Animal control’s temperament testing

May 2, 2011

“Temperament” is defined by W. Handel, in his article, “The Psychological Basis of Temperament Testing,” as: “the sum total of all inborn and acquired physical and mental traits and talents which determines, forms and regulates behavior in the environment.”
(Reference:  American Temperament Test Society)

Los Angeles former Commissioner on the Board of Animal Services, Laura Beth Heisen speaks about the controversial temperament testing that is conducted by many animal control shelters throughout the nation.  “Did you know how grossly animal control managers manipulate the numbers, dodge accountability and avoid having to truly reduce the killing?” says Heisen.

Laura Beth Heisen was appointed to the Commission by former Los Angeles Mayor, James Hahn.  When she exposed the facts about the ill-fated “temperament testing” to bring transparency to the department of Animal Services (LAAS), she was able to have the Commission unanimously vote to ban the testing at the city’s shelters.  But in return, she was terminated from the Commission by Hahn.

The following is my interview with Ms. Heisen:

Why does animal control conduct temperament testing?

Shelter managers who don’t know how to reduce the killing, but want to pretend that they do, love temperament testing.

Temperament testing has been used to kill shelter animals since the early 2000s.  Whether it is San Francisco SPCA’s “SAFER test,” Sue Sternberg’s “Assess-A-Pet,” or some variant of those, temperament tests are used at shelters to label animals “unadoptable.”  Once labeled “unadoptable,” they are killed.  In effect, the animals are labeled to death.

How does the temperament testing work at animal-impounding shelters?

At “Shelter A,” 1,000 animals are impounded.  It adopts out only 200 animals, and kills the rest.  That’s an horrific 80% “euthanasia” rate.

“Shelter B” has temperament testing.  1,000 animals are impounded.  They are all temperament tested, but 800 of them fail, and are labeled “unadoptable.”  The 800 “unadoptables” are killed, and the remaining 200 adoptable animals are adopted out.  Shelter B just adopted out “100% of its adoptable animals”— Shelter B’s manager is praised for making Shelter B “no-kill.”

But it isn’t!  Shelter B just killed 800 out of 1,000 animals, just like Shelter A.  The difference is that Shelter B used the temperament test sham to pretend it had no duty to help the 800 it killed.  When Shelter B reports that it adopted out 100% of its “adoptable” animals, it’s only talking about the 200 the shelter labeled “adoptable.”  Shelter B won’t tell you that it also just killed 800 other animals.  The public never even hears about Shelter B’s 800 dead animals.

Temperament testing in a shelter setting is a cruel pseudo-science.  It has the window-dressing of something real — a specific battery of tests, a grading system, and the air of authority and faux behavioral expertise bestowed upon the shelter workers holding clipboards and judging animals with artificial tests designed to provoke bad responses, so the animals can be killed for having a bad response.  There is no authentic, independent, scientific evidence that temperament testing provides reliable behavioral information beyond that which anyone can discern from observing the animal.

What typically happens in these “tests”?

1.  Tester gives a hungry shelter dog a bowl of food.  When the dog starts to eat, the tester takes away the food to see if the dog has a negative reaction.

2.  Come at the dog with an “assess-a-hand,” a plastic contraption imitating a severed arm unfamiliar to the dog to see if the dog has a negative reaction.

3.  Tester positions herself over the dog, look down and stare directly into the dog’s eyes and press down on the dog’s shoulders — signs of aggression in dog language.  Watch for a negative reaction.

4.  Tester picks up dog’s food and pinches the sensitive area between the toes, causing the dog pain to see if the dog has a negative reaction.

These cruel tests provoke a fear reaction in many animals.  Remember too, this “testing” is done when the dog has been caged in a noisy, chaotic shelter, recently separated from his or her family, and afraid of what will happen next.

This is the deception shelters rely on to claim a low kill rate for their “adoptable” animals.  Watch for that word, “adoptable.”  It’s a huge red flag that the cruelty of sham temperament testing is used.  When they tell you about “adoptable” animals, it necessarily means they are not telling you the fate of those labeled “unadoptable.

This is a crucial issue because, in some shelters, the temperament test fail rate can average about 2/3 of the dogs.  Very unsurprisingly, their kill rate is about that amount too.

Caveat:  A conscientious shelter could use temperament testing as it should be used, to identify an animal’s training needs, and to provide the training to help animals get adopted.  Note the crucial difference:  Unethical shelters (a) temperament test and then (b) kill.  Conscientious shelters (a) temperament test and then (b) put low-scoring animals into a very active training program, rehabilitate those animals and adopt them out.  If the shelter is not actively rehabilitating and placing their failed temperament-tested animals, then it’s a safe bet that the shelter is using temperament testing for the wrong reasons; i.e., to “justify” killing, and to enable the shelter to seriously underreport its killing as a percentage of only animals labeled by a fake test as “adoptable,” rather than as a percentage of all impounded animals the shelter should serve.

How do the shelters justify this test that unfairly dooms the animals?

The common lie temperament testing shelters use is that they are “protecting the public from bites.”  The problem is that the shelter environment where these tests are conducted, and the tests themselves, are so manifestly artificial and scary to the dogs that temperament tests are known to produce both false positives (provoking a sweet dog to bite and killing him/her for being vicious) and false negatives (scaring an aggressive dog into submission but once adopted and relaxed in the new home, the dog’s dominance returns and the dog becomes aggressive).  Temperament tests in a shelter setting are not reliable predictors of whether a dog will bite.

Another lie is that the shelter uses temperament tests to match the right animal with the right home.  That is nonsense in a city shelter where the staff and volunteers are prohibited from discouraging or stopping adoptions.

How does temperament testing change the city’s liabilities?

Shelters that conduct temperament testing also lie that they are preventing shelter liability, should an adopted dog bite.  But soon, a smart lawyer will realize that temperament testing shelters set themselves up as lawsuit targets -— since the shelter gives its adopted dogs the “seal of approval” by temperament testing them.  If one of those dogs bites little Johnny after the shelter tested and labeled the dog “adoptable,” then the shelter’s deep pocket will become the focus of a serious lawsuit.  Temperament tests are easily viewed as the shelter’s guarantee that the animals who pass the test are safe.  The shelter would be taking on that extra liability.

What about costs?

Temperament tests take about 15 minutes each, plus time to write up the results, plus time to walk the dog to and from the testing area, plus time to train and refresh training for the staff doing the temperament tests.  Let’s conservatively say 20 minutes are needed to temperament test each animal.  In a shelter system like Los Angeles city, currently impounding about 55,000 dogs and cats a year, that’s 18,333 employee hours a year!  Over nine full-time employee equivalents each.  Animal Care Technicians in Los Angeles city shelters are paid about $60,000 a year including benefits, so temperament testing in Los Angeles city shelters would cost at a minimum $540,000 each year for this sham to conceal killing.  In 2003 when Los Angeles’ Mayor proposed temperament testing, the city estimated that it would cost one million dollars a year!

Temperament testing costs too much money and saves ZERO lives.  It increases killing by wasting staff time and removing the motivation to do anything effective.  It enables numbers manipulation to cover up the killing and deceive the public.  Wasting staff time on temperament testing means the shelter has even less staff to care for the animals and assist the public.  Instead of wasting that half-million to one-million dollars on fake temperament testing, that money could be used to SAVE many lives.

Now let’s look at “Shelter C,” where they don’t waste money on temperament testing.  They spend their million dollars to spay or neuter about 15,000 animals a year, for real euthanasia reduction.  Or “Shelter D,” using the money to fund a dog training program to help dogs get more homes and be better companions, so that the animals won’t be returned.  To fund humane education, so their next generation becomes more humane.  To pay for cleaning solutions and medicines to keep shelter animals healthy and easier to adopt.  To pay for microchips, so that lost dogs and cats get back home instead of impounded and killed.  To pay for more mobile adoption events to save more animals.  These shelters are making genuine and substantial reductions in their euthanasia rates.

Inept shelter managers use temperament testing to conceal their killing and dodge accountability while claiming to be “no-kill.”  Temperament testing costs too much, wastes valuable employee time, and removes any incentive for failing shelter managers to take the important steps needed to genuinely reduce the killing.


Marie Atake is Founder & President of Forte Animal Rescue and a former Commissioner on the Board of L.A. Animal Services.