No Better Than Flipping a Coin: Reconsidering Canine Behavior Evaluations in Animal Shelters

Use of behavior evaluations for shelter dogs has progressed despite their lack of scientific validation as reliable diagnostic tools, and results of these evaluations are often used to make life-and-death decisions. Despite acknowledging the significant limitations of evaluations, most authors suggest that the solution is to continue to attempt to remedy deficiencies. We take a contrary position, and use existing data and principles of diagnostic test evaluation to demonstrate how reliably predicting problematic behaviors in future adoptive homes is vanishingly unlikely, even in theory, much less under the logistical constraints of real world implementation of these evaluations in shelters. To do this, we explain why it would be difficult, if not impossible, to calculate robust values for sensitivity and specificity of a shelter canine behavior evaluation as required for any valid diagnostic test. We further explain the consequences of disregarding the impact of prevalence on the predictive value of a positive test (e.g., eliciting biting or warning behavior from the dog in the behavior evaluation). Finally, we mathematically demonstrate why, for any plausible combination of sensitivity, specificity, and prevalence of biting and warning behaviors, a positive test would at best be not much better than flipping a coin, and often be much worse, because many of the dogs who test positive will be false positives. Shelters already screen out from adoption obviously dangerous dogs during the intake process. Subsequent provocative testing of the general population of shelter dogs is predicated on an assumption of risk that is far in excess of existing data and relies on assumptions about dog behavior that may not be supportable. We suggest that instead of striving to bring out the worst in dogs in the stressful and transitional environment of a shelter and devoting scarce resources to inherently flawed formal evaluations that do not increase public safety, it may be far better for dogs, shelters, and communities if that effort was spent maximizing opportunities to interact with dogs in normal and enjoyable ways (e.g., walking, socializing with people, playgroups with other dogs, games, training). These activities are likelier to identify any additional dogs whose behavior may be of concern, will enrich dogs’ lives and minimize the adverse impact of being relinquished and confined to a shelter, be more indicative of the typical personality and behavior of dogs, and may help make dogs better candidates for adoption.[…]

Source: No Better Than Flipping a Coin: Reconsidering Canine Behavior Evaluations in Animal Shelters – Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research


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