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Furry friend or fearsome foe?

2 July 2008

Research by PhD candidate Kate Mornement has resulted in the BARK protocol, a tool to help shelters determine the adoption suitability of dogs. By Reetu Singh

Growing up on a farm, Kate Mornement always loved animals.

After finishing high school, she signed up for a Bachelor of Science with honours in Zoology, during which she became interested in animal behaviour, particularly that of companion animals.

“Their environment is different to what it would be naturally in the wild. Pet owners and the pet’s environment influence behaviour,” says Ms Mornement, a PhD student in the School of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychological Medicine.

Currently working with Monash’s Anthrozoology Research Group, headed by Dr Pauleen Bennett, Ms Mornement examines the protocols animal shelters use to determine adoption suitability in dogs. Forty percent of Australians own dogs, and some dogs may not be suitable for particular families or even for ownership at all.

“There are animal shelters all over the world that, when they get dogs coming in, they don’t necessarily know the history of these animals and it is really important for animal shelters to assess these dogs’ behaviour so they are not putting dangerous dogs out into the community. This is a welfare concern if otherwise suitable dogs are wrongly euthanized or if unsuitable dogs are adopted out to the public,” she says.

Funded by the Department of Primary Industries, the Petcare Information and Advisory Service (PIAS), and RSPCA Australia, the first part of Kate’s project involved a comprehensive literature review of behavioural assessment protocols used by animal shelters around the world and in Australia in order to determine the adoption suitability of dogs in their care. Kate also travelled to 11 shelters in five different states around Australia and observed the behaviour assessment of 50 dogs.

The results from her literature review and observation of shelter assessments, in conjunction with intellectual input from dog trainers, vets and experts on canine behaviour, led to the development of the BARK (Behavioural Assessment for Re-homing K9’s) protocol. BARK differs from existing protocols because it is standardized and specific to the needs of Australian shelters.

Ms Mornement’s literature review established that most existing protocols for determining adoption suitability in dogs were not scientifically valid. Some key flaws of the current protocols are: lack of reliability, where results from testing the same dog at two different instances are not the same; examiner bias, where different people assessing the dogs do not obtain the same behavioural scores for the same animals; and the validity of the test, where behaviour observed in the shelters does not follow through into the homes the dogs are adopted into.

“This may be because the shelters are currently using protocols that have either been developed overseas or have been developed in-house, where the staff have determined what behaviour is important in assessing the animals and these may vary from shelter to shelter,” Ms Mornement says.

“My protocol is standardized, which is really important to ensure the test is fair”.

The BARK protocol was implemented in one Victorian shelter last month and is currently being tested for validity and reliability.

Ms Mornement has already assessed 40 dogs and says that the protocol appears to be working.  She ultimately hopes to implement the BARK protocol in RSPCA shelters in Victoria and animal shelters interstate. She hopes that it will help shelters to easily and accurately assess dogs for adoption suitability. This may help prevent unfair euthanasia of dogs that are otherwise suitable for adoption, and at the same time protect families from unfortunate incidents that may arise from adopting unsuitable dogs.

“That will be the real world and it will give us an idea of whether or not the protocol will work in the situations that it was designed for.”

Photo of Guido the black dog

Photo courtesy of David Russell