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Just the facts, ma'am

Online behavioral evaluation program gives shelters a new way to assess dogs

From Animal Sheltering magazine July/August 2012

Eucalyptus, an adoptable dog at the Washington Animal Rescue League, and Lisa Henderson, an assistant in WARL ’s behavior and training department, participate in a Match-Up II training session. Huckleberry, an adoptable dog at the Animal Care Sanctuary in East Smithfield, Pa., goes through the possessiveness subtest. A laptop logged on to the Match-Up II program is used to note Huckleberry’s behavior during each sub-test, eliminating the need for paperwork.Dr. Amy Marder, director of the Center for Shelter Dogs in Boston, cuddles Eucalyptus, a test subject at the Washington Animal Rescue League. Marder visited the shelter in April to train staff on how to use the Match-Up II Shelter Dog Rehoming ProgramAt the Animal Care Sanctuary in East Smithfield, Pa., canine caregivers Teresa Gorman and Joey Robinson take adoptable dog Huckleberry through the toy sub-test of the Match-Up II evaluation while canine caregiver Jessica Krucina (foreground) observes.Gorman and Robinson put adoptable dog Freedom through the run-and-freeze sub-test of the behavioral evaluation.

“Golden retrievers are so mellow; he’ll be great with kids.”

“You want a Jack Russell terrier? A Jack Russell terrorist, you mean.”

“That dog just looks like a couch potato to me—probably not the best match for a runner.”

And on it goes. Shelter staff are under pressure each day to evaluate the temperament of sometimes dozens of dogs coming through their facilities, so they can make good matches between pets and homes.

Decisions about which dogs would find a happy place with which family are often based on the qualities and tendencies that behavior staff are able to intuit.

It’s an art, not a science, and shelter staff are sometimes prone to preconceptions about various breeds (and mixed breeds) they come across and how they’ll do in certain circumstances. They rely upon their own experience, their training, and perhaps a sixth sense about the true measure of a dog and what he needs to become a happy companion animal for an adopter.

In other words, they’re subjective.

The problem is that dogs don’t always fit so neatly into the categories that we construct for them. What’s true for one dog may not inevitably be the case for all dogs. That’s why some say that what’s needed are ways to nudge the evaluation process more toward science than art, to help the objective replace the subjective, and to try to clear up the filter that creates stereotypes in the way we view dogs.

Several behavioral evaluation processes have sought to address this issue, and the Match-Up II Shelter Dog Rehoming Program, developed by Dr. Amy Marder, director of the Center for Shelter Dogs at the Animal Rescue League of Boston, is the latest. The program is designed to eliminate the guesswork that’s inevitably involved when shelter staff evaluate dogs.

Match-Up, which stands for the Marder- Animal Rescue League Test for Canine Homing Using Personality, is “science-based, that’s the big part of it. … We can tell people that we have studied the predictability of it, we have studied the consistency of it,” Marder says.

The philosophy behind the development of Match-Up II is that every dog is unique, and must be seen that way in order to be understood.

Marder’s main interest, since she was in veterinary school, has been to view each dog as an individual. She developed Match-Up II to help shelter staff observe just how different every dog is, rather than making behavioral assumptions based on looks. “We think all Labs are great, right? You see a Lab, ‘Oh, he’s great—he’ll be great for children,’ but not this dog. This dog needs for you to think about the home that this dog needs,” Marder says.

To neutralize preconceptions, Match-Up II’s behavior evaluation simply asks: Was this particular behavior present during the evaluation, or was it not?

Testing, Testing

Before Marder developed Match-Up II, she spent many years consulting with pet owners whose animals had behavior problems. She went to work for the ASPCA in New York City, and got involved in evaluating dogs to determine their outcome. But she questioned aspects of the testing, such as how predictive it actually was of behavior in a home. That’s when she began an intensive study to develop a behavior evaluation test.

Marder continued that work when she joined the staff of the Animal Rescue League. In 2008, the shelter received a grant from the Frank Stanton Foundation, and it formed the Center for Shelter Dogs, whose mission is to “improve the welfare and successful placement of homeless dogs by providing resources, training, and scientifically validated behavior assessment and modification tools.”

Marder refined her behavior evaluation, and eventually put the entire system online, making it easy to enter individual animals into a database. Match-Up II—an evolution from an earlier, offline Match-Up I program—was officially launched at Animal Care Expo 2011 in Orlando, Fla.

More than 2,000 dogs from shelters across the United States have now been evaluated using the program and are in the ever-growing database, according to Marder. The database contains the information gathered about every dog who’s been evaluated using the system. Using the database, staff can see how a dog they’ve evaluated scores in comparison to other dogs in their shelter, or to all other dogs in the national database. They can also generate comparative reports based on different categories, such as age, gender, or geography. More than 200 people are registered to use Match-Up II, and the Center for Shelter Dogs has 15 shelter partners that are using it.

How it Works

Match-Up II is a five-part system designed to help shelters learn about the personality and needs of each dog, generate individual dog reports with recommended training programs for behavioral interventions, and make successful matches with adopters. The system has been fine-tuned to be predictive of a dog’s behavior in a home. The sections include behavioral history; behavioral evaluation; personality scores; behavior in the shelter; and behavioral triage. The behavioral triage section uses information from three sections of Match-Up II—the dog’s behavioral history, behavioral evaluation, and shelter behavior—to calculate the dog’s behavioral triage points and help shelter staff make informed decisions about any training a dog might require, how to advise potential adopters about the dog’s particular needs, or the most appropriate placement. A dog’s triage score is based on the frequency and seriousness of their behaviors and needs. “It starts out with, ‘Oh, this dog has zero to three points—this dog is a piece of cake.’ When you get up over 30 points, then you say, ‘This dog is going to need special treatment and a special home,’” Marder explains.

Dogs with no behavioral history—such as those who arrive as strays—automatically get three triage points as a “handicap,” so that they don’t have an advantage.

The behavioral evaluation presents 11 sub-tests that a handler takes a dog through, while another person observes the dog’s reactions and records them. If a third person is available, she can help during some of the sub-tests, by manipulating a toddler doll, acting as a “stranger,” and holding the other dog during the dog-to-dog interaction subtest. The sub-tests include leash manners; reaction to a rubber hand, a toddler-sized doll, a strange-looking woman; and responsiveness to commands with delicious treats, etc.

As an example of how the sub-tests play out, in the strange-looking woman sub-test, the handler holds the dog’s leash, while the recorder leaves the room and dresses in sunglasses, a brimmed hat, and a long trench coat. Then she enters the room, walking in a slightly unsteady gait, and says, “Hi doggie, can I pet you?” If no negative reaction occurs, the recorder continues to approach, saying, “Hi doggie, are you a nice doggie?” The handler and recorder observe the dog’s responses, and, after the sub-test, the recorder simply places a check on the corresponding behavior evaluation worksheet for every behavior that’s observed (licking of the person, cowering, wagging tail, etc.).

Most of the behavioral evaluation can be done in an 8-foot-by-8-foot room. It can be done entirely outdoors, if that’s the only space available, but to achieve the most accurate results, it’s best to find a quiet space with few distractions.

Going online to record the evaluation makes the process paperless; results can be recorded on a laptop or even a smartphone as the test is conducted (there are paper worksheets available for those without Internet access).

Marder believes that with Match-Up II, she’s fulfilling her desire to help shelter dogs at risk of never finding homes. “I think we’re going to need time to see the full effect, but yes, [it’s] saving dogs’ lives and improving their welfare,” she says.

Let’s Be Objective

The beauty of Match-Up II, for shelter staff, is obvious.

You don’t need to be an animal behaviorist like Marder to evaluate a dog’s behavior; either the behavior is present, or it isn’t. Marder offers monthly, introductory webinars to learn about Match-Up II and to see how the sub-tests are done. These are recommended, but not required.

Match-Up II typically takes less than 30 minutes to do. The Center for Shelter Dogs offers ongoing support for registered users through monthly webinars, training at regional centers, and an annual summer institute in Boston. And using the system is free.

Mick McAuliffe, operations manager of the Animal Rescue League in Des Moines, Iowa, is sold on the benefits. “We’re actually the Midwest regional training center for the Center for Shelter dogs; that’s how impressed we are,” says McAuliffe, who attended the summer institute in 2010.

The system is convenient for staff and volunteers to use, and scores can be entered live through the Match-Up I I portal while the evaluation takes place. That’s good for a high-volume shelter like McAuliffe’s, where many dogs need to be evaluated.

McAuliffe likes the system because it fosters objectivity, which he feels gives it a boost over other assessment methods . “Because what you’re doing is you’re observing behavior, and recording the behavior. It’s your observation, not your interpretation. It’s exactly what the dog did, not what you’re thinking it did,” he says.

Match-Up II also gathers more information about each dog, with an Intake Profile Form for surrendering owners to fill out, and the behavioral evaluation with its 11 sub-tests that expose the dog to different scenarios and potential stressors. “Now we know more about the dog: ‘OK, you may do this, but here’s all your other traits.’ We’re not just looking for bad traits. We’re looking for adoptable traits and placement,” McAuliffe says.

Mike Kaviani, director of training and behavior at the Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation in Hampton Bays, N.Y., learned about Match-Up II when Marder reached out to him to see if they would like to become Shelter Partners, and give Match-Up II a try. Now everyone in Kaviani’s department knows how to use Match-Up II, and they use it every day. They enter the information about each dog into the portal, and it’s there for the front-desk or adoption staff to see.

“The process itself—it’s so freaking organized, and that’s what we love about it, because it’s so hard sometimes, when you’re running around like crazy in a shelter, and you’ve just got different people scribbling notes and writing whatever they want to write about whatever they think the dog should do. … You sign on, you click-clickclick-click-click, it calculates the score for you, and you’re off and running.”

About the Author

Jim Baker is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.