CT Humane Shelter Dog Behavior Assessment Program

The Connecticut Humane Society accepts dogs from the general public, other rescue organizations, and town animal control officers. Therefore, many of the dogs’ backgrounds are unknown.  It is for this reason that responsible shelters utilize a behavior assessment tool before placing dogs for adoption.

CHS utilizes SAFER™ which is a 6-item aggression assessment to evaluate the behavioral health of the dogs.  SAFER™ (Safety Assessment for Evaluating Rehoming) was developed by Dr. Emily Weiss of the ASPCA. Dr. Weiss’ research focused specifically on developing a set of assessment items that would better predict service dog potential in dogs selected from shelters. The SAFER™ assessment identifies dogs’ comfort level with restraint and touch, reaction to new experiences including movement and sound stimuli, bite inhibition, behavior around food and toys and arousal level toward other dogs. This assessment is performed on all dogs aged 6 months or older.

SAFER™ Assessment Components

Item 1: Look
Determines if the dog can accept mild head restraint and eye contact as well as the dog's behavior in social interactions with people when lightly restrained and receiving soft, yet direct, eye contact.
Item 2: Sensitivity
Determines the dog's touch sensitivity as well as fearfulness in new experiences.
Item 3: Tag
Determines the dog's response to movement and sound stimuli and identifies dogs with potential status-seeking or fear aggression issues.
Item 4: Squeeze
Determines the dog's sensitivity response, bite inhibition and acceptance of being held or touched in a mildly controlled and unpleasant manner.
Item 5: Food Behavior
Determines dog's behavior when interacted with while eating and identifies dogs with potential food aggression issues.
Item 6: Toy Behavior
Determines dog's behavior when interacted with while engaged with toys and identifies dogs with potential possession aggression issues.

Item 7: Dog-to Dog Behavior (optional)
Determines dog's behavior when presented with another dog on leash and identifies dogs with potential dog-to-dog aggression issues or limited social skills.

Shelters that employ SAFER™ or other research-based behavior assessments report fewer cases of aggression after adoption.  The assessment helps the staff identify dogs who may benefit from behavior modification.  Some of the issues the behavior staff is able to attempt to modify in the shelter include over-arousal, food bowl guarding, reactive behavior, fearful behavior, and touch/handling issues. 

Basic Behavior Modification and “Proofing” Described for Laypeople
Behavior modification (also known as “B-Mod”) is, in a nutshell, teaching a dog to respond more desirably to triggers that would have previously elicited undesirable behaviors.  For example, a dog who has the habit of barking and lunging at other dogs while on leash could be taught to sit and look at the person walking him instead.

When CHS works on b-mod with dogs in the shelter, we begin by having one trainer work with a dog to teach it the new behavior.  Once the dog is responding favorably to that person, the next step is to “proof” the behavior’s reliability.  Two different people in two different locations repeat the scenario in question and see whether the dog will respond to them in the same way it did when working with the trainer.  If that happens, the dog is considered to have generalized the new behavior.  Practice is maintained so that the dog does not regress back to his old ways.  Once a dog completes a modification protocol, adopters are given instructions about how to maintain the new behavior in the home. 

This process takes time and expertise, but ensures that dogs whose behavior can be improved are given a fair chance to succeed in a forever home.  Not all behaviors can be worked on successfully in a shelter environment.  However, SAFER™ gives us solid, scientific tools through which we can make the best possible decisions for the dogs and adopters.


CT Humane Shelter Dog Behavior Assessment Program

Connecticut Humane Society

701 Russell Road, Newington, CT 06111
800-452-0114 | FAX 860-665-1478   info@cthumane.org 
The Connecticut Humane Society is a 501(c)(3)
non-profit organization. EIN: 06-0667605
Copyright 2013 Connecticut Humane Society

Copyright 2013 Connecticut Humane Society