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Dog Owners Hide Truth from Shelters

April 12, 2006

Many dog owners who relinquish their pets to animal shelters are not entirely honest about their dogs’ behavioral problems. According to the researchers at Penn and University of California veterinary schools, these behavioral problems may sometimes pose a risk to an adopting family who could unknowingly take in an aggressive animal.

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 in recently [Dec 2005] 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 Dr. James Serpell, professor of humane ethics and animal welfare and director of Penn’s Center for the Interaction of Animals & Society.

Dr. Serpell comments that, “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.” Dr. Serpell conducted the study with UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine colleagues Sheila Segurson 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 Matthew J. Ryan Veterinary Hospital. The comparison showed that there were many more instances of behavioral problems in animals being left at shelters.

For animal shelters, however, the lesson that this study provides is more complex. Shelters must identify potentially troubled dogs before making them available for adoption. 

Read the abstract on Pub Med.

The information above was originally distributed by the The Almanac, a publication of the University of Pennsylvania.

Link to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine's Companion Animal Behavior Program