By Christie Keith
April 8, 2014
At the 2013 NAVC Veterinary Conference, Karen L. Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, CAAB, editor of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, spoke about the science of behavior assesments in shelters as part of the event’s shelter medicine track.
“All my dogs are rescue dogs,” she told the audience, “and I am absolutely committed to those left behind.”
Dr. Overall said established methodologies of assessing behavior, such as those used in studying the mating displays of birds or to assess animal behavior among wildlife, are seldom applied to the assessment of dogs and cats in shelters.
She said ideally, assessments should have the qualities of:
- Validity (in the scientific sense of having gone through the validation process)
In the shelter assessment efforts she’s seen, she said, “Data is being gathered, but it’s not useful data…. There are standards; we should be using them!”
Her advice: “Before you construct an evaluation, talk to a statistician. It will cost around $300 to have a statistician help you design a meaningful evaluation, better than a bunch of iPads that are collecting a bunch of crap that doesn’t mean anything…. What’s out there is not sufficient for the need at this time.”
Dr. Overall recommends taking video of an assessment from two different perspectives, and not to rely on real-time examination and observation of body language and position.
She expressed concern with the “Assess-a-Hand” test, saying:
If there were one thing I could eliminate from shelter assessments, it would be the “Assess-a-Hand,” which is responsible for thousands if not millions of animal deaths over the years.”
The concern here is that if you are looking for dogs and cats to euthanize, this test fits the bottom line. And that’s what the Assess-a-Hand does.
Another problem Dr. Overall discussed: Testing too close together, when the dogs haven’t had a chance to calm down yet. This will confound results, she said. “Many people doing these tests are teaching dogs to be reactive. They’re making them worse.”
Dr. Overall said she frequently hears objections that shelters lack the resources to validate their assessment tests, but she pointed out that researchers in one study “did this test with two handlers, two ropes – because they couldn’t even afford regular leashes – two open spaces, and one enclosed space. Don’t tell me you don’t have the resources to do better than you’re doing.”
“Shelter animals should be sheltered,” she concluded, saying that the use of unvalidated tests will result in the deaths of dogs who could be safely adopted.