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Assessing the Behaviour of Dogs in Kennels

1. Why assess the behaviour of dogs in kennels?

Successful rehoming depends on a good match between the character of the dog and the character of the family it is placed with.

What the dog looks like is not important; what kind of temperament and character the dog has is. All dogs are different just as no two people are the same.

Getting a good match so that families take on a dog with the character to suit their particular requirements is essential if the rehoming is to be successful.

Unfortunately, potential owners will often make a choice based on appearance only.

Appearances can be very deceptive and adopters need to be encouraged to look at the character of the dog they intend to take on before they make a decision.

When animals are placed in a different environment from the one they have been used to, you see a corresponding change in behaviour.

Even the most well-run, friendly kennel is quite a hostile environment to a pet dog and they will behave very differently to how they behaved in their previous home.

Since they are not behaving like pet dogs, potential owners need help to understand that they are not seeing the true picture and will need assistance to help them choose a dog that is right for them.

We, as rehomers, need to know the character of the dogs in our kennel if we are to do this.

We can, of course, get information from previous owners.

This is important and some charities make an effort to collect all necessary information on the character of dogs on admission.

Unfortunately, not everyone tells the truth and some owners are unable to judge their own dogs objectively.

Some dogs have no traceable owner, if, for example, they are a stray or abandoned, and so it is useful to have a way to determine the character of the dog once it is in kennels.

2. Which character traits and behaviours to look for

Before we look at ways to determine character, it is necessary to decide which character traits and behaviours to look for.

Potential owners will have their own particular set of requirements.

If they have children, for example, they will need to know if the dog will be good with them. If they have a sociable household with lots of people coming and going, they will need a dog that is good with strangers and is not territorial.

If they live an isolated existence and need a guard dog, they will need a dog who is not good with strangers and who is territorial.

If we list traits that new owners look for, we get the following list:


Dog A

Dog B

1. Strength of character?



2. How active?


Not very

3. How friendly with children?


Not very

4. How friendly with strangers?


Not very

5. How friendly with other dogs?


Not very

6. How friendly with cats?


Not very

7. How much does it enjoy body contact?


Not really

8. Responsive to commands?



9. Motivated by food/toys?



This list is not comprehensive, but covers the characteristics that most people want to know about when they choose a dog.

Columns A and B show the requirements for:

  • Family A, a gentle, sociable, active family with young children and other pets, and
  • Mr B, a strong-willed owner, living alone, not over demonstrative and in need of a well-trained, guard/companion.

Two totally different types of dog are required by these families and demonstrate the necessity to place the appropriate dog with the appropriate family, and hence the need to know the characters of the dog you are placing.

3. Testing for character traits

Whether details about the dog's character is available from the previous owner or not, a lot of information can be gained by interpretation of observations of the dog while it is in kennels.

Animals will respond to a changing environment by changing their behaviour and if you are part of that environment, you can cause a dog to respond by varying your actions.

With this in mind, we have developed a series of tests designed to provoke a response in the dog. These tests take about 5 minutes to do, but need to be done by someone who has sufficient knowledge of dog behaviour to be able to interpret the results.

The test is done in an individual kennel in which the dog has been living for at least 3 days, at a time of day when it is not about to be fed or exercised.

It is done by a person who is unfamiliar to the dog and in the absence of anyone who the dog knows.

Throughout the test, it is important to think about why the dog behaves as it does in response to your actions. Behaviour is motivated by a need within an animal, for example, to be sociable, defensive etc.

Understanding what motivates a particular individual will enable you to get an idea of the character of that animal.

The test involves:

  1. Initial sideways approach with no eye contact
  2. Turn & talk to dog
  3. Touch
  4. Move fingers to a new position
  5. Casual eye contact
  6. Stare
  7. Threat
  8. Motivation for food/toys

This test gives an outline of some of the things you can do to test the responses of dogs in kennels to acquire some insight into their character.

More important than the test you do, however, is how you interpret the results.

The greater knowledge and experience you have of dogs, the better you will be able to interpret the results.

Some dogs do not respond to the tests as predicted and it may be necessary to alter the test as necessary.

It is very difficult to do any test in kennels which will give information about the dog’s suitability with children or cats.

Information from previous owners is essential when deciding if the dog will be suitable for a family, particularly if the dog is large. For this reason, great care should be taken when rehoming stray dogs.

Observations of the response to children visiting the centre and their interactions from the safety of the outside of the pen may yield very valuable clues. It should be remembered that children come in different ages, sizes and temperaments.

Dogs that get on well with one type of child will not necessarily get on with a different type of child.

For cats, tests can be done safely with centre cats which are used to dogs if the dog is kept restrained and away from the cat. However, such cats are often very confident in their dealings with dogs and you are unlikely to see the response of the dog to a cat which is more fearful and which is likely to run away.

Response of the dog to a squeaky toy can yield information about the strength of its predatory drive.

4. Additional information

Additional information about the dog can be obtained by observing their behaviour when they are out in runs. They are more active when in a larger space and the opportunities for interaction with the environment is greater. Important information can be obtained by watching their interactions with other dogs and with visitors.

Additional testing will also be necessary to get a clearer picture of the dog's character.

Finding out how the dog plays with toys, what it enjoys playing and how it has been taught to play will give you a good insight into its previous relationships with people.
How it responds to grooming, how it walks on a lead and other similar investigations will highlight potential problems new owners are likely to experience when they take the dog home.

Kennel staff often find out these things as part of their work and build up a lot of additional information on the character of the dog during their dealings with it, especially if they have responsibility for an isolated group of dogs rather than having to care for them all.

This information is wasted if it is not used to help rehome the dog or not passed on to the new owner.
The biggest difficulty is collection of this information since it is time-consuming to write it down. It is important, therefore, that managers take time to talk to their staff or the staff are encouraged to talk to potential owner.

All information gathered by tests and observations will only be accurate if the staff involved have a good working knowledge of dog behaviour.

5. Summary

In order to make a good match between dogs and new owners, we need to know the character of the dog we are placing. This information can come from previous owners, assessment of dogs in kennels, observations of dogs in runs and information from the staff who care for them.

Once the character of the dog is known, a better match can be made with potential owners, thereby helping to avoid disasters that can happen when owners choose on appearance alone.

It will never be possible to get it completely right all the time, but, with a good working knowledge and understanding of animal behaviour which enables the behaviour of dogs in kennels to be interpreted, we are much more likely to get it right more often.

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