The researchers studied behavioral questionnaires given to owners leaving their dogs at shelters and found that people are less likely to report such behavioral problems as aggression and fear of strangers, if they believed that their responses would be shared with shelter staff. Their findings were published recently in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
"Many shelters conduct behavior-based evaluations on animals they take in, but there are few better descriptions of a dog's temperament than an honest assessment from its owner through a questionnaire," said James Serpell, a professor in Penn's School of Veterinary Medicine and director of Penn's Center for the Interaction of Animals & Society. "Shelters are not in the business of giving up on the animals they receive, and they need the best information the owner can provide to keep both the animals and potential adopters safe."
According to the researchers, questionnaires are often effective at revealing certain health and behavioral problems among animals being left at a shelter. While questionnaires can be useful, however, shelters need to be aware that these responses are not always straightforward.
"These owners might think they are bettering their pets' chances by concealing behavior problems, but what they don't realize is that they are really worsening things for both their pets and the shelter," Serpell said. "Shelters could more effectively use their scarce resources to correct behavioral problems or find ways of guiding troubled dogs to more appropriate adopters - if they detect these problems in time."
Serpell conducted the study with UC Davis colleagues Sheila Sergurson and Benjamin Hart at two shelters in Sacramento. They gave questionnaires to two groups of people. One group was told that the information would be kept confidential and the other was told that the information would be shared with shelter staff. Significantly more shelter dogs in the confidential group were reported to behave aggressively to their owners or fearfully with strangers.
The researchers also compared both groups to questionnaires given to a group of dog-owners, all of whom were clients of Penn's Ryan Veterinary Hospital in Philadelphia. The comparison showed that there were many more instances of behavioral problems in animals being left at shelters. While Serpell and his colleagues realize that there are inherent differences between dog owners and people who give their dogs to shelters, they believe it highlights the importance of behavior when people make the decision to disown a pet.
"It appears that serious behavior problems are often the biggest reason people seek to relinquish their animals," Serpell said. "It demonstrates the importance of regular veterinary care and the need for veterinarians to provide preventative behavioral health care."
For animal shelters, however, the lesson that this study provides is more complex. Shelter workers and volunteers cannot lie to people and tell them that responses are confidential when they are not. Yet shelters must identify potentially troubled dogs before making them available for adoption. Even family-friendly breeds, such as Labrador retrievers, could be dangerously aggressive.
"Questionnaires certainly provide a useful starting point when assessing an animal's behavioral health," Serpell said, "but they should also be taken with a grain of salt."