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Week Four:
September 21, 1998 - September 25, 1998

Screening - Dogs and Adopters

Day Two

Subject: CLASS: Screening Temperament
Date: Tue, 22 Sep 1998 04:11:03 -0400
From: Vicki DeGruy - 72074.676@COMPUSERVE.COM

Hi everyone,

The last couple years, I've been asked to talk on temperament evaluation at rescue seminars and kennel club meetings. This seems like a good time to share excerpts from some of those talks. As most of you know, my breed is the Chow Chow which has an unfortunate reputation for poor temperament. In an increasingly dog-ignorant and dog-unfriendly world, temperament (in any dog) is becoming an even greater issue. I believe that good temperament is essential for the success of rescue work and for the individual survival of many of our dog breeds today.

Because of the number of Chows needing help far exceeds the capacity of our rescue group, we're selective about the dogs we take into our program and put up for adoption. Our selection is based primarily on temperament. To be successful in rescue,I believe we need to provide good pets for good people. If the dogs we're trying to place aren't good pets, nobody's going to want them.

We don't like to think of rescue as a business but a lot of business concepts apply here. To be successful, a business has to know the answers to two very important questions: 1) what kind of people want our product? and 2) what kind of product do these people want? You'll have an easier time defining what good temperament means to you if you target the market you're selling to and understand what that market wants.

So who are we adopting to? In my experience, the average people looking for dogs are young married couples with a few small children between the ages of 1 and 8. Both spouses work, they have friends and relatives over a lot, it's a busy household. Another large group are the newly marrieds who'll be having kids in the next few years. If they had a dog before, it was a common popular breed like a Cocker or a Lab and it was most likely the one that they grew up with as children - Ol' Shep that they remember with rose-colored glasses. They don't have much training experience because Ol' Shep was born already knowing everything.

Now that we know who we're dealing with, what do they want? What is their idea of a good temperament?

Families like this need a stable dog that doesn't startle or snap easily, is confident enough to handle the noise and bustle of a busy home, is protective yet smart enough to tell the difference between the average stranger and a genuine threat. He shouldn't have to tolerate abuse from children but his reaction should be to walk away, not growl or bite. He should be able to tolerate handling from strangers while he's on walks, at the vet, groomer or boarding kennel.He needs to be loyal but adaptable enough to adjust to a stay in a boarding kennel or with a friend while the family goes on vacation.

To an extent, a good temperament can be breed specific - what's considered good in your breed might not be good in mine. There are still a lot of generalizations we can make, though, that apply to almost every breed: a dog with a good temperament is happy and cheerful, he's trusting and has an optimistic outlook on life. He enjoys human companionship, he wants to be near people and he's eager to please. He looks to people for direction and can accept appropriate discipline. There's room for breed specific variation in all these characteristics but overall, they meet most breeds' standards for good temperament without comprising the breed's basic nature.

There's one thing people want most in a pet dog and that's good temperament. They're willing to compromise on breed, size, sex, age, appearance, intelligence and certain aspects of behavior but not temperament. They demand a dog that's friendly, reliable, trainable and above all, safe to handle and live with.

Evaluating temperament is a lot like judging dogs at a show. If you have a standard in your mind - a standard for good temperament - you compare the dog to it and see how close he comes. If he has faults in some areas, you need to decide whether those faults interfere with his ability to be an appropriate pet and how much.

Unlike conformation, which is right out there for you to see, temperament qualities aren't always easily visible. It can take time to find out what a dog is like. In my opinion, many rescue groups don't keep their foster dogs long enough to really know what they have. It's been my experience that most new dogs are on their best behavior for the first 2 to 3 weeks while they settle in to their new environment. They don't know the rules, they don't know how far they can push you, they don't know what they can get away with. Once they've figured that all out, then you start to see the -real- dog, for good or bad.

In rescue, the first contact we have with most dogs is at the animal shelter. This is, really, a poor place to evaluate them because of all the various stresses they're under. You also have to make a quick judgement - either the dog might have potential for your program or it doesn't. The finer points of evaluation are going to have to wait until the dog is actually home with you.

At shelters, I like to take the dog outside and spend most of my time just observing him, watching his body language and his posture, how he deals with his sorroundings. An alpha dog is confident and fearless. He stands tall - his head, ears and tail are carried high and forward even when he's in strange territory or meeting new people. Just -how- alpha he is will have to be determined later. A more submissive dog is a little apprehensive, when he greets you or is taken into a strange place, his head is slightly lowered and his ears are back or off to the sides. A fearful dog isn't necessarily a write-off, his degree of fear will determine that. It could be considered normal for a fearful dog to slink through the shelter's waiting room but if he's in a panic, wrapping himself around your legs or trying to bolt and run, he could have some serious problems with shyness.

A dog's eyes will tell you a great deal regardless of breed. Some people can do this automatically, with others it takes practice. You can and should read a dog's eyes without making direct eye contact. I want to see what I call a "soft" eye, frightened maybe but it has a look to it that tells you the dog won't hurt you unless it absolutely must. It has a warm, hopeful expression. A freaky dog has a panicked look. This kind of dog might bite without much provocation even if it's not a "mean" dog. A really smart dog will have a sparkle to the eye even if it's frightened. You can see that it's thinking about what's going on and what it's going to do next. Then there are the hard, cold eyes of a truly nasty creature although it may not act nasty. My husband calls those "empty" eyes. Fortunately, you won't see many of those and I shouldn't have to tell you not to mess with them.

Once I've given the dog time to run around a little and enjoy himself, I start to handle him. My first test is a bit of a risky one and you shouldn't try it if you feel uncomfortable or don't have good reflexes. But I think it's very important and if the dog flunks, it saves me the rest of the evaluation. It's the "startle" test.

With the dog facing away from me concentrating on something else, I walk up behind him and brush my fingers down his back. If the dog doesn't react, he gets an A. If he startles and turns around in surprise, he gets a B. If he gives me a highly annoyed look, he still passes but he'll need more evaluation later. If he growls or snaps at me, he flunks and gets sent back to the shelter with a recommendation that he not be put up for adoption.

This test might seem a little unfair. After all, we're taught not to do this to dogs and we get really mad at show judges that come up on our dogs from behind. But - this is a common occurrence in pet homes, especially homes with children. Kids run up on dogs from behind all the time, they fall on them when they're sleeping, they drop things on them, they hug them. A family dog -has- to be able to handle this and if the dog can't, I don't want it in my adoption program.

Once the dog passes the startle test, we do more handling. This is done with me in a standing position and in a friendly but matter of fact way. Don't get down on your knees or coochy-coo to a dog you don't know - if he's an alpha dog, he might try to dominate you and and if he's a dominant dog, he might actually attack you. You should always maintain an alpha posture and attitude without being intimidating. Avoid direct eye contact.

I look in the ears, look at the teeth, pick up feet, run my hands over his body. I tug on his ears and tail, I bump into him with my knee. I grade the reactions similar to the startle test - no reaction is excellent, scared is okay (for now) and slightly annoyed isn't necessarily an F. But growling, snapping or that look in the eye that says "Lady, don't push it!" is grounds for failure.

This is about all the temperament evaluation I feel I can do accurately in a shelter environment. As I said before, it simply gives me a basic idea as to the dog's adoptabilty and whether I want it in my program.

If the shelter allows and most of them will, I take the opportunity to do a little cat testing. I don't have cats but a lot of our adopters do. Most shelters have cats hanging around the waiting room or a cat kennel area. All I want to see is the dog's basic reaction to them - does he ignore them, show some curiousity or is he lunging and barking trying to get to them? I don't use this test to determine adoptability, I just try to get an idea of potential for compatibility in a home with small pets.

Once we have them home, we normally don't put new dogs on our adoption listing for at least 30 days. During this time, they're critically observed, handled every day, groomed, taken to the vet, put under stress and experience corrections. We pet them while they're eating, we introduce them to other dogs, we teach them some basic manners (not to bolt out of doors, for example). We push them, especially the alpha types. What do they do when they're corrected or yelled at?

The standard by which we evaluate behavior is - how do they handle the kinds of things they will be exposed to every day in the average adoptive home? Are they safe for the average family? Imagine the kinds of things the dog will encounter - kids that hug and pull on tails, the mailman, the vet, the neighbors, a walk on the street, toys and food dishes - and test him with them. Does he react predictably and in a non-aggressive manner? Be especially critical after the first two weeks have gone by because now the dog is more comfortable with you and will let his real personality show.

Hope this has been helpful,

Vicki DeGruy, Wisconsin Chow Chow Rescue

Subject: CLASS: Screening Temperament
Date: Tue, 22 Sep 1998 08:03:30 -0700
From: "Muhlbauer, Cinnamon" - Cinnamon.Muhlbauer@METROKC.GOV

This has been extremely helpful, Vicki. I am pretty good at judging small breeds and mixes, but the larger ones throw me. Does this happen to anyone else?

Vicki (and all), is a dog who fails these tests, completely unadoptable? Is it possible to work with them? (Possible as in changing behavior and responses -- I know it may not be financially feasible or practical).


Subject: CLASS: "Startle test"
Date: Tue, 22 Sep 1998 11:15:17 -0400
From: Elizabeth Sommers - ESOMMERS@COURTS.STATE.NY.US

Vicki writes:
But I think it's very important and if the dog flunks, it saves me the rest of the evaluation. It's the "startle" test. If he growls or snaps at me, he flunks and gets sent back to the shelter with a recommendation that he not be put up for adoption.

The heartache this test could have saved us..... Have to think harder to recall if there were some really good dogs that we might have needlessly turned away -- but it is something that we haven't done in the past and I definitely think we will include.

It really struck home right now because I have, in my house, a lovely young boy named George. He's beautiful, sweet, loving, well-behaved with dogs, cats and people, excellent house manners, and developing the ability to play, just a perfect dog ....... UNLESS you approach him from behind and take his collar. He will turn around (really quite gently) and snap "at" you -- and the one time I held on a bit longer, he made contact (one tooth puncture, not a real bite). He's from the streets and I'm sure he's saved his life this way, probably. And from sensitivity around his hindquarters, I wouldn't be surprised if he hadn't been hauled up by his collar and booted! But it is clearly, to him, an absolutely legitimate and instinctive reaction to certain stimuli.

In other words, from everything else we know about the dog, he probably has this reaction "legitimately" -- life taught him to defend himself from this type of approach. BUT I cannot put him in a home, even a foster home unless lots of experience, until the reaction is solidly changed. And aside from general desensitization in those areas, I'm not quite sure what to do. Even the behaviorist we work with is a bit at a loss. (We are checking out possible physical problems thoroughly.)

I love George, he's a truly wonderful dog. But it is a bad problem, a dangerous one because, as Vicki says, this kind of contact happens to dogs a lot in "everyday" life. He can't stay at my place, I can't place him elsewhere -- I wish we'd given the startle test and at least known what we were getting into here.

Thanks for the excellent all-round adivce, Vicki!

Betsy Sommers
Golden Retriever rescue, Albany, NY

Subject: CLASS: re: Screening Temperament
Date: Tue, 22 Sep 1998 16:26:59 -0400
From: Vicki DeGruy - 72074.676@COMPUSERVE.COM>

Hi Cinnamon!

is a dog who fails these tests, completely unadoptable? Is it possible to work with them? (Possible as in changing behavior and responses -- I know it may not be financially feasible or practical).

I don't think this question can be answered in a "one size fits all" way. It's going to depend on the breed, the individual dog, the resources the rescue has and the range of potential adopters available. In the case of a dog that presents a higher than average risk of injury, it's also going to depend on how much risk your rescue wants to assume.

The breed makes a difference in how strictly one grades certain behaviors. I think you need to take what is normal for that breed into consideration. I know a lot of terriers that wouldn't pass a "startle" test, for example, yet a certain amount of reactivity is expected in some terriers. Betsy talked about Goldens, a breed that the public assumes is a great family dog - in this breed, a snappish dog is probably not adoptable under most circumstances.

Can the behavior be changed? That's another thing that's going to depend on the individual dog. In the "startle" test, I'm looking for *reactivity*, instinctive behavior. What does the dog do automatically before he has time to think about the situation? (I'm hoping for non-aggressive reactions in my evaluations.) Some dogs have learned to react a certain way because of previous circumstances and it may be possible for them to unlearn it. Other dogs are born to be highly reactive. I think when a behavior is part of a dog's inborn character, it's a lot harder to change it. For example, a genetically shy dog can be made more confident through training but will never be as self-assured as a dog that was born with a better personality.

Hope that helps,


End of Day Two

Day Three

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