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Can A Shelter Temperament Test Predict A Dog’s Behavior?

By Kayla Fratt

Many shelters offer temperament tests like the Match-Up or C-BARQ to gain an understanding of a dog’s personality before placing that dog up for adoption. The goal of these tests is to screen incoming dogs for potential personality traits that could prevent them from succeeding in a certain type of home. If you’re bringing home a dog who doesn’t have much history from before coming to the shelter, you may be eager to hear the results of these tests. Some tests and shelters also use this information to guess which dogs may be more tolerant of children.

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There are a wide variety of different tests that shelters may use, ranging from well-known and studied tests to homemade hodgepodges. Most tests involve introducing the dog to a stranger who then handles the dog a bit; they may also include introducing the dog to other dogs, exposing the dog to a crying doll or a hobbling person in a costume, or taking away food or toys from the dog to test for resource guarding. In research studies where scientists compare the findings of a temperament test to what the owners report in the homes, many of these measures are simply not all that predictive. For example, this study found that half of the dogs identified as resource guarders in the shelter did not exhibit resource guarding in their new homes.

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Most tests involve introducing the dog to a stranger who then handles the dog a bit; they may also include introducing the dog to other dogs, exposing the dog to a crying doll or a hobbling person in a costume, or taking away food or toys from the dog to test for resource guarding.

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While this information may seem comforting, it can be downright misleading. Several studies have found that temperament tests are not really reliable predictors of a dog’s future behavior. In my experience in the working dog industry, many tests are only about 60% accurate — meaning that about 40% of dogs that are flagged as good candidates for a job like search and rescue end up flunking out of the job.

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Several studies have found that temperament tests are not really reliable predictors of a dog’s future behavior. In my experience in the working dog industry, many tests are only about 60% accurate — meaning that about 40% of dogs that are flagged as good candidates for a job like search and rescue end up flunking out of the job.

In the shelter and pet world, one study even found that roughly 41% of dogs who “passed” a temperament test later exhibited aggressive behavior including lunging, growling, snapping or biting in the 13 months following adoption. The study authors write, “Our results indicated that there are certain types of aggressive tendencies (territorial, predatory, and intra-specific aggression) that are not reliably exhibited during temperament testing using this particular evaluation process.”

There are several potential reasons why a shelter temperament test may not reliably predict a dog’s future behavior:

  1. Temperament tests are just a snapshot of time. Imagine if your life was determined based on a 10-minute test on one of the worst days of your life. This isn’t far from what some shelter dogs experience. They may have been dropped off at the shelter in the middle of the night, caught as a stray, or driven cross-country as part of a transfer. Then they’re subjected to a test that’s designed to be a bit scary or irritating, and judged for their responses. The dog’s response within the test may not reflect the dog’s normal baseline, especially if the dog is stressed or sick.

  2. Some dogs may “stress up” or “stress down.” When a dog is stressed out by the shelter environment, they often respond in one of two extreme ways. Some dogs lash out or become hyperactive, pacing and barking and mouthing things in an attempt to self-soothe. These dogs may score worse on a temperament test than they “deserve.” Other dogs may become so overwhelmed that they simply “shut down,” taking things in stride that they may not tolerate were they less stressed out. These dogs may score better on a temperament test than expected and therefore go on to display aggressive behavior in their new home!

  3. Temperament tests don’t test all possible situations. There are certain limitations that shelter temperament tests simply can’t easily test for. Dogs that exhibit territorial aggression or are terrified of babies will all be missed in a temperament test. The tests may be able to examine how a dog reacts to handling or being approached by a stranger, but there are huge gaps in what the tests examine versus what “real life” is like for most pet dogs.

  4. Temperament tests may actually push a dog to aggression. Many temperament tests essentially subject dogs to increasingly annoying or scary situations. The dog might be given a toy that’s taken away; then the handler takes away food, then the handler picks up their paw, then the handler drops a cane, and then… you get the picture. Some tests are essentially designed to push the dog and see what makes them snap. While it may be useful to identify dogs that don’t snap in these situations, we must keep in mind that the dogs who “fail” these tests aren’t necessarily dangerous. Plus, some dogs who “pass” may still exhibit aggression later on.

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The tests may be able to examine how a dog reacts to handling or being approached by a stranger, but there are huge gaps in what the tests examine versus what ‘real life’ is like for most pet dogs.

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If you’re considering adopting a shelter dog, take their temperament test into account for what it is: a single datapoint. Just like the ACT or SAT isn’t the final predictor of a student’s success in life, a temperament test in the shelter is just one factor to consider. Remember that your home is not the shelter, and that it’s possible — likely, even — that the test won’t perfectly predict any dog’s behavior in a different situation.

While I would take into account extreme results on a temperament test, it’s important to also speak to the shelter staff about their general impressions of the dog and ask if the former family or foster family has any further information on the dog’s behavior. 


Kayla Fratt is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and the owner of Journey Dog Training. She’s passionate about helping owners prevent and treat behavior problems in their pets. She also works as a conservation detection dog trainer with her border collies in Missoula, Montana. She’s an avid runner, cross-country skier and a budding agility competitor.

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