Seeing Dogs as Individuals

November 2011

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

It shouldn't have worked out: A woman who worked long, irregular hours, interested in adopting a greyhound, ends up adopting a dog without a drop of greyhound blood, but with a severe case of separation anxiety.

Today, Sadie the not-greyhound lives a new life with the woman and her husband, enjoying the good life as a happy family. How did it happen?

Sadie got lucky because she was up for adoption at the Animal Rescue League of Boston (ARL), where Dr. Amy Marder and her team at the Center for Shelter Dogs have put together a comprehensive canine rehabilitation and training program designed to help great dogs like Sadie find, and thrive in, new loving homes.

The program, dubbed "Match-Up II" for the "Marder-Animal Rescue League Test for Canine Homing Using Personality," was designed to give shelters tools to reliably and predictably evaluate canine personality and behavior traits, and modify those traits when necessary to help the dog make a good match with an adopter.

"As a clinical behaviorist in private practice, I saw lots of cases of dogs and cats with behavior problems, sometimes serious ones," Dr. Marder said. "Their owners were usually so attached to them that they'd never put them down. They loved them."

Things were different with homeless pets, however. "I went to work at a shelter and saw all the animals who had no one like that to care for them," she said.

At the time, Dr. Marder was working for the ASPCA, which was using a specific test to evaluate canine behavior and temperament. She went to the test's designer and asked what the basis of it was, and how it worked, but didn't get an answer.

So Dr. Marder set out to do just that. "I put together a huge study, evaluated a lot of dogs, and looked at the predictability of various tests," she said. "I found that some were somewhat predictive of how an animal would behave in the home, so when I went to ARL, I took the ones that were somewhat predictive, created a program known as Match-Up I, and used it for years and years."

Then Dr. Marder got a grant to do the work she always wanted to do. "I hired a statistician and looked at data on 600 dogs," she said.

That data analysis allowed her to do what's known as "validate" the tests being used in shelters. This allows researchers to find out whether or not a method is effective at predicting how a dog will behave in certain situations, and what methods really work to change problem behavior.

"Unlike in human medicine, there's hardly anything in the veterinary literature validating behavior approaches," said Dr. Marder. "So this is a start, and it's a very important one for our dogs and the shelter community."

The validation process formed the basis of the Match-Up II program, but it wasn't the end of the research. "We're collecting data on the behavior of dogs in shelters so we know what dogs in shelters do," Dr. Marder said. "We now have over 1,000 dogs entered by ourselves and our shelter partners, and are continuing to do research and prove the reliability of the program."

In the meantime, Dr. Marder and her team have been spreading the world to shelters that even dogs with behavior problems - dogs like Sadie - can be and are adopted successfully if proven strategies and rehabilitation methods are used.

"We put the program online," she said, "which makes it so much easier and faster for people in the shelter to use. Since we launched, we've developed relationships with several shelters, and started a series of webinars on the program. We're meeting our milestones of getting the word out."

Dr. Marder's biggest message is to look at every dog as an individual. "Do not rely on breed as most shelters do, because they're usually wrong," she said. And it's not just shelters. "The public wants to know about breed, but what they really should want to know more about is personality. Each dog is different. When you get to know that dog as an individual, you can set up a program for that dog to make him feel better and find him the best-matched home."

Individualized programs based on validated assessment methods means that dogs are living instead of dying in shelters.

"When I first started out," Dr. Marder said, "the main reason dogs were put to sleep for behavior problems was because the tests weren't based on getting to know the dog, and knowing for sure if the dog's behaviors were dangerous or not.

"As clinical behaviorists, we know what behaviors are more difficult to manage. We can counsel people who are looking for dogs, and provide follow-up counseling to those who adopt dogs with behavior issues."

Which is exactly what happened with Sadie and her new family, who worked with the Center for Shelter Dogs to help Sadie transition to her new life. And the process inspired her owner to make a different kind of transition.

After writing for the Wall Street Journal for 12 years, Sadie's owner is now living - with Sadie, of course - in London and going to school to become a veterinarian.

"This has turned into a loving, loving relationship," Dr. Marder said. "If you looked at the way Sadie was described, a ‘greyhound with separation anxiety', you'd never see who Sadie really was. But when we got to know her, when we learned about her, then the bond was formed with Sadie's personality. That's what made it work."

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