Dogs In Shelters: Temperament Tests & Exercise Issues

I and others have been long railing against what has become a standard practice in many animal shelters of intimidating a newly arrived dog when he/she is eating by pushing a stuffed glove that looks like a hand on the end of a stick at the poor animal trying to eat. This was done to elicit “food guarding aggression” and dogs who growled and snarled were likely to be killed. Other temperament tests were also of questionable value considering the situation and state of most dogs in unfamiliar and stressful conditions.

The article by veterinarian Gary J. Patronek and Janice Bradley published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior (2016) entitled “No better than flipping a coin: Reconsidering canine behavior evaluations in animal shelters” has catalyzed animal shelters to stop such tests. They write:

“Shelters already screen 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 effort spent on frequently misleading testing was instead spent in maximizing opportunities to interact with dogs in normal and enjoyable ways that mirror what they are expected to do once adopted (e.g., walking, socializing with people, playgroups with other dogs, games, training). In conjunction with a thorough and objective intake history when available, these more natural types of assessment activities will help identify any additional dogs whose behavior may be of concern. Engaging in the normal repertoire of activities familiar to pet dogs has the additional benefit of enriching dogs’ lives and minimizing the adverse effect of being relinquished and confined to a shelter, will be more indicative of the typical personality and behavior of dogs, and may help make dogs better candidates for adoption”.

I would urge shelters to also practice group housing where ever possible, keeping adoptable dogs in compatible groups and avoid single caging. Group housing provides physical and social/emotional stimulation which may improve stressed shelter dogs’ impaired immune and digestive system functions. Group housing also enhances adoptability, enabling people to see how one of the dogs they might chose interacts with other dogs and what kind of characteristic qualities of temperament/personality she/he may possess.


Some animal shelters and animal holding facilities still provide insufficient or no exercise for incarcerated dogs. Veterinary clinical researchers have recently documented the benefits to dogs living a sedentary life and suffering from chronic diarrhea of putting them on an exercise regimen*. Turn these findings around and they mean that dogs who do receive regular exercise are more likely to enjoy better health than those who are confined, as in an in-home dog crate, commercial kennels, animal shelter or research laboratory cage.

From behavioral observations of my own dogs they will pass a few stools when let outdoors in the morning to urinate but only when they are aroused and setting off for a long, fast walk do they fully empty their bowels. Living a sedentary life, rarely aroused and often being trained to evacuate inside especially when living in high-rise apartments or confined in a cage or pen could well lead to longer retention times of fecal material prior to evacuation with resultant inflammation of the bowels. Physical activity may also help improve circulation and help alleviate and prevent lymphangectasia, the accumulation of lymph in the bowels seen in some forms of canine inflammatory bowel disease.

Mental arousal with physical activity may increase peristaltic tonus that may be relatively flaccid with parasympathetic dominance as with a placid temperament and an unstimulating indoor environment. Sympathetic/parasysmpathetic balance and adaptive flexibility of the autonomic nervous system are aspects of well-being that are considerable and clinically relevant. (For references see Fox, 1978). Holistic veterinary medicine incorporates consideration of animals’ fright-flight-fight- responsivity in determining their’ well-being, quality of life and possible cause of suffering. Megacolon and fecal impaction, commonly seen in under-stimulated and underactive indoor cats, and weak urinary bladder tonus with urine retention and consequential cystitis, may be other conditions related to parasympathetic dominance/imbalance caused by the deficient environments they are regrettably given.

Considering the multiple stressors to which dogs taken in to animal shelter/rescue facilities are exposed, this veterinary report* on the health benefit of exercise for dogs supports what should be a standard policy of providing all dogs with regular brisk walks, ideally twice daily for 15-20 minutes. Those under quarantine should be taken out to enclosed areas for walks unless medically contraindicated. Safety harnesses are preferable for dogs not used to wearing a collar and those who are fearful or likely to pull and injure their necks and throats. Walking on the leash also socializes dogs to their handlers and is the time to train them to comply with basic commands which will enhance their adoptability. Walking with a sociable “buddy dog” used to being leashed can help shy dogs accept and eventually enjoy walks while leashed.

Dogs out of quarantine also benefit from being placed in small, compatible play groups in recognition of the benefits of physical activity and social and emotional stimulation. Running stimulates the release of “feel good” and anti-inflammatory neurochemicals. Many shelters are also adopting group housing for dogs, which, along with regular walks and one-on-one and group human interaction, enhance their adaptability and adoptability.

In the U.S. Federal Animal Welfare Act (I. Exercise for dogs (Sect. 3.8) ) it is clearly stated that dogs must be provided the opportunity to engage in regular exercise, stating: “Dealers, exhibitors, and research facilities must develop, document, and follow an appropriate plan to provide dogs with the opportunity for exercise. The plan must be approved by the attending veterinarian and must include written standard procedures to be followed in providing the opportunity for exercise”. (

In conclusion, private and municipal animal shelters that do not make such provisions and are not open to public assessment of standard animal care procedures may be in violation of state and federal anti-cruelty laws. They are also violating the conditional responsibility of properly caring for animals that the public has entrusted to them.

*See Huang, H-P. & Lien, Y-H. Effects of a structured exercise programme in sedentary dogs with chronic diarrhea. Veterinary Record, 180: 224. 2017 and the Editorial my Dunning, M. Improving IBD in dogs through exercise. Veterinary Record, 180: 222-223, 2017.

Fox, M.W. The Dog: Its Domestication and Behavior, 1978, reprinted edition with Dogwise Publishing, OR

The author is an Honor Roll member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, writes the internationally syndicated newspaper column Animal Doctor and holds doctoral degrees in animal behavior and medicine. E-mail