Assessing the Emotional Repertoire of Shelter Dogs

October 12, 2017
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM

Dr. Pendergrass received her DVM degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory Universitys Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner ofJPen Communications, a medical communications company.

Shelter dogs have a wide array of emotional states that can be assessed using an innovative approach called Qualitative Behavioral Assessment.

Shelter dogs experience stresses that can negatively affect their welfare. In recent years, there has been increased research interest in shelter dog welfare, necessitating the use of reliable and easy-to-use assessment tools. To be comprehensive, these tools should encompass evaluation of the dogs’ physical and mental health.

Qualitative Behavioral Assessment (QBA), developed by Françoise Wemelsfelder, PhD, from the Animal and Veterinary Sciences Research Group at Scotland’s Rural College, takes a holistic approach to assessing an animal’s dynamic behavioral expressions. Previous studies in various species, including dogs, have reported QBA as a reliable and valid measure of animal emotional states. However, it is not known whether prior QBA findings in dogs, which primarily occurr in standardized settings, represent the emotions of shelter dogs, which are exposed to many social and environmental stimuli.

A study recently published in Applied Animal Behavior Science reported the QBA’s ability to assess the many emotional states of shelter dogs, suggesting its potential to be “integrated into comprehensive welfare assessment tools for shelter dogs,” the study’s researchers wrote.

Emotional Assessment

The researchers exposed dogs in 4 Italian shelters to one of 3 social stimuli: no stimulus, unknown person (a researcher), or familiar person (shelter worker). Thirteen veterinary students (“observers”) with dog experience analyzed video recordings of the social interactions.


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Using the free-choice profiling technique, which allows for spontaneous judgments, observers first generated terms describing the dogs’ behavioral expressions. They then scored these terms using visual analog scales to indicate behavioral expression levels. Next, the researchers used several data analyses to determine a “consensus profile” of terms and group the terms into 3 emotional dimensions.


There was nearly 76% agreement between observers on assessment of the dogs’ behavioral expressions. The 3 dimensions each included a range of emotions:

  • Dimension 1: Playful/social to bored/apathetic
  • Dimension 2: Relaxed/tranquil to nervous/fearful
  • Dimension 3: Stressed/bored to wary/hesitant

Each dimension contained primary emotions like fear and happiness, which are instinctive; humans, the researchers noted, typically “attribute primary rather than secondary emotions to dogs.” The study dogs were fairly evenly distributed across the dimensions, indicating that the dimensions well characterized the dogs’ emotional states.

This study’s emotional dimensions generally aligned with those identified in prior QBA studies in dogs, demonstrating consistency in canine behavioral expression assessments. However, noticeable differences with expressions of sociability, fearfulness, and boredom were observed between the studies. For example, boredom was rarely expressed in the previous studies yet was common in the current study, indicating that shelter dogs can experience hypostimulation that eventually leads to learned helplessness and inactivity.

Such differences support the need for species- and context-specific QBA tools. Shelter dog-specific QBA tools could add value to on-shelter welfare assessments, the researchers noted, “extending their power to identify and detect emotional shifts in dogs.” This assessment ability is critically important, given the reported link of fearfulness and sociability to an animal’s adoptability and overall welfare.

Future Applications

For the future, the terms generated in this and other previous canine QBA studies could be used to develop a standardized list of terms for QBA usage in dogs. Practically speaking, shelter staff could be trained on QBA and encouraged to incorporate it into their daily shelter responsibilities.

Dr. Pendergrass received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company.