suitable dogs to hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices.
This behavior evaluation is a starting point. It helps us understand the dog enough to determine the best placement within our shelter; it is never used to make a euthanasia decision. It helps us determine if there is a need for a Path Plan right away to prevent deterioration by providing extra support. SICSA’s primary goal is always adoption, but it is equally important to us to provide as much enrichment, physical and mental, as possible so that the dog remains adoptable even if their length of stay is longer than expected.
Renee Grant is the Dog Intake & Enrichment Specialist and Foster Coordinator at SICSA in Kettering, Ohio. She is an Affiliate member of the Shelter Division of IAABC, and she works with dogs and cats.