Correction Appended: January 2, 2008
Pet owners are never shy about declaring the importance of their relationships with their dogs or cats, so perhaps it was just a matter of time. As growing numbers of people find their perfect mates with the help of screening services like EHarmony or Match.com, animal lovers can now turn to personality tests to help find their perfect pet.
More than 150 animal shelters now successfully use what are called Canine-ality and Feline-ality assessments to match prospective pet owners with just the right dog or cat. The quizzes have been so successful that euthanasia rates have been cut by 40%. "It really all comes down to matching," says Emily Weiss, an animal behaviorist and the Senior Director of Shelter Behavior Programs for the ASPCA, who devised the assessments when she worked at the Kansas Humane Society. "If I'm looking for a partner, be it a dog or cat or human, there are certain things I'm attracted to and there are things that I really don't want in my life."
Figuring out those "things" is the key. The process starts with potential adopters answering a list of questions regarding their expectations of a pet, ranging from "I want my dog to be playful Not at All, Somewhat, or Very" to "I am comfortable doing some training with my dog to improve manners such as jumping, stealing food, and pulling on the leash No, Some, or A Lot of Training."
On the other end, each animal's personality is categorized by shelter workers. The assessment tools include a four-minute hidden camera look at how a dog reacts to finding himself alone near a kitchen counter, bed or couch, with a trash can nearby. If the dog ignores the trash and hops right up on the bed, he's probably a Couch Potato, identified in the following way: "Like the easy life? I'm the perfect match for you, walking very short distances from the couch to the food bowl..." If instead she cruises the counter, she might be a Busy Bee, described as "on a mission to please you and myself..."
Weiss developed the assessments by studying the behavior of dogs on loan from homes to the Kansas Humane Society for 72 hours. Her staff watched the animals and then asked owners which behaviors were typical of the pets at home. The behaviors considered atypical were eliminated, and only lists of behavior categories matching an animal's personality in both stressed and non-stressed situations were included.
Weiss laughs when asked if the descriptors are part spin "Free Spirit" as a euphemism for "Fence Jumper," for example. "They are positive," she admits, compared with kennel cards that in the past would stress the negative, saying things like "Runs away," "Hates cats," and the always-cheerful "Watch your hands!"
Ed Sayres, President and CEO of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is a fan of Dr. Weiss's research. "It's the first profiling that I'm aware of that measures a guardian's temperament as well as the animal's personality. Many applications ask a potential adopter about their work hours and property or housing facilities. But this is the first that looks at other aspects of a guardian's expectations." Says Nancy Peterson, issues specialist for the U.S. Humane Society: "Personality and behavior are so important. Looks won't keep you in a home if your behavior is a problem. Behavior is the major reason pets lose their homes."
On a recent snowy Saturday, Francess Reda, her two children and one of their friends arrived at the Boulder, Colorado, shelter to put the matching test to the test. They'd already spotted Mariah, a four-month-old stray tortoise-shell kitten, online. And when they filled out the Feline-ality form, they discovered that their needs and expectations matched Mariah's. Not really a "Leader of the Band" or "Personal Assistant," Mariah checked out more like a "Sidekick" "I like attention, and I also like my solitude."
The children ages 8, 11 and 12 sat on the floor of a private room and let Mariah crawl into their laps. Francess, who occasionally suffers from cat allergies, tentatively held the kitten and then plunged her nose into the purring kitten's hair, testing to see if this was a cat that would trigger an allergic reaction.
The personalities and expectations all lined up well the cat purred, the children cooed. Mariah was put on hold, but later that night Francess suffered an extreme allergic reaction, a reminder of the multitude of factors that go into successful pet placement, and it was back to the drawing board.
Personality matching assessments are only one part of a broader effort shelters nationwide are making to try to ensure more, and more successful, pet adoptions. In line with a trend toward making animal shelters look less like industrial death camps, Boulder's red cinder-block multi-level complex with estate-quality wrought-iron fencing is located in a neighborhood of office parks, and resembles, inside, an upscale daycare center. The gift shop sells hemp dog collars, Outward Hound folding travel bowls, chews that act as doggy dental floss, and Santa-themed holiday pet bandanas. There's a vet clinic and an obedience school on site. In the brightly lit kennels, where a one-year-old fluffy little Bichon Frise mix might sit sweetly alongside an adorable stuffed gray monkey on a pink blanket in a two-room suite, you're already so charmed that it seems perfectly logical to pay $135 for a pound dog.
The shelter houses 4500 animals annually, and boasts an 86% "live release rate," compared with only a 50% national average. That level of success is due in part to the fact that its 80 staff members and 600 volunteers not only attend to such medical needs as injuries and disease, but are also trained to focus on behavioral issues. "Boulder is a very good place to be an animal," says Lisa Pedersen, CEO of the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. And, thanks to the personality tests, a very good place to find one too.The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Emily Weiss works at the Wichita Zoo. It also identified the tool Weiss devised to assess pets' personalities as a test; Weiss considers it an assessment.